#DefendersoffFun: Sonya Pevzner, Writer, Mental Health Advocate

Sonya Pevzner portrait outdoors

#DefendersofFun is a look into the adventurous lives of outdoor advocates who are working to better the outdoor community and protect the wild places we have fun in. Their story, their own words. Share your outdoor story on Instagram @DefendersofFun #DefendersofFun.


“My name is Sonya Pevzner. My parents are from Moscow and met back in the ‘80s. Back then, the culture of outdoor adventure was different — if you wanted to go on a trip, you would register with the state so they could come find you if something happened. My parents were very involved with their university outdoor groups. My mom would go on kayaking and backpacking trips. My dad was an actual mountaineer—my grandparents still have all of his old gear. Tragically, he died when I was super young, and we moved from Russia to the States.

“I have all this gear, but I don’t do shit—I just work and dream about adventures.”

Looking at me, you wouldn’t know I’m an immigrant, but I didn’t speak English until I was three or four years old. My mom began a PhD program here, so I grew up in Pittsburgh with all these little Chinese and Jewish kids whose parents were also PhD students. Not the most outdoorsy crowd! [Laughs.] Car camping was a bit much for a single mom working toward her PhD. But I would hear all these stories from her expeditions, how my dad would summit these cool mountains, and it felt like that was my story as well — my self-identity was wrapped up in my dad’s legacy. If you were to ask me as a kid, I would have said I was super outdoorsy, but I wasn’t. That realization came to a head last year when I realized, ‘I have all this gear, but I don’t do shit—I just work and dream about adventures.’

My car broke down last April and when it broke down, I had an identity crisis. I thought, ‘I’m 23, and I can barely support myself, let alone buy another car. Now what?’ It shattered my self-esteem and brought on immense depression. Then I realized that just left me with more money to travel, so I left my broken car, cute apartment, paying jobs, and boyfriend behind and went back to Russia for three months to find the places my dad had loved.

When the worst possible thing has happened, my life tends to take really drastic 180-degree turns. I thought, “I’ve left everything behind. What else can I do? What if I moved to Colorado? Here’s a crazy thought—I could become a climber and do alpine expeditions and become a guide like my dad. What if I became an adventure writer, submitted my work to National Geographic? That’s the pipe dream, right?”

“My car broke down last April and when it broke down, I had an identity crisis.”

I moved to Colorado in October. I’ve done this before. It’s kind of a quick fix, doing something new and exciting for an escape. When I was 19, I ran away to Germany and studied abroad for six months. I’ll go on crazy trips—anything to avoid dealing with reality. It’s kind of a mental-health cop out. But, I’m surprised how well I’ve adjusted to Boulder.

I wanted to start a blog to chronicle my journey, but any white girl with an education and a car and a desire to live outdoors could start a blog and fit into a certain mold. What I had to offer was my perspective: I don’t know how to do any of this stuff. Yet. I want to be a voice for inclusivity in the outdoors and honesty in mental health. My mental health struggles thread their way through my entire story, so I feel compelled to talk about them, and I want to do it with humor and honesty.

sonya pevzner wearing beanie near mountains

Two years ago, I got a brand new brand new car and a hybrid bike. I put the bike on the back of my car and drove around with it all season, yet I didn’t get on the bike a single time. I was like, “What happened?”

I was so terrified of getting on my bike and then not knowing how to fix it if something happened. What if someone stopped to ask if I needed help? They would realize I had all this nice equipment but I didn’t know how to use or maintain it; I was afraid of being judged. The bullies I had imagined laughed me that entire summer—but the thing was, there were no bullies. That bike came to represent why I wasn’t part of the outdoor world: that feeling of being too familiar with it to be a total beginner, but not familiar enough to actually know what I’m doing. It was an exercise in being humble.

The outdoor community can be really intense and intimidating sometimes. I think using the words ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ is an important first step in identifying a fear that goes beyond a typical ‘beginner’s fear,’ because being nervous about something is different than having intense anxiety about it.

“The bullies I had imagined laughed me that entire summer.”

If you take a climbing class and you’re anxious the entire time, yet the teacher doesn’t address it and passes it off as the stress of trying something new, you might go home and never try that sport again because you feel like you don’t belong. That isolation, that feeling of not belonging, translates into depression. Depression and anxiety can stop a lot of people from starting their outdoor journey, and I want to make that a more honest conversation.

Moving to Boulder has been a fun learning curve. I was climbing with a friend of mine from work the other day at the Boulder Rock Gym and she goes, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, Lynn Hill climbs here every other day.’ I didn’t even know who that was! Now I see her climbing several times a week at different gyms around town. It’s an amazing community, and it’s incredible to feel that I’m starting to be a part of it.”

—As told to Dirtbag Darling

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