I have passed this stop sign almost a hundred times. It’s the same as any other stop sign in Ireland. They’re all identical in shape, size and colour. But this one, just as the walking trail comes to the Glenmalure Lodge in Co Wicklow, is different. My good friend Madeline has just run up to it and rapped it repeatedly with her hiking pole, cheering and applauding me on. I’ve been here before, and had to leave the trail in pain. But today, I’m going to pass this sign, with sheer grit. And instead of stopping, as it commands, I am going to finish what I started: The Wicklow Way.
en years ago, I left Ireland to pursue a career in retail management in London. I ended up, as so many of us do, following a career that I really had little interest in. Life is so fast-paced in London that you rarely get an opportunity to think, “Do I actually want to be here doing this?”
In truth, I didn’t want to be there, and it showed. I thought, once I had the well-paying job, designer handbags, ate at Michelin-starred restaurants and spent money on clothing, I would be happy. My life was full of materialistic objects, but I was empty inside. I was also self-destructive and didn’t have a good relationship with myself at the time. Alcohol became a way of distracting myself from this. This lead to aggressive verbal behaviour toward my friends and boyfriend. Then the anger, frustration and sadness became too much. After yet another verbal outburst toward my partner, I locked myself in my room, sat on the floor and, with a pair of scissors, began to cut my arm.
It wasn’t until a trip home to Ireland that my ex-boyfriend pleaded with me to get help. Our relationship broke down shortly afterwards, so I decided the best place for me was to be back home with my family. I sought help from my doctor. She diagnosed me with major depressive disorder and prescribed anti-depressants. This was a big shock to me, even though I had thought about suicide, self-harmed and had uncontrollable bouts of crying in the months prior to the appointment. I had lost all interest in my life.
Living back in Ireland, I stayed on anti-depressants for a couple of years, weaning myself off them only to find myself a year later in another failed relationship and having the same depressive thoughts as before. I sought the help of a counsellor, who told me that I wasn’t depressed.
“You’re just sad,” she said. I left the session feeling empty and hopeless. I rang my mam in tears. I decided, in that moment: “You have to save yourself, Melissa!”
I grew up in Summerhill, Co Meath, on a small country road where everyone knew everyone. As a child living in the schticks, nature and the outdoors were my retreat from everyday boredom. I lived near a short and narrow walking trail known to us locals as the ‘Duck Walk’ — it ran along a shallow stream before opening out into Meath’s “backcountry” of overgrown fields full of nettles, briers, wildflowers and a few acres of forested land. This is where we played out childhood adventures.
When I was eight or nine, my sister Erika and I grabbed some tools from my dad’s shed. When I close my eyes really tight, I can still smell the paint cans and white spirits. We hacked away an overgrown forest path through what I now realise was most likely private land. But we were kids and this was our quest, like Bilbo Baggins’ epic journey to Lonely Mountain to win his share of the treasure. It’s where, as a teenager, I tried my first cigarette. The outdoors was my playground. My safe haven.
As I got older, however, the outdoors seemed to get further and further away from my life. At 16, I told my career guidance counsellor: “I want to be a choreographer.” Her reply? “There is no money in that… choose something else.” In that moment, the first seeds of doubt were sewn (“I’m not good enough”). When I was 17, I moved to Dublin to study travel and tourism in college. If I couldn’t be a dancer, I’d become an air hostess and travel the world. Dublin was my first experience of living in a city. Then London.
After deciding to save myself, I began actively looking for things that I enjoyed doing or was curious to learn more about. I started a photography course in Dublin, which I loved. We had to choose a subject to photograph, and after seeing some work from adventure photographer Alex Strohl, I chose the Dublin Mountains Partnership (dublinmountains.ie) — a volunteer organisation that hosts free hikes in the Dublin Mountains. I wanted to be an adventure photographer too. With a…