I frantically flipped through my car’s manual, trying to figure out how to shift into 4WD. The rain was coming down harder and water was rushing down the dirt path that quickly ascended to a steep incline which loomed menacingly in front of my stalled car. We were seemingly in the middle of a forest, with no one around for miles, without cell service…lost. I figured out how to engage the 4WD and my car chugged up the hill, making it to the top. At the top, there was only about 1 inch of clearance from my car to the edge of the road, which also happened to be a cliff with a straight drop off.
This was the beginning of my spring break trip which, little did I know, would embody the quote: “As we learn about others, we learn about ourselves; as we learn about ourselves, we learn anew about others; and when we are open to what we learn about others and ourselves, we change.” (Elizabeth Campbell, Doing Ethnography Today) The trip was a part of a class I am taking. The goal was to travel to the designated city, stay in cabins in the nearby state forest, and then work with community partners for the week; a research and volunteer trip combined. The site my research partner and I chose was a recovery and transitional housing program for women recovering from drug addiction.
We finally made it to the cabins, a little disoriented, but alive. The first day at our site was more emotionally jarring than the adventure to the cabins. We were completely thrown out of our comfort zones and faced with the weight of the tragedies the women we were working with had lived through. We sat in on an art therapy session as the women talked about their experiences. For the sake of confidentiality I won’t go into detail, but it’s an understatement to say I was not prepared. The topics that were discussed presented the opportunity to dive into the discomfort, rather than running away from it, in order to fully comprehend the experience. The balance between bearing the pain in empathy and the defense mechanism of numbing the emotions and becoming detached from the situation was difficult to navigate. But in order to stay present, I had to acknowledge things in my own life that were being surfaced through the experience.
After the first day, going to the sessions got easier. We got to know the women and developed respect and trust. My teammate and I had long discussions about the various things that came to the surface from our own lives. I realized how important it was to process these things and work together. Of all the things I learned over the course of the week with the women and my teammate, what resonated with me so deeply was the striking perseverance, resilience, and vulnerability of the women we had the privilege to get to know.
I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where a group of people were that real and authentic with me, explaining their struggles, experiences, and overall just being face to face with raw humanity. I couldn’t help but realize how connected I felt to these women even though I have never experienced addiction in my own life. I was absolutely amazed, and quite frankly floored, by their willingness to open up to us: two random students they had just met. I was so inspired by how far they have come and their persistence and hope to live a better life. I can’t even imagine going through half of the things these women have lived through.
It’s amazing what happens when we step outside our comfort zones and put ourselves out there. It’s incredible the amount of things you can learn from someone if you are just willing to listen. Being someone who is quick to bottle up emotions and laugh things off, I left the week with an intense sense of appreciation and awe of the strength to open up, courage to allow yourself to process things, and the beauty of being vulnerable.