In Summer of 2017, I was a guide for alumni young adult student, Reilly, in team Durga. Because Reilly and I worked closely throughout her stay, I was excited when she reached out offering to share her story. Reilly, who was eighteen at the time, is now a 21-year-old psychology student at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. In this interview, Reilly and I discuss the lessons she carries from her time at Open Sky and what her life is like now.
A: A compilation of difficult events in high school is what ultimately led me to Open Sky. I was struggling day-to-day, which was largely a product of an abusive relationship I was in. My boyfriend at the time was physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive. This resulted in going to a treatment center for about five weeks during my senior year of high school. The center was not a supportive environment and in turn, further exacerbated my anxiety. This experience resulted in an aversion to treatment all together. I was about to turn eighteen and knew I could start to make my own decisions.
One of those decisions was to move into an apartment with three of my friends when I graduated from high school. This quickly turned into a toxic environment. My roommates were constantly fighting—one of whom, I was dating at the time. He was struggling with addiction, which was painful to watch. This experience resulted in additional personal struggles.
I hit my rock bottom in March of 2017. I landed in the hospital for two weeks because of intense stress and pancreatitis. I remember sitting in the hospital realizing that I was finally ready to get the support I needed. I was done living from a place of fear and anxiety. Although I wanted to go to a residential program close to home, that program informed me that I had to attend a wilderness therapy program first. I worked with an educational consultant who offered three different options for wilderness programs.
I discussed these options with my consultant, did extensive online research, and called all three programs. When I called Open Sky, it became evident that it offered the challenge, support, and structure I needed. I also trusted that being in Colorado and connecting more to nature would be powerful. I am so glad I made the decision to come to Open Sky.
A: My experience in wilderness was full of growth, transformation, and healing. Prior to Open Sky, I was reliant on my parents and co-dependent in my relationships. By the end of the program I became more independent and autonomous. I shifted from a regular state of anxiety and powerlessness to feelings of empowerment and control over my life and what I decide to do with it.
The most powerful aspect of wilderness therapy was the ability to get in touch with my spirituality, which was previously unfamiliar to me. The emphasis on mindfulness alongside the daily practice of meditation, yoga, and coping skills offered me a gateway to profound connection. Prior to wilderness, I relied heavily on technology and other distractions to avoid any emotional or spiritual work. At Open Sky, these distractions were removed, and I had the opportunity to connect with the subtleties of nature and the metaphors within it. In turn, I was able to connect with myself on the deepest level I had ever known.
My guides and teammates were also powerful in supporting my growth. I was in team Durga, which felt like family— as though I had an eclectic bunch of new siblings. The team was emotionally safe, with a culture comprised of open dialogue, trust, and support for one another. It was extremely helpful to hear the experiences of others, relate on a personal level, and grow alongside one another. Honest feedback was a huge piece of the culture, which proved invaluable in my growth and healing.
Team Durga provided the opportunity for me to become a leader. About seven or eight weeks into my stay, I became a mentor for a new student. I remember meeting my mentee and being so excited about introducing them to the program. Watching this person grow in their well-being and relationships was so fulfilling. Up until this point, I had never been a leader in anything. This experience was very healing and empowering for me— to recognize my ability to teach someone in such a positive way.
I remember one night close to the end of my stay when my group did a night hike—we climbed a mountain underneath the full moon. Each of us were instructed to walk five feet apart from one other in silence, letting the light of the full moon guide us. During this hike, I was able to reflect on how far I had come during my time at Open Sky and felt a huge sense of pride, power, and accomplishment in my personal growth. For the first time in years I felt beautiful. I truly loved myself. I felt hopeful about my future. I was the most present I had been in a very long time. I still carry the power of this experience with me today.
A: My communication skills are much better. When I got to Open Sky, I often felt like I was powerless over the way I expressed my emotions because I had so much bottled up. Today I can communicate from a more grounded place and advocate for myself before feelings get overwhelming. I also know how to establish clear and firm boundaries.
The communication skills I learned have enhanced my relationships tremendously. I learned that it’s valuable to give warranted feedback and now know how to do so effectively. It’s about caring enough about yourself and the other person to share your feelings. Prior to Open Sky I was terrified to share my feelings, and as a result, I was passive. Now feedback and direct communication are engrained in the way I operate and maintain connection.
The mindfulness and coping skills I previously mentioned have also been extremely useful. I still maintain a practice of daily meditation, which helps me sleep at night. Also, when I am feeling particularly anxious, I carry around a piece of string and tie the knots I learned while at Open Sky. Doing this with my hands relieves a lot of my anxiety.
The tools and skills I learned while at Open Sky have become a regular part of my life. As a result, my relationships at home are healthier and I feel much happier in my social life. I now have an abundance of self-love, happiness, and confidence. I feel empowered to do the things I need to do to care for myself and to go after what I want in life.
A: I would let them know that it is very normal to be nervous, especially in the first few weeks. Your child going to Open Sky is a huge transition, not only for them, but also for you. Both you and your child need to take the time to offer yourself grace while adjusting to these new circumstances. Everyone involved in the process needs to take the time to care for themselves, while actively participating in the family work Open Sky offers.
In my own experience, my family has spoken very highly of the support Open Sky is able to offer parents and family members. My parents still occasionally participate in the Monday night phone calls. Having access to these resources and this level of support has really helped them throughout this process. My therapist, Mariah, also did an incredible job in supporting my family. I would tell parents to use the abundance of resources available, such as, Wellness Weekend, weekly phone calls, the Family QuestTM experience, the Family Pathway, and more— this is a journey for parents too.
A: After graduating from Open Sky, I went to a residential program in Texas. This was a big transition because I went from a small tight-knit community at Open Sky to a much larger community in Texas. Initially, I was nervous about meeting new people and how different the dynamic would be from wilderness. However, there happened to be other Open Sky alumni in the program, which helped me feel connected and understood. I was there for about ten months.
Once I graduated, I moved back to my hometown briefly and had a few weeks with family before I started my summer term at Southern Oregon University. Since then, I have been attending school, completing my general education requirements, and working toward a degree in psychology. I have had a boyfriend for a year and a half, which has been a healthy and supportive area of my life, providing me with a lot of happiness. He and I moved to Eugene, Oregon this summer because I am transferring to the University of Oregon, where I will have two more years of school. I am hoping to get a job in Eugene in the psychology field, or work part time in retail again while taking classes.
I chose to study psychology because of my own journey with mental health and exposure to so many people’s life stories. I want to give back to people who are struggling and it helps that I can relate through my own experiences. I aim to get my doctorate and become a therapist for children, adolescents, and young adults—particularly women who have experienced sexual trauma and recovering addicts. I just want to give back as much as I can.