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At times I felt like superwoman…

I grew up in a family and community where mental health was not talked about or accepted as a real illness. The common sentiment towards those who were struggling was to “be stronger” or to just “pray about it.” It didn’t help that movies and TV often portrayed mental health conditions and the facilities they’re treated in as scary, stark, and impersonal. This was not a place I ever envisioned myself going. While I’m surprised to find myself writing about such a personal topic…it also gives you a peek into how much I grew while at Skyland Trail.

I lived most of my life doing just what I had learned – hiding my mental health illnesses from everyone and putting on a happy face. I worked extremely hard, and to the outside world I was a successful, ambitious, problem-solver who loved to travel and go on daring adventures. I’d been to over 40 countries, helped build a school in a village in Mali, climbed Machu Picchu, and hang glided in Cape Town. At times I felt like superwoman. I could work endless hours and take on any challenge at work. And I’d do it all with a calm energy and a bubbly smile. My self-worth became defined by my academic and professional accomplishments, and those accomplishments defined my identity. And for most of my life I was able to do all these things AND manage my depression and anxiety with therapy and medication. 

But everything changed in 2020. I was burnt out from my stressful job, which was compounded by the pandemic, numb from the deaths of two close family members, and reeling from a new OCD diagnosis. When my company offered voluntary severance, I jumped at the chance to finally take a break. I envisioned my 2021 “sabbatical” as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A chance for me to recharge and take better care of myself, to pursue old passions and explore new ones, and to reflect.

My last day at work was December 15. And by January, it felt like I’d made a horrible mistake. With so much of my self-worth and identity defined by my job, I felt purposeless and unworthy without it. Work had become a coping mechanism, and a very good one. I’d worked so much and was laser focused on my education and career, that it became easy to bury old wounds. Even “finding my true self” was a painful process. I was shocked when I realized I didn’t really know what I liked or what my hobbies were; and because of my OCD, the endless possibilities of what to do next felt more crippling than inspiring. I felt paralyzed and overwhelmed by all the recent changes and uncertainty about my future.

I thought a solo 6-week trip to a wellness retreat in the mountains would help me find the answers I was looking for. I hiked, did yoga, and journaled outside every day. At first it was blissful. But shortly into my trip, I began working with a new therapist at the retreat. In our sessions we started processing some of my past trauma. I thought I was ready to deal with the trauma and finally put it behind me. But the therapy became the final stitch in my unraveling. I was flooded by extreme emotions and flashbacks, and I started having anxiety attacks. I left the retreat, but my battle continued at home. Daily life felt unbearable, and I struggled with getting out of bed, eating, socializing, and finding meaning in life. At this point my psychiatrist recommended I do a residential program to help stabilize me. 

His recommendation caught me off guard. I certainly didn’t want to go somewhere with white walls, fluorescent lights, and over-medicated patients. After doing substantial research, I was surprised to learn how different Skyland Trail was from what I’d seen depicted on TV. It had a beautiful, serene, college-like campus, a skills-based DBT program, and supplemental therapy in art, music, and horticulture. My admissions counselor explained that I wouldn’t be doing any trauma work there. Instead, I’d focus on developing strong coping skills to tolerate distress and regulate my emotions in healthy ways. This would be the foundation for any future trauma work.

Skyland Trail was not easy. I had to adapt to a new environment, new people, new rules and, ultimately, surrender my need for perfection and control. I had to trust that there was a better way of doing things than the way I’d done them for over 30 years. At first, I behaved much like I had most of my life. I put on a smile and tried to be the perfect client. But this façade only lasted so long, and eventually I couldn’t hold in my emotions anymore. I remember crying on the rocking chairs outside of the residence one day and threatening to leave another day. I felt so much shame and embarrassment by my behavior, but my counselor, Emily Wall, celebrated these moments and told me they were progress. By outwardly showing my emotions and being honest about how I felt, my treatment team was able to help me manage my emotions more effectively with new coping skills and medication adjustments.

As hard as it was, when I reflect on my time at Skyland Trail, I feel warm and nostalgic. It positively changed my perception of mental health treatment. In a way, it still feels like home. I miss the community the most – a fusion of clients, counselors, volunteers, and doctors. It was a safe environment for me to authentically express myself and be seen and heard. I even made some wonderful friends – friends at different stages of life, from different backgrounds, and with different diagnoses. Yet we all understood each other because we were going through similar challenges.

Skyland Trail also gave me the opportunity to try new activities in a low-risk environment. As an applied math major in college, I never considered myself artsy or outdoorsy. It took a lot of courage for the perfectionist in me to try new things that I may not be good at, like arts, woodworking, music, and horticulture. I learned that playing instruments kind of stressed me out. But that art classes made me feel free. Once I got past the fact that I couldn’t do “art” perfectly, I had fun painting, creating a mandala rock and making a birdhouse and a garden gnome in ceramics. Horticultural therapy opened my eyes to the beauty of imperfections in nature and allowed me to practice mindfulness and non-judgment – each tree, leaf and flower were unique…none were good or bad, they just were.

My time at Skyland Trail flew by, and three months later, I didn’t feel ready to leave. I worried whether I could maintain my progress in an outpatient setting. Spoiler alert – I haven’t. I’m often reminded that mental health isn’t linear. And I know, whether fair or not, that my mental health is something I must manage daily. When I feel like isolating, my go-to skill is “opposite action” …where I commit to keeping plans with friends or just leaving the house. When I feel my anxiety increasing, I use my self-soothe kit (complete with aromatherapy, my favorite candies, self-affirmations, and a worry rock), to bring my emotions down.

Altogether, my experience at Skyland Trail helped me find pieces of myself I never knew about – a creative and nature-loving side. Since leaving 3 months ago, I’ve completed ceramics and watercolor classes in the local community. So far, I’ve made bowls, a piggy bank, and a watercolor painting of lily pads I photographed in Bali. I’ve hosted arts and crafts parties with friends from Skyland, volunteered at a community garden, and learned flower arranging. I even started a mini garden – with tomatoes, bell peppers, microgreens, basil, and a variety of plants.

My experience also allowed me to pay it forward. As I’ve broadened my support network – re-igniting old friendships and beginning new ones – authenticity has been the core of my relationships. I don’t hide my struggles behind my smile anymore, and I’m not afraid to reach out when I need support. I’ve been able to reduce the stigma of mental health in my own network by opening talking about mental health. This, in and of itself, has resulted in many of my friends and colleagues courageously sharing their own stories and getting the support they need.

While Skyland Trail felt like a detour on my journey, it was the stop that has impacted me the most. 

This article was published in Journeys Magazine 2021