ALL THAT GLITTERS:
INTERVIEW WITH MARGO TALBOT
By Meghan J. Ward
Margo Talbot’s All That Glitters tells the story of her journey through addiction and depression and the healing she found in nature. In this interview, she tells us what that journey signifies for the greater mountain community and how we might empower ourselves in the context of COVID-19.
Margo Talbot grew up with a distant mother who “ruled the household with her eyes”; a father who opted to spend much of his time away from home; and four siblings struggling to deal with their particular domestic situation. As a result of her family’s dysfunction and her own growing mental illness, young Margo rarely smiled, had difficulty connecting with others, and was plagued with a black wave of anger and sadness that overshadowed much of the world around her. In time, drugs, alcohol, sex, and violence became her primary ways to connect with herself and others.
From the depths of suicidal depression and a conversation with Death, Talbot eventually found solace and redemption in both the healing power of nature and the glory of climbing frozen landscapes in some of the world’s most pristine and challenging environments. Heartbreaking, honest, energizing, and inspiring All That Glitters is a remarkable memoir that shines a fresh light of hope on mental illness.
Meghan Ward// You set out to write a different kind of book originally. Can you tell me about that journey? And why you wanted to write this book?
Margo Talbot// When I got accepted into the Banff Mountain Writing program, I had 80,000 words for a book about Karen McNeill, a friend who had disappeared in Alaska. When I got to the program, my editor Tony Whittome said, “this book is about you.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said, “You are bleeding through into every story. I want to know what’s going on for you.” And I thought that was very perceptive. Because I didn’t talk about any of my stuff in the original manuscript.
I knew my editors were right. I knew I had a story. But I didn’t want to write it because I had cleverly hidden my past. I was this strong, athletic ice climber sponsored by a company. And the last thing I wanted was my peers down here in the valley, who knew nothing, to find out about my past.
So, why did I write the book? It’s the book I would have wanted to find when I was suicidally depressed for a decade.
MW// Was the writing therapeutic for you or was that at the tail end of that whole process for you?
MT// I thought it was the tail end of a process. And when I sat down to write, I had to relive experiences that I hadn’t fully lived through in therapy. Because I’d gone to 22 years of therapy at that point, I found myself reliving things as my 47-year-old self. It was incredibly hard. I’d write about six hours a day and come out of the room and my partner, Warren, would say, “Whoa. We need to go skiing or do something to bring you back to the present moment.”
MW// That’s such an important part of a memoir process, to go back and inhabit yourself in the past, and be attentive to your life as if you are there in order to draw out those details. But it can be taxing. Tell me more about those experiences in nature.
MT// Even back when I had my breakdowns, I would go in the woods of Jasper and have my very first breakdowns and be with the trees — yelling at the trees, sometimes hitting the trees. So, yes, Warren knew where I needed to go. Nature is genuine. Nature is real. Nature just is. And so when I’m writing about things that I’ll just categorize as human disingenuousness —things I went through with exes and my parents — I have always reconnected and rebalanced myself in nature.
MW// You once described the book as ahead of its time before, for instance, Rocky Mountain books, made the choice to republish it. Can you talk about that?
MT// When my book first came out, it was primarily climbers who were reading the book. And I don’t believe climbers were ready for the conversation about addiction and mental illness and climbing. The climbing community didn’t really understand what the book was about. I’m not going to say they didn’t like it or want it. I don’t think they understood that this story of some wild-haired woman that moved down from Jasper is also the story of the climbing community and society at large. Because in the end, we will all be touched by trauma.
My publisher also felt that the book was ahead of its time — we thought, “Maybe people just aren’t interested in trauma.” Well, now fast-forward nine years and everybody’s talking about trauma and mental health. And in my opinion, COVID-19 is varying degrees of trauma for the entire planet right now.
MW// Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I feel like in our mountain communities there’s this sense that we’ve somehow figured things out better than the rest of the world. We value our relationship with the wilderness. We ski and hike and think we’ve got our priorities right. But what’s interesting is the statistics show that suicide rates are higher in mountain communities. We have these opposing forces at play. What do you think about that?
MT// There’s a comment in my book that I expected many people to ask me about, and no one has. It’s the comment that mountain towns are rife with addiction, mental illness and suicide.
Many people who require higher intensity experiences to feel have low levels of mood-stabilizing chemicals in their brain, as I did. They’ve done studies on the brains of risk-takers and many of them get higher levels of dopamine, for instance, by pursuing intense experiences, such as BASE jumping off a cliff or climbing up a frozen waterfall [see this article in National Geographic].
Mountain towns attract those types of people. Why do they have low levels? Well, I have low levels because of childhood trauma. Other people have low levels for their own reasons.
After I quit street drugs, someone once asked me if climbing was an addiction. I define addiction as anything you do to escape from the responsibilities of your life. And anything you do that brings you closer to yourself is mindfulness or the opposite of addiction. So, yes, originally I was using climbing as my new addiction — to lift those levels of chemicals in my brain naturally — so I could get off the street drugs. That was a good thing.
Then I used climbing to go more deeply into myself. How strong am I? Who am I when faced with fear and uncertainty? Who am I as a partner to someone? How trustworthy can I be? It started out as what we might call an addiction and turned into something that took me so deeply into myself that it helped me to heal.
So, yes, there are a lot of problems in mountain communities. People think we’re living the life, that we’ve got it all figured out, that we put our health and wellness before money, etc. But what we’re often doing is pushing down the dark side. And when mountain tragedy happens, the dark side rears its ugly head and how people respond can be less than healthy. Witnessing how unprepared even some of the best climbers and guides are can be heartbreaking.
MW// Is there such a thing as a healthy addiction?
MT// Absolutely. Instead of getting up in the morning and trying to figure out when to light up my first pipe or pour my first cocktail, I start figuring out how I can go ice climbing. That’s positive. So even if I’m using climbing as an addiction, what matters is that I’m going from sitting in a dark hole, doing drugs and sitting in a bar all night drinking, to being outside in the fresh air and sunshine. I was healing even if I didn’t know it.
When I did five, seven hits of acid, I thought that was joy. When I went ice climbing for the first time, I was like “Oh, this is joy.” Joy isn’t something that takes you away from your pain and yourself. Joy is being fully embodied in your experience. All you have is two ice axes and a frozen waterfall in front of you. And that was news to me, because I thought I was born without the ability to feel happiness. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t know I had childhood trauma. I just thought, “All these other people who smile all the time…they’re either faking it or they got something I don’t have.”
So, when I went ice climbing, I was like, “Holy shit. This is what people are talking about.”
MW// You talk about how turning 40 was the beginning of the best years of your life. So, what has life been like in those intervening years?
MT// I have a greater sense of comfort in my own skin. I have found my voice. I was silenced as a child, and I felt silenced a lot of my adulthood. I started to find my voice that culminated in writing, writing the book, but I’m still on that journey. But finding your voice is a very important thing.
I also had my first stable long term relationship with Warren. I met him when I was 39. Life just kind of came together. I’m going to heal for the rest of my life but I stopped going to therapy and feeling like something was wrong. I turned it into thinking, “This is my journey.” Other people have their own journey. Warren’s got no legs, somebody else might be battling their demons from going to war. Well, this is just my blueprint, if you will.
And I believe we all have a blueprint in life, and that there’s a switch. The switch says, “I’m a victim, look at me, look what life threw at me.” And when you flip the switch, you go into self-empowerment. Self-empowerment says “I chose this.” No, I didn’t choose my parents. But it empowers me to say to myself on a daily basis, “I chose this.”
Because when you act from a place of choice, you’re empowered.
MW// Towards the end of the book you write about wild places disappearing and simultaneously losing that potential connection. And so what do you hope for little Margos of the future?
MT// I believe we’re on the precipice of the most important decision humanity has ever made. Basically, we’re on the verge of moving either into a technocracy, where we are ruled by technology and lose our freedom, or into a beautiful technology-enhanced human experience, where we use technology to clean up the planet and solve problems like homelessness and poverty. Unfortunately, I think we’re moving towards that technocracy.
I believe the answer to the problem is a rise in the level of consciousness. And in order to raise the level of your consciousness, you must look at the dark side of yourself, of your society, of your species. You must look at those things you don’t want to look at. And we need to mitigate the worst of human nature, which is sociopathy or psychopathy. We need more people to wake up and say, “What can I give to the world?” And less people who wake up and go, “What can I take from this world?” And that’s how we can transform the world. And we could do it literally overnight.
The mountain community is a microcosm of society and humanity. And what the mountain community needs to do — what we all need to do — is maybe sit at home a few more days and meditate, and run out into the mountains a few less days. Because if we don’t reckon with our dark side as humans, it will destroy us, both individually and as a species.
Find a copy of the book at your independent bookstore or on rmbooks.com.
Writer, adventurer, outdoorsy mama and summit cartwheeler, Meghan J. Ward is the editor and co-founder at Crowfoot Media and lives for backcountry getaways.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.