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A Place to Start: Kari's Road to Wellness

January 03, 2018

I took a surfing lesson this morning. I also took one back in 2008. The two lessons could not have been more different. The one back in 2008 was in Costa Rica and it was on a whim; I was following the crowd and was incredibly hungover to the point of being a danger to myself. I earnestly wanted to surf, but mainly I just waded in the water and tried not to drown. I also wanted to windsurf while I was there. But again, I was too hungover. On the day I had scheduled to windsurf, I couldn't even leave my hostel except to get bread to soak up the gallon of alcohol eating away at my stomach lining. I had a bevy of bucket list items planned for my five month residency in Costa Rica, however, my best attempts merely yielded destruction, distraction, or an athlete’s least favorite, DNFs (Did Not Finish).     


Life went like that for a long time. I wanted fame/fortune/success so earnestly, yet I could not ever seem to get there. I had good intentions but zero follow-through. I was basically a car that accidentally buried its tires in the mud. I was gunning it with all my might but my wheels were just spinning incessantly digging myself deeper and exaggerating my ineptness. 

Ironically, I was 15 when I got a friend’s yellow Chevy cavalier stuck in the mud. I had no idea that would be an accurate portrayal of my next 10 to 15 years. Yes, I had bouts of accomplishments and growth, but for the most part I was tottering the Earth frenzied without direction or regard.   

Prior to Skyland Trail, I lived my life at 110 mph. I was unknowingly driving it straight in to the ground; I’d broken through Earth’s surface and was feeling the intense heat of a living hell. Now living in Atlanta, I succumbed to debilitating depression, where the only thought I could entertain was how to rid the world of me. Then, maybe the very anti-depressant that kept me from my eradication jolted me into a state of total thought combustion.   

This time, I was angry and irritable, yet optimist, driven without limitation, and jubilant. Manic highs are like that. I danced all night. I called everyone in my cellphone. I burned a candle and drew a bath. I checked my 401k and made another vodka drink. The forgotten candle started a small fire in my bedroom while I was tending to one of 17 other urgent things. Luckily my Virginia Highlands apartment was empty from wall to wall, so I was able to put the fire out easily. I had a bunch of lovely furniture and knick knacks in a storage unit north of the city, but I couldn't be bothered with making a home. If it didn't involve drinking and drugs, or drugs and drinking, I simply didn’t have the time. Nor did I have the time to call Georgia Power. My best friend who lived 500 miles away called the power company and arranged to have the power turned on after she learned that I’d basically been squatting in my own apartment. I’m not sure if I ever made it into that bath or how I managed to reside in an Atlanta apartment in a hot and humid August without the necessary power to turn on my perfectly good A/C unit.   

I do know that I have three brave friends to thank for throwing an intervention at me. I didn’t think so at the time. At that time I thought I should move on to law school since I gave such a fierce and bullet-proof rebuttal. I really wound myself up with that thought and the other 4,508 thoughts tickling my brain. I didn't sleep for days, and the next thing I knew, I was staring into the surveillance camera at a psychiatric hospital wondering if I could get a copy of the footage, because surely I looked good and it would be worth something someday. I was rushed to the ER since my blood pressure was through the roof. I was surrounded by loving and caring friends. Two of which made me wet my pants from laughter on the hospital bed. I’ve witnessed my mom and my aunt wet themselves with laughter as well. So it’s genetic and therefore pardoned since it’s a family disorder.  Yes, mental illness, in all its atrociousness, can also be quite amusing and uproarious. I digress.   

This was my first and only trip to the psych ward. At the time, I loved it. If I had been on the other side of manic depression, I’m certain it would have been a different story. The amusement and regalement of my stay included, but was in no way limited to, apple juice, coloring books, smoke breaks, wildly interesting new friends, and all around lunacy. At the same time, it was treacherous. I was fearful and imprisoned; I laid awake the first night (no surprise there) afraid that my roommate would knife me if I gave her the chance.  

A psychiatrist recommended Skyland Trail to my mom who flew down from Ohio. This was the only time in my life that I couldn’t stand my mom and refused to listen to, be around, or even acknowledge her. I didn’t have anything else going for me at the time, and my friends encouraged me to consider it. Lucky for me, three meals and a safe place to sleep sounded promising.   


At 25 years old, I was of the oldest clients in the Skyland Trail residential program at the time. Luck favored me again. Emotionally, I was about 19, so I fit right in. I was placed in a peer group called “the yellow team” with the like-minded dually diagnosed culprits of life. Skyland Trail was clean and safe and welcoming. This was not something I was accustomed to at this point in my life. I met the new challenge with all the fervor of an exuberant student on her first day of classes. I took thorough notes in group; I was there to soak up all the knowledge I could about my new diagnosis – bipolar disorder - so that I could conquer it.

It took a very intense two weeks to finally admit that I had a problem with alcohol. I sat down to write how alcohol had affected me and my life. The horror of the pages stared back at me and left me with two choices: I could either go on living the way I was, or I could change.   

Twelve step meetings were amazing. People gave warm hugs and hope. They cheered for you as you picked up a newcomer chip. People clapped ferociously because they wanted the sound of the hope and the promise of the program to break through the affliction of the shame and the guilt. Randy drove the yellow team from Skyland Trail to our weekly 12-step meetings, and Anna, our yellow team counselor, taught us about our brains’ wirings and misfirings. She helped me confront feelings for the first time in my life and helped me pen a relapse prevention plan. Anna warned our team that, statistically, only one out of every four of us would stay clean and sober. I had already sworn that alcohol would never pass these lips again, so I looked around and said to myself, “Sorry chumps. I’m going to be the one.” 

I lived in the Skyland Trail residential program for 45 days. Then, I did day treatment five days a week for months, then day treatment only 3 days a week, then half days in the intensive outpatient program. It was the first time in my life that I realized there are consequences to my behavior. I was taught that right living requires right action from my primary counselor. I learned that a healthy life requires you to feel feelings, not flee from them. I was introduced to yoga and meditation. I shot endless baskets in the indoor gym. I sweat out years of toxins on the spin bike. For the first time, I was introduced to boundaries and empowerment in my Family Empowerment sessions. I gardened and became one with the soil and the sunlight our horticultural therapist. I journaled ferociously and took painfully hot showers where I balled my eyes out. I vacuumed my room on Wednesdays and did push- ups every morning. I was late for the bus most mornings; our driver was patient and relatively forgiving. I sang Christmas carols on the front porch in October and played in the Thanksgiving band. I sat with our vocational counselor and she eased my anxieties about the giant gaps I’d have in my resume. I hiked over crisp Fall leaves in North Georgia with our recreational therapist. After nine years, I remember the names of each of these caring Skyland Trail staff - Anna, Corey, Libba, Randy, and Heidi and that’s quite telling of the impact they had on me.  

I'd like to say it’s been all milk and honey since Skyland Trail, but that’s not the case. Life happens. Feelings surface. Cross addictions fill a void. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I was so raw that first year out of treatment that a bout of bulimia, chugging cough syrup, and stealing my dad’s chemo drugs all appeased my animalistic need to be okay. These destructive behaviors as well more positive coping skills such as gymming, NAMI meetings, 12 step meetings, continued counseling, doctor visits, and volunteering kept me from completely losing my marbles that first year. At least for me, no one treatment center is a cure all. But Skyland Trail was a necessary starting point; a point of awakening.   

Today, by the grace of God, I am clean and sober. No, I was not the one of the original four in my Skyland Trail yellow team to stay sober, but I know that one of my fellow yellow teammates is, and for him, I’m super stoked.  In the last nine years, I’ve managed to stay out of the psych ward. I hold a job in my trade and I show up on time. Today, I have connectedness and honesty. I tend to my relationships to keep them healthy. I even experience peace some days if I keep my stinking thinking at bay. I am of service to my fellow man. Come to think of it, I do many of the same things that I learned at Skyland Trail; morning push-ups and prayer, cycling, 12 step meetings, yoga, gardening, and hiking. Everything except the scorching showers and singing Christmas carols in October. Also worth mentioning, my credit score is outstanding, I pay my taxes, and I hope to have a fiancé soon (if she says yes, God-willing). 


This article appeared in the 2017 issue of our Journeys Magazine.