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Alive Against the Odds
Holding a bottle of Tylenol in my clenched fist, I slowly twisted off the cap. I critically inspected those lentil-shaped pills, gazed desperately at my cell phone, willing anyone I knew to call. Lighting another cigarette, I breathed in the smoky, comforting aroma and exhaled the listless, empty feeling. Tossing the cigarette butt, I held my breath and looked out at the dark, gloomy road in despair. The worthlessness was still there. Would it ever leave me? Counting out the twenty-one pills burning in my hand, I threw a couple in my mouth at a time, and washed them down with water, before I could think. There, the deed was done; there was no getting out of it now.
Let me introduce myself. I am a seventeen year old, who then had no religious beliefs, and aspired to be a cosmetologist. Living in the woods in the dead of winter was never really on my list of goals. But, when I found myself in the passenger seat of a rental car, I was not surprised. My life was shaped like a downward spiral and I seemed to be out of control. I was on alcohol and drugs, suicidal, and trusted no one; I was lying, shoplifting, and cutting. When I overdosed for the second time in six months, my parents put their foot down, and decided to help me gain control of my life, before I killed myself. I was listlessly coloring out of hopelessness and boredom in my hospital bed, when my parents mentioned they were sending me to a wilderness program. Shocked, filled with bitterness and anger, I stood up and ordered them to leave. I lay back in the large white bed and clenched my teeth, willing myself not to cry before the nurses. Better to be angry than upset, I thought. Crying is for wimps, anger won’t let me feel the feelings. As I tried to calm my temper with my iPod and coloring book, I noticed the scabs and angry red scars on my arms. That abruptly halted my anger for a minute and I began mulling over the struggles I faced during the last recent months… Killing time on the internet until the wee hours of the morning, because if I went to sleep, I would have to wake up and try to face life… The battles fought in my mind, cunning soldiers persuading me I wanted to die, and willing me to dart in front of the fast approaching cars. I would walk in midst of the two yellow lines, asking Someone- Anyone Up There to send a drunk speeding around the corner, swerve to miss me, and fail miserably… Physically fighting my dad until the police were called… Having eight shots of alcohol in less than three minutes to reassure myself I would get so wasted, I didn’t have to think… The constant depression, that never seemed to leave, no matter how often I cut my hair, quit my jobs, slit my wrists, and force fed all the food I could handle into my stomach.
The magnitude of my actions started to hit me right then. The pills I popped did not cause me any form of relief, I felt worse than before. I wanted to care about myself and the people around me. I was desperate for love, like a fish gasping for air. I was waiting for the validation that someone’s day would be ruined if I died. I wished I could watch my funeral from above, and come back to life and accept the love. I was sick of hating, of being bitter and sarcastic, and wanted to learn to smile again. I wanted to change but I didn’t know how, I didn’t know what else to try. I knew two things for sure, my parents weren’t going to get off my back this time…and my way didn’t seem to be working. I decided to give wilderness a try.
Being entirely naïve to what I was getting myself into, I arrived with my dad in the woods of North Carolina. I got out of the car, and looking around in disgust, my cynical eyes falling on run-down, shabby looking buildings. Trailing behind my dad mutely, I cursed myself inside for causing this. Stepping inside, I was taken aback to see a decorated office with wall-to-wall lush carpeting, elegant leather couches and exquisite paintings, not knowing I would never enter that office again.
Two masculine-looking girls entered the room, introduced themselves in thick southern accents and led me along. While I followed stoically, dragging my feet, my blame-filled and incredulous thoughts were racing inside. Boy, did my parents mess up this time. This was their entire fault! I was not going to gain anything out of this “place”. I was led to what looked like a barn, with peeling, white, bare walls and a lone water fountain lying in splendor on the concrete floor. They instructed me to strip and hand them my belongings. I begged them to let me keep the picture of my closest friends, or the newly-acquired studs in my ears, but my desperate pleas were to no avail. They merrily told me to take out my contact lenses as well, as my eyes would get infected from the dirt outside. Tossing out my lenses, I deviously pondered how to sneak a tweezers in the program with me. Laughing at some stupid corny joke, one girl handed me government-regulated clothing and waited for me as I clumsily pulled my new clothes on. They motioned to me to follow them out, when one of the girls stopped. Turning to me, she explained she had to take a picture of me. Narrowing my eyes, I questioned her silently. She enlightened me, saying it was so my parents didn’t think I was being tortured, and told me to say cheese… I looked straight at the camera and didn’t blink.
They led me through the dark to a one room box, with creaky steps and some wooden beds inside. A male instructor and long-haired seventeen year old boy offered me dinner. Although I had just eaten, I was never one to pass up food. They provided me with a blue and white specked mug and a plastic spoon. I smiled politely and stood around awkwardly, unsure of where to stand and what to do. The mush looked like birdseed with little orange cubes. Taking a bite, I gasped and tried to swallow it as fast as I could. The paste burned my tongue, and was bland as cardboard; the carrots were half raw. When they delightedly asked how it was, I winced at a loud and vulgar joke being told and lied through my burning tongue, “It’s all right; it tastes good.”
I felt shoved around, without direction, as if I were blindfolded. The only experience that seemed part of the norm was the women’s bathroom. Sulfur-smelling water, dirty sinks, and the yellowish- brown walls welcomed me back to reality. I bit my nails nervously, terrified at the thought of meeting my group. I hadn’t seen myself in a mirror at all, and hadn’t washed my face in a day and a half. What if they didn’t like me or thought I was boring? Useless, insecure questions were swirling around my brain.
When I arrived at my group, the first piece I noted was that the twelve girls resembled male convicts, in their bulky tangerine-colored sweatshirts, navy parachute pants, and hulking hiking boots. I tried to smile and focus on the introductions being made, but grimaced as I felt my stringy, oily hair. I was reserved and uncommunicative for the first few days as I got my bearings. I listened a lot, smiled politely when it seemed necessary, and tried to blend into the trees around me. The people seemed to be talking a different language, with strange acronyms flying left and right. The girls were very helpful and explained how to collect water from the stream and filter it out, how to add spices to the beans and rice, to make the tasteless rice have some flavor. I learned how to hang my rations in trees so wild animals wouldn’t devour them while we slept, how to set up shelters, and how to pack my backpack.
I thought hiking would be a cinch and was I ever so wrong. The first time I added my share of group food and gear to my pack, I couldn’t lift it an inch off the ground. Overwhelmed and frustrated, I burst out crying. How would I ever manage to get up that monstrous, steep mountain? If it were possible, I would have died right there in the dirt. That not being an option, I learned right then for the first time, I couldn’t run from life. I lifted my jaw stubbornly; I would prove them wrong. This time, I would not quit. I took a couple of faltering steps and fell flat on my face. After what seemed like hours, my ankles were throbbing, my thighs were aching, and my neck and back had become tender and raw. I needed help up. After thirteen unsuccessful attempts, I pulled myself up, only to trip a minute later. Stopping for a water break, I was horrified to hear a girl tell me this was one of the easiest and shortest hikes there was. Sobbing hysterically, I dragged myself up and finally down the mountain.
That night, as I tossed and turned on my bed of rocks and leaves, I prayed for the first time in over a year. “God,” I prayed, “I don’t know if I believe in you. But, God, if you are there and listening, please, please help me. Help me endure the hike tomorrow. Help it not be such a struggle. Help me have hope and a more positive attitude. Please give me the strength and will to make hiking easier.” I hugged my sweatshirt towards me, hoping for some comfort. With tears in my eyes, I fell asleep.
On my second day in the wilderness program, I found a spark, an ember, buried in the ashes of my soul. I cherished that glimmer of hope, cared for it and protected it from all harm. Slowly, as I learned to smile and love myself, I blew my beautiful spark of faith into flames and into a blazing warm fire.
I eventually learned how to look past the extreme hardships in the woods and learn from my many challenges. I discovered that although we girls all had very different personalities and backgrounds, many of our life experiences were alike. Digging deep, I had something special in common with everyone I met. I came to love every one of them, to adore the people who cared for me and helped me heal. I was in awe of the nature around me, enchanted when standing on the ridge of a mountain, looking down at the clouds below me, or when hiking up a mountain of fresh snow. I learned how to make roaring fires out of friction, and to break thick sticks on my stomach and thighs. I painstakingly battled with the frustrations of setting up the delicate balance of animal traps and eventually succeeded. I learned to face my challenges, take slow and steady steps, and remember that I can do anything I set my mind to. I believed in myself and I belonged. I felt safe in my surroundings, felt loved despite the bad and the ugly. I slowly learned to trust others and felt serene and secure.
I learned to talk about my feelings instead of shutting down and isolating from those around me. I learned to listen to others and offer intentional and helpful feedback. I learned not to tiptoe around others’ feelings, rather to tell them what they need to hear, only out of love. I learned to depend on myself and simply ask for help after I tried my best. I learned not to rescue my friends but to support and encourage them along the way so they can rely on themselves and feel the pride. I learned to appreciate everything I received and find the little joys in life. I was so grateful to have a sleeping bag, chocolate on Christmas, loving people to help me, food to eat, and boots to wear. I learned to feel and I learned to love.