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The Fire Within: How Open Sky Helped Madeleine Find her Spark

Open Sky Alumni Student

After years of experiencing mental health challenges, Open Sky alum Madeleine had given up hope on living a fulfilling life. Now, she’s the happiest and healthiest she’s ever been. In this testimonial, she shares her Open Sky story and how wilderness therapy helped her find confidence, connection, and purpose.

What were some of the challenges you were experiencing that brought you to Open Sky?

I’ve struggled with mental health issues my whole life. When I was in high school, I was in therapy multiple times a week and taking many medications. I had horrible self- and body-image issues and a complete loss of identity. I wasn’t sure what things I liked to fit in or what aspects of my personality were things that I had developed myself. I was also having severe mood swings. I just hated everything about life.  

Then I went to college in New York City for about a month and a half. Despite having nice roommates, I very quickly lost all motivation. I wasn’t eating. I was sleeping all day. I was taking my meds early to avoid being awake. I was more depressed than I’ve been in my entire life and feeling suicidal. Past trauma I had been compartmentalizing was coming up, and I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. 

I told my mom I was unsafe and needed to come home to go to a hospital or something. I didn’t even know wilderness was an option. Then my mom told me she had found a place for me in Colorado and Utah and that we were going to leave in early November. I had been diagnosed with ADHD, severe generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and an eating disorder. Those things were swallowing my life. Now, that all feels so far away from me.  

How did the field guides, therapist, and other members of the Open Sky team impact your experience?

I could talk about this forever! I never thought I could have a male therapist, but Chris Blankenship is one of the best men to walk this earth. All the therapists are amazing. From the therapists to the guides to the leadership team, I have never met a more authentic collective of individuals. They are all so thorough in keeping the students safe while helping us explore outside our comfort zones.  

I only have amazing things to say about the guides I worked with; it was clear that they were also willing to do the work. The students are there to get treatment, and the guides are there to support them along the way, but the relationship doesn’t feel hierarchical. It’s this ecosystem of individuals who just want to help each other. The collaboration that happens between students and guides is amazing and I think part of what makes Open Sky so effective. 

The psychiatric evaluation I took at Open Sky also provided me with a diagnosis that was the key missing piece when it came to the more medical aspect of my treatment. Through the help of my therapist and Dr. B, we were able to alter my course of treatment based on this missing diagnosis. Without the Open Sky team, I likely would still be trying to navigate the world therapeutically in the wrong way. Open Sky is dedicated to making sure their students leave with a thorough understanding of their struggles and a strong set of coping skills that cater to their specific diagnosis, rather than using the same approach for every student. 

What was your experience in the team like?

There’s a culture in every team, and I felt like I was placed in the perfect one. As soon as I finished Gateway, everyone in Team Eagle was so excited to talk to me. For someone who had been feeling isolated and starved for emotional connection the months prior, it was nice to have a bunch of people ask me things like where I’m from and what I like to do. It grounded me in the situation. If a person arrives in wilderness and they’re not into it at first—maybe they’re feeling resentful or angry or numb—the team helps them find their footing. I connected with a lot of people who I would otherwise not have ever met or interacted with beyond a surface-level friendship. I’ve kept in close contact with about three or four people from my team and lived with one in Bend, Oregon for a year. Two of my other friends from wilderness went to Oregon for aftercare. After they finished, we would have reunions, and a few months ago, one of my friends even invited me over to bow drill in his garage! 

What was one of the highlights of your time at Open Sky?

Bow drilling! I remember getting the tiniest bit of smoke when I first tried and it and thinking, “Wow, this is so doable.” And then it took me eight weeks to make fire. Bow drilling was the most challenging thing I came across in wilderness, both physically and emotionally. I could not for the life of me understand what the importance of it was. When I finally got it, though, that was the moment I knew my life had changed. I stood up and started jumping up and down. It was the first time in years that I said—and believed—all these really nice things about myself. I had never felt pride like that before. Now, every time I have something difficult to do, I think back to that moment of bow drilling. It was one of the most crucial parts of my time at Open Sky. I still have my fireboard and my top rock on my dresser! 

How was your family involved in the process?

Open Sky does a great job of encouraging parents to put in the work along the students. My mom especially took time to read books my therapist recommended, attend the Monday night calls, and receive support and information from other parents. She also started to incorporate “I feel” statements into her everyday conversations with my sister and dad. When she told me that at Family Quest, I was like, “You go, Mom! Use those healthy communication skills!”  

Family Quest was an amazing opportunity, and it helped my family see everything I was doing. We were given the space to be present with one another and communicate clearly. We had our filters taken away and everyone got to speak from the heart. Then there was graduation, where the work my family did at home and the work I did in the field came together. When families arrive and sit around the fire, they get to meet and connect with all these other people going through a similar experience, I think it solidifies that, “Wow, my child did this.” You could feel the energy of the parents. They were grateful. They were listening. They were excited to be there.  

I think the family piece really sets Open Sky apart. The focus isn’t on making your family look or feel perfect. The focus is on making sure that everyone feels heard, and the healing comes from there.  

Do you still use the skills you learned at Open Sky? How do you integrate them into your life each day?

My whole life, I’ve been given all sorts of coping skills, and three-fold breathing has been the most powerful and the simplest. It’s so simple that when it was first taught to me, I thought there was literally no way it would be effective. Then I started taking it seriously and discovered that wow, this works. I have a deep fear of the unknown, and when things feel like they’re going to go away—even though I don’t have control over that—it’s stressful. The breathing really helps. Instead of focusing on what I can’t control, the focus instead becomes, how do I cope? How do I emotionally regulate so that I can go about the rest of my day? Three-fold breathing is something I’ve 100% folded into my life. It comes naturally to me now. 

Focusing on being intentional with my words and actions has also stuck with me. When having serious conversations with other people, I use the conflict resolution skills I learned at Open Sky. When I am telling someone how I feel and I’m looking to hear how they feel, I find myself slipping into that wilderness format where I try to give as objective a perspective of the situation as possible.  

Hiking and being outside are also things that help me. There are just so many things you learn at Open Sky. Some of it you kind of leave in wilderness. Other pieces you intentionally take with you. And then there are other things still that live quietly on your shoulder, until one day, you call upon them. I still have my Student Pathway with me for that reason. 

What has your life been like since graduating?

If you had looked me in the eyes before treatment and told me that I would be living on my own in an apartment, back in school and able to work, I would not have believed you. This is a life I never saw for me. I used to be this person who, on some days, felt like being out in the world was a punishment to other people who had to see or talk to or look at me. I thought I was going to be miserable forever and that no amount of therapy or education was ever going to change that. 

Now, I am the happiest and healthiest I have ever been. I am a fully functioning adult. I go to the grocery store once a week. I wash my own clothes. I clean my apartment. I do my own dishes. I go out, and I’m excited to meet people. My life is a triumph. I wish every single day I could tell all the different versions of myself, “It’s going to be OK. You’re going to have to work for it, but it’s going to be OK.” 

I’d be lying if I said I felt great every day, but I’m so proud of myself. When I start to feel in a funk, I remind myself, “You made all of this happen.” I’ve found my purpose again. I’ve found healthy connection again. I’ve finally let myself believe good things about myself. And I think almost all my recovery process came from the work I put in at Open Sky. 

What would you say to a new student at Open Sky?

Trust the process.  

Things might feel overwhelming at first, especially if you’re someone who feels like you need to be in control of everything. The beauty of wilderness is that you don’t have to control everything. When I finally got to the point where I could sit back and trust the process, that’s when everything fell into place.  

Feel your emotions. 

If you’re angry, be angry. If you’re sad, be sad. Feel all the things you need to. A lot of people show up internalizing everything and keeping their thoughts close to themselves. My advice—and I wish I could have told myself this—is be loud. Be bold. Feel your feelings.  

Participate as much as you can. 

Be willing to try things. Participate in everything that’s offered to you, even if some of it seems silly. There’s nothing that’s been put into place at Open Sky that hasn’t been thought out or doesn’t result in some sort of life lesson. Wilderness is a place to explore yourself. There’s no better time than now to put in the work.  

Rely on your team.  

Don’t be afraid to lean on your team for support, not just your guides and therapist but the other students too. They’re going through the same thing you are, and you can learn a lot of valuable lessons from them. Listen to what they have to say. The feedback can be difficult to hear sometimes, but it’s important.  

Have fun! 

Yes, it’s treatment, but a lot of it can be fun. You’re separated from every other aspect of the world. Now is the time to do what you need to do to get better. Give yourself the ability to take up space and enjoy things. 

May 5th, 2022

Open Sky Alumni Student