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When I think of the word retreat, it conjures up an image of sitting a log cabin, dressed in a white robe, sipping a steaming mug of hot tea. My woes have melted away on the massage table and I’m transported into a state of bliss and contentment. I can see an expanse of water on the horizon, as I relax into an oversized chair and exhale any remaining tension. But it is so much more than just relaxation; retreats today have expanded to include workshops that help develop self-care rituals which nourish the body and soul. When I leave a retreat, I feel like a new woman.
Retreats are particularly beneficial for those in recovery— given our propensity to neglect ourselves during active addiction. In this article I share my own experience of how I came about developing self-care rituals, and I report on an interview with retreat owners from She Recovers; on the philosophy behind their retreats, and what is particularly special about them. I also share a participant’s perspective to see just how beneficial they are, and how they can enhance your recovery.
Reflecting upon my own journey, when I entered recovery, my concept of self-care was limited to a shower a few times a week, if I was lucky. I had zero comprehension of how to self-soothe and nurture my well-being. Rest and relaxation — in my skewed vision — could only be achieved through inebriation. A massage was only ever a prelude to a boozy lunch and a night out — which, invariably, descending into chaos. The same was true of yoga; I only ever achieved temporary relief from my addictive behavior as I returned home to a bottle of wine, or three. Any benefits of these self-care activities were overtaken by the effects of drugs and alcohol.
I was forever chasing that one thing that would fix my racing thoughts, inability to cope with life, and incessant desire to escape my existence.
Once everything in my life had gone — including my sanity — I finally found recovery.
Recovery was like entering a new dimension — my whole world opened up — like someone had switched a light on in a dark room. I discovered who I was and the futility in seeking to fulfill myself with drugs and alcohol. I uncovered my needs and learned the skills to begin to cope with life. I realized that selfcare was paramount to achieve optimal health. As well as looking after my physical well-being, it was essential for me to engage in activities that nourished my emotional and spiritual health. This holistic approach formed the basis of my strategy to recover, and to maintain continued sobriety.
The components of my self-care strategy include: exercise, eating well, expression (writing, creativity, talking), self-development workshops (mindfulness, meditation), and restorative practices (yoga, massage, rest and relaxation). Essentially, I learned effective means to nurture and self-soothe without the use of substances — which only ever did the opposite of caring and soothing myself.
During the past five years of my recovery, I have been on a number of retreats. They have enhanced my recovery significantly; I have learned about the power of meditation, mindfulness, massage, community, drum circles, walking, nature, and eating well. I have no desire to harm myself today, and I want to be part of the human race.
It’s hard to ignore the increasing prevalence of retreats today; ranging from one-day mindfulness or yoga workshops, to week-long retreats on a beach in Mexico. They provide the escape and solace from our stressful lives that we so desperately seek. Whether a yoga and relaxation retreat, or a workshop themed event, the benefits are invaluable. They provide the impetus and the tools to nourish ourselves in healthy ways — which is exactly what we strive for in recovery.
I interviewed the owners of She Recovers — a mother (Dawn Nickel) and daughter (Taryn Strong) team—who are also in recovery. They run retreats throughout the year in Mexico, Bali and Salt Spring Island. In May, they are hosting their first three day event in New York (She Recovers NYC), which will bring together 500 women interested in a diverse range of recovery, and feature renowned motivational speakers including Gabby Bernstein, Elena Brower, Glennon Doyle Melton and Marianne Williamson. I was keen to find out the philosophy behind their recovery-specific events and how they can enhance one’s recovery.
She Recovers events frequently sell out in advance (NYC sold out three months in advance!). I asked Dawn why she thinks her retreats are so uniquely popular: “There are two main reasons that our retreats are so popular, we believe. Each one is very purposefully created as a “sacred pause” for women in recovery from addictions and other life challenges. We take that purpose seriously. We don’t provide programming outside of two daily yoga classes and the odd excursion. Women who attend our retreats are reminded of how wonderful it is to just – stop – and reconnect with their breath and with their selves. The second reason is really just that the most amazing women come to our retreats – and so the connections that are made on retreat are authentic, deep, and enduring.”
One benefit of a retreat is connection; it is a powerful tool for those in recovery because we need to know we are not alone—especially having lived in the isolation of addiction. I asked participant Jean McCarthy, a woman in recovery— who also shares her experience of sobriety on her blog, UnPickled Blog—about her intention behind attending a She Recovers retreat: “One of my main goals was to make connections. I was sober for over a year and a half but I longed for sober friends.”
She Recovers understands that collective power. One of their guiding principles is that we are stronger when we recover together. Dawn tells me: “Two of the most powerful words in the English language are “me too.” It is this sense of mutual understanding, strengthened by the wealth of different stories and experiences, that invites seekers to find out how recovery works – in many forms – via various pathways and patchworks. Strength in numbers, right?”
Even though some of us know about the benefits of practicing self-care, we get distracted by everyday life and its demands. I asked Dawn about her philosophy of having a sacred space and how that allows people to connect more deeply with themselves, than, say, at home: “Utter lack of responsibility to do anything other than…take care of their own needs. We are fed delicious and nutritious healthy meals – and encouraged to nap, swim, walk, read, visit, write or meditate – but there isn’t any pressure to do anything, really. I think having our time protected as it is opens up the space we need to get in touch with bigger questions in our lives. We take our cue from the retreat guru Jennifer Louden who writes in The Women’s Retreat Book:
“A women’s retreat is about stepping out of your ordinary existence to listen and attune to your truest, most authentic self. It is about being self-referenced to become self-restored.”
Jean McCarthy tells me how these retreats enhance her recovery: “Well, most importantly it’s a restful break from being a sober girl in a drinking world. It’s such a relief to let my guard down. Not only is the venue a no-alcohol zone, but everyone there is in some kind of recovery process. We might be recovering in different ways from different problems, but we all speak the same language. It’s just lovely. I’ve made incredible friendships and learned new insights and perspectives from being exposed to women at different stages of recovery.”
Many retreats also feature a yoga practice, but just how beneficial is yoga to recovery? I asked co-founder and yoga teacher, Taryn, who said: “We can’t always change what is happening in our life around us – but in any given moment we can change our posture and our breath – and then the other layers shift. Perhaps our mind gets quieter – even if it’s just for a moment – and what a relief! We learn tools with our breath to self-regulate and balance the nervous system. And those effects follow us off of our mat and into our lives.”
These retreats demonstrate that not only is recovery and healing possible, but it is also accessible for all; whether a self-development or relaxation retreat, the introduction of sober schools, or the vastly expanding online sober community. The increase in demand for these types of recovery and healing seems to be speaking to the need to holistically recover with a variety of modalities and self-care strategies.
She Recovers speaks to that demand. Their NYC event will be exploring a diverse range of recovery approaches that focus on the mind, body and spirit. I asked Dawn what about their goals of bringing together all of these women and providing holistic recovery resources: “We have a few different goals. The first is really about bringing what we have been calling the “cyber-sober movement” to real life. We have four of the most amazing inspirational speakers on the planet joining us – plus ten presenters and ten of the most popular female sober bloggers. Many of us have known each other only in cyberspace – so hugging will be a bit part of the weekend. We also want to explore and showcase –through our sponsorships, exhibitors and presenters – a wide array of innovative recovery strategies, resources, products and services. And finally, we really want to show the world (okay we will start with NYC) what recovery looks like. Because Retreat into Deep and Meaningful Recovery from page 1 with this crowd of 500 women – it looks spectacular.”
I asked Jean McCarthy what appeals to her about the event and what she hopes to take away: “The speakers are going to be amazing, but what I’m especially excited to is seeing 500(!) women in recovery all in one place. That’s a whole lotta positive energy and understanding. And it’s New York, so who could resist? I hope to leave feeling more empowered and excited to be part of a larger tribe, to remember that in part of something big. I’ve made a lot of online connections and I’m looking forward to meeting these people in real life.”
I can certainly attest to those goals; I am attending the event to meet other women like me, who are in recovery, and write in the online community. I started my blog two years ago because I felt that there was a lack of resources and community for physical recovery, specifically in relation to our relationship with our bodies and food and how that changes in recovery. I, like many others, have had an unquenchable thirst for all things holistic which focuses on self-care. These retreats speak to those needs and shows us that recovery can only be enhanced by attending them. As She Recovers says, through mutual understanding, we strengthened by sharing our recovery experiences.
Writer and wellness advocate, Olivia Pennelle (Liv), is in long-term recovery. Liv passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach to recovery. Her website Liv’s Recovery Kitchen is a resource for the journey toward health and wellness in recovery.