I grew up in the Garden of Eden, I didn't care what happened outside its walls, and I never wanted anything to change.
When I reached middle school, it changed. My parents separated, my mother graduated and went to Florida to be a scientist. My friends announced their new allegiance to adolescent pursuits, and my body in betrayal followed suit. The neighborhood started to gentrify, developers creeping down the familiar streets like giant insects, transforming familiar backyards into construction sites. Caving was lost to me, failing as I was to gain enough traction to escape the gravity of my constricting life. As the walls of my Garden came down, I saw dark secrets crawling inside the cracks, and when the dust settled I found myself standing in a world that belonged to them, not to me. It was the real world: big, angry, lonely, and nary a tree I recognized.
I wanted none of it. I stopped my life dead in its tracks and refused to leave my Garden.
For six years, I hunkered down waiting for rescue. About halfway through that lonely time, I was standing at the sink of my now-demolished home, washing the dishes, when it struck me for the first time that no rescue was coming. Everyone lived in that world now. My Garden was no longer real - and as long as I stayed there, neither was I. I shoved away that revelation and went to college, thinking that there, maybe the world hadn't gone mad. But it had, so I soon left college, running away with a similarly disillusioned friend. We set out in defiance to create a world that wasn't mad. Faced with our rapid and inevitable failure, my friend threw in the towel and I was left completely alone in a life more empty than anything I could have imagined. Once again, I was standing at a sink when the truth hit. This time I was brushing my teeth, and when I tried to push it away, all the voices in my head - the ones who strive and the ones who doubt, the ones who wonder and the ones who argue - they all just started screaming. Screaming and screaming and screaming. I put my toothbrush away very slowly, opened the bathroom door, and walked out of my Garden forever.
I walked into a wasteland.
Everything I saw was warped and strange; everything I touched was painful. I had lost six critical years in the real world, I was disoriented and disgusted, and I behaved like an alien. Worse; the pain and sadness, the horror and emptiness that I had hidden from for so long were now laid out bare in front of me, holding my heart down like a vice and scattering my mind to the winds. But I was lucky - I hadn't wandered long before I found a forest.
It was the Rogue River Valley, in Oregon, and I was there because my name on a Youth Corps enrollment list was the only direction I had left. But after four weeks shivering in a flimsy, dew-soaked sleeping bag, I crawled out of my tent one morning and saw something I recognized. It was dirt, dirt so bright it almost blinded me. Climbing out of the dirt was a solid shaft of dawn sunlight, glinting pale and strong through lacy limbs of westcedar. It made a hazy curtain, beyond which the dirt turned dull and blue, sloping down into a wide valley coolly boiling with mountain mist. To the right was a dirty white van; to the left was a picnic table where two girls, neither of which had touched crystal meth for three weeks, huddled next to a propane stove. The morning was cold enough that I could see their breath join the columns of steam climbing out of their cups of coffee. One of them said something and they both laughed; the sound echoed quietly down into the morning and startled a turkey vulture into flight. When I reached out and touched that little pool of sunlight warming the forest loam just outside my tent, for the first time in seven years the touch brought my mind no pain.
I hid out in the forest for as long as I could, then I wrapped it around myself and slogged back into life. It was slow, bitter, awkward work, building myself from scratch with no blueprint and no idea what to trust. Emotions took me like rogue weather, my mind exploded with groundless inspiration then sat dull and sullen, energy spilled over and was lost. But I finished school, and I met a man, and by the end of all of that I could see something like a pathway home peeking out at me over the horizon.
And then the universe hit me with the second shock of my destiny. She was 7 pounds, 6 ounces, with big dark eyes. We named her "Neeka".
The intensity of her existence hit me like a douse of cold water. Still so shaky on my feet and far from my center, how could I teach peace and wholeness to a child? In a panic, I carried her to the safest and wisest place I knew: the forest. But back in the now-formidable suburbs, I had a hell of a time getting there. I had to dig for it, scrape for it, push through parked cars and power line repairmen. By the time I got there, I was exhausted, lonely, and frustrated. I also felt exposed, sitting with my daughter in the one strip of trees between the concrete bike path and the asphalt road. Why was this so hard? Where was the cozy village, and where was the comforting wild? I asked everyone, over and over, no longer caring how strange I sounded. They returned blank stares, until finally somebody handed me a book.
The book was called, "Last Child in the Woods." It pointed me to a single word: ecopsychology. I followed that word down a path that stayed steady for me where no other path had. I followed it to a quirky Buddhist graduate school in Boulder Colorado. I followed it through the deserts of Utah and California where I sat with no food and watched the stars spin through the sky. I followed it with powerful joy back to the caves of West Virginia, where I found my soul waiting, right where I had left it. I followed it, finally, back to myself. And when I arrived, after so many lost years, my center finally clicked into place and I looked around me and cried with happiness to find that the whole world was now my Garden.
For most of the time that I spent lost, I had studied conventional western philosophy and psychology. They fascinated me, together presenting so many intelligent insights about human existence. I kept hoping they could help me. But ultimately, they gave me a kaleidoscope of brilliant truths that I could not follow to wholeness. Philosophy offered me various "isms", each of which captured my mind but cut me off further from my body. Psychology offered me all sorts of diagnoses and medications and procedures: Major Depressive Episode, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Dysthymia.... None of them led me to myself.
The techniques I learned in my "ecopsychology" education succeeded where the others failed because they contained wisdom that ran a lot deeper than the intellect. Now, in sharing those techniques, I don't want to assert that they replace clinical diagnoses, medication, or philosophical exploration. Nor do they replace religion, culture, or personal spirituality. Achieving real mental health, and maintaining it through all the world has to throw at you, is a lifelong and rocky road, and you need all the tools you can collect. I offer these techniques as something to add to the tool box, something that really worked for me. For you, it may be the answer, it may be a way to get everything integrated, or it may simply be an idea to tuck away and pull out again whenever you hit a bump in the road on the path that leads you home.