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Where are they now? Alumni Student Nicole Embraces Her Inner Strength

Open Sky Alumni Student

Testimonial contributed by Alumni Student Nicole D. (2018, Team Firefly – Adolescent Girls)


The Challenges Leading Me to Open Sky

I was sent to Open Sky at age seventeen for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and acute alcoholism. I had attempted to take my life three times over the course of two years. I was bullied in high school, suffered from extreme social anxiety and depression, and had trauma from a bad car accident that took place in 2017. I had low self-esteem and confidence. I couldn’t speak up for myself. I had no real friends at the time.

My parents were lost; they didn’t know how to help me. Even they couldn’t handle my erratic behavior and severe mood swings. It crushed them to see me suffering. I hated every inch of myself and wanted to disappear. They decided to send me to Open Sky instead of an adolescent treatment center. All I knew is that for several weeks, I would be escaping the hell of high school, the distraction of my phone, and the chaotic, noisy world that surrounded me. In November 2017, I was dropped off by my parents at Open Sky in Durango, Colorado. Little did I know I was about to embark on a very challenging, yet completely rewarding journey.

I loathed making C-packs and eating tortillas and cheese (the holy grail of food in the wilderness). I wanted to talk to my parents and make sure I was leaving soon. I was in denial about the duration of my stay.

Nicole (Open Sky alumni student) during her time in wilderness.

Acceptance and Growth

At the beginning of my time at Open Sky, I was scared and shy. I was the quiet one of my group and I felt left out. I was in a group of five other teenage girls. Because of the bullying and social-anxiety I dealt with in school, this was my biggest fear at the time. I didn’t know how to be vulnerable with girls my age, even if we were all in wilderness to support and heal with each other. I was also in denial about the duration of my stay, always trying to convince my parents to send me home sooner. Slowly, I began to accept I was going to be living outside for a while. I knew I needed to start making an effort by contributing to the team and practicing skills like bow drilling.

Soon, I adapted to Open Sky life. I looked forward to my sessions with my therapist and Community Meditation with Norman. Sage and tree sap became my favorite smells. Fire became my favorite element. I anticipated leaving base camp on expo each week with excitement rather than dread. I became closer to my group, Firefly, and slowly started opening up, freeing myself from judgment and fear. I became fond of meditating in the silent melody of the forest.

I began to feel like wilderness was a second home with a family full of sisters. However, there were still difficult challenges I had to face. EMDR therapy could be challenging and emotionally draining. Hiking up and down mountains tested my resilience. The emotions that my peers and I experienced could be overwhelming at times. Being away from the comfort of home and family would weigh on me. Patience and perseverance became the greatest tests of my spirit.

Memories from Wilderness

The challenges only made the good memories better and my self-esteem stronger…

I remember one of the field medics came to do our two-week checkups one night and he brought his iPod and a speaker. We all took turns playing a song and danced and sang along. The fire illuminated our faces, and everyone was completely present.

One time during a long hike, as I walked in silence just listening to the hum of my team talking, I looked up from watching my footing and saw the most beautiful sunset. I saw the silhouette of two of the girls on my team and desert hills. The moon floated right above us in the descending deep blue night sky.

I recall all of the wonderful starry nights and locating the constellations.

On my eighteenth birthday, a guide woke me up and read a poem about finding your light. I then shouted affirmations off the top of a mountain.

On Thanksgiving we had a feast, painted, journaled, and went to the Open Sky talent show. Christmas Day was spent eating brownies and bacon in a tipi with stockings and lights adorning the walls. We celebrated New Year’s Eve by drinking hot chocolate, sprinkling colors into the campfire, and releasing resolutions on lanterns into the night sky.

Nicole (an Open Sky alumni student) and her mom during Family Quest.

My all-time favorite memory was Christmas Day of 2017. My family was arriving to spend the holiday with me for Family Quest. After the celebrations in the morning, I packed up my backpack and then followed Brenna, one of my guides, on the winding path leading out of the Firefly camp. I was extremely excited to see my parents after nine weeks apart—nine weeks of growth, nine weeks of living in the wilderness, and nine weeks flooded by emotions of all kinds. We slowly rounded a bend of the trail and my parents were standing with their backs faced towards me. The Family Quest guide instructed me to put my pack down while my parents took a deep breath to prepare for our reunion. The guide said, “Now, here is your daughter Nikkei.” They turned to face me, and I immediately broke down in tears; the amount of love for my parents in that moment was infinite. Even now, there is still a great amount of tenderness in that memory.

Three weeks following Family Quest, I graduated Open Sky. I said goodbye to my therapist, who was also a mentor and a friend that I will always respect and remember. I said goodbye to the guides that listened to my struggles and provided much support. I ate my last “cheesy tort” and participated in my last meditation with Norman.

Life Today

Fast forward to now, January 17th, 2020, exactly two years since graduating Open Sky. I graduated high school, studied in Paris for the summer, and took a gap year in Italy where I studied art. I am now 20 years old and a freshman at The New School. I don’t know what field I’m really passionate about yet, and that’s perfectly fine with me. I currently live in the fabulous New York City and adore it. I love foreign cinema (especially neo-realist films), being a superfan of Patti Smith, reading, writing, and learning new ways to better myself as a human.

Open Sky Alumni Student Nicole

Nicole - Open Sky alumni student - continues to practice yoga in her daily life.Today, I have dealt with new traumas, challenges, and I still occasionally struggle with my mental health. But now, I have the skills to cope well and effectively. I know I cannot change my past and can only move forward. I have taken the practices of meditation and yoga with me which allow me to be more grounded, reflective, and aware in my day-to-day life. I now embrace my introverted personality and sensitivity. I learned through wilderness that vulnerability is the greatest courage of all. I really believe I would not be here on this earth without Open Sky. I am eternally grateful for all of the staff and my team, Firefly, for giving me so many precious memories and teaching me how strong I really am. Thank you, Open Sky.

February 19th, 2020

Open Sky Alumni Student