There I was on my first night of Outward Bound, lying under the big Texas sky in a little town called Redford, amidst waxy creosote bushes, pointy ocotillo plants, and prickly pear cacti. The desert air was clear and crisp, the temperature having dropped to freezing after a swelteringly hot day, and we had left the fire to climb into our sleeping bags, bright blue plastic tarps set up nearby in case it should rain, to look up at the countless stars that would become familiar to us in the coming days. We were to stay at base camp in Redford for a day or two, getting gear and food ready for our first leg of the course—two or so weeks of canoeing the Rio Grande— before truly leaving the last remnants of society behind and heading into the wilderness.
It had become clear during our conversations on that first day that each of, twelve men and women between the ages of 18 and 33, were on this trip for a reason. It was obvious that we had not left our lives in the ‘real world’ behind for a full three months just because we felt like it. We were each seeking something, each unsatisfied with where some aspect of our lives lay, and we wanted to change and evolve. And yet, despite this common bone that I knew we each shared, I still felt like no one could possibly know who I was or relate to what I was going through.
Earlier in the afternoon, our course leaders had sat us down and told us that for the next three months we would be called not by our given names but by names we would each pick for ourselves that were nature-themed. It made perfect sense as I thought about it more, for I was convinced that the Laura I’d been for my entire life had been left behind at the terminal in New York City. After some thought, I settled on ‘Badger’, a character from one of my favorite children’s books, The Wind in the Willows, whom I remembered as an intensely antisocial hermit who lived alone in the Wild Wood yet who became able, over time, to recognize the importance and necessity of friendship. It was what I hoped I might recognize, myself.
Armed with a new name, a new setting, and a new group of comrades on a mission to discover themselves, I knew that my senses should have been overwhelmed by the vast beauty of the landscape, that I should have been excited by the adventure my group was about to embark upon, that I should finally have been able to get my act together, get focused and determined, and pull myself out of these messy trenches I’d found myself in. Should, should, should. It was all my mind could fixate on. Nothing in the moment was as it was supposed to be, despite everything in my external environment being lined up just right, and this overwhelmed me with debilitating fear. Each and every part of Laura, now Badger, felt like it needed to be different, and immediately.
It didn’t matter that I’d uprooted myself from my ever-worsening situation back east and plopped down in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, or that I’d just connected with a young and energetic lobsterman from Maine who now called himself ‘Wind’, or could tell that one of my leaders, ‘River’, was a really interesting man studying at Yale to become an emergency room doctor yet who still took regular hiatuses to explore Alaska. I realized on that first night that no matter how unique and intriguing the others were, I was still the same broken person I’d been just weeks before when paralyzingly miserable and alone in my Cambridge apartment. I was still unfixable, incapable of being understood and pieced back together to wholeness.
In a wave of panic, it dawned on me that I now had no escape from people and from myself for an entire three months. I was trapped with these twelve other individuals, all on their own self-seeking journeys, and I had no bed, no down comforter, no isolation. I had no retreat from myself and my feelings and my racing thoughts and my anguish, and was expected to be accountable to these strangers each and every minute of each and every day. I now also had no medications, for the first time in a little over two years. To all of a sudden not be carrying the weight of a bag of pills, the familiar clicks of bottle on bottle, left sitting alone in the darkness of my bathroom at home as I spent my first night in the desert, left me dazed and disoriented. After brushing my teeth and layering up in long underwear, I climbed confusedly into my sleeping bag, thrown off by the void that had once been filled by the nightly routine of dropping pills into the palm of my hand and tossing them to the back of my throat like I’d done hundreds and hundreds of times before. It felt strangely simple, almost too good to be true, to finally be just a typical person on a typical night, with no doctor’s orders to swallow chemicals in order to be ‘normal’.
This simplicity and any hint of freedom that may have come with it were soon tamped down as the reality of my situation began to sink in. I was so desperate to get well that I’d refused to acknowledge the gravity of this decision to go off of all my medications cold turkey. As the minutes turned into hours that first night, a chilling wave of realization swept over me as I said to myself, ‘Laura, what have you done?’ My body was completely alert, my mind on over-drive, and my heart pounding in my chest. As the others slept deeply alongside me, quietly resting in their dreams and calm bodies, I felt panic swelling in the depths of my gut, pushing up into my chest and throat. It was strangling me, and I found it hard to breathe. The one reliable escape I had every day—the oblivion of sleep—was no longer available to me now that my Ambien wasn’t an arm’s length away. How was I going to get through this night, let alone eighty-nine more, stuck inside a mind that I had absolutely no control over? This secret thought festered in me as I lay frozen, just feet away from people who had no idea who I had been just a day before.
I made it through the night with gritted teeth and sheer will, a terrified passenger on a runaway train of thoughts fueled by nihilistic existentialism and self-destructive fantasies about the ‘point’, or lack thereof, of being on earth. After somehow managing to fall into brief, fitful sleep, a few hours after we all frantically dashed under the tarps to get out of a torrential downpour, and as the sky started to turn from midnight blue to a deep shade of reddish-purple, I sprung awake at around six the next morning to the voice of one of our leaders singing:
There ain’t nobody here but us chickens There ain’t nobody here at all so quiet yourself and stop that fuss there ain’t nobody here but us we chickens tryin’ to sleep, and you butt in and hobble hobble hobble hobble it’s a sin…
My eyes opened and I looked vacantly at the blue tarp over my head before remembering where I was. ‘Are… you… serious…’ I said to myself. ‘No. This is not happening. This is just a horrific nightmare that I’ll somehow magically awaken from and everything will be OK and I won’t be stuck in this desert with these people and this stupid song and I’ll be able to go back to bed, turn off the lights, hide under my comforter and sleep for as long as I want and never have to talk to another person again.’ I wanted more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life for what was happening in that very moment to disappear and for my life to go back to the misery that it had been in Cambridge, which suddenly felt more appealing to me than being surrounded by happy, hopeful people who embraced the morning, singing old jazz tunes and ready to face the day, a much-too-big smile plastered on their faces.
Would I have to pretend to be happy like the rest of them? Would anyone ever even come close to understanding how totally insane and miserable and hopeless I was, and if they did, what would they think of me? What would people say if they discovered I had bipolar disorder, and that until the day before I was on a cocktail of mood disorder medications? With my mind on fire, I rolled up my sleeping bag, which I was sure would be my one and only true friend in the months to come, and stuffed it in my pack. I then went about with my assigned chores, in a daze, half-conscious and still feeling as though I was trapped in some horrible parallel universe.
As the days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, we canoed the Rio Grande, hiked and rock-climbed through Big Bend, trail-blazed in Copper Canyon, and even lived on the farm of an indigenous Tarahuamaran family, learning to make real corn tortillas and waking up fifty feet away from a two thousand foot drop to the canyons below. We drove across the country to camp in the melting Minnesotan winter in Superior National Forest and to canoe and portage the one hundred and fifty or so miles along the boundary waters from Ely to the Grand Portage. We showered three times in three months, grew to treasure Tabasco and anchovies like they were gold, and talked more about bowel movements than anyone thought humanly possible.
Despite these powerful experiences and intimacies with the other group members, I still felt empty and alone. These feelings prevented me from growing and evolving into a person more integrated and whole. No matter how much I felt myself relating to the eating disorder struggles of Stream, or of my late night conversations about the meaning of life with Wind, I was constantly fighting, constantly trying, constantly struggling to make it through to the next day, the next hour, the next minute. I had no calm, no pause from my profound depression and self-loathing.
Throughout this time, the withdrawal I was experiencing from my medications left my body was angry and raging, constantly agitated, tense, and restless. I found myself exhausted from the insomnia, yet fidgety all the time. My mind was fidgety too, leaping from one thought to the next without order or rationality, and it became routine for me to fantasize about ways to escape life on earth. At night, when the fantasies would circulate through my head as I lay there in the darkness for hours on end, it didn’t matter that I was tucked in between the warm bodies of my fellow group members. I was utterly alone, completely disconnected from my group and the rest of humanity, from any sort of inner peace, from even an ounce of a quieted mind. I was psychologically exhausted, and as the weeks turned into months and I wasn’t getting well, I stopped trying to push through the desperation and let myself start to slowly sink into the muck and the mire. There really was no hope for me, I was sure of it.
This last ditch attempt to save myself and to fix my life had failed and in no time I’d be back to my life in Connecticut and eventually at Harvard and it would be the same all over again. Just how, on earth, would I do it? How could I find the strength to continue? I was tapped out, drained, and empty of fight. I was ready to curl up and find eternal sleep. With three months having come and gone with things progressively getting worse, it felt like I was coming closer and closer to my last day on earth.
With these thoughts in mind, I left ‘Badger’ behind in Minnesota at the end of the trip and deboarded the plane in New York in the beginning of May and became the same old ‘Laura’ once again. The day I was dreading had finally come as I knew I was to face my parents, who were surely expecting to see a new and hopeful daughter get off the plane, only to present them with a ‘me’ that was more broken, mentally and physically exhausted, and ready to give up the fight than I was before I’d left. I couldn’t help but feel like the biggest failure on earth, that I was destroying my family’s equilibrium and that if I continued on in this manner I would eventually break my family apart. At the same time, I was flooded with anger—at myself, but at everyone else in my life, too. Why did no one understand me? Why did people just believe I could snap out of this and get things together and be OK? Why wasn’t anything changing for the better? Why didn’t Outward Bound fix me? Why was I continuing to get worse?
The rest of that summer in Connecticut after the trip was a blur. Two days before I was set to return to Harvard, as I was looking at my closet and wondering how I could possibly muster the strength to pack my belongings up and organize myself once again for the school year, it hit me that if I went back to Harvard I might never come home again. Although I had no desire to live anymore, I didn’t want to die. The next day, with my mother at my side, I voluntarily checked myself in to my first psychiatric hospital in Westchester County, New York. I was no longer Badger, or Laura, for that matter. I had picked up a new and more insidious identity. I was now an inpatient.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
This is truly fascinating that you had this experience so many idealize as being the potential cure to their problems and it not working- I would be so interested to hear more details of these months. Perhaps in your memoir?