by Peter R. Coleman, M.D.
I recently watched the movie “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed - a young woman who was having serious problems and felt like the best solution was to go hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. I was expecting a fairly boring movie showing some struggles and perseverance and then she would finally make it to the end and live happily ever after. What I saw instead was the story of an amazing transformation in a young woman’s’s life.
Cheryl grew up with some significant dysfunction – an alcoholic, abusive father, who was so abusive the family was bundled up and had to escape late at night. Her mother then seemed to run away from all of life and not deal with things in healthy way. It was very painful for Cheryl and her brother. Cheryl escaped with a young boyfriend, then drugs, and ultimately became horribly addicted to heroin. When she was at the end of her rope, she happened to notice a beautiful photograph of a landscape hanging on the wall of an office.
It was a photograph of a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). A little voice inside her told her that if she could just tune into this beauty and follow a different path, things would turn out alright. She surrendered to this voice without quite knowing why or what lay ahead. With only the minimum of preparation, she set out. The early days were very difficult but she persevered. In the end, she hiked over 1,000 miles.
She conquered enormous obstacles and put up with what, at the time, seemed unbearable pain. Along the way, she was able to evaluate her past experiences and how she had handled them. Cheryl was able to feel and experience her pain – both physical pain and emotional pain. Ultimately, she was able to accept her past and forgive herself and others. She came out a transformed woman.
What struck me about this true story is that the journey Cheryl embarked on is so similar to the journey of substance abuse recovery. She just did it in an unconventional way. She first gave up the drugs and alcohol and then, she was able to think and feel clearly. She nurtured her body and soul with good exercise, good food, and beautiful surroundings. She overcame challenges. She sat through pain without giving up. She started to look at her patterns of thinking and behavior that got her into trouble. Cheryl looked back at the influences of her past and was able to get past judgement and blame. She became able to see her parents as real people who did the best they could – even if that wasn’t very good. She was able to forgive herself and them. Over time, she found a new passion for living – writing, sharing her stories, and helping others.
Finally, as she neared the end of the trail, she found a way she could reintegrate and live in the real world in a safe way that would not trigger her to return to drug use.
Since the “Wild” walk, Cheryl Strayed married and raised a family. She has written books, shared her stories, and inspired others. Last week, I saw a reference to a talk that Cheryl will be giving soon. Over 15 years later, she is still growing in her recovery, still following her passion, and still helping others.