by Nancy King
For 80 years, I felt terrible about myself. I was never able to break this self-lacerating cycle even with years of therapy, bodywork, talking to myself, meditating, hiking up steep mountains, eating gallons of ice cream . . . But in the last few weeks, despite a lot of life’s ups and downs, I haven’t descended into the negative spiral of feeling not good enough, not even once. Rather extraordinary, especially since it took me eight decades to find a way to do this. And for those of you who are afflicted with a lack of self-love, or are just plain curious, here’s what happened.
In August 2015, I spoke to a woman who had just come back from leading her 30th vision quest. I had a vague notion of a vision quest being something in the wilderness where, after a number of days alone, something startling or life changing could happen. In a total surprise to her and to me, I blurted out that I would like to do a vision quest to celebrate my 80th birthday. She laughed at the spontaneity of my request and said we’d start counseling in January of 2016 and then she would determine if I was a candidate.
I guess I passed muster because I was told that I could book my flight to Burlington, Vermont, the closest airport to the retreat center in southeastern Canada. I was officially signed on for the vision quest to coincide with my 80th birthday. And what an extraordinary birthday present it turned out to be. The ten days of the vision quest included two days at a retreat center with one male and six other women, plus three leaders who carefully prepared us for our time in the wilderness. We would each be alone for four days and four nights, fasting, with no watches, computers or cellphones. At sunrise, the morning of the fifth day, we would return to the retreat center and spend four days processing what we had experienced.
Other people may have found that information daunting, but for me, despite my wonders as to what I would do during the four days and four nights by myself, it seemed doable. I live alone. I’m used to being alone. I’m used to disconnecting from email, social media, radio, television, and telephones. But, in one respect I was different from the other vision questers. The leader would not allow me to go without eating because of low blood sugar problems. She insisted that I had to eat, that it was non-negotiable. Each morning I was to walk up to the trailhead where a cooler of food awaited me, place a stone where the cooler had been, and then return to my site. Each evening I was to bring back the empty cooler and place another stone to signal all was well.
What I dreaded was the preparation and debriefing time in the retreat center. I’m not used to spending six days from morning till night with a group of ten people. If you feel terrible about yourself you are always walking on eggshells. You can’t ever relax and be yourself because you don’t like your self. This inner tension translates to always being on high alert—watching, censoring, considering what to say, thinking about how to react.
Perhaps you can imagine how startled I was when I felt part of the group, instead of apart from it. I didn’t feel the need to tiptoe on eggshells. I never once felt the need to pretend—saying or doing something just to please another person. Surprisingly, I never once took refuge in my single room to recoup or reassure myself that I could keep going because I never, not even once, felt apart from the others. In 80 years of living this was the first time I had ever experienced such an unselfconscious, joyful way of being.
What happened during our alone time in the wilderness and the processing afterward are considered medicine, not to be diluted by talking about them, and I respect this. But, I can say that for me, the entire before and after experience was an oasis of kindness, compassion, caring, and intense listening, the likes of which I have never known or felt.
So how did this stop my lifelong habit of feeling bad about myself? For the six days we were at the retreat center, people treated me as a person of value. I felt held by their caring, by the way they listened so deeply, with no judgment, no comment, no rush to fix, which enabled me, for the first time, to speak truthfully about painful matters with no censoring, no worrying if I was too much, or if what I was saying was too shameful to reveal. Instead, after I finished speaking, there was silence. People wiped away tears. Their eyes, focused on me, felt compassionate and supportive. Afterwards, members of the group came up to me, offered hugs and told me how moved they were by my courage to speak as I did, and said that my story gave them something they couldn’t define in words and yet it felt powerful to them.
Although I was at least 15 years older than the next oldest person and 49 years older than the youngest, neither age nor gender seem to matter. What did matter to me was that even though the others knew I had to eat during the time they fasted for the four days and four nights, I thought this would make people feel my vision quest wasn’t the real thing. When I finally voiced my concern everyone shook their heads. One person spoke for the group. “You did the work. That’s the only thing that matters.” Another added, “I’m glad you were willing to eat so you could come. I needed to hear what you had to say.”
I, who haven’t cried since I was 16—64 years—sobbed uncontrollably, caught between embarrassment and amazement. Except to hand me tissues, no one tried to soothe me with words or hugs. No one ran away from me. What they did was to hold me in their hearts as they witnessed my flowing tears. After the tears ebbed, I began to laugh. I don’t know why or where the laughter came from, but soon we were laughing and hugging each other in pairs and fours and, awkwardly enough, as a group.
Suddenly, I was hungry. A deeply powerful physical hunger I couldn’t remember feeling. “I’m hungry,” I declared, no longer worrying about saying something wrong.
“Good thing,” said one of the women, “because it’s snack time.” We flew down the stairs and made our way to tea and coffee and cookies and bread and jam and cheese and nuts and dried fruits. In the midst of it all people told me how powerful it had been for them to hear me. How grateful they were that I had had the courage to speak. Grateful? Courageous? Loved? Accepted? Seen for who I really am: imperfections, stories, baggage, fears, self-doubts and all?
It took time for their words and actions and affection to sink in, to reach the place where my negative voices lived. It’s taken time for me to process my experience of those six days of being with ten people from breakfast till bedtime. Six days of compassion and caring and kindness and deep listening. It was possible that if they liked me, I could like myself.
As I flew home, I wondered: what if all of us could live like this all the time?
Nancy King’s newest novel, Opening Gates has just been published. On her website, www.nancykingstories.com you can read excerpts of all her novels and learn about her books of nonfiction that focus on the power of stories, imagination, and creativity. She lives in Santa Fe where she writes, weaves, and spends time in the mountains. She leads workshops in creative writing, memoir, exploring imagination, the healing power of stories, and discovering our inner stories, in the US and abroad. For further information please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photography by Jane Ely