Photo by Jane Ely
As part of my 80th birthday celebration I chose to do a vision quest—four days and four nights alone in the wilderness, with no phone, books, watch, or digital devices. I hoped being alone, with no distractions, and only a journal to write in, would enable me to shed emotional and psychological burdens I’d carried for years.
There were months of preparation—making 144 prayer ties filled with cornmeal and tobacco, monthly visits with the vision quest leader, a 12-hour mini-vision quest in a nearby forest, preparation with our retreat leaders and the group for two days before beginning the vision quest, yet nothing prepared me for what happened.
We entered our designated location at 5am and I immediately slept for hours, lulled by the sounds of the forest. I was woken by a voice inside me telling me it was time to get started.
What I did during the four days and nights is considered medicine, not to be shared. What I can say is that each time the voice told me to do something, like stamp on dead branches, memories of my early childhood surfaced—memories of horror and abuse and murderous violence—of living away from home. At times, experiences I’d been told never happened. Other times, experience for which I was blamed. I understood the abuse was not my fault, that for years I’d had a metaphorical sign on my chest saying, “Abuse me.” I left it all in the wilderness.
At the retreat center we processed what we had experienced. When it was my turn, I began to cry for the first time since I was 16 and had been refused entry into a school club because I was Jewish. The other retreat participants waited with calm, waited until I was ready to speak. I told the truth of some of the abuse, how it had scarred me, how I never felt good enough or lovable. They listened with no judgment, many quietly crying. When I finished there was a perceptible silence. Had I said too much? Had I said the wrong thing?
As a group they came over to me, offering hugs, encouragement, kindness, caring. For the first time I felt part of a group. For the first time I felt good enough.
Once one knows something, one cannot unknow it. What I experienced doing the vision quest made it possible for me to continue healing, by choosing to be with people who treat me well and with kindness. I’m still learning how to feel good enough.
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.