How to Take a Mental Health Retreat

montana de oro

I spent the evening of New Year’s Eve cramped in a car for about four hours. When I finally got to my destination, it was a hotel I wouldn’t recommend to the shadiest crack dealer. After passing by the police activity on the first floor, I made my way up to my room, where I discovered that one of the towels I used for my bath (believe me, I needed a BATH, not a shower after my previous day) had not been washed prior to my scheduled stay. I spent the evening trying, unsuccessfully, to connect to the wi-fi so I could work on my book, but ended up sacrificing my precious network data to stream Master of None from my cracked phone until about 1:00 am instead. I didn’t even notice the New Year when it passed. Instead, I happened to look at my phone around 12:07, only to lacksadaisically mutter to myself, “Oh. Happy 2016, me.”

To most people, this probably sounds like the most disappointing, boring, and lonely New Years Eve that anyone has ever experienced. But for me, it was everything I needed.

Let me back up a bit–and provide some context, because I think that would help.

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I recently experienced a breakup. In an effort to not come off as “airing dirty laundry”, I neglected to mention that said breakup occurred in the wee hours of December 30th. Even though I was fresh from an incredible road trip I took with my stepdad, I was in utterly miserable spirits thanks to this. So, in an effort to bring my pain level down from “hellish” to “bearable”, I vowed to take myself on a little mini-trip for the few following days–or, as I like to call it, a “Mental Health Retreat”. I left the afternoon of the 31st and spent four days in San Luis Obispo (and its surrounding areas), Lompoc, and Malibu. Sounds like paradise, right? Indeed, but that’s not why I went.

But before I go on, let’s look at pictures! YAY!

bishop peak hike
Shortly after I began my hike up Bishop Peak – San Luis Obispo (note: got a NON-CRAPPY camera for Christmas and I’m elated!!!!!)
Waves crashing down close to sunset at Montana de Oro State Park – Los Osos
A look from inside a comfy car at the dunes at Pismo Beach.
morro rock
Morro Rock – Morro Bay
view from bishop peak
The view from atop Bishop Peak – San Luis Obispo
Our barn at the ranch in Lompoc.
kids with donkey
Brother Declan (9), sister Abby (15), and fabulous Donkey Joshua (wise beyond his years…a wiseass…get it??!)
mare with foal
Our adorable horses, Big Red and Little Red (note: Big Red’s name is not really Big Red. That’s a placeholder because I’m a terrible person and I don’t remember her real name.)

Anyway, despite what you see above, I didn’t want it to be all paradise. In fact, even though I didn’t anticipate the hotel to be quite *that* crappy, I knew that I would be experiencing a range of emotions–many positive, but quite a few negative: wrenching remorse, cold apathy, sunny elation, deep sorrow. And believe it or not, wanted to feel all of those emotions. 

I wanted to come to terms with what had happened. I wanted to evaluate my life–past, present, and future–and figure out how I was going to move forward. I wanted to at least start the trip by spending a generous amount of time alone, which most people would find harrowing after a breakup. I decided, however, that I needed to feel the loneliness.

It sounds weird, but I think we become much more human and real if we allow ourselves to not only feel negative emotions, but bask in them. When we let these negative emotions run their proper course, we put less pressure and stress on ourselves to be this perfectly-put-together human (which, by the way, is impossible). Because I let myself experience a normally super-social, super-escapist holiday alone in an uncomfortable place, I feel like the negativity was all but flushed out of me that night.

It wasn’t all gloom, though. I also wanted to exercise, eat some delicious food, and see some beautiful sites while on my retreat, and I got to do all of those things. I also visited my stepmom, sisters, and little brother at our family ranch on Saturday and stayed the night at my dad’s house on Sunday. All was not emotionally wrenching; I had an amazing time.

If you’re having a rough time, and can afford (in both a time and money sense) to take a few days away, here are some ideas that can help make your Haley-style retreat a great one!:

  1. Have an open mind. This may be a retreat, but stuff like flat tires, lousy hotel rooms, and horribly inclement weather can still happen. Unless your budget is abnormally large, you must first come to terms with the fact that these things may happen and thus may interrupt your inner peace a tad. That’s okay, though. Just remember that this is your time and your only job is to make the most of it.
  2. Feel all the emotions you need to. That way, you can let go of the negative ones before you return to the “normal” world.
  3. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Distract your mind with newness–in a way that won’t damage you (or others) like a rebound will. Hooray for not using humans as unwilling objects!
  4. Go do stuff, but don’t put pressure on yourself to do a ton. Remember, this is more about taking a break from your routine and connecting with yourself.  While I’m normally a super-eager traveler who likes to pack in as many activities as possible, I felt better sticking with a couple of nice hikes or sightseeing activities per day during my short journey.
  5. Go somewhere where you can actually hear yourself think. This is why I chose SLO and the central coast: it’s super open, beautiful, and incredibly laid-back. Maybe don’t do places like New York or Miami if you’re trying to be as relaxed as possible.
  6. Let loved ones know where you’ll be. You might need space from the world, but the people you know and love aren’t suddenly going to stop caring about you. Let them know before you jet out that you’re taking some time. They will support you unequivocally.

I did get a few texts from said loved ones on New Year’s Eve–many of whom I hadn’t heard from in ages. Most of them had no idea about my breakup, they were just reaching out to say hi. So, be prepared for the fact that the littlest of nice surprises just might make you realize how lucky you are.



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