As a female counselor, there are many personal experiences and challenges that inform the way I relate to and with the adolescent girls in my [counseling] groups. Like many therapists, I draw from my own life experiences to understand and connect with clients. Many of those experiences are joyful or transformative while others are painful or challenging. No matter the context, all of my experiences help me to better relate with a spectrum of human problems and strengths.
In the counseling profession, the parallel process used to be known as the “reflection process” and was understood to be therapeutically supportive and useful. It is the notion that, as a counselor, you are working alongside and experiencing a similar process to that of your client. I believe this reflective process can be intentional and is part of my responsibility as a counselor. It is a commitment to doing my own work, which essentially means going through some kind of therapeutic process of my own to cope with and learn from my life challenges.
Recently, I experienced a painful loss in my life when my grandmother passed away after a long battle with cancer. We were extremely close, and her loss is still tremendously painful. A few months after her death, I started planning a trip to the Hawaiian island of Kauai for my birthday. I knew that it would be my first birthday without her. And I knew that I would be thinking about my last birthday with her — the one at which we baked a cake together for the last time … went fishing together for the last time … I heard her sing me “Happy Birthday” for the last time.
Being an outdoor enthusiast and believing in the importance of doing my own work, I planned to hike the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which runs along Kauai’s rugged Na Pali Coast. Although graded, the trail is almost never level as it crosses above towering sea cliffs and through lush, sweeping valleys. Most of the trail climbs upward, which makes carrying a 50-pound backpack a poor choice. In planning this trek, I wasn’t aware that Backpacker magazine had rated the hike as one of the 10 most dangerous in the nation. But perhaps a part of me wanted to go on a journey fit to match my grief.
The girls in my adolescent wilderness therapy group were very aware that I would be gone for a week, and I shared with them that I would be in Kauai. Many of them joked that they should be able to come with me or that I should bring them back coconuts and a sea breeze. When I told them I would be going on an 11-mile hike, they couldn’t believe I actually wanted to hike instead of lazing on the beach. They said things like, “You are crazy, Sabrina. It’s your vacation. You should just relax!” and “OMG, I would never willingly hike in Hawaii. There are so many other things to do that are actually fun.”
After all the planning, the day of the hike finally arrived. I woke up early on my birthday to the sound of rooster crows echoing in the Kauai jungle. I had no idea that roosters roamed wild throughout Kauai. Roosters were one of my grandmother’s favorite birds, along with cardinals. Her house was filled with rooster and cardinal decorations. So my birthday was already painted with memories of my dear grandmother.
I tucked my memories away and lifted my 50-pound pack to make my way to the trailhead. My best friend since I was in seventh grade was accompanying me with an equally heavy pack.
Fast-forward 7.5 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Apply sweat, laughter, trepidation and glorious panoramic ocean views. We had made it to the part of the hike known as Crawlers Ledge, which features a 500-foot drop straight down the cliffs to where the ocean waves crash against the mountain. Looking at the barely 1-foot-wide trail, I suddenly understood why this section was named Crawlers Ledge. A person has to crawl because of the dangerously steep and unstable trail conditions or is compelled to crawl because the fear of plunging off the cliff’s edge to a painful death is too overwhelming to remain standing. Fear is a profoundly powerful force.
My best friend and I made our way silently along Crawlers Ledge, my trekking poles positioned expertly to keep me standing, my steps strong and determined, my mind sharp, my breath intentionally paced to match the rhythm of the waves.
And then … I lost my footing.
The next thing I knew, I was half sitting, half squatting in an awkward position, unable to get up because my feet have no stable ground to stand on. My 50-pound pack is keeping me from tumbling off the cliff’s edge. My friend asks if I am OK, and I reply in a shaky voice that is much smaller than I usually sound, “I think so, but I’m scared. I don’t know if I can get up. I am really scared.”
My words hang on what feels like an oddly long silent moment. My friend then echoes, “I’m scared too, but I think I can get to you.”
I reply impulsively and protectively, “No, it’s too dangerous.”
My eyes look down, just once, but long enough to fill my body with an almost paralyzing fear. She assures me again, “I really think I can get to you. Let’s try it.”
I knew there was no other choice. If I unbuckled my pack, I could be pulled off the edge or lose the weighted anchor the pack was providing.
With some miraculous effort, my friend pulled the top of my pack up as I hugged the ledge and hoisted myself back up. My legs were shaking uncontrollably beneath me, but I knew in an instant that I would live to take another step along the remainder of the ledge. I took a deep breath and fought back tears. The adrenaline pulsing in my wobbly body gave me strength in an otherwise seemingly powerless moment.
Once we were at a “safe enough” spot a few minutes later, we paused, standing side by side and looking out to face the ocean. As we took a few deep breaths to slow our racing hearts, a bright red cardinal landed on the edge of the cliff and just stared at us.
“Weird, that’s a Hawaiian cardinal,” my friend said.
I stared at the bird through the pools welling up in my eyes and replied, almost in a whisper, “No, that’s my grandmother.”
I could go on to tell you about the end of my 11-mile birthday hike — the part where we barely made it to the beach as the sun set or the part where my friend secretly hiked an iPad in so that she could play me a video that my family made wishing me a happy birthday. I could tell you that in that prerecorded video, my grandfather recited a poem he wrote called “Falling With Angels,” about all the times in his life he nearly fell to his death. I could tell you that when I watched the video in the remote jungle of Kauai, after a near-death fall of my own and the most physically challenging experience of my life, I sobbed … and laughed … and sobbed … and laughed with a primal force buried deep within me.
But instead, I will tell you about the part where I returned to share my story with the teenage girls in my wilderness therapy group in the Oregon desert. I called what we refer to in our program as a “sitting group.” We gathered in a circle on the dusty ground. I told my story in the context of how sometimes when we push ourselves past our limits physically and emotionally, that is when healing can begin. It is when we get to meet a part of ourselves that we might not have gotten to know had the limit not been crossed. We discussed how fear can sometimes be our biggest barrier and how receiving help can be a humbling gesture but also a way to get closer to the ones we love.
Each of the girls shared a way that they could relate to some aspect of my story. We ended the discussion with the topic of finding a higher power and symbols that can represent courage or love. I encouraged the girls to think about who or what their “cardinal” would be as they prepared for their next hike, which, as fate would have it, happened to be 11 miles long.
Sabrina Marie Hadeed, a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor, is a therapist and assistant clinical director at Evoke Therapy Programs at Cascades in Oregon. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about Hadeed’s work with teenage girls and wilderness therapy in “Girls Daring Greatly“, a piece she wrote for CT Online in 2014.