"Since you're isolated, the vision quest forces you to look within yourself and deal with your inner problems. I knew that if I didn't take that initiative to make myself deal with my issues, I wouldn't ever get to them."
For years, Sofia Sanchez (now 18) ignored the anger, sadness, and betrayal she felt as a result of troubles at home and at school. She kept those emotions hidden inside, allowing them to grow to unbearable levels as she became increasingly depressed.
“I had a really bad habit of bottling everything up and I knew that would eventually end up hurting me,” Sofia said. “Things that I never dealt with were starting to catch up to me and I knew that it wasn’t good to keep those issues pent up. But I didn't know how to actually face those feelings.”
At 14 years old, she noticed that her mental health was spiraling, worsening to a point that consumed her every day. She decided to do something drastic and undertake a vision quest — a 4 day, 4 night solo sit with no food — in the woods near an outdoor school in northern California with the hope of confronting her past and emerging stronger as a result. She was inspired by a few older mentors who had done their own vision quests, including her sister, who had completed a 3-day vision quest the previous summer.
“Since you're isolated, the vision quest forces you to look within yourself and deal with your inner problems,” she said. “I knew that if I didn't take that initiative to make myself deal with my issues, I wouldn't ever get to them.”
On the morning of the first day of her quest, a teacher at the outdoor school escorted Sofia to a small clearing bordered by trees, Oregon grape bushes and a few shrubs. Sofia set up a tarp beside a big pine and lay out her sleeping bag underneath it. From her spot, she could see a flowing creek.
Sofia said she didn’t struggle at all the first two days and enjoyed having so much time to simply relax, sleep in and appreciate being alone in nature. She meditated and carved small soapstones and sticks with a knife. She even did a couple workouts and built a little shrine with the bark and stones she carved, a few pretty stones from the creek, oregon grapevine berries and some leaves.
On the third day, however, Sofia woke up feeling terrible. Her head hurt and she felt physically ill. When she threw up, she began having doubts about whether she was strong enough to make it through the two remaining days.
Throughout that afternoon, she walked around the area near her little clearing, trying to distract herself from the fatigue she felt and the feelings — the fear, the doubt, the shame — that were starting to catch up to her. That night, she couldn't sleep.
While staring up at the moon, she remembers thinking about how her anxiety had intensified throughout the past few years. She felt guilt for compressing her feelings, for not reaching out for help, for ignoring difficulties instead of allowing herself to sort through them and figure out solutions.
Finally, she fell into a restless sleep. The next morning (on the last day of her vision quest) she woke up thinking about the loved ones she had lost and the friends that had let her down. She “felt like bawling [her] eyes out.”
After years of hiding, her depression and loneliness had crawled their way to the surface, emerging as formidable foes that Sofia could no longer ignore. Unable to retreat or distract herself, she felt their amassed strength weighing down on
every inch of exposed skin. But
at the same time, she felt grateful, for she knew that allowing herself to feel pain was the first step to overcoming her negative emotions.
"Honestly, I wanted to go back in time so that I wouldn't have to feel. I was so scared I wouldn't be able to handle it," she said. "After a while though, I tried embracing [the pain] so that I would experience it all at once and get through it faster. That didn't really work out."
Sometime that afternoon (she had no way to keep track of time), Sofia's head started throbbing and she began to overheat. She walked to the stream, and lowered herself into it so that she was sitting with her legs half-submerged; immediately, the freezing water numbed her. It sent waves of relief throughout Sofia’s body, providing a welcome relief from her fatigue. Listening to the gentle sound of the water tumbling over rocks, she felt her worries dissipate.
Suddenly, a small pale purple butterfly perched on a plant leaf beside the creek snapped her out of her meditative state. To her surprise, the butterfly flew up and landed on her knee.
“At first I couldn't believe it; I thought it was hallucinating,” Sofia said. “I remember feeling overflowed with joy and I realized that I wasn’t alone, that I’d always have animals and nature.”
She started sobbing, which scared the butterfly. Sofia watched it fly away and instantly, all of her happiness disappeared. She was left feeling empty.
Looking back at that interaction, Sofia finds it kind of funny, but in the moment, she had never felt sadder.
Marble Mountains Wilderness
The rest of the day dragged by. The hours felt interminable and all Sofia could focus on was that fact that her vision quest was almost over. Her body ached and she felt incredibly weak — both physically and mentally. While she knew she could return to the outdoor school at any time and be met with open arms and a meal, she understood that quitting would leave her feeling like a failure.
“I was just so impatient and desperate to get back to people and away from myself,” she said. “I knew I wanted to go back because I didn't want to keep feeling how I was feeling and dealing with the emotions. But, I didn't want to let myself take the easy way out. I wanted to be able to finish and prove to myself that I could deal with what I had set out to do.”
That evening, she was exhausted, but sleep evaded her for hours and throughout the night, she kept on waking up. At first light the next morning, she felt so tempted to run back, to return to civilization and find human contact. Sheer willpower forced her to stay.
At last, her sister and the teacher walked into the clearing. Sofia ran up and hugged her sister, shaking with how relieved and grateful she was. She couldn’t wait to return to her friends.
Later that day, Sofia journaled about her vision quest and talked to one of her friends about her experiences.
“I don't usually talk about my emotions and I don't ask for help even if I know I should,” she said. “[Reaching out] was new and surprisingly helpful.”
Sofia realized that voicing her struggles out loud to other people wasn’t a sign of weakness. She grew her emotional maturity, becoming more confident and aware of her feelings, as well as how to deal with him.
After a couple days of resting and reflection, Sofia realized that while her vision quest had been torturous, it was also “the best thing that [she] had done for [her]self.”
“If I hadn’t done the vision quest, I would have been unhappy for a lot longer and I don't think I would have learned to learn from my mistakes as quickly,” she said. “I would have continued to end up in situations that I didn't want because I wasn't able to recognize them beforehand or learn how to stop them or get myself out of them.”
At 16-years-old, Sofia did a second 4 day, 4 night vision quest. She plans to do another one sometime in her future.