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Breaking the Stigma: The Journey Through the Eyes of a Graduate


Samira Madden, Wilderness Therapy graduate


Brenda Zane is a Sky’s the Limit Fund board member, Founder of Hopestream Community, and podcast host of Hopestream.

About the episode:

A captivating interview with Samira Madden, a wilderness therapy graduate. Samira is a young teen and is remarkably poised, honest, and courageous. She talks about her experience at wilderness, the life lessons it has taught her, and through this, she hopes to communicate her conviction to break the stigma. 

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Brenda 0:01
Welcome, you are here for another edition of Sky’s the Limit Fund, guest speaker series podcast, which we’ve turned into a podcast. I am Brenda Zane, I am a board member for sky’s the limit fund. And I get to talk with really amazing, interesting people in the course of producing this Speaker Series that we bring to you primarily because we want to give you information about wilderness therapy, different aspects of wilderness. And we are a nonprofit, who is here to support families in crisis who need to get their child to wilderness therapy have chosen that is the modality and need a little bit of help financially to get them there and support when the young person comes home. So that’s what Sky’s the Limit Fund does. We are 100% funded by donors, very generous donors. So we thank you if you’re listening, and you’re a donor, and also we take individual donations. And so that’s how we help families who are in crisis. And today, I am thrilled to be able to have a young wilderness therapy student be with us somebody that we worked with, and her family to get her to wilderness therapy. So we’re going to have a conversation about what it’s really like. And I think it’s a great perspective for you to have. So I would love to welcome Samira.

Hello, Welcome to the show. We’re so grateful for you to be here. It’s, it’s a private thing, right? When you go through an experience like you did, and so we’re just incredibly grateful for you to be here speaking about it, and to sort of maybe dispel some of what what parents might be feeling right if they’re thinking about wilderness therapy, because it’s a really hard, hard decision. So why don’t you in whatever degree you’re comfortable with, share with us, kind of how you found yourself in a position where wilderness therapy was an option or, or was necessary. So that we have some context for the conversation.

Samira 2:12
Um, I find myself very grateful, because a lot of, of my peers who went to camp, they went to camp in a reaction to something that had happened, although my mother was very persistent, and it could see the signs leading up to something. And so instead of reaction is sending me she proactively sent me to the camp, I struggled a lot with, kind of, I think COVID kind of triggered a lot of mental disabilities between all sorts of people. And I was one of those people. And I think just not being able to socialize, and being stressed with online school, and not being able to complete in my sports and extra activities really took a toll on my mental health. And my mental health started to decline. And

I think that I had a lot of problems following directions from a very young age. I mean, it’s hard for kids to do so. But, um, and I was a lot, I really was really defiant. And I think that something my mom really wanted me to learn was self discipline and kind of learned that I’m not always the boss, and that it’s important to listen to what other people have to say. And I think we just had a disconnect between our relationship and many fields. We weren’t as close as we are now. Thanks to the camp, we’ve gotten a lot closer. And we kind of had a lack of communication. So I was really sent to build on my communication skills, which is something that I would like to talk about later on in the conversation. Absolutely. Well, thank you for that. That’s helpful. And you’re right. COVID was so life changing, right? And I bet you are very active, and you have probably lots of friends and sports. And when that all just comes to a screeching halt. It’s so hard. And so you found yourself in a place where did you sort of recognize like, wow, I’m really struggling? Was it pretty apparent to you? Yes, a lot of the things that I used to enjoy, even when I did get the chance to do kind of just became something more like a burden rather than a fun thing to do.

Brenda 4:34
And so, during this time your mom was observing you right, and probably thinking this is not like my typical daughter. And at the same time, she felt like there were some communication skills that could be improved. So would you share sort of what that what was the experience like of you leaving home and then going to wilderness therapy,

Samira 4:58
I believe

that it was a very tough thing to hear. I think that just realizing that I messed up and that I’m going to have consequences for my actions was really hard for me to grasp that concept. Realizing that like my summer would be taken away, it was a huge part of like, not getting a break from school, that kind of thing. And I just remember being so upset when I was told by my mom that I was going to be sent away. And I felt as though my rights were kind of being like, stripped away, and being sent somewhere not like without having a saying, if I wanted to be sent or not.

Obviously, I would have said no, which would not have been the best choice in my favor.

But I think I’m so grateful that I was kind of forced to go because I wouldn’t have done it without the pressure of my mom, I really just struggled a lot with the information that I was going to be sent away and the not knowing of what is going to happen to me not knowing what the schedule is like, it was really tough, because I’m someone in particular, who likes to have a schedule and routine, I like to know what’s going to happen the next day, that sort of thing. And not being able to have much information on the camp, as they keep things very private. And on the down low. It was really hard for me to understand and jump into something that I had no clue what was about. Yeah, that had to have been really unsettling.

Brenda 6:37
Had you heard of this before? Like, did you have any idea what, what was ahead of you? Or was it just a big black mystery?

Samira 6:46
I mean, I had seen a few things every once in a while on social media about wilderness camps. I’d had a family member who actually had gotten way before I was alive, but

and but it was nothing about but negative stories about their experience. So I was really nervous and scared that my situation was going to be the same.

Brenda 7:11
That had to have been really hard to know that you were going somewhere could could potentially not be great. So when you arrived, what what was it like what was the first 24 hours or so like for you there?

Samira 7:29
The first 24 hours, it was really, really challenging. However, it was a little different, because it was still in 2021. So COVID had just kind of it was still active. So we had a little bit different of precautions, and someone else who would might have gone before or now.

But we had what was called intake, which was where you were with a small group of people, I was just it was just me and this other

group member that I was with. And we were with two other staff. And we were in an isolated kind of camp that was pretty bland. And it was all the way in Idaho. So it was really dry. And it was like a desert like and I remember just walking getting out of the van and just like walking into the desert. And I was like, this is not not beautiful.

So that was definitely like a big shock. I am terrified of bugs and insects. And that was something that was everywhere. But at the same time, it was kind of refreshing to breathe in that like real natural air, that kind of it was so refreshing. And just like it was just shocked to see that kind of way of living in such a small area.

I remember just crying like that entire, like 24 hours just wanting to go home and I tried to manipulate my way out and by saying I need to go home, this kind of thing. And the staff were just were not buying into it. And the reason we were in such an isolated camp for the first like one to two days was so they could review our COVID testing to make sure we didn’t bring any sicknesses to our eventual group. Right. And so I was only an intake for two days. A lot of people stay there for a week but our testers or testing came back pretty quickly. So we were transported to our actual groups. And they were split off by ages and I was really nervous like what if they don’t like me What if they’re mean that kind of thing. It was just the thought running through my head but once I got through to the actually see the group functioning, I kind of relaxed a little bit. I was like, wow, these people like I had someone who was about to graduate. So I was kind of able to see someone at the end of their journey like, what this is gonna look like for me and possibly towards the end of my journey. And it was really cool.

to kind of see the group functioning by themselves, like the staff members are just sitting there making sure everyone was okay. But everyone was essentially carrying the group plant their own weight. And it was just really mesmerizing to kind of see these people survive out in the wild. So I had to like a level of appreciation. And once he got into your actual group, it was a lot more fun. There was like, you could do a lot more activities. And there’s more people to interact with. And I’m a very social person. So that was, it was tough at the beginning, but towards the next, like two days it was it was better than it was before. Yeah, so little bit of a rough transition. Thank you. COVID. Right. It’s done so much for us. And then it sounds like you’re in it sounds like you’re a very observant person, right, you were looking around you were seeing what was going on seeing what might be potentially a path that you would be going down and it got a little bit easier. How old were you when you went?

Um, I had just turned I was about to turn 13. So I was 12. Okay, so that’s pretty young. So you were, you know, away from home with people kind of learning a whole new thing. And I can imagine the the, like you said the fresh air? And did you have a phone like I’m sure you didn’t have any technology, right.

So when you first arrive to the camp, I went in particular, you go to like a bass house, and they change your clothes into, like clothes, that activewear clothes.

And they give you water bottles, the equipment that you’ll be using such like sleeping bags, that kind of thing. And so everyone is dressed in the same like long sleeve shirt, and pants and boots. And

I just like going out there, you don’t have anything except for a sleeping bag, attend toothpaste, a toothbrush, and the clothes on your back. Basically, that’s all you have and smarter.

And so I think it’s to create the sense of everyone is equal and to not have someone have more than another, which I really appreciated. Yeah. What were your hopes for yourself as you got there. And you started to sort of settle in and get with the program? Was there a hope that you had for yourself during your time there.

Um, definitely the first week or two that I was at the camp, I definitely wanted, my hope was just to go home.

Out of here.

progress through the program, I really wanted. There’s a lot of role models and synthesis seniors in my group that I looked up to, and I wanted, I had hoped for myself to eventually end up in that position they were in where they were truly authentically happy with their environment and themselves. And they were ready to kind of integrate it back into not the real world but the outside world. So I was really hopeful that I could get better and actually build that connection and relationship with my mom and home and that kind of stuff. Yes, yeah. Because you were really working on communication. And did you start to see, as you were there? Did you start to see other people interacting in a way that you were like, Huh, I wonder if I wonder if that’s something I should try out? Like were you sort of learning by observing? Yes, the whole point of being with the other group members is to, to observe and learn from them. And just watching my group members communicate with each other in order to survive like communicating to build up a tarp shelter. It was things that I realized that sometimes you just need to take a step back, you need to listen. And it was just through the activities that we did, I was able to obtain those, like communication skills and able to think about how would I apply this if I went home? And how would I apply this with the relationships I have at home?

Brenda 14:10
That’s really smart, because, and I would love to hear

how that’s gone. But I have a couple of other questions First, what this is, this is difficult, right? You’re outside, you are not sleeping in a cabin, like you are really doing a hard thing. And I’ve heard you know, there is controversy around wilderness therapy. And

what I hear sometimes is they made us hike all day, and we had to carry really heavy packs, and we had to set up a shelter. And as a parent who had my son go I think yeah, exactly. That’s hard in it, but it’s not, you know, it’s not going to kill you. And how did you feel because you were having to do some really hard things.

Samira 14:57
I think first

Walking into the program, it was definitely like a culture shock. I feel that to realize that I feel like in today’s day and age in society, discipline can be seen as something that is not accepted very widely anymore. And I think just seeing that discipline being used was really amusing to me. And it has definitely helped me throughout my time integrating back into society. I, I really do think that it was, it was really important for them to integrate that discipline and kind of expressed to us that when you grow up, it’s it’s a lot different. There will be discipline, there will be consequences, and you get out what you put in that kind of thing.

Brenda 15:53
That’s amazing. Yeah, I think I think you’re right, I think discipline can can really be something where parents and young people just don’t know the role. And they don’t know, what what should we expect, what should we not expect? And so often, when you get to a situation like you were in, which was very difficult, I can imagine that it was like, Wow, I’m I’m here. But there was also a sense of pride, like, I’m doing this, I’m doing this hard thing.

Samira 16:24
Yes, definitely. I just remember thinking back to some of my friends I’d had previously. And I was thinking like, they might be at home right now walking to the fridge or the sink to get a glass of water while I have my water. And it was very empowering. I felt very. And as weird as it may sound, I was the happiest I’d ever been, even with the bare minimum I needed to survive it, it really did show that we don’t need all these things, society claims we need to in order to be happy happiness really does come within. And I think for young adults and children, especially, it’s really hard to kind of imagine or grasp that concept. And I think the program in itself really emphasize that you don’t need the newest iPhone or the trendiest pants in order to be happy. And it really did show. And that’s such a contrast from what you hear. When you’re home and you’re in school, and there’s so much pressure and their social media telling you, no, you need to do this. And you need to look like this.

Brenda 17:28
Going back to what you said about the sort of learning by observation and thinking about how I wonder how I could use that once I’m back home. Is there any example that you can think of where you have used those skills, and it really changed the way that you are interacting, especially with your mom, but with anybody?

Samira 17:47
Yes. So a lot of times, we would have to build a what’s called a tarp shelter in order to keep out of the sun, or in many cases, the rain. And it becomes really frustrating, right? There’s all kinds of different people, they’re all different kinds of minds. And we all have different ideas of what the structure should look like, and who’s doing what maybe some people are putting more effort than others, it gets very, very tedious and frustrating to do it every single day. And there’s small things like that in everyday life that we experienced as well, right? Who’s gonna make the bed who’s going to clean the dishes tonight after dinner, that kind of thing. And I just think that being able being thrown into a situation where we had to communicate in order to stay warm, or from out of the sun, kind of it pressured us to sit back for a second, take a deep breath, and listen to one another, rather than all of us shouting over each other, because that got us essentially nowhere. Listening to each other, taking five seconds to breathe, using our coping skills, to essentially just allow one another to speak one at a time, one at a time and express our

ideas is was really important. And here at home, I do that all the time. Sometimes me and my mom are doing something as simple as making an art project, right? And she has a different vision than I do. And sometimes just taking a step back and listening to what each other has to say really does help and go a long way.

Brenda 19:19
And do you think back to how you might have handled that same situation? Before like I probably would not have done all the time I do about oh, I probably would have just started yelling and walked away from the situation rather than resolving the situation. Yeah, that’s great. I bet your mom’s pretty happy too, because it just makes life a lot smoother.

What? I know that there were things like you said setting up a tarp, you know, and things with cooking. Are there some things that you experienced when you were there, that even though they were kind of little or maybe you they weren’t super significant at the time

Samira 20:00
Um, that now you’re seeing the you know, you’re carrying that forward into your life at home. Yes, we had to journal every single day, a page and a half. So like the notebook, the front page, and then half of the back page. And I still do that to this day. I think, even just looking back at my journals, because we were allowed to take them home. Once we graduated, it’s really cool kind of just to see that story of how my narrative was, when I first arrived around them the day I found out, I was leaving.

I still do that to this day, I find it a very relaxing to allow my emotions to kind of spread out with no one to really look at it. I mean, obviously, I can show people if I desire, but just having a safe space to kind of jot down everything that comes to mind was really helpful. And I definitely still do that to this day. Yeah, that’s so journaling is just so powerful, right? And what a gift that you get to go back and read what you wrote that first day when you were there, and to see how you’ve changed and how you’ve grown so much is really amazing. So sort of if we’re following the story, you said you were the happiest you’ve been, even though you had nothing except your kind of necessary life tools. What was it like to start thinking about going home,

it was just like me thinking about going to the program, it was scary, just as scary thinking about me leaving, I had gotten so accustomed to the way of life there. I was there for a longer time than most. I was there for 17 weeks. And

I had watched a lot of my closest friends now even I still talk to a lot of them come and go. And I think having that safety net of knowing the same, like 18 people for five months, it was kind of my safety net. And so kind of being pushed out again to the everyday world was very, very challenging. And the thought of that was pretty scary. I mean, I was excited to be able to go home because that was a privilege. A lot of my group members went to therapeutic boarding schools, and something that I really strive to work towards. While I was there was going home, I really wanted to, I had too many things that I wanted to accomplish at home, but I wouldn’t have been able to if I had gone to a therapeutic boarding school. So I made sure to kind of really, really push myself in order to accomplish going home. And once I was told I remember like it was yesterday, I was told that I over the phone that I was going to be going home in a few days. It was sad almost to kind of like my whole journey there at the camp kind of flashed before my eyes like it was like a montage almost of everything.

And I just remember looking at some of my closest friends and just started crying because I was they weren’t going to graduate and I wasn’t going to change that I wasn’t going to see them again, right and for going with someone reuse survive through the absolute worst, and the best to probably most likely never seeing them again, was just a really tough thought that I had to work through. And there was a lot of stuff on my part. And I’m sure my mom’s proud that I had to write like documents and letters and stuff in contracts. So it was pretty stressful actually trying to get out of the program. But I would say was more sad and kind of it was almost as it’s the feeling as if when you graduate high school, right? You don’t know if you’re gonna see your friends as much as you did before. And it’s kind of a new life chapter. So you’re alone nervous. That’s what it felt like? Yeah, well, it’s great to hear that you’ve kept in touch with some people. I know that that’s a really special relationship that you build that bond while you’re there. What about the staff? Is there anything that comes to mind for you that you want to share with anybody listening about the staff, and we’ve learned a little bit about your relationships with other students? What’s the what’s the experience, like with the staff who are running the program, I truly believe that was like the depths of my heart that the staff make or break the company and program. It really depends on the staff that you get that will make your experience 10 times better or 10 times worse. Fortunately, I had all amazing staff throughout my entire stay. There is two stuff in particular that I really resonated with and they became kind of my like best friends.

And we had what was called Orange shift and blue shift. So the staff would work two week shifts essentially and the blue shift would start and they would go two weeks and then we’d switch to orange shift and we typically got the same stock because there’s multiple groups and we weren’t allowed to interact with the other groups but they had typically the older girls G one day

We were allowed to have certain different stuff than we did, we had our kind of circle of staff that kind of we rotated through. And the staff that I had, I was really blessed to have staff that really tried to make connections with us individually. They would bring fun safe things to the campsite, and they would share things with us. Maybe it was a drum, learn how to play the drums, that kind of thing. So in a guitar, like, it was really fun. And the staff I had were very interested in engaging with us. So that was,

yeah, it’s it is, that’s another very special relationship that takes a special person, right to be a staff member, because it’s not your typical job where you’re going into an office every day, that you really get to see how much those people do care about you. And then I’m just curious, before we wrap up, what the transition home was like, and how is it when you now you know, you are in a pretty safe container. And now you’re back home? What does your support look like? What did what did it kind of feel like with your mom coming back to, quote unquote, normal life,

it was all kind of go in the stages of what it was like really quickly.

I first when you first found out you’re graduating, you spent another week still technically at the camp, although you’re with your guardian or parent. And you’re kind of at a more bougie camp. So we had cots this time.

And we had water food. And we were able to kind of I remember seeing my mom for the first time in five months and just like giving her a big hug. And the first thing she said to me was I smelled because I was very regularly.

But it was it was really like I was heartwarming moment to kind of just see my mom again, I missed her more than like anything. And so just sleeping not on the floor for the first time in five miles was a true, a true experience. It was

Brenda 27:12
Did you think you would ever appreciate having a cot?

Samira 27:16
Like a lot of people now I think they would say a car. That’s not very luxury. But me now I’m like that was luxury.

And then I had a family wedding to attend. Two days after I’d graduated. So I flew from Idaho back to California, and spent the night at my house. And then the day later flew from California to Hawaii, which is probably not a good idea from going from knowing the same 18 people, like I mentioned, to going to see everyone in the airport, your family especially have a big family, it was really challenging to see everyone it was it was really anxiety driven, I have a lot of anxiety. And we don’t get to make a lot of choices at camp, the basic choices we get is how much food we’re going to do and our life choices that will determine our stay that kind of thing. So just from going to the airport and my mom saying, Hey, you can choose out a snack for their plan, I was so overwhelmed by the choices that I kind of just broke down. And it was like the first episode I’d had. But since going or since like graduating, and it was definitely a learning experience. And I don’t recommend going places right after you come home. I think just integrating slowly back into society and political everyday life. And just kind of getting the child or young adult used to having options, the smells because the smells is a huge thing. And I even slept on the floor for the first three months I had come home because that was what was comfortable in what I knew. And there’s a lot of sadness, I had a lot of moments where I would start crying or have a panic attack because I had missed the lifestyle or my friends from the camp. So taking something with you from the camp that really resonates with you, I think is also important. Like I had a bow drill set which is used to make fire that I really cherished. And I still have that and hung in my room to this day. Huh? Yeah. Well, that’s, I’m glad you brought that up about the overwhelm because I was just trying to imagine what that would have been like that you’re outside for that long and like you said, the smells you would never think about that. That would be so overwhelming. So well. I’m glad you survived your your flights and all of that and it sounds like you’re doing really well. And is there a kind of a last thought that you’d like to leave people with about whether their parent or a young person is listening about your experience? Definitely hanging

their progress is not linear. And you’ll definitely still no matter if you go or not, you’ll still or your child or young adult goes, there’s still be bumps in the road. But it’s important to remember that as long as they’re trying, or you are trying it, that’s all that matters. And it is not a bad thing to be sent to wilderness therapy or to be going to wilderness therapy. It is a beautiful thing, and you will learn something from it, whether it’s survival skills, cooking skills, and basic life skills that will take you throughout your entire life, you will learn something from there. Yeah, and I’m sure every day you’re you’re pulling things from that experience, whether it’s a communication, more of like a therapeutic technique, or just a very practical skill that you learned. And you’re gonna continue doing that. So that’s really, really beautiful. Thank you so much for being willing to talk with us. And we just wish you all the best in school and all of your activities, and I know you’re going to be a big asset to whatever you do. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up in wilderness therapy. Maybe you’ll be one of those really amazing staff that changes the girls.

Brenda 31:13
Thanks. Thank you, Samir. We’re so appreciative that you were here. Thank you for having me.



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