To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.Rebecca Solnit

In those early years of self-discovery, between the time a social worker recommended drug and alcohol treatment for Jonathon and the summer of 2006 when I completed my degree in counselling psychology, our family was immersed in the therapeutic world.

We attended group family sessions, personal counselling appointments, and experiential workshops where we pounded mattresses to release pent-up emotions and spent days in isolation to confront our deepest fears. I discovered there was nothing like a deserted island to highlight the profound abandonment and loneliness issues that haunted me.

An unexpected adventure

Lake Texoma - The silence of going solo

Three days into a week-long workshop in Texas in June 2005, the facilitators awoke the six female participants before daybreak, told us to pack a modicum of items that didn’t include cell phones or other electronics, loaded us into a small life raft, then ferried us out to a small island in the middle of Lake Texoma, a lake I’d frequented as a child.

I stood on the beach with my supplies—water, tarp, sleeping bag, journal—and watched the jet ski and empty raft shrink into the distance. My inner chatter was incessant from the moment I set foot on the sand. You’re a fool. What the hell are you doing here? You’ll never get this right. You’re alone. Always alone. Never important.

The mantra of alone taunted me as I stared out at the lake and realized I’d been left to figure things out on my own. They’ve left you here, you know. You’ll never get anything right. You won’t survive. If I was alone, then why were there so many voices yammering inside my head?

Less than a mile from shore and the comfort of a warm bed, I might as well have been sitting on a volcanic speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The sound of racing jet skis and motorboats punctuated the summer air. We’d each been given a cordoned patch of land—perhaps fifty feet square (or around five square metres)—to call home for I didn’t know how long.

A hundred feet (about 30 metres) to the south of my campsite, I could see the edge of my friend Lisa’s tarp if I tried, and directly to the north, I caught a glimpse of Laura’s white blouse. Our site boundaries were marked with fluorescent orange tape, and we were expressly forbidden from crossing them with our feet or our words. A brush-filled incline with scrubby plants rose to the east with wide open water in the west.

I stood on the sand, wrapped in a rare moment of silence that drowned out the chattering voices in my mind—until they began again.

Loser. Wimp. Fraud. You’re not important. It’s all a trick. They’ve left you here. You’ll starve to death or die from the headache that’s no doubt a brain aneurysm waiting to burst.

I wanted to scream, but that wasn’t ladylike. Instead, I struggled to attach my tarp to the strongest of the spindly bushes, but the damned plant bent and refused to hold the weight of my tarp.

I wanted to scream, but that wasn’t ladylike. Instead, I struggled to attach my tarp to the strongest of the spindly bushes, but the damned plant bent and refused to hold the weight of my tarp. I failed, then whipped my head to the left and the right, certain that the others were spying on me and laughing their heads off at my expense.

Why didn’t I eat dinner last night? There was no food in my small knapsack, no nourishment in my mind. Only the nattering of a thousand years of conditioning. Be perfect. Get this right. This is a test and you’re failing. Have failed. Will always fail. You’re a horrible mother. A horrid, wicked failure of a woman. You can’t even provide shelter for yourself, much less anyone else. Your son. Your daughter. Your husband. They’re not here now. It’s only you, babe.

Only me.

It turns out that I was a formidable ally and advocate for myself. Despite the near manic talk in my head and my incessant need to always get things right, those qualities ended up being exactly what I needed on that deserted island. I needed silence and time away from my daily life to hear what that chatter was really telling me. I needed to dig in and explore what I was actually afraid of so I could face those fears head on instead of watching them lash out sideways.

After wallowing in my “poor me” attitude for a while, I finally found a twig strong enough to hold my tarp so I could have a square foot of shade. I plopped onto the ground and opened the packet given to me by the facilitators. Homework.

Great. Sarcasm reared her ugly head. Yay! Something to do so I don’t have to think about the heat and the fact that I have no food. Good girls are proficient at homework.

36 hours of survival

Blue camping tarp in grass - The silence of going solo

I struggle to convey all that transpired on that island in about 36 hours. Minutes passed like slow syrup as I lay under the shadow of my tarp with sweat pouring down my back. Biting flies. Sweltering heat. A pounding headache that wouldn’t let up. Ambient island sounds. Distant laughter from playing children and beer-drinking adults. Hunger. Panic that I would starve. Knowledge that there was no way that could happen.

I raged at the audacity that I’d actually paid money to be there. I dug into my homework, complying with the rules and putting words to my greatest fears. I followed the instructions and completed the requisite worksheets with their probing questions.


How has this FEAR controlled my life?

How does holding on to this FEAR keep me from LOVE?

If I changed my mind about this FEAR, what would I believe?

If I changed my mind about this FEAR, how would that affect my life?

I filled out one sheet after another. Three in the morning. Three in the afternoon. Three in the evening. Throughout the day, I watched the fears loosen their hold on my mind, and then I grabbed them back like a toxic lifeline. What if I’m wrong? Could I really turn into my mother? Lose my mind? I am a lonesome loser. No one loves me. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

I wrote like a maniac, sweat pouring down my face and spine. I raged that I had no choice. I was stuck, persecuted, put upon. I blamed the facilitators for tricking me and leaving me there. I cursed my son for getting me into that outrageous situation in the first place. I whined about my mother and her sarcastic ways. I cried because my father left me. I wondered why my husband—who’d done this same workshop two weeks before—hadn’t warned me about this part.

I crawled out from underneath the oppressive heat of the plastic tarp that drooped 10 inches (about 25 centimetres) from my face. I put down my pen and stared at the water. A breeze wafted across my sweaty skin like a whisper.

I thought about my fears and miracles that suggest things can change. I wondered what evidence I had that miracles never happen. I had none. No evidence except for my shitty attitude. I pondered the fear of nothing miraculous happening on the island. I considered how my striving to find something meaningful kept me from experiencing the beauty around me. If I changed my mind about making things happen, what might I believe?

Hot, sweaty, cranky, hungry, stinky and pissed off at the world, I stared at the water and considered going in to cool off. Then I talked myself out of it because I didn’t have a towel. It was 100 degrees [Fahrenheit] and I was worried about a frickin’ towel?

I tried again to get angry at the facilitators because they didn’t tell me to bring one. I couldn’t muster the energy. It wasn’t their fault. I was a big girl. I could make my own decisions.

A spiritual awakening?

Book and driftwood lying on sandy beach - The silence of going solo

I walked to the water and dug my toes into the moist sand and pebbles. Cool relief moved through my feet, up my legs and into my attitude. I took another step and then one more until the water rose to my knees. It felt like butterfly kisses and angel wings.

A flash of worry about wet clothes screeched through my mind. I waved it away like a pesky fly, bent my knees and plopped down into the lake. A giggle, the first in what felt like years, escaped my lips. My fears began to wash away. Who cares what others think? My clothes will dry! This is heaven. A school of inch-long silvery fish swirled around my toes. More giggles escaped my lips. Oh sweet Jesus. This is a miracle!

An ant chomped on my big toe. My bladder shouted that I needed to pee. The afternoon heat and my monkey mind began to absorb any sanity I had gained in the water.

I played in the water until my fingers resembled prunes. I climbed onto the sand, changed into an oversized T-shirt, and let my clothes dry in the sun. An ant chomped on my big toe. My bladder shouted that I needed to pee. The afternoon heat and my monkey mind began to absorb any sanity I had gained in the water.

I’m a slow learner. Lessons need to be repeated over and over to loosen the grasp of stubborn and ingrained patterns of thinking and behaviour. I began shutting down. This was not the spiritual awakening I’d hoped for. I was covered in sand and flies kept biting my bare skin. My head still hurt, my stomach was empty and I couldn’t fathom that I had chosen to be there. I was counting on my life being different, but why the incessant torture? Surely, I could do without it—or could I?

Day turned into evening and the setting sun lowered in the summer sky. Two fishing boats pulled up close to shore and bass music blasted from a stereo. I wondered what the boaters might think about the six solitary women lined up along the shore.

I imagined they thought we were all nuts, but I didn’t care. A little bit crazy is OK by me. I calmed as the temperature dropped. The flies lessened their bites, but I kept expecting the mosquitoes to come out once the sun went behind the horizon. I became absorbed in the textures of the sun, round like a ball, crimson, strong and stunning. I caught a glimpse of one of the women down the beach, watching the men in the boats. I was comforted by her presence.

I pondered my fears. I wasn’t afraid of sleeping alone on the sand. It felt safe. What if we had to spend another whole day solo? After moving past the lethargic and out-of-control feelings of the midday heat, I’d loved sitting in the water and watching the fish jump all around me. I noticed a diving bird pick a small perch out of the water and three stunning white cranes standing in the shallows.

I realized that I feared the light would fade before I finished writing in my journal. The enormity of the statement lodged in my chest. I feared I would lose my light. I turned the notion over in my mind. I thought of my daughter and prayed the light didn’t fade from her eyes. I worried that Jonathon’s light might never reignite.

I breathed into the discomfort. I stopped, paused and perhaps I prayed. Prayer felt different on the island than it did a day or two before. The cicadas began to sing. The sun dipped into the water. I turned away from my fears, crawled into my sleeping bag and drifted into an exhausted slumber.

Front cover of SoulStroller book - The silence of going soloKayce Stevens Hughlett is a tender, a healer and an artist of being alive who believes in everyday magic and that complex issues often call for simple practices. She holds a Masters in Counseling Psychology from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and she is a Certified Martha Beck Life Coach. Her novel Blue won the Chanti Award for best women’s fiction in 2015. Kayce began her working life as an accountant for a multinational firm and transitioned to the healing arts when life’s harsh circumstances sent her searching for answers on a less linear path. She is the co-creator of SoulStrolling® ~ a movement for mindfulness in motion. Raised in the heartland of Oklahoma, she now resides in Seattle, Washington (U.S.) with her family and muse, Aslan the Cat.

Reproduced with permission from Kayce Stevens Hughlett and WriteLife Publishing. 

image 1: John Purget; image 2: Pexels; image 3: Pixabay