“I never thought I would hug a tree,” Erika said, recalling her first experience forest bathing with Rise Gatherings. As she breathed in the scent of the surrounding forest, she smelled a new chapter coming into her life. Every sense was awakened, and a strange blend of joy and relief poured from Erika’s eyes.
“The tears poured and poured, and I wasn't bawling and blubbering and making all kinds of sounds, but, my gosh, the release that I felt, and the way that the stress literally melted out of my body. It was unbelievable. I never knew that I could experience something that would give me so much relief, instant relief, that was not medication.”
Erika never considered that a day retreat to the forest would bring her a life-changing outlet for self-care. The Rise community enveloped Erika with support from day one, showing her the love and guidance she so greatly needed.
Raised in Pennsylvania, Erika experienced frequent emotional neglect as a child. Her parents separated when she was 5 and divorced when she was 12, leading to years of turmoil and tension in her home. During this time, Erika was plagued by nightmares which she knows now to be manifestations of her anxiety during this time.
“I have many memories of my nightmares from before the separation all the way through the years and after the divorce, to include the sights and sounds of fighting, screaming, crying, breaking glass,” Erika recalls. “I was always on edge.”
On the day of her parents’ legal separation, Erika’s mother’s new boyfriend (a man who always made her feel uneasy) picked them up, and she never returned to her old home. She resented the boyfriend for taking her mother’s attention leading to a pattern of doing whatever she could to earn her mother’s affection. Additionally, her mother would frequently abandon her to other caretakers. Despite the presence of her grandparents who did provide her with some stability and love, Erika moved homes and switched schools 13 times between kindergarten and senior year of high school. Erika’s unstable and unhealthy circumstances only worsened as time wore on. When she was 16 years old, her father was killed by a drunk driver.
Fortunately, it was at this time that Erika began therapy and started to process the unhealthy and unstable world she experienced growing up. By the time high school ended, she knew she needed to get away. Though she hoped to go to college, her plans did not materialize. But she was committed to leaving Pennsylvania so she met with a Navy recruiter, and three weeks later, at the age of 19, she shipped off.
As a Navy intel analyst, Erika earned top secret clearance and traveled the country, getting stationed in Maryland, Texas, and even Hawaii. It was an independence that she had never felt before.
During her time in the Navy, Erika married and had a son, however after her divorce in 2005, she knew she needed to return home and be there for her child. She was not ready to be a single parent while deployed in active duty.
After six years away, Erika returned to Pennsylvania, returning to the family from which she’d fled. She views leaving the Navy as one of her hardest life decisions.
“For me professionally, it would have been best for me to stay in at that time of my life. But my responsibility was to my son first,” Erika said. “It was most important that I be there with him.”
Erika spent some time taking classes and trying to figure out what to do next, but she was not ready to fully let go of her Navy family.
“I decided that I missed the Navy. I missed the camaraderie. I missed the mission itself and support,” Erika said.
The Navy pulled at Erika like a magnet, drawing her back to the family where she first found freedom. She took a job as a Navy Financial Management Analyst, working for the Navy as a civilian, helping budget for parts and upgrade systems.
“Knowing that there was a local Navy Supply depot, I knew that I wanted to be involved, but I couldn't do it while in uniform. So that's when I decided to go that route and be on the civilian side,” Erika said.
As Erika settled back into life in Pennsylvania, she began to further address her stressful childhood. In the Navy, Erika buried her past and focused on the joy and her new sense of self. But back in Pennsylvania, she was forced to unlock her history and examine it because returning home meant returning to her old unhealthy cycles and pattern of trying to earn her mother’s love from a woman who would not give it.
“It was ingrained in me to always tiptoe around her wants and needs. I NEVER stood up for myself and tolerated a lot of hurtful behavior from her,” Erika recalled.
It was not until Erika saw her mother treating her son in the same abusive manner that she decided it was time to step away for good.
“It took me 38 years to learn that the word NO is a complete sentence and that I AM allowed to use that word with my mother,” Erika said.
Erika has been estranged from her mother for three years now, calling it “one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made.” Yet she knows it was the right thing to do, both for her son’s health and safety and her own.
“I used to repeat a specific nightmare from my childhood when things would get tense between me and my mom,” Erika said. “I would freeze, all I could see was the snow on an old tv, like when the cable would go out. All I could hear was the sounds of a hearing test, very high pitched tones and ringing in my ears. I was totally blacking out. I haven’t had that nightmare one single time since I disconnected from my mother.”
Newly committed to meeting her own needs, Erika started meditating and trying new strategies for working through anxiety. By 2019, meditation completely changed Erika’s attitude.
“I feel like I've found a new light, a new calmness about me,” Erika said. “I just keep showing up. I just keep showing up, whether it's a good session or a bad session or an in-between session. I let it flow, and I've really turned a corner processing a lot of things that are related to my emotions and my mental health. So it's the consistency.”
Unfortunately, Erika hit a rough patch during the pandemic lock-down, as her son was a senior in high school in 2020, and was unable to walk across a stage at an in-person graduation. After all the sacrifices Erika had made to raise her son, she was heartbroken to miss out on this milestone in her life.
“I only have one child, and I have sacrificed quite a bit over the years to make that happen. Limited family support, small family. And this was like crossing the threshold for me too. We made it, not just him, but we, and I was so excited. But then there was the pandemic and that whole struggle,” Erika said.
With lock down, isolation, cancellation of graduation, and the ruining of her son’s college plans out of state, Erika was at a true low point. Her therapist suggested forest bathing as a healthy release, so Erika Googled and found Rise.
“I found Rachel and Tami right at the right time for me,” Erika said. “I needed them. I desperately needed them, and I was in a low place, and I found them.”
On the day of her first forest bathing session, Erika was completely anxious. But like magic, the minute she pulled into the meeting location, Erika felt completely at ease.
“I pulled into the lane and I saw the sign that told me I was right where I was supposed to be,” Erika said. “I don't know, just something brand new came over me, and I've not been the same person since then.”
Erika walked up to the check-in table. She says that before she even said her name, she felt like Rachel already knew her somehow. The kinship was immediate.
“She's like, ‘I feel like you're supposed to be here. You're meant to be here. This is where you belong,’” Erika remembered.
“That first meeting was life changing,” Erika said. “I appreciated that time and that connection in the woods that day. I was stumbling on my words, big time. We went around the circle to introduce ourselves and just, you know, kind of break the ice a little bit. I couldn't even speak when I opened my mouth. I mean, I just started to bawl. I was so tense. I was so unnerved. I was just beside myself, and everyone started to well up. Everyone was feeling exactly what I was feeling, right along with me.”
From that first event, Erika felt a part of the Rise family.
“I knew that I was connected. I knew that I was connected to them. And I knew that I would be back for more,” Erika said. “I knew in that first meeting with them that this was going to be a lifelong journey with them by my side, and I was a part of this circle.”
In the Rise community, Erika feels free to completely be herself, unapologetically, saying that “They are willing to meet you where you are.”
“I trust them. I'm safe with them. There's no judgment. It's always so inspiring and uplifting. And it's so powerful.”
With Rise, Erika no longer felt alone. Even through the pandemic when she mainly attended virtual sessions, she felt so bonded through conversation and camaraderie with women across the country.
“I'm a lone wolf. I like to be by myself. I like to explore and do things by myself. But at the same time, I forget I can get caught up in what I'm doing by myself, and I forget how much the connection and the interaction matters and how great it makes me feel,” Erika said. “The connection and the interaction with these women with this group is priceless. Every time I get together with them, I feel like a better person, and then I feel so rejuvenated and refreshed afterwards.”
Joining Rise felt like an immediate sisterhood for Erika. She may still be somewhat of a “lone wolf,” but she knows that the Rise community is her pack.
“I am happy to say that through all of these interactions, I definitely am learning to love myself. I put myself first. And I don't think I ever would have done this, especially to this level, without them,” Erika said.
From here, Erika hopes to further embrace a new chapter of her life, now that her son is in college, and she is committed to self-love and care. She will continue returning to Rise and fueling herself with the energy Rise brings to her world.
“It’s the softest, yet the strongest support a woman could ever ask for,” Erika said. “I am forever changed by my connection with them.”