My Isolated Writing Retreat Prepared Me for 2022
Steam, wispy and light, drifts toward a clear blue sky. Like my usual thoughts, scattered and busy, it disappears into the light breeze. I’m calm, reflective, and at peace. It’s just shitty coffee and a simple morning sun, but seems so much more.
Gifted with an opportunity to spend 45 days at an alpine condo owned by my brother and sister-in-law, these final few days border on surreal. Snow will fall tonight, much to the obvious delight of impatient skiers filling the quiet village. I’m leaving soon.
I came to write, finish my long worked on novel, and to immerse myself in the story. Without distraction, I would live inside the characters, bringing them to life in words — learn their truths, flaws, fears, and dreams.
I did just that, but the character I learned most about… was me.
I’ve written copious amounts of words exploring my lifelong struggles with mental health, addiction, and chronic alcoholism. Years of failing to overcome such challenges brought me to death’s door on December 23, 2018. In my addictive, PTSD addled mind, I found nothing to live for.
I survived, embracing intensive counseling, found sobriety, and engaged in a life-altering journey of discovery and healing. There were difficulties, but writing became a cathartic key to my recovery, leading to a commitment to write full time. 3 years later — I’m still committed and chasing my dream.
However, in order to steer clear of emotional rabbit holes and overwhelming hopelessness, I killed off parts of my humanness. I removed all expectations of a full life, understanding past mistakes and failures forever burdened me with unclimbable mountains of twisted wreckage. In our modern, google driven world, there is no hiding from your past. It’s easier to hide and live with no expectations, especially when you just can’t take anymore disappointment or heartbreak. For nearly 2 years, I lived almost entirely within my sister’s spare 8x10 bedroom, writing, healing, but merely surviving.
I had my writing dreams, but even my dreamiest, naïve self, knew it was an unrealistic hope. Like many, I started writing with a penname — convinced the real me could never walk across the waters of past mistakes.
When the stubborn part of me that still found hope presented a brave, positive front, I tried to exude confidence and positivity. I worked hard, established myself as a capable writer outside of my small bubble of friends and family that humored my alternative career path.
But inside, where the demons frolic with my many unfounded core beliefs, I accepted the reality my life would end one day, penniless and alone. This acceptance, and by killing certain basic human needs and wants, made survival possible.
No hope — no hurt.
6 weeks away from my usual crazy making, in this beautiful, isolated new place, I crossed into a new reality. I finished a crappy first draft of my novel, but also said a tearful goodbye to buckets of stale remorse and tired guilt. My broken heart, resentful mind, and defeatist inner voices drifted away into the beautiful nature that surrounded me.
Surviving isn’t enough.
What I Learned
I can’t explain the changes since returning from that special place. Unexpected gifts arrive each day. Though I’m hopelessly predisposed to expect everything to crash around me — I don’t care. I’m willing to hold up my once downtrodden head and trudge fearless footsteps into an exciting, unknown future.
I AM A WRITER: I write because I’m a writer. I feel, observe, and learn. With every story, essay, and poem — I grow. I’ve learned to find beauty in ugly, ugly in beauty, and will explore all which terrifies me. When writing, I’m fearless. To question myself is my normal state. Prone to brutal self-criticism, tearing myself down is a well-ingrained habit, rooted in old childhood fallacies I must leave behind.
One night, sitting quietly under the stars, listening to the calming sound of the flowing creek just beyond a thick tree line, I saw my past in a different light. I brushed away the fog of regret, remorse, and failure — an inarguable truth became visible.
I succeeded at anything I ever set out to do. I would surely succeed at the one thing I always wanted to do.
I AM WORTHY OF LOVE: Broken or healing, the best advice my trauma counselor ever gave me was to open my heart. I remember the day she handed me a little wooden heart, worth about 10 cents, but invaluable in meaning, powerful in hope, and stunning in faith. I rubbed it, found strange comfort in it until gifting it to a struggling stranger.
Alone in a quiet village café, I watched a couple holding hands across the wood table. In deep, undeniable love, words seemed unnecessary as their locked eyes and entwined fingers spoke volumes. What this couple had — I had too. I simply needed to trust. I am. On December 22, 2022, I am marrying Mari Colham who loves me unconditionally, accepts all of me, and shows me daily what real courage is. We may be an unlikely pair, both banged up from life and trauma, but broken pieces of her sweet heart fill the empty holes in mine.
That’s more than I could ever hope for.
THIS IS MY STORY: Unable to sleep, and tired of wrestling with my novel, I sat beside the warm fire and watched heavy, falling snow. As I jotted poem ideas and handwritten lines in my worn journal, my tired mind drifted through the past. Like the fresh snow weighing down the boughs of tall evergreens outside, I heard yesterday’s ghosts piling on. Every terrible, judgmental word said — to me or about me rolled through my awakening mind. Each one, deserved or not, another toxic ingredient in a poisonous stew that bubbled for years.
I couldn’t eat another bowl.
In that moment, I took back my story, deciding I didn’t owe anymore guilt. We all have unique stories. My bumpy, disjointed story, including my personal trauma and emotional pain, belongs to me.
Has it spilled out and stained people I love? Yes. Have I lived with daily guilt and remorse? Yes. Am I sorry? Yes. Have I served enough time in my personal prison as a punishment? Hell, yes.
I’m empowered by reclaiming my story, trauma, and life. It’s mine to write about, mine to share, and mine on which to build a future.
I’m moving on — taking with me what I need — leaving behind what I don’t.
On the morning of November 16, 2021, I loaded suitcases filled with computers, monitors, notepads, and external drives containing a completed novel draft and countless poems into the idling shuttle van.
The bags, just as heavy as they were upon arrival, contrasted the noticeable lightness of my heart and soul. As we drove toward Kamloops in the falling snow, soft tears rolled in slow, gentle drops, seeming to stop before dripping from my face in brief acknowledgement of the peaceful smile now resting on my lips.
I wasn’t the same man. I arrived, ready to write. I left, ready to live.