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Transforming Mental Health Through The Outdoors

We’ve been working with Jillian Brown for several years now (she was one of the first VSSL Voyagers!) and we were super proud to sponsor her as she became the first woman to paddle (by canoe and kayak) across the continental US. Yep, she paddled and portaged from the Pacific Ocean all the way to New Orleans!

You can read about that here. That’s only one of her many outdoor exploits; she’s been charging since she was a grom. But beyond that, she’s been an incredible advocate for encouraging people to get outdoors for the mental health benefits, something we strongly believe in. Jill is a legit and kindhearted soul, and just so happens to be pretty darn good with the camera, as you can see in her IG account. Jill really is the type of person you want on your team! And speaking of teams, when Jill isn’t exploring, her full-time job is as director with Camp My Way, an organization we support. Camp My Way’s soul purpose is to provide an outdoor place of refuge, understanding, compassion, and healing for first responders suffering from PTSD. 


We asked Jill to open up about why being outdoors is so important to her mental well being. Grab a coffee and some kleenex.

 - Todd Weimer, VSSL Founder


It was an average weather day; you know the type - slightly overcast, not warm nor cold, still and silent. I put a light jacket on as I began my walk through the woods with my dog on a trail I had now wandered likely hundreds of times in the past couple months of living homeless within the thin walls of the tent. 


We came to the familiar small gap within the giant cedars and I stared out across the pristinely blue, rushing river. The bank dropped suddenly at the slight bend and dirt eroded beneath me, revealing more of the strong roots of the towering trees. As I glanced down, tears filled my eyes and a wave of emotions more vicious than the toiling rapids came upon me. At that moment, I contemplated tying the leash off to a root, wrapping it around my neck and jumping in; allowing the water to wash me clean and away. As a tear rolled down my cheek I looked to my dog, sitting calm, tongue out, seemingly smiling as she turned and gazed up to me.

I clenched the leash tight, peered out at the river once more, turned and continued my walk. Contemplating the smells, the colors, the beauty. The sound of the river faded and the songs of the birds overwhelmed me. As I reached my tent, I tethered my dog to her long line within her playground of trees, hopped in my Jeep and immediately drove myself into town to find someone to understand the thoughts rushing in like an overflowing river, eroding me away.

In the many years of being trapped within an abusive relationship, I had never once contemplated suicide. I had the fear I would die there, but not by my own hand. Each day I would find myself amongst my sled dogs, feeling all the compassion one could and I would tell them and myself, I was thankful it was me there, in that situation and not someone else as I knew I would make it through and perhaps they wouldn’t. As much as we had rescued each of those dogs from a bullet, they saved me each day more than words could ever comprehend and I still thank them for their un-judging, pure love.

Now here I was, seemingly safe, the relentless phone calls that perpetually instilled fear in me had subsided and I was beginning to let my guard down. Decompressing every emotion that had been withheld behind a massive wall of adrenaline for year after year was now bombarding me. As I left the counselor’s office that day, I felt a familiar fear and surprisingly;  confusion. PTSD?

I hadn’t gone to war, I wasn’t in the military; I hadn’t been shot at or fought a fire. I would return only once more to that office. The look of shock upon the counselors face as I described what I was going through, the feelings of judgment, as she seemed to correct me when telling her of visions so vivid I swore they were real, as though I was wrong, as though I was making it all up, and I felt back to the one and only time I had reached out for help, I found myself recoiling within. The reliving of each moment of pain and of terror while this person sat back, content in their room decorated with happy little pictures of their smiling family, leaning back as I leaned in, putting their feet up in their nice suede chair, as I carried on for 7 months, sleeping on the ground with a folded blanket wrapped around me and my dog snuggling close for warmth.I knew this was not the answer for my healing and as I left that office, with no answers, it seemed to give me motivation.

My bouts of depression in my youth, as an injured athlete, as a teen incapable of doing all I loved because of the pain it instilled had caused anger, frustration and hurt within. My family had picked up on my struggles at 16 and had also taken me to a counselor, leaving me with very similar feelings.

 

 

What had I done then to move forward? What had now gotten me through those many years of adrenaline?

 

Returning to my tent in the same state as when I had left, tear-filled eyes. My dog jumped about as though I had been gone for a lifetime. I grabbed her and repeated what had driven me to those confined walls of a stranger. The knowledge of what I needed came quick, although the healing still continues to this day We walked for hours, every trail I could find, and then to every smell my dog wanted to follow. Finally, my legs tired and I felt different. I realized, slowly, each hour I had unknowingly thought less and less about finding answers and more about the adventure we were on. Where each trail may take us, what animal was my dog following? I had my answer. I needed THIS. As I laid my exhausted head back on my pillow of jackets that night, I knew, I had to go back to the woods, I had to feel this tired again tomorrow and each day. And that tent went from being a place of fear to the best home I could ever have within the woods.

365 days a year for 6 years now, I’ve been an addict. Addicted to pushing myself to connect to nature, to exploring and new discoveries, The healing does not stop because of accomplishing a World First, or a Canadian First, those are merely by-products of challenges I wanted to embrace on my journey to heal. The irony is, my accomplishments are possible because of my past, because I had pushed through substantial pain and fear. And I knew that if I could make it through each day of abuse, I could make it through any of life’s challenges.


Escape through nature is truly my catharsis, and has literally saved my life. While it’s fundamental to my mental well being, I would still encourage anyone dealing with mental issues to seek professional help. But at the same time, your first step, like mine - should be into nature. It’s what helped me to transform my PTSD into Perseverance-Trust-Strength-Determination. 

- Jillian Brown


Follow Jillian on Instagram @jillianabrownphotography and her work with @campmyway