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Two Open Field Authors Talk Mental Health and Trauma—and the Power of Nature to Heal

Two Open Field Authors Talk Mental Health and Trauma—and the Power of Nature to Heal

By Steven Petrow
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At least once a year I post a meme that says, “You never know what someone is going through. Be kind.” It clocks high on “likes” because it speaks truth. What’s on the surface can hide a world of hurt.

That’s certainly true of Banning Lyon.

Looking at his Instagram feed, chock full of photos of his wife and young daughter, you’d never imagine what he has endured. At 15, a self-described skateboarding nut, his life changed radically when a guidance counselor in his Dallas high school suspected that Lyon was suicidal because he gave away his board to a friend (not believing what he said, which is that he was planning to buy a new one).  At the urging of the counselor, his parents admitted Lyon to a psychiatric hospital for a two-week stay, which turned into 353 days.

In his new memoir, The Chair and the Valley: A Memoir of Trauma, Healing, and the Outdoors, Lyon, now 52, reveals the mistreatment he endured. The chair in the title refers to “chair therapy,” supposedly intended to help him think about his problems but instead, consisted of 11 months sitting in a chair facing the wall, sometimes up to 12 hours a day. By the time Banning left the hospital, he writes, “I was the scattered wreckage of a teenager,” full of rage and fantasizing about hanging himself.

Lyon takes readers on a gut-wrenching story of trauma and healing, including his lawsuit against the facility’s owners who bilked insurance companies (like his father’s employer). Now, with a family of his own, Lyon finds peace in the wilderness and has found peace within himself—although you’d never understand the world of hurt he endured by looking at him: a middle-aged dad with hair he describes as “defiant,” who now works as a backpacking guide in Yosemite National Park.


This beautiful book is honest and raw. After all this time, why did you decide to write your story? 

The book began as a product of working with my therapist. She told me to “free write,” but I wouldn't do that. I just kind of rolled my eyes at all of it, but eventually, ultimately decided to start. I wrote a lot, about 200 pages in four weeks, and that was it. It was done. It was just this cathartic surge of emotions and, really, had no cohesive narrative.

How did that mess of pages become a book Kirkus Reviews described as a “heartfelt memoir and an urgent demand for higher standards of juvenile mental health care”? 

An event during my work as a backpacking guide left me feeling very strongly that I had a moral obligation to write a book, that I’d be committing some kind of sin by not writing it. After spending days in the backcountry with clients I realized I wasn’t different from them. They weren’t better or more normal than me. Among them were alcoholics and cutters, people who had lost siblings and spouses to cancer and suicide. I realized then that I’d found my place in the world, and that I needed to come to terms with my past. I never would have found the courage without the serenity of nature and the help of my clients. So I committed to writing the book and it has been a long, difficult, and painful process.  

What's your wish for the life of this book?

A: My hope is that anybody who reads it—regardless of the hardship or trauma they’ve experienced—will understand that the horrible things that are done to us don't need to define our entire existence. We all have our Mount Everest—the hardest moment in our life—but we are not alone. I’m not just somebody who was locked in a psychiatric hospital, sitting in a chair, facing the wall. For most of my life, I felt trapped in that place, as if I were a moth in a display case. It's taken a long time and a lot of work for me to recenter myself in a new identity. I am not what happened to me. I want to help other people understand that they, too, are not responsible for what happened to them, and that those events don't need to be central to their identity forever.

In writing this book, what did you learn about yourself?

What did I learn about myself? I think the first thing is that I am very strong, that I am very tenacious. I also learned that I have a lot of empathy for other people, and that many of them also have great empathy for others. It’s difficult for us to disconnect ourselves from the experiences of other people. That’s good. In fact, witnessing abuse or mistreatment, or violence and suffering is often worse than experiencing it yourself.

For a long time I thought that the time in the hospital had broken me. Eventually, I began to feel more like a green piece of wood that had been mangled but not necessarily broken in half.

How did you finally get released?

Every day I would wake up and think, “I can't be locked here forever. My insurance will run out.” Finally, that happened. My dad's insurance had been paying for my hospitalization when he flew for an airline called Western. When Delta bought Western, they sent a caseworker out to visit me, who then called my dad. “We're pulling your son out of here. This is not helping him. He does not need this.” If Western had not merged with Delta, I probably would've stayed there much longer. There were kids that were locked in there for two to three to four years.

You write so movingly about the power of nature. What is so healing about it?

After being held inside for months I finally was allowed to go outside, for a doctor’s appointment. I remember stepping outside. It was so bright. I felt the summer heat on my face. When I closed my eyes I could see the red sunlight through my eyelids. In those moments I felt like I’d been immersed in a world filled with beauty. I locked that moment away inside of me, hermetically sealing it, so nothing could ever corrupt it. Now, whenever I'm outside, I get that moment out and I hold it in front of me. It makes this world that I live in so beautiful.

Yosemite, a place that people come from all over the globe to visit, is unspeakably beautiful. Yosemite defies being photographed or even described. You just have to see it. Nature does not judge you. It doesn't see you as being broken. It's indifferent to our existence. There's something about that sense of feeling very small and unimportant that makes the world so beautiful. When I take people out backpacking, I get to witness them seeing Yosemite for the first time, and that makes it new to me every time.  

I’ve finally found my place in the world, which meant coming to terms with my past. I never would have found the courage without the serenity of nature. 

Any final thoughts on your experience?

We're never going to normalize a conversation around mental health until we begin having open, honest conversations with each other about our struggles. It's not a competition about who suffered more, it's just witnessing what somebody else went through. I think that's absolutely crucial to creating a lot of change in mental health. We need more safeguards and oversight for adolescent mental healthcare — and not just for adolescents, but also for people who can't advocate for themselves.

Steven Petrow is a contributing columnist with The Washington Post and the author of The Joy You Make to be published by Maria Shriver’s book imprint, The Open Field, in September. He’s also written three books about modern manners and his TED Talk on civility has been viewed nearly two million times.



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