Welcome to our blog series: The Outdoor Diaries. This series is about exploring the natural world from the perspective of people with chronic conditions and/or mobility issues. While the benefits of nature are for everybody, access to it isn’t always quite as simple.
Why do we go outside? There is a lot of research that tells us about the benefits of being outdoors. It’s a stress reducer and a mood booster, it helps to relieve anxiety and increase focus and has even shown to have positive impacts on blood pressure and immune systems. But most recently, getting outside has been a lifeline.
As the days of this pandemic turned to weeks and months, the outdoors has become more of an escape than ever before. With many of our usual forms of entertainment temporarily lost due to shutdowns, we’ve turned to the outdoors for more of its natural and reliable sources of enjoyment. Hiking, biking, and camping equipment has been in short supply as people embrace more ways to pass the time outdoors. Even my neighbourhood has seen an uptick in its walking traffic as people emerge from their houses just to walk around the block. And while so many have taken advantage of outdoor spaces for exercise, entertainment, and socializing, for many people with chronic conditions access to the natural world isn’t so simple.
Enjoying the outdoors is just as beneficial to someone with an illness or injury as it is to any other human, but it’s not always as easy. Often, we can’t just step outside the front door, drive out to discover a new unknown trail on a whim, or jump in a lake for a swim. There is more planning, more equipment, and more time involved in getting outside. It can be costly and stressful, and sometimes our bodies just won’t allow it. Each condition and every individual will face different barriers in getting outside. Today I’m focusing on Jocelyn Schmelter, a wife, mother, and nature lover from Vancouver, BC who is well-versed in the ups and downs of getting outside with her multiple sclerosis (“MS”).
Jocelyn’s love of the outdoors came from many years spent on the baseball field. “I grew up an athlete; I played competitive fastpitch from the age of four to my early twenties. I love the smell of the grass and wet dirt after it rains, and the kick of dust in 35-degree heat. My best memories were being carved into my brain as I was covered in sweat, dirt, and rocks with blood dripping from my knee after sliding into second base. I began to equate my happiness with being outdoors. Fresh air became my comfort and fighting for a goal was my life source.”
Originally diagnosed with MS at 25 years old, Jocelyn soon went into remission for what she describes as “seven glorious years”. Unfortunately, six months after her second son was born she was diagnosed with MS once again. Upon her second diagnosis she felt her life “shatter into a million pieces” and her enjoyment of the outdoors was halted.
“We spent many hours inside with me resting in bed attempting to regain an ounce of the energy it took to keep up with my boys. I fell into a sorrow I had never felt before. Feelings of failure gripped me with the belief that I was letting my boys down because their mom was sick – and with MS, would most likely continue to become sicker as they got older.”
Jocelyn saw the energy her boys had and wanted more for them. She says, “Having MS with two energetic boys isn’t for the faint of heart. The energy that they contain is a cruel paradox to the energy I lack.” But it made her want to fight and she made the decision to “give them the joys of nature and being outdoors” that she had.
But her MS had made her “weak, fatigued, and scared” and she fought a constant battle with her disease to do even the simplest of tasks – carrying groceries inside, walking up stairs, or even standing in line was tough on her body. She commented, “I knew I would have to work on building those neural pathways on my own in order to not be afraid my body would fall apart in the middle of a mountain.”
It was almost four years ago that Jocelyn made that promise to herself and her family; almost four years since she asked her husband to help her “do the work to create memories with their kids” and “take mountains of pictures” so that those memories would “last a lifetime.” Since then, she’s worked incredibly hard.
“I’ve worked out – yoga, walks, weights, squats, cardio, you name it. They all play their part in giving me the capabilities to be outdoors with my kids. I’ve had to find my way back from nearly eight relapses. I’ve lost my legs, my sight, my cognitive functioning, and clawed my way back every single time.”
For Jocelyn, being able to be outside with her family is worth all of the work. She wants to make as many memories as she can, while she can. Although her illness can be unpredictable and she may suffer consequences as a result of some adventures, she won’t stop.
“I have no idea what my body will do tomorrow, next year, or five years from now. So, we build memories as often as we can. We hike into the forest and get into our skivvies and dive into a pool of water on a deserted beach. We find the beauty and joy in coming home from a day of being covered in sweat and dirt. We discover how brave we are when we climb to an area that we didn’t think our bodies were capable of. Hikes with MS aren’t all roses and sunflowers – the icy mountain water outpour is a nightmare for nerve pain in MS legs. But we do it, and we survive and we move forward.”
Enjoying the outdoors isn’t as simple for Jocelyn and her family as it might be for someone without a chronic condition. She has to want it more and work harder for it. But as Jocelyn says, “I refuse to quit for my boys. I refuse to quit for my husband. I refuse to quit for me.”
The Outdoor Diaries: Handcycling Into the Forest
The Outdoor Diaries: Rediscovering a Love of the Ocean – A Story of Adapted Surfing
The Outdoor Diaries: Andy McKenna, Multiple Sclerosis and Mountain Biking