The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When I was 15, a psychiatric hospital nearly ruined my life. This advice saved me.

By the time I left the hospital, I was the scattered wreckage of a teenager

Banning Lyon backpacking in 2011 through Inyo National Forest in California. (Karen Najarian)
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I’ve worked as a backpacking guide in Yosemite National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore for over a decade. On an average workday, I’ll patch a client’s blistered feet in the rain, shoo away bears, and make daiquiris for folks using rum, Kool-Aid, and snow. But the truth is that I’ve spent most of my adult life avoiding people — because before I became a guide, I’d been a victim of one of the largest mental health care fraud scams in the history of the United States.

When I was 15 in 1987, my school counselor called my estranged parents and told them I was suicidal after I’d given away my skateboard. She said it was a call for help. I told them it wasn’t true.

“I bought another board,” I said. “My friend broke his, so I gave him mine. I wanted a different one.”

It didn’t matter.

The next day they signed me into a psychiatric hospital owned by a company that would eventually plead guilty to paying kickbacks and bribes for patient referrals, leading to the largest settlement ever between the federal government and a health care provider at the time.

I spent 11 months sitting in a chair facing the pastel-colored wall of my room, sometimes for up to 12 hours a day. The staff called it “chair therapy.” They said I was supposed to think about my problems.

Most days I was forced to eat alone in my room, with a tray of food resting on my lap while I stared at the wall. I wasn’t allowed to go outside, touch anyone, or speak privately with my parents or other patients. I eventually grew so sensory deprived I could smell rain or sweat on the incoming staff’s clothing, even from a distance. By the time I left the hospital, I was the scattered wreckage of a teenager. The chaos and noise of the world filled me with a superheated rage. I spent most of high school fantasizing about publicly hanging myself from the rafters of the gym.

Homeless mom left her dog with note, ‘please love me.’ A shelter reunited them.

But the one thing that brought me genuine happiness, that quieted my flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, was being outside. After nearly a year of living in the equivalent of solitary confinement, even the sight of a few finches splashing in a rainy puddle brought tears to my eyes. Every detail of the natural world seemed surreal now.

Before I began working as a guide, I’d long believed that other people were better or more normal than me. Only a handful of my friends knew details of my past, that I’d watched the hospital staff strap kids to beds, sometimes for weeks and months at a time. One of my closest friends from the unit had been tied to his bed with leather Posey restraints for nearly a year. Angry red bedsores surrounded his wrists and ankles when he was finally released. He needed physical rehabilitation before he could walk again.

It wasn’t until I began spending days in the backcountry with clients that I realized I wasn’t different from them; they weren’t better or more normal than me. They were alcoholics or cutters or parents who had alienated their kids. They had lost siblings and spouses to cancer and suicide. Once, early in my first season, a freckled woman from Boston, with the accent to prove it, broke down in tears while we were carrying water back to camp.

“My dad died last year,” she said. “He won’t be there to walk me down the aisle. He’ll never be a grandfather to my kids.”

Her partner was on the trip with her. He had proposed the day before, at the foot of Yosemite’s Bridalveil Fall, hours before meeting us.

We needed a break from cancer. So we drove an RV across the country and learned some unexpected things.

I stood there, dumbfounded, listening to her grieve the loss of her father. She was sitting on a log in front of an enormous Ponderosa pine, its graceful branches hovering over her, as if her father were trying to comfort her again.

I knew at that moment that I’d found my place in the world, and that I needed to come to terms with my past, but I never would have found the courage without the serenity of nature and the help of my clients.

Week after week, trip after trip, we explored different portions of the park, always coming to rest in some beautiful campsite at the foot of one of Yosemite’s towering granite peaks. Together we’d build a fire and then cook dinner and talk about our lives.

Slowly, over those first few weeks, I began sharing portions of my past, only to discover that no one thought any differently of me. They didn’t scream and run away. They didn’t stare at me in silence. Instead, they hugged me and wept with me. Some of them even understood what it was like to witness abuse and suffering, and to be helpless to stop it. By the end of that first season, it wasn’t only nature that seemed surreal, but also the kindness of people.

Today, after guiding hundreds of clients, I’m still wounded. I’ve learned there is no finish line for healing. But my wounds have meaning now — and for that, and for the people who have made it possible, I will be forever grateful. Years ago, just weeks after I’d been hired, my boss invited me to go on a backpacking trip with her and two of her closest friends.

“Think of it as your orientation,” she said, tossing her pack on her back at the trailhead. It turns out one of the men on the trip was her mentor: a 70-year-old retired biology teacher who looked like a gold miner who had gotten lost in the mountains. On the last morning of our trip, while we were sitting by a small lake in the shade of some alder trees, I asked him for a bit of guiding wisdom.

What he gave me was hope.

“Just keep all your folks on the trail,” he said. “They’ll show you the way.”

Banning Lyon is a public speaker and backpacking guide for REI. He is currently working on a memoir.