Three years ago my daughter Katy faced down a mountain lion.
She was hiking alone in the mountains of remote western Montana, near where she lived, while her companion went fishing. A careful and experienced hiker, she took her bear spray in her backpack, looked for signs of wildlife, and sang or hollered as she walked. At the top of a ridge she saw a mountain lion on a rock 25 yards away.
She described it in an account she wrote and withheld from me and her mother for weeks until we were safely homeward bound after a visit, knowing we just might take her with us.
“I froze. The cat stood up as soon as it saw me and took a step forward. My immediate instinct was to turn and run, which I did. I had only gone a few steps when I looked back and saw it chasing after me and gaining quickly. The thought flashed through my mind: if I don’t stop and face this thing it is going to attack me. I had to show it that I wasn’t scared, even though every part of me was telling me otherwise.
“So I did what I never thought I would have the courage or instinct to do. I turned around, grabbed my bear spray, faced the lion with my arms spread wide and let out a giant roar. The lion stopped in its tracks just ten yards from me. Then we had a stare-down for what seemed like ten minutes but was probably more like 10-15 seconds. Neither of us moved as I looked into its dark eyes, hoping to intimidate it. The lion flinched, which reminded me I needed to do something or risk it making the first move. I again spread my arms as wide as I could and roared at the top of my lungs to seem as big and scary as possible. It worked. The lion turned and ran away, disappearing behind the rocks.”
Surging with adrenaline but still keeping her head, she sprinted, tumbled, and rock-hopped back to her cabin.
Katy truly had the heart of a lion. But this November, at the age of 29, she lost her life to a different kind of lion — the terrible lion of depression. Knowing for many years that it was inside her, she fought it on her own terms, shunning pills and psychotherapy.
She fought it with goodness. She took jobs working with abused and tormented children, staying with them at night and wrestling them to the ground when necessary as their guardian at school. She energized an after-school program in ways no one had done before. She took a job with Habitat for Humanity of Flathead Valley in Kalispell, Montana. It had been drawing a handful of visitors a week to volunteer at build sites. She bumped it to 30 a week from near and far, then wrote personal notes of thanks to every one of them.
The lion didn’t go away. She fought it with lionesque feats of endurance. She biked across the country, leading 32 riders in the Bike and Build nonprofit organization safely from Maine to California. She biked in snow and ice at the seasonal openings and closings of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, taunting the lion with friends, laughter, and funny costumes. She raced down ski slopes, plunged into icy lakes, dipped in remote hot springs. She taught herself to play guitar and ukulele. She danced. She loved. She cried. She tried. Oh how she tried.
But this lion is crafty. It waits and watches. It leaves you alone, for weeks, maybe months, then sneaks up on you in the middle of the night, sits on your chest, and whispers in your ear, “you’re a failure, you’re not enough, you let people down.”
The lion is especially active around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the days are short, the nights long, and everyone is happy and gay except for those who are distraught and can’t bear the thought of going through the motions one more time.
So now the lion is in our home, our hearts, and our heads. And will be for a long, long time. I hope to live as bravely as Katy did. If you don’t stop and face this thing, it is going to attack you.