A Beautiful World: How taking risks heals childhood trauma

Irene O'Garden
Irene O'Garden says "Risking the Rapids" is about growing up, taking chances and dealing with all that is unpredictable in life.
Courtesy photo Irene O'Garden

Irene O'Garden and other members of her family took a whitewater canoe trip that skirted disaster. Along with the terror and trauma of that trip came an unlikely side effect: healing.

The award-winning author and poet tells the story in her new book, "Risking the Rapids: How My Wilderness Adventure Healed my Childhood." From her traumatic girlhood to her healing wilderness journey at age 62, O'Garden's story is about the splendor, the terror and the trauma of her journey and the healing power of nature.

The trip, she explains, was to commemorate a brother who had died. "We decided time was ticking, and if we wanted to spend time together we had to begin to do it quickly."

Irene O'Garden, Risking the Rapids
Irene O'Garden says "Risking the Rapids" is about growing up, taking chances and dealing with all that is unpredictable in life.
Courtesy photo

The gentle float they planned down the scenic Flathead River in Montana quickly turned into a nightmare. The river was much higher than usual because there'd been a big snow pack that year. Loads of hazards — like branches and clumps of debris — came at them and tossed family members out of the raft.

O'Garden says she gets rather wordless about the experience. The sight of her younger brother flying out of the raft and sinking below the water filled her with deep, dark fear. "That's the hardest part of this journey," she says, "to watch the people you love in danger, and feel like you can't do anything."

However, that's the moment, O'Garden says, that her family started to come together.

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"All of a sudden we're all mobilized to help him, and try to pull him out," she recalls. "And it was nothing I could have done by myself. I probably could not have gotten him out of the water, nor could any single one of us. But working together we were able to retrieve him."

The trauma of the trip created teamwork within the family. The process of navigating the river with her family helped O'Garden heal old internal traumas from childhood. There was no physical abuse in her family, she says, but there was equally painful neglect and emotional endangerment. In her eyes, the river became a metaphor.

"Times when life takes unexpected turns, when things are coming at you faster than you can consciously process them, that's a lot of childhood," she says. "Someone asked me, 'Why should we bother to look back and try to heal the wounds of our childhood?' And I said, 'Well, one of the things about that is, if we are carrying a lot of pain from our childhood, then we're afraid to look inside.' We're afraid because we're going to face that pain and feel it's insurmountable. So then we lead ourselves into distraction or addiction or outward, trying to solve things that can only be solved inwardly."

O'Garden says "Risking the Rapids" is about growing up, taking chances and dealing with all that is unpredictable in life. These are rapids that we all face.

"Risking the rapids, risking going back into ourselves, healing what is there, and then being able to face what comes at us in physical life, in our emotional life, with knowledge that we are grounded in the person we are inside," she says. "Once we turn inwards, we realize that's where the source of all our joy and power is. As well as the pain. And there's so much more joy and power within who we all are than there is wound."

O'Garden recommends taking risks to to start healing. She thinks of risk as sort of a tightrope that connects us to that thing we want. So we walk the tightrope but like a tightrope walker, we don't start a hundred feet in the air. We start with a small risk, a few inches off the ground.

"I think when we choose to take a risk, we will find people who are willing to help us," she says. "If there's one thing I would like to remind people, it's that it's never too late to heal, and it's never too soon to start."