December 29, 2015
LOOKING BACK: The 5 Most Valuable Things I Learned at Second Nature
When I was thirteen years old, I felt like my world was crashing around me. I felt like the light at the end of the tunnel that everyone told me about, was just not in the cards for me. I had arrived at this place because of typical adolescent “mean girl” interactions at school, having a negative self-image, and a severe trauma that had rocked my world only one year earlier. Because of this pile of life that I had on my plate, I believed that there was no way anything could ever get any better. I wanted the pain that I felt every day to stop, so I attempted to take my own life.
Obviously (and thankfully), this was a failed attempt. Unfortunately, it was not my first, I had tried other times, with different hospitalizations between attempts. I went to counseling multiple times a week, both independently and with my family. However, after my final attempt, and easily the most serious one, I was sent to Second Nature Wilderness Program. My time at Second Nature became the light at the end of the tunnel that I was sure I would never find. The lessons that I learned during my time there not only helped me overcome the depression that I was struggling with, but it also continues to help me each and every day whether I am conscious of it or not.
When I think back to my time at Second Nature, there were five key things I learned, that have become the most pivotal lessons in my life… leading me to the successful place I am today:
1. Just going to counseling was not enough.
Going to counseling sessions multiple times a week would help me process the things that had happened the day before, but it was never immediate enough to have a real impact or for me to see enough real progress in my own coping skills. My times at different hospitals and psychiatric units were Band-Aids that would help me to temporarily feel better than I was, but not better to the point where I believed I would never go back to that emotionally painful place. During Wilderness Therapy, therapy never stops, there is never an “end” of the session where you have to wrap up something meaningful because the next patient is coming at the top of the hour. I learned from every interaction I had with my group members, staff, and therapist. Sometimes this could be as simple as being on time when packing my bag in order to not keep the group waiting, but it could also be talking with a staff member on the hike and just having a lightbulb go off about something that I would do that was negatively impacting my life. I also had the opportunity to watch others make serious progress with their own life struggles, an opportunity I rarely had during my stay at psychiatric units or during personal therapy. Their progress inspired my belief in the program, and made me want to work on myself that much harder. I was also able to connect with my therapist from wilderness for years after I graduated the program and establish a relationship with her that I could trust and cherish. This was a very positive thing for me, because I was able to tell her about my life and where I was, which gave me a sense of pride because she had seen where I had been.
2. Only I could make the change.
Being honest, during my stay at different places and all before wilderness, I wasn’t ready to change. There were many factors as to why this was. I was depressed, so I had no motivation to do the actual work it would take for things to be different in my life. I wanted to wake up one day, and have all of my problems be gone. I also would do therapy, and then go to school the next day and have all of the same things happen that had happened the day before and I would feel powerless to change the social life I was a part of. I couldn’t get away from it, and all the people in my life acted the same way that they always did, so I acted the same way I always had. Going to Wilderness gave me an opportunity to get away from all of the distractions and really focus on myself. There were no friends, phone calls, or social media. Nobody was worried about my hair or what my outfit was that day. I had the platform to rebuild myself, the way that I wanted to with the assistance of those who knew what would work for me and what wouldn’t. For my first couple of weeks, I tried to “play the game” in a sense, and say what I thought everyone wanted to hear. Then one day, my therapist just called me on it and told me that I could play the game as long as I wanted but I was going to go home with the same tool bag I had come with, and clearly that wasn’t working for me. She reminded me that this experience was about creating a new life for myself that I was happy with, and tools that I could use when I left. After that, I actually wanted to change. Nobody can want it bad enough for you though, you have to want it for yourself.
3. I can and should believe in myself.
In the two years prior to wilderness, I never believed in myself. I felt more powerless to the happenings of my life than I could ever describe. It is truly amazing how quickly this turned around for me during my time at Second Nature. We would practice “busting” a flame, which is basically making a fire out of a few carved pieces of wood and a rock. I struggled with the technique for weeks, but after I got my first flame, it was like a fire had ignited in me. I knowthat sounds cliché, but all of the sudden I believed that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I have always been stubborn (just ask my parents), but my stubbornness had never served me well until Second Nature. I had a confidence that I was strong and capable. This is something that has transcended throughout my entire life, from that day forward. Whenever I have to ride my bike in the cold, I can think back to Second Nature. I often think, “If I could be 13 years old and get up in the middle of the night to rebuild my sleeping tarp that snow had knocked down, then I can do whatever this is that I have to do.” This single factor has made me a better friend, student, and community member. I believe that if something is happening in my life that isn’t right, I have the power to make it different. I am able to look at the big picture when I was never able to before, because each instance of failure made me believe that I was a failure. Now, I am able to look at failure as opportunity and a challenge. This is especially true regarding emotional pain. In trying to take my own life, I realized how much I would have missed. I can see now when times are tough, there is always another side. Things have a way of working themselves out, and I now have the confidence that I can get through whatever the hard time is, because of my experience at Second Nature.
4. Hard Easy, Easy Hard.
This is probably the most important thing that I learned in wilderness that I still use on a daily basis. The concept is quite simple, but being conscious of it is something many people struggle with. In every situation in life, there is a hard thing to do and an easy thing to do. You can do the easy thing first, but the hard thing will surely come later; or you can do the hard thing first, and have the easy thing come after. I use this every day with small decisions and big decisions, and it is a point of clarity when I am not sure of what to do. Sometimes, I use this when thinking about work, and that I really don’t want to pick up that extra shift tomorrow but it sure will make things easier when my paycheck comes. I can use it with deciding when to do homework, when to go to social events, and interactions with people close to me. This simple phrase has made me more confident in my ability to make decisions wisely, which lessens my anxiety in times of confusion.
5. I can leave things behind that don’t serve me.
This last thing I learned is actually something I learned on the day of my graduation from Second Nature. There is a ceremony where the parents get to come out at the end of the program. The entire ceremony is very symbolic, with many details that are all very important. But the single most important thing to me and my family on that day was at the very end of the ceremony. I took a bandana that I had worn every day that I was in wilderness, one I had sweat on, used as a napkin, and cried on, and tied it on a massive tree along with hundreds of other bandanas from previous students. As I was tying the bandana on the tree, I told my parents that it was symbol of what I had chosen to leave behind. It was a promise to never hurt myself again in any way, and that I would leave it there at the program, trading it for all the things that I had learned along the way. This was a very emotional process for me, because for too long this had been such a big part of my life, but it wasn’t something that served me, so I let it go. Today, I don’t have any bandanas to tie behind me, but I have left plenty of things behind since that day at wilderness. I haven’t been perfect since my program, I have continued to make mistakes and will continue to make more. However, I now know that I have the power to decide what doesn’t serve me anymore, and it can be as simple as tying up a bandana to a tree and choosing to leave it behind.
Today, seven years later, I am twenty years old. I am a junior in college, with the opportunity to graduate early with my degree in Psychology. I am on the Dean’s List, and I truly enjoy my education. I work part time at a job I’ve had for four years, where I am up for a promotion. I have an incredible relationship with both of my parents, who I call daily just to talk. I see my brother regularly who loves and supports me. I have a healthy lifestyle and can take pride in my inner and outer self. I am a good friend, student, daughter, coworker, community member, and person. I am proud of the life that I lead and I see a very bright future ahead of myself. My time at Second Nature completely turned my life around. I went in with no idea how to cope with my negative emotions in a healthy way, and left feeling confident to conquer whatever life throws at me. I can honestly say I am very proud of the person that I have chosen to be because of this program. This was the most difficult thing I have ever had to go through, but that was the hard thing, and now, I get to enjoy the easy thing which for me, is life.