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Anyone who knows me knows, too, that aside from my parents’ apartments in the Connecticut suburbs, I call a few acres in the middle of the lush woods of Vesuvius, Virginia, home. In a similar manner, I call the mental hospital I’ve spent the most time at my home, too.
I was inspired to make this connection upon learning of a documentary that features my favorite counselor from that Vesuvian haven, called Nature Camp. In the early 1940’s, Lillian Schilling of the Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs started the camp as a way to spread knowledge about the environment and conservation to the youth of the area. It is a true elysium, and for years, Gus Deeds called it home.
I don’t consider it my place to do anything but alert you to the documentary, called A Dangerous Son (watch on HBO), that features the Deeds family. I remember Gus as a jolly musician and keen environmentalist, always out on the fields with the campers and often flitting about the basketball court, a medieval, rocky, perilous thing that he and I frequented. For my sister and I, he made up the “Epley song,” a silly tune that delighted us both. He passed by suicide in 2013 and while the documentary will give you a good idea why and how, I also want you to be aware of the Gus Deeds Memorial Pavilion that occupies adored space on the camp’s grounds.
These two homes of mine- my hospital and my camp- aren’t so dissimilar. They both changed my life for the far better.
I went for a slew of summers in my formative teen years. Fresh out of a year at Camp Allegheny, a girls’ camp at which I excelled at riflery (I know, this is the least “Olivia” fact you’ve ever heard, though perhaps the most, in a way?), getting to the Cheerios before everyone else, and little else. I detested my time there, no offense intended to the camp, and was wary of another sleep away experience.
They often tell you that the first night is the hardest. It was hard at both Nature Camp and my hospital. At Nature Camp, I was a child away from home for one of the first times in my life, and I hadn’t yet made any friends. I didn’t have any noise machine but the croaking of crickets, and I clutched tearily onto my Green Bunny stuffed animal.
On my first night at my hospital, I was hours out of an overnight stay at my local general hospital’s ICU. I was terrified, alone, and string-less (they cut my sweatshirt strings and had me remove the laces from my adored L.L. Bean moccasins). I was covered in goop from EKG stickers from both my general hospital and again, at my mental hospital. I didn’t yet have a roommate, so I was left to my thoughts as all concept of suicidality was put on hold. Maybe they’ll have a fix for this all, after all?
In the morning, things looked up, at both locations. I picked my class- Ornithology- and started talking up some girls from my side of the ladies’ cabin. In hospital, I slinked out of my room wearing sweatpants and a yawn that were tucked meekly into themselves. Aside from giving blood and urine, and another EKG test to monitor my still fragile heart, I was quite comfortable. There was something about being in that dramatically new environment that forced me to mindlessly adapt.
At Camp, I made fast friends with the counselors and campers. A self described air conditioning aficionado at the time, I picked the class that I thought would acquaint me with the maximum amount of indoor time and the minimum amount of reptilian acquaintances. Neither of those wishes came true. We went on long, beautiful bird walks with fancy binoculars and a counselor who seemed to know every single, possible bird call that there is. The next year, I did Astronomy, which was slightly more indoors but equally as challenging. I was hot, confused and sweaty, but the kids around me were too.
In the hospital, every time I’ve been there, I’ve been immediately forced into uncomfortable situations, like at Camp. Eating a big, fluffy salad on command was my searching for hawks. Stripping naked so the nurses could mark on a paper dummy exactly where I’d hurt myself, all over my body, was my shamefully walking in front of dozens of campers in a see through shirt, soaked to the bone from a delightful trip down a slippery rock slide.
As with camp, the hospital eased up on me over time. The hardest days were the first days, but once I settled in, I began to get the most out of each program. I held hands with a boy who’d soon become my second ever kiss while we laid, sprawled and pajama laden, across the main grassy field, listening to counselors tell the famous Nature Camp ghost story. We’d first met on an eight hour hike to the top of a mountain, as we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the peak. In the hospital, I sat across from a girl I’d known from before treatment, but our teary confessionals, free of touch by hospital policy, were as intimate as I’d ever been with anybody. We were permitted to lean against each other in a sort of hug during my departing ceremony, only. We first met after our suicide attempts.
There’s a reason that therapeutic wilderness programs exist. I’ve never heard a legitimate complaint come out of any of them. They may be hard on the body and mind at first, but forcing oneself into nature leads to necessary adaptation, when done with good guidance. Listening to the birds, flowing water, enduring storms, learning about the world around you, are all primal ways to connect with your thoughts and your basic humanity.
Gardening, mindfulness walks, streams, and general nature involvement were all a part of my hospital experience. In my eating disorder program, we all kept up a garden of herbs and vegetables. We’d prune, pick, plant and water. We’d take silent walks to the “labyrinth,” a maze of a garden that is bordered by a stony stream. We assembled flower arrangements. There is therapy in watching things grow from small and promising to big and regal. It’s for those same above reasons that nature is included in the weekly curriculum.
I’m not suggesting you go full on Jon Krakauer. Until Nature Camp, I purported to “hate nature.” I’m still an indoors person. I am suggesting a few other things, however. There’s therapy in nature and therapy in camaraderie. Spend some time outside. Spend some time with those you love. Spend some time outside with those you love. Make things and watch them grow. Dive into new experiences with an open mind and heart. Know where your home is and emotionally connect with it, from time to time. And try looking up at the sky every once in a while. I could probably still recite some moons to you!