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Sydney Williams - Hiking My Feelings

094: Hiking My Feelings to Overcome Trauma – Sydney Williams

When former collegiate athlete and competitive skydiver, Sydney Williams, unexpectedly found herself on the receiving end of a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, while grappling with unresolved trauma from a decades-old sexual assault, she set out on a mission: turn her pain into power. Two hikes across Catalina Island and 80 miles later, she founded Hiking My Feelings® to help others tap into the mind-body connection and healing power of nature that helped kick her self-limiting beliefs and disease into remission. Having more than 10 years of marketing experience with Fortune 500 companies and emerging brands, Sydney serves up her “truth juice” style of storytelling to break wide open tough conversations with practical, powerful content and experiences. Over the years, she’s been featured on the SXSW stage, as well as in Huffington Post, Psychology Today, US News & World Report, and numerous other publications. Today, she is the author of Hiking My Feelings: Stepping Into the Healing Power of Nature and travels across the country empowering others to summit their personal mountains on their way to becoming Well Beings.

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • What motivated Sydney to take two long-distance hikes across Catalina Island.
  • How she shared a decades-old sexual assault and how she found healing.
  • Ways that people are joining Sydney on the journey of hiking their feelings.
  • Why getting help for traumatic experiences is so important. 

National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline:

Connect with Sydney:

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Interview Transcript

Sydney, thanks so much for taking some time to hang with me today. I appreciate it.

Yeah, thanks for having me.

All right, so Hiking My Feelings: Stepping into the Healing Power of Nature. How would describe this book to someone. Would you say it’s a memoire, or self-help, or a combination, or something else? How would you describe it?

I think my intention behind the book is that it’s the memoire that doesn’t leave you hanging. I feel like so many great people write memoires and there’s so many great lessons to learn, but they never take the extra step to pull those lessons out and teach you how you can integrate it into your own life. I’ve done that. The front majority of the book is the memoire and at the end is the prompts for reflection, which pulls out the key themes and lessons to help you integrate it into your own life.

Yeah, I felt that. I was on the edge of my seat as I’m going through the book. Honestly, I haven’t read the whole book, but I skimmed parts of it to get the essence of it before our conversation. One, you’re an incredible writer. This is a self-published book. I’m correct in that, right? I couldn’t find a publisher on it. Just a beautiful cover. Beautiful interior. You’re an excellent writer and/or you had an excellent editor, one of the two. Or both. So I really enjoyed getting — I felt like I was right there with you the entire time. I really did. Do you call it an epilogue at the ending?

Yeah.

It is an epilogue. The epilogue’s where you really unpack a lot of your learnings, I guess I would say.

Yeah. That is true.

You even have a coloring page in the book, what the heck? You’re out of control.

I figured the material itself can be kind of heavy. A large portion of the story revolves around connecting the dots around trauma and how it manifests in our minds and bodies. Which, as I discovered as we took this talk on the road last year, it stirs up a lot of emotions in folks. I wanted people to have the opportunity to read the story and just read it. Read the story as if you’re reading a book.

Enjoy it or don’t, whatever. But I wanted to give folks an opportunity of transitioning it back in their bodies. Because when you feel these kinds of emotions as you’re reading my story, a lot of it’s relatable. A lot of people have been through some really  hard stuff. I just wanted to give people an opportunity to bring it back to Earth. Because I spent a lot of time up in my head, over a decade, just in my mind. Not really connected back to my body. So I wanted to give folks a chance to transition and then jump into the reflection points.

All right, so the majority of the book chronicles two hikes that deeply impacted your life obviously. Help people understand what led to this first hike that you took and where you took it. Just take us there. Describe what you did and why you did it.

Yeah, to set it up, the first hike was in December 2016. It was across Catalina Island, which is off the coast of Los Angeles, California. The trail itself is 38.5 miles and it was my first backpacking trip. I had never done anything like this before. My first experience with backpacking was kind of an oopsie. In that originally during that time period we had planned to go up to Standing Rock to help with the water pipeline protest back in 2016. As we were getting to coordinate our travel up there, the tribes are like, “Hey, we’ve got way too many people on the land. Pump the breaks. If you’re not here, please. Appreciate your intent but you’re going to impact the land more than you’re going to help us. Please stay home.”

I had that week off of work and I was like, “Okay, let’s go do something outdoorsy.” My husband’s from New Hampshire, he’s been backpacking, hiking his whole life. We had done a couple day hikes here and there since we moved to Southern California. We had been camping at Joshua Tree sometimes but I had never actually been backpacking. To set the stage for what got me on the trail and what my mindset was in advance of that trip, I just went through two of the hardest years of my life. 2014 was the year where everything started melting down. That’s where the book starts. Chapter one, I’m in my kitchen on the floor, about to hear that one of my best friends just committed suicide.

It was just a brutal first part of the book. I’ve got to tell you. I’m like, “Oh my gosh. I’m dying with you.”

Yeah, looking back it’s nice to be able to laugh because I’ve done so much work around the losses that year. But yeah, January kicked off with my friend Chris, who was a U.S. Army veteran, former intelligence officer in the Army, he committed suicide. Later that year, my uncle Mike, who had previously beaten brain cancer, had the tumors come back and take his life. Later that summer, one of my best friends, Adam. Which a lot of people throw the word best friend around a lot. I get it. He legit was like the little brother I never had. I don’t want to have kids but if I did, I’d want them to grow up to be like Adam. He was really smart, and curious, and inquisitive. He went to Idaho for a base-jumping trip and didn’t come home from that trip. He died on a base-jump.

So 2014 was just terrible. When I got back from Adam’s memorial, I found out that my boss, who is also my skydiving coach, my mentor in the sport. He was the entire reason we moved from Chicago to Southern California, was so I could train at his facility to be a world-class skydiver. I found out that he was convicted of raping a 14 year old girl. I didn’t know it at the time. Even in the years that followed, I didn’t realize why that was such a big trigger for me, because I am a survivor of sexual assault. I thought it was just the icing on the cake, the straw that broke the camel’s back after a really hard year. But looking back, one of the people that I looked up to the most and trusted my life with. He signed my paychecks. When I found out that he was convicted on two felony counts of these kinds of things with a minor, no less. It was just a big red alarm. I was like, “Get out, get out, get out. I gotta go. I gotta go.” So 2014 was rough.

Just so people know, you were actually training people to skydive. You were an instructor and you were also an athlete in that sport, training to be –  I can’t remember the language, but you were training to be on the national team, I guess you would say. Right?

Yeah, I was down there. I was a coach helping new skydivers who have already learned how to skydive by themselves. I was helping them stay in the sport and be safe, and learn the skills that you need. Once you learned how to basically save your life and not kill other people in the sky, there is some skill progression that you can go through. So yeah, I was a coach in the sport. I was the director of events, PR and marking at the Drop Zone, where I was fully sponsored. Yeah, it rocked me. I moved out there to be a world champion skydiver. To get to the world championships, you have to make the national team and then you represent the United States as a skydiver. That was my goal. It’s like the Olympics for skydiving. That’s what I wanted to do.

That’s amazing. I was really intrigued by that early on in the book. And I’ve read that your husband has skydived – he’s got eight thousand dives, I guess you would say? Is that what you say?

Yeah.

I don’t even know what to say.

Yeah, he’s got – jumps.

It’s crazy. Yeah. Jumps! Hops. He’s got eight thousand hops. That is incredible. How many jumps do you have?

I retired at the end of 2014 and I had just under seven hundred jumps. Which is more than the average human and eight thousand is impressive. To put that into perspective of the progression of coaching and everything else, the coach that I was working with and some of my other coaches have twenty thousand skydives. At that point, you’ve spent years of your life in an aircraft and jumping out of a plane.

Right, right. Right. I don’t know if you’ll be impressed by this but I actually have zero jumps.

That’s amazing. Congratulations on preserving your life.

I also have zero lands, which means I’m always on land. That’s crazy. That’s all part of the back story. So you get on this hike with your husband and it’s 38.5 miles, I believe you said. Is that what you said? You know what’s crazy? I’ve never been to Catalina Island. I live in Costa Mesa, California, right across from it. My family and I just, right before Christmas, we had planned, we got our tickets to go over to Catalina. That day it absolutely poured rain. We got our money back for our tickets, so I still haven’t even been to Catalina. I haven’t sky dived. I haven’t been to Catalina. I just feel like I’m way behind on this journey with you.

All right, so you get there. You begin the trip. What starts coming up in you? Why was this such a phenomenal experience for you?

In 2013, I was probably in the best shape of my life as an adult. Sans being a child when you’re just naturally fit and metabolism’s on your side, and all that stuff. 2013 was my first year competing and going to the national competition, so I was probably in the best shape of my life. Then 2014 happened and everything melted down. All I could do was eat Ben & Jerry’s for breakfast and drink a bottle of wine to myself every night, just trying to numb the pain of all of this loss. In advance of that trip, because like I said, I’d never been backpacking before, I went shopping for the clothes that one would want for a multi-day backpacking trip. I went to go try on these clothes and I couldn’t get the pants over my legs. I couldn’t get the shirt to close. I was like, “Okay, I know the last couple years were rough, but dang. I don’t even recognize the body I’m in.”

What was coming up for me on the first trip, was a lot of body stuff. But not the way that it had come up in the past and not what I had expected. In that dressing room, historically when I go shopping I’m kind of an asshole to myself. I say unkind things about my body like, “If you skip that hot dog, those pants might fit.” Just really judgey. But in that dressing room in December 2016 for the first time maybe ever in my life, I wasn’t. I was just curious. I was like, “Hey girl, how’d you get here?” What’s up with this body?” It was more curiosity than judgement. That kind of set the stage for the stuff that I was processing on the first trip, which was largely, “Okay, I don’t recognize my body but it can do amazing things.”

That was a big shift for me. To move from, what does my body look like and how does that tie into my self-worth? To, what is my capable of and where can it take me? As a woman in particular, was a humongous shift. On that first trip I remembered that I can do hard things. I was a Division I athlete in college. Was on the women’s rowing team in the University of Kansas. I’ve jumped out of planes almost seven hundred times. Pretty athletic kid growing up and into early adulthood. I just remembered that I could do hard things. I didn’t recognize my body but the body I didn’t recognize took me almost all the way across Catalina Island, so I’m not mad about it. Wow, what a powerful vessel I have to move through this world. It was just a total shift on how I perceived myself, what I’m capable of, and my relationship with my body. That really started to improve on that first hike.

Was that something that you were verbally processing with your husband as you’re hiking. Or are you just all in your head in this process? How did that play out?

A little bit of both. Barry was with me for both of these hikes. He’s intensely aware of my process, which involves a lot of crying. That is the easiest way for me to move stagnant energy out of my body, is just let it drain out of my face. I used to resist that forever. I used to channel it in other ways and I would numb because that felt better than crying, because apparently crying’s  not good for you in some social circles. But once I got over that, I was like, “This is just how I process. This is how I move energy. Because once I get it out, I feel better.” It really turned things around for me. So Barry was there.

Some of it was verbal like I was literally shouting at points, “Right foot, left foot” to try to keep myself going. Because there were points on the first day on that first trip, where I had to literally physically pick up my leg and drag it up the mountain. I had aggravated an injury that I had when I was wrong at the University of Kansas. I was just dragging my leg up the mountain shouting, Right foot, left foot” to myself. Sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head. Barry would just turn around every once in a while and be like, “You okay?” I’m like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “I’m proud of you.” I’m like, “I’m getting there. I’m almost proud of me too.” I wasn’t for a while. For a while I would just be like, “Thank you.” Then eventually towards the end of the trip I was like, “Yeah! I’m proud of me too.”

You talk in the book about a shift from eating and drinking your feelings to hiking your feelings. What is that phrase hiking my feelings mean to you? How did that come up for you? Was that in the first trip? Second trip? How did that come up for you?

Hiking my feelings in the realization that I had shifted coping mechanisms came after my diabetes diagnosis. After the first hike in 2016, nine months later I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, which was a major catalyst for change in my entire life. I firmly believe we all know how to take care of ourselves. We all know what we need to be eating. We all know that we should be moving our bodies. We all know we should be processing emotions in a healthy way. But we have made it so darn easy to avoid feeling feelings, that I had been, since the assault, which is now fourteen years ago. And especially since all my friends started dying, I had been eating and drinking my feelings.

It was on the training hike for the Trans Catalina trail for our second trip, this was four days after I quit the start-up. Which I had quit my big cushy agency job, six-figure salary, all that stuff to join my friend’s start-up after my diabetes diagnosis because the stress was just killing me. And the stress was primarily coming from my career. So I left corporate world to join my friend’s start-up, and then in that transition, I did not anticipate how much stress I would be under. I knew that leaving corporate to go to start-up life would not be a stress reducer in and of itself. But when I got diagnosed with diabetes, I realized that everything that I thought was a bragging point on my resume, was actually teaching people how to be numb and be sick. And I was a byproduct of the work I was doing.

So I left for the start-up, which was rooted in women’s empowerment and social justice, thinking that, “Yeah, it’s going to be a stressful transition but at least if I wake up every day knowing that I’m making the world a better place, instead of teaching people how to be sick and numb. Then maybe the stress will be worth.” That was cute too. So hiking my feelings came on this realization on this training hike after I had just quit two jobs in the span of nine months. I had nothing else lined up. I was the breadwinner, currently not baking any bread. There was nothing in the over. We had nothing else lined up. We don’t have any savings to speak of, I just quit. I have to get my health under control. I can’t keep living like this.

I was on the top of Stonewall Peak, it’s a mountain in Cuyamaca State Park outside of San Diego, California. I realized at the summit, I was just super chill and had been for a minute. Historically if I was in this position a year ago, two years ago, I would be freaking out. Why am I not doing that?” That’s when I realized that thanks to diabetes, my normal coping mechanisms of eating and drinking my feelings, those had to go out the window. If I was going to be the best diabetes patient my doctor’s ever seen, because I’m a people pleaser and I like getting gold stars, then I couldn’t keep eating Ben & Jerry’s for breakfast and I couldn’t keep drinking wine to myself every night. So those were out and hiking had replaced that. That’s how hiking my feelings was born. Just this realization that I had shifted coping mechanisms thanks to a diabetes diagnosis. Then it unfolded into everything you see today, because it just did.

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. One of the things that you talk about in the book is this sexual assault that happened. That in the process of these two hikes, that a lot of that was coming up for you. I found it interesting that you had not told your husband about this assault and that that came up in the process. Obviously this is super sensitive subject but it’s a major part of the book. Can you take us through a bit of your process? How the assault had impacted you? I’m not asking you to talk about the assault, I’m just asking you how that had impacted you over the years and how this process of hiking had somehow allow that to come to the surface and allowed you to begin to talk about it with your husband. Can you take us through that a bit?

Yeah, so the assault happened now fourteen years ago. It was from an acquaintance from work. So when that happened, I thought I must have brought this upon myself. Maybe I asked for it. Since I know the guy, is it rape? Because in my mind, fourteen years ago, I had a very narrow definition of what sexual assault was. I thought if it didn’t happen in an alley with a stranger who had a gun to my head, then it wasn’t sexual assault. So I slut shamed myself into silence. I thought maybe I had been too flirty at work. Maybe I had led him on. I was drinking the night before and gave an explicit now. I said, “No, we are not going to have sex. I do not want to do that with you.” I thought maybe I was Cinderella and consent expired at midnight because I woke up and it was happening.

Immediately after it happened, I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell the girl who’s house it happened at. I didn’t call the cops. I didn’t go to the hospital. I just went home, showered, and swore I’d take it to the grave. I was like, “Girls like us don’t get raped. We’re smarter than this. We will not talk about this ever because there is so much shame that you allowed this to happen to you.” That was my mentality around it. That I allowed it to happen to me. Looking back now, I just want to hug my younger self. I’m like, “Oh, girl. You did not bring that upon yourself. The only person’s who’s fault that is the man who committed the crime. You did not ask for it. Whatever.

So for the immediate impacts right after the assault, was it happened when I was in college. I was on track to go to med school. I was in chemistry 101. I started failing the class because I was distracted by the trauma. I couldn’t focus. I could not perform academically. I dropped the class because I thought I was stupid and I didn’t want it to drag down my GPA.

Can I interrupt you for just a second?

Of course.

The thing that I want people to hear, this is a place of ignorance and learning for me. I’ll just share with you. When I talk about that, “I could not focus in the class because of the trauma.” There’s a part of me, Sydney, inside that’s going, “Wow, okay. I see that that’s an incredibly traumatic event. I have not had something like that happen to me.” Yet I’m going, “It’s so traumatic that it’s bleeding into the rest of your life and that you’re not able to focus.” That’s a bit hard. I can kind of understand it intellectually but I want to make sure people get that. That somehow it’s not just this one and done like it’s a capsulized thing. Like what happened in the bedroom is left in the bedroom, or whatever. It continued on. You’re sitting in class, how does that distract you? Help me understand that more.

For me it was flashbacks. It was replying the situation over and over in my head to see where I fucked up and where I brought this violence upon myself. Was it something I was wearing? Was it something I said? Was it the way I looked at him? Because we worked at a restaurant together, was it the way I looked at him when I went to go pick up dishes for my tables? It was all consuming. At the same time, I did not feel safe to share that with anybody. So it was an incredibly lonely, painful, solo journey.

Something else to note, and for parents that are listening for people who haven’t experienced sexual assault or don’t know someone that they know of who’s said that they’ve been through it. Because every seventy-three seconds in this country, somebody is being sexually assaulted. One in three women will experience sexual violence before they die, and one in six men will too. So it is prevalent. Not a lot of people talk about it for all the aforementioned reasons. But my behavior was so uncharacteristic of me after the assault. Because leading up to the assault, I was a pretty good student. If I tried a little harder, I could have gotten all A’s. School was too easy for me. I was bored. I didn’t really put myself into it.

I was a travelling competitive cheerleader in high school. I was on the women’s rowing team at the University of Kansas. Then my family moved to Florida, I took a year off for gap year so I could get in-state tuition and not pay out state tuition prices. Everything was on track. I was going to go to med school. I was going to go to be a head and neck surgeon. I was going to save lives like the doctor that saved my mom when my mom had cancer when I was a senior in high school. That was my plan. I couldn’t focus in school. I started making really questionable relationship decisions afterwards. I also contracted an STD from my rapist, so when that happened and I was dating somebody after the assault, he thought that I was dirty, and disgusting, and deceitful for not telling him. I didn’t know. I didn’t know until I went to the doctor and had an abnormal pap smear that I had an STD.

There was just so much shame. I’m twenty one at this point, just trying to get through it. So yeah, my academic performance slid. I started making questionable relationships choices. Like I dated a guy who forgot to mention that he was married. Whoopsie. Like that’s a detail you just leave out. If I was my parents back then looking at their daughter pre-assault and post-assault, I’d be like, “What’s up with our girl? What happened?” But there was none of that. I felt like nobody gave a shit. Granted I hadn’t told anybody and I didn’t ask for help because I didn’t know how and I didn’t feel safe. But ultimately it completely derailed my life.

Would I change anything? No. Because the life that I’m living today is so beautiful and everything that I’ve been through, I might not be healing people on a surgery table. I might not be in the OR cutting cancer out of you, but I’m a healer through and through. It’s just being channeled in a different way  now. Yeah, after the assault, it was just academic performance first went down. Then I switched my major. So when I was going through chem 101 and I couldn’t even pass it, I was like, “Who the hell do you think you are, girl? If you are trying to go to med school, you need to get into organic chem. You need to get into physics and all these higher level science classes.” How do you think you’re going to do that? This is not your lane, pick a new one.

I just thought, maybe I’d been faking it my whole life or maybe I got lucky with school before. I was so blind to the fact that it was the trauma that was derailing every part of my life. At the time I was bartending, which was really convenient because it made getting drunk easy and free, because that was how I numbed the pain. I was bartending at the time, had a bunch of regulars at the steakhouse I was working at. I was like, “Okay, what am I good at?” I’m good at upselling vodka and telling stories. I guess I’ll do PR and marketing.”

That’s how I chose my life path. In the state of unresolved trauma. Largely influenced by alcohol, because that was how I was numbing the pain. And just throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks, because I was just so discombobulated from the path that I was on. It’s like if you’re in a really nice Mercedes or something and you’re just coasting on the highway. Life is so cool. Then you just go off-roading and you’re like, “This car’s not meant for this!” My life felt like a train that went off the tracks.

Take us to how that began to come for you though this hiking experience and how you ultimately shared that with your husband.

I think the first hike on that first day when I was dragging my leg up the mountain. I’d been to a bajillion different yoga classes and yoga instructors across the board have always said, “Trauma is stored in the hips. Memory is stored in the hips.” I was always like, “Oh, that sounds so woo-woo.” I never really understood that until that hike when I was dragging my leg up the mountain. I was like, “It was a hip flexor injury. And so I have the physical injury and the emotional memories that are coming up.” I was like, “Oh, I get it.” I finally understood what they meant when they said trauma is stored in the hips. Because as soon as I had to start dragging that leg up the mountain, I remembered the time that I was on the rowing team and when that happened.

I write about it in the book. What I wrote in the book is legit what happened on that mountain. I was dragging it and it was like I was thrust into a time travelling machine and I was there. I was in the training room at the University of Kansas. I had just popped my hip flexor because I had just figured out to actually drag with my ass on an ergonomic rowing machine. I was just like, “I get it.” So I started paying attention. Because I had been so disconnected from my body since the assault, through all the trauma of losing twenty-three friends in four years. I was just so in my head and not in my body that when I remembered that rowing thing, I was like, “Oh, okay. I’m going to follow this memory.”

I had been through some various personal development, self-growth kinds of courses. I was familiar with the vocabulary. There’s a lot of woo-woo language and spiritual language that I understand the meaning of the words but not how it landed with me. That first trip was where I started to, “Oh.” I started to get it. There wasn’t really any thought about the assault or anything like that on the first hike. But the summer between the first hike and the second hike in 2017, it was late spring, early summer. I don’t remember exactly when I told Barry but we were on the couch watching The Bachelor of all things. We kind of rage watched the show. It’s how we learned how to be good humans because everything on that show, if you do the polar opposite in a relationship, you’ll find tremendous success.

So we rage watch it and we were doing that. For anybody that doesn’t watch the show, in general there’s a lot of sitting on couches. All these girls are competing for one man’s attention, and so when they’re not doing that, they’re sitting around talking. They shot one of these scenes where these girls were talking about something. She didn’t explicitly say that she had been assaulted and she hadn’t talked about it. But as somebody who had been and hadn’t talked about it, I read through the lines and I was like, “Oh. Yeah.” Because she was talking about how this thing happened to her, and she was so ashamed about it and she never told anybody. My husband paused it and he was like, “Is this a thing? Do women walk around with this list of things that they don’t talk about because they’re so ashamed that it happened to them and they don’t want to be judged for it?” I was like, “Oh baby, yes.”

I’m thinking, I’ve got this whole list. That guy, I forgot to mention he was married. He thought that that was not important. There’s all these things where I don’t talk about it because I don’t want people to judge me that I found myself in that situation or that it happened to me. I fancy myself pretty smart and self-aware, and I don’t want to give up that facade. I’m a tough broad. I can handle myself. He was like, “Well, you know, if anything like that has ever happened to you. If you ever want to talk about it. Safe space. I am here. I will do whatever I can to support you through it. Just so you know.” I was like, “Okay, cool.” And I knew exactly what I wanted to tell him. I wanted to tell him about the assault because I hadn’t told anybody. And I wasn’t ready then, but a couple weeks later I was like, “Hey, so babe, remember when we were watching The Bachelor and you said I could tell you anything? I’ve got something.”

I told him and he held me, and I cried and it was awful and awesome at the same time. Awful, because once it came out of my mouth, then it was real. For as long as I held that to myself, I thought if I didn’t tell anybody. Part of the reason I didn’t tell anybody is because I didn’t want to say it out loud, because then that makes it more real. I figured if I keep this myself, then maybe there’s a chance that I dreamt that it happened and that I didn’t actually experience the most violent thing that can happen to the human body short of being murdered. But I did. I had been carrying that by myself for eleven years by the time I found the courage and felt safe enough to share it with somebody. I’m really thankful that the person I felt safe enough to share it with was my husband. And that he responded in such a positive way.

Because as a survivor or sexual assault, the first words that come out of somebody’s mouth after you tell them, really determine your healing journey and what it’s going to be like. I knew instinctively that I could not share this with my parents after it happened. By the time I actually told my father what happened, this was summer of 2018. I told him about my assault for the first time and he told me that my story was bullshit and that I better come up with a new one because nobody’s buying the one I’m telling.

If he had done that when I was twenty one years old and daddy was still my best friend, and he was the man who could do no wrong. He’s the person I aspire to be like and live my life like. I want to impress him at every possible opportunity because I’m the first born and I should be the best daughter. If he had said that to me when I was twenty-one and I came home after that happened, I don’t know that I’d be doing this interview with you here today honestly. That might have been the thing that took me off this planet, if I’m being totally truthful with you.

So painful. How did that second hike help you process and move toward hiking your feelings?

I had made the discovery about the shift in the coping mechanisms before the hike. So my thought going into the second hike was like, “Okay, at this point I’ve been diagnosed with diabetes. I’ve lost sixty pounds. I’ve done this hike at my heaviest, at my worst physical condition.” 2016, I rolled off the couch after two of the hardest years of my life and onto the trial. No prep, no training, no nothing. And I made it almost all the way across the island. We didn’t finish the first hike, so the second one I was like, “What would be possible if the hike itself wasn’t the hard part?” Because I know physically I can handle this at the worst condition I’ve ever been in. What is possible now that I am physically ready? I’m sixty pounds lighter. I did break in my shoes this time. What is available to me in this experience? I’m open for it.

If there’s anything. There’s some journal entries that I wrote before the second hike that I include in the book. At one point I was just like, “If there’s anything else that I need to give up or get rid of, or lose, or cut ties with, whatever it is, show me. God, universe, unicorns, whatever you believe in. I need to know. There is nothing in my way. I am cracked all the way open. Whatever’s holding me back from being my best self and bringing as much of my story to the world that can help people, I want to serve. What is my purpose here? Show me.”  The first hike I say is the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically. That is still true to this day. That second hike is the hardest thing I’ve ever done emotionally.

I just went through every possible thing that came up in my head. I followed it. I processed it. I let it go. When it came back, I worked through it again because it’s never gone the first time. By the end of it, I had stripped away everything I’m not, so I could start to figure out who I am and build that life. Because I, for the longest time, had been living a life, a, in an unresolved trauma response from the assault. But the major through-line of that whole thing was just like, “I just want my parents to be proud of me. I just want them to love me. I want to do everything that they’ve ever said I could. I want to show them that I can.” I spent a lot of time in my younger years performing this role of who I thought my parents wanted me to be. Who I thought society needed me to be. On that second hike, I just burned it down. That was my phoenix journey, right? I stripped away everything that I thought I believed, everything I thought I cared about, everything I thought I knew, and reevaluated it.

I react very viscerally to be challenged or not believed because for ten years I thought if I opened my mouth about this, people wouldn’t believe me. In realizing that that was how I was reacting to a lot of different situations, I was like, “Okay, so Sydney who is healed and whole and worthy, how does she show up in a situation? Is that how she would respond?” “No? Well, okay, well let’s build this new foundation from where I operate in the world and how I show up, and let the rest fill in the blanks.” That’s kind of the summary of the adventures across the island on that second hike. It was massively emotional. 

Yeah, yeah. So you’ve written this book, Hiking My Feelings. And you’re now on a book tour and you’re speaking at all different locations. What is the core message that you want people to walk away with? Whether they read the book or they come to an event and they hear you speak, what’s the core thing that you want them to know, feel, be, do? Tell me.

I think the biggest core takeaway is, a, you’re not alone. There is so much of my story that I keep hearing from people who have read it. They send me messages darn near every day where they’re like, “Holy crap. I feel like you wrote the book of my life.” That’s not because my journey is some unique thing that nobody’s ever been through. In fact, it’s the opposite. We are all walking around here holding our breath for whatever reason. Maybe we’re stressed out about work or family, or kids, or money, or we’re taking care of our parents as they get older. We’re going through a divorce or we just got diagnosed with cancer. Everybody’s running around just holding their breath, just trying to figure out how to keep it all together.

But we’re all doing that. So for me, hiking feels like a big exhale. I can just let it out and be like, “Okay, cool. What’s actually going on in the world?” For me hiking feels like that. My husband feels like that. So if there’s a takeaway, you’re not alone. When you find someone or something, or a place that feels like you can just <exhale>, lean all the way into that. Just lean into it because I carried that stuff by myself for so long. There’s my three takeaways, where the first one is, get help, treat the wound. Because like I said, trauma is not just a scratch. We can’t just put a band aid on it. I feel like that’s been a major misstep in healthcare in general, and just the human experience. So far in all of the developments we’ve  made, we still look at mental health as this problem to be fixed. It’s fixed by a pill and we don’t get to the root of why these symptoms are manifesting.

So first thing’s first, get help, treat the wound. Because if I was sitting here on this chat with you doing this interview and I had my guts spilling out of my midsection, you would not be like, “Let’s continue the interview,” I would hope. You’d be like, “Hey, get off the screen. Go to the hospital.” But we don’t do that with mental health. We tell people to suck it up. We tell them not to cry. We have a really unrealistic expectation of what it means to return to work and what kind of timeline you should be on following a traumatic event. For me, my trauma was sexual assault, but there’s all the things we’ve already talked about. There’s divorce, disease, gun violence. There’s so many things that are traumatic and there’s this air of competition. Because trauma’s not a competition either.

The worst thing that’s happened to me, the worst thing I’ve survived and the worst thing you’ve survived may be completely different, but it’s still the worst thing we’ve ever been through. In our world, that’s the most traumatic thing ever. It’s not a competition because we all process this differently. We’re all born on different foundations with different resources from which to process and that can help us on our journey. But the first one of the takeaways is get help, treat the wound because you can’t just slap a band aid on trauma. The second that we start treating emotional trauma with the same tenacity and urgency we do physical trauma, I legit think we could have a completely different experience on this planet as humans. Because we’re real good at avoiding feeling feelings. I was an expert avoider of feeling the feelings. That’s a big one.

Get outside. You don’t have to go hike across an island. You don’t have to go do one of these big six month journeys from Canada to Mexico. You don’t need to go free solo El Cap. It’s not even hiking. I’ve said from the beginning, this is bigger than my story and it’s bigger than hiking. The key thing is, get the device out of your face and reconnect with yourself. Because for me, that had to happen in the backcountry. There was no Instagram. I wasn’t scrolling through my cell phone. I wasn’t even listening to music. There’s healthy ways to cope and there’s socially acceptable ways to cope. Then there’s really unhealthy ways to cope. I had drowned myself in music and movies and just numbing, because that keeps you from hearing your own thoughts.

I had to be in complete silence, completely physically exhausting my body, before I could actually hear the voices in my head and pay attention to what they were saying. Then evaluate that for what it was, instead of following every thought until the end of it. Because we are not our thoughts. These are just things that we can observe and I spent a lot of time reacting to everything that came through my head because I didn’t have a process to cope that was healthy. So for me, it was hiking.

Then whenever we have a chance, and I believe we always have the choice, choose love over fear. Because when I was in that dressing room the first time, I was choosing love for myself over the fear of being fat. That my mother, and society, and everybody else had instilled in me from a very young age. It was the worst thing I could do as a woman, was to be fat. That was how I was raised. That’s what I grew up believing. In that moment in that dressing room, I didn’t judge myself. I wasn’t nasty. That was the first little switch that flipped that turned me on the healing journey. Where it wasn’t like, “Oh girl, you’re gross.” It’s like, “Hey, how’d we get here? Let’s investigate instead of judgement, and hatred, and diets, and obsessive workouts.” It was cool.

Then when I got diagnosed with diabetes, in that case, I was choosing love for myself over the fear of what happens when you leave that disease untreated. Untreated diabetes is a monster disease. There’s heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, all kinds of things. In that case I was like, “No, I’m going to be the best diabetes patient my doctor’s ever seen. I’m taking this as my opportunity versus a burden, versus a death sentence.”

Then the last one, when I get to share this story, whether it’s a podcast, or writing the book, or doing a book tour, these speaking engagements, every time I get to stand up or sit down and share this story, I’m choosing love for myself over the fear of what happens when a woman speaks her truth. Especially when it comes to trauma conversations. Unless you work in a healing modality, we don’t really talk about this stuff. We’re not really equipped to help each other through this. We’re not even equipped to help ourselves through it. So whenever I get to share my story, I’m kind of throwing double fingers up to every system that wants women to be small, and quiet, and to get along, and not rock the boat. Because this is rocking the boat.

Me sharing my story rocks the boat because we don’t talk about this. Especially  not about sexual assault. This is not a welcome conversation. You’ve seen what happens in the media, on TV, in the work place. Reporting in and of itself is a terrifying, retraumatizing event because nobody’s trauma informed. The police don’t know how to handle this. They don’t. There’s a really great docudrama based on a real story. It’s on Netflix. It’s called Unbelievable. It’s about a young woman who reports a sexual assault and the police are like, “Are you sure that’s how that happened?”

Then she doubts herself and she’s like, “Okay, I’m not going to go through this again.” She’s like, “Yeah, you know what? I lied. Sorry. My bad. Oopsies.” Then as it turns out, the man who assaulted her was a serial rapist across multiple states and multiple jurisdictions, and they started having these women call in these things. They realized she wasn’t lying. This guy has been doing this around this region for years. It’s the most accurate representation of what it’s like to be retraumatized by telling the story.

It’s called Unbelievable on Netflix?

Yeah, it’s so good. It’s really hard to get through the first couple episodes, especially if you’re a survivor. Because you’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s why I didn’t talk about it.” It’s so real, and true, and honest. It’s a lot. Then you get into it and you see there’s one cop that cares and there’s one cop that gets it. That is the only thing it takes, is one person to believe you, so you can feel worthy of just sharing about this thing. Then start to heal from it. Because carrying this by myself for as long as I did, I wasn’t able to heal until I allowed myself to admit that this happened to me and then move forward.

Because for the longest time, I was just trying to not feel pain. That wasn’t healing. I wasn’t healing by any stretch. I write about this. I wrote the book. The hikes were incredible. That hike didn’t solve all my problems. In fact, it launched me into what has been one of the what has been one of the hardest journeys of my life, which is healing from something that I had been avoiding for over a decade. There’s a lot of unpacking that has to come with that. I wouldn’t say that hiking is the end-all be-all for me, but it is the place where I can do this work in the most authentic, unavoidable kind of way. I can’t run from my thoughts when I’m in the backcountry with nowhere else to go except from point, to point, to point, to point.

Right. The book is called Hiking My Feelings: Stepping into the Healing Power of Nature. People can find you, your book tour at www.hikingmyfeelings.com. Sydney, you are incredible. I can see why this book and people are coming and wanting to hear you. The word that comes to my mind is mesmerizing. You are mesmerizing. I’m pulled in and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, she’s pulling me into this world. I can’t get away.” In a good way. It’s really magnetic. Really powerful. Congratulations on the book, and the tour, and just incredible.

One last thing that you want to share to people who are listening and maybe somebody who has experienced assault but hasn’t had the opportunity or hasn’t wanted to share that, what would you say to him or her?

I would say that the only people that benefit from our silence are the criminals who perpetrate this violence against our bodies. Nobody else benefits. I did not benefit. My family did not benefit. My friends did not benefit. Now I’m not saying you have to go have this huge revelatory outdoor experience and then go on a speaking tour around the United States and share your story with all the people who will possibly listen. That might not be your journey but at least have the conversation with yourself. Because for the longest time, I didn’t even talk to myself about what happened.

Through the sharing and hearing of other stories from other survivors. I realized that, a, yeah, what happened to me was assault and b, I’m not okay with this. I don’t want to feel like a victim. As a survivor of a crime, you are a victim of the crime. But the shift from victim to survivor is hands down one of the most important mindset shifts of the healing journey, and perhaps probably where you should start. If you’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this happened to me.” And you’re blaming yourself, and you’re silencing yourself, and you’re going through all that, try on the survivor hat for a minute. Because walking around being angry at the world that this happened to you and it’s so unfair, that’s true. And it is.

Until we have some radical policy changes in this country, until we have some radical accountability in this country for the people that are doing these crimes and not being held accountable. Until that happens, there’s a lot that we have to carry by ourselves and for ourselves so we can heal. Because if we wait around for justice, it’s never going to happen. Honestly. We’ll all be walking around here broken, and hurt, and angry, and every interaction that we have with people is coming from that place of unresolved trauma. Once we start healing, then we see every interaction I have with another human being is an opportunity for me to heal and for me to impart something that could possibly make their lives better. Because even if you’re not a survivor of sexual assault, I guarantee you know somebody even if they haven’t told you that they have been through that.

Sydney, thank you so much for your authenticity and the book, and just being with us today. I really appreciate it.

Thank you.

thank you!