Living In The Woods For Sixty Three Days
It's been seven years since I sat in a medicine wheel in the middle of nowhere in the southern part of Colorado. I honestly couldn't tell you exactly where I was, all I knew was I was about an hour in any direction of Durango. More about how I got there later, I promise.
For some reason, sitting in that medicine wheel, that I had built, is one of the most vivid memories I can recall from a blur of experiences that I've accumulated over my 27 years on this planet. Perhaps it's because it was one of those few, rare moments in life that I've been completely free from an otherwise crippling fear of future inadequacy and longing amplified by an almost manic obsession with regret. Or maybe it was because I thought it was the end of a nine week pilgrimage I had taken involuntarily. Whatever reason it was, it was the first time in my life I remember not feeling the ever tightening noose of regret around my neck. Anxiety has forever been a looming hangman as far back as I can remember, always waiting to pull his lever and drop the gallow's floor out from under me. On this particular morning, I was able to tell him to fuck himself and I got to sit there and exist as I was universally intended to.
I promised that I'd tell you about how I found myself in the middle of nowhere, in the southern part of Colorado, about an hour in any direction of Durango. So before I go any further, I'll get to that.
Here's a little information on Wilderness Therapy, I realized I'm even in the video at around the three minute mark.
At the age of twenty, in 2009, I barely recognized the person I saw in the mirror. I was a shadow of my former self. I had mostly been a rule follower growing up and was always compassionate, empathetic, caring, funny, and engaged. I have spent a large part of my adolescent and adult life struggling with depression and anxiety but I had managed up until that point to cope with it largely by trying to be a light that could burn in the darkness for others and a pillar to help shoulder the burdens of the people I cared about. And I care about a lot of people. I'd spent a great deal of time suffering almost silently and I think if you asked people I was close with prior to this time they'd probably be blown away that I was crying myself to sleep most nights, if I slept at all. I was a sensitive kid who was very good at being happy in front of people but as soon as I shut my door, my world would unravel.
When I graduated high school, I moved to San Pedro, California to attend school. Things only continued to get worse when I moved and was away from home for the first time. I only lasted a semester and when I returned home I was completely unrecognizable. I hurt all the time and I didn't know how to cope. I started drinking and smoking every day and made it my top priority. I essentially transformed my reason for living from personal growth and progress to just trying to stave off the darkness that always seemed to be present in my head. Along with all of that I sacrificed my values, I stole, I lied, I was conniving, and I wasn't going anywhere… except for court. I went to court a few times.
After about sixteen months of this, my parents felt it was time to do something drastic. They decided to send me to a wilderness therapy program. They gave me an ultimatum, I either entered this program, or I would have to find somewhere else to call home and somebody else to call family. I reluctantly chose at the time what I thought was the easier road and decided to head to the woods.
Two days later I was packed and ready to leave for what I thought would be a five week retreat. I had convinced myself that it wouldn't be that bad. I wouldn't be able to drink or smoke weed or eat pain pills out there but I had somehow convinced myself that I could have friends send me drugs in the mail, after all addiction had made me pretty resourceful. I made sure to go to the dispensary and buy all the weed I could and get as high as possible before I went to the airport and then off I went. The entire plane ride I was eating weed brownies and THC jolly ranchers so it was easy to convince myself this wasn't going to be so bad. It wasn't until I arrived in Durango later that night and the guy who picked me up from the airport drove me to an empty trailer in the middle of nowhere in southern Colorado and told me to strip, squat down, and turn around so he could make sure I wasn't holding that I realized I hadn't taken the easier road.
I can't remember the name or the face of the guy that drove me out to that trailer but I do remember that I hated him at the time, he was definitely on my shitlist. I was now standing naked at dusk in this trailer lit only by the low hanging sun shining blindingly through the window and the guy who drove me there handed me some boxers, a pair of hiking pants, and a red t-shirt to put on. I put them on reluctantly and he walked me to the middle of the room where sprawled out on a green tarp was a huge backpack, a sleeping bag, some toiletries, another green tarp, some boots, and a bunch of other things that made it very clear to me that this wasn't going to be the retreat I had imagined while I had been getting stoned out of my mind. I remember asking him where I was going to stay. He replied by picking up one of the green tarps and telling me, "Under one of these." while he chuckled in a way that told me I had no idea what I was in for.
I packed my backpack and we got back in his Jeep and proceeded to drive for what seemed like a full day though I knew by the setting sun was only about two hours. Finally we stopped and he told me to get out of the car and grab my backpack, we were here. When I asked where here was he told me we were now in Utah and this is where he would be leaving me. Two guides emerged from a dry river bed and exchanged pleasantries with the guy who had been driving me all day and lead me down about a quarter mile into the river bed where I saw a couple tents. They told me everybody else in the group were on solos, which meant they were lead blindfolded out into the wilderness and left with food and water for 3 days and told to stay there until they were retrieved. It was at that moment I realized how very not stoned I was anymore and how utterly insane I was to think that my friends would be sending me drugs in the mail. I also realized I did not have a light of any kind in my backpack. I made an A-frame shelter out of one of my tarps and some parachute cord and spent that night crying quietly and penning a letter in the dark to my family about how I had learned my lesson and telling them that I would come home now.
I have gone on long enough about how I got to be out in the wilderness but I thought some backstory was important. I quickly realized that five weeks was only the minimum length of time a participant stays out there and that it would be much longer than that for me. At the end of it all I was in the Utah desert and eventually the Colorado wilderness for sixty three days straight. Throughout the course of those sixty three days, I became transformed. I may get back to how that all happened in detail in later posts but It's important to know that my life was changed forever. Though I didn't end up getting sober until some six years later, I learned how to think differently. I learned that there was a way to find meaning in my life. I learned to rediscover the person I really am. That compassionate, empathetic, caring, funny, and engaged person I used to be and even love. I had the privilege to study the Native American medicine wheel and came to understand God as a universal governing force through meaningful contact with nature and other people. For each stage of the program, a participant would be moved into a different direction of the medicine wheel starting with East, which represents infancy, then to South, then West, and finally to the North which represents elderhood.
When I was finally placed in the North, two guides who I had come to care for a great deal woke me up at dawn and sent me out to build a medicine wheel and meditate in the North until I had come to some understanding of it's significance. I built a large wheel and oriented it with my compass and meditated there for a while with the sun on my face. Meditation has a funny way of aligning my fragmented thoughts into something profoundly coherent and though I can't find exactly what I wrote that day I can still remember what I understood. I looked around at all the beauty that was there and felt significant and powerful in the fact that I was also so insignificant and small. It made me realize how my narrow perspective on my life and self worth was essentially keeping me caged in fear and self doubt. Alone in that medicine wheel, it felt like everything I was seeing was happening just for me and that I was happening for everything else. I felt like a member of a universal community. I felt like I was home, because I was. I realized how anxiety is just a manifestation of an accumulation of narrow life perspectives and worldviews. If I was a part of all of this, how could I be anxious? Before winter do the trees shake in fear before they lose the foliage they have spent the last year accumulating? Of course not, they confidently shed it when the time is right because they know that it is what is necessary to grow. They know those leaves will fall and compost and create new life that is dependent on them and in turn they will be allowed to grow larger and more fruitful. It is in that realization that I find comfort when I am hurting the most. We don't know what new life will come from the small deaths in our lives but we must remain confident that those small deaths are integral to our universal purpose. It has been my experience that things that are the best for us never seem like it at the time. Pain is only a part of a cycle of life and if it is dealt with properly it comes full circle. I am hurting now and I will hurt again but there is a beauty in that because I can find a home in that process. I don't know what the future holds and that used to scare me. Now, it's comforting.