While being a nomad and living out of a van with the ability to travel freely to beautiful, remote areas of the country can seem somewhat glamorous at times, in the age of Coronavirus it comes with a unique set of benefits and challenges. This is the situation Grizel Williams currently finds herself in.

Grizel is a Latinx backpacker and an outdoor enthusiast. Prior to living in a van, she was a practicing therapist, which is part of the reason she is now an enterprising mental health advocate in outdoor spaces, where the mental health stigma is very much alive. A normal day for her includes, “writing about things I am passionate about, hanging out with my furry pups, and cooking/eating delicious plant-based meals.” Grizel does not take the privilege and freedom of this lifestyle for granted, even when times are tough.

Though I’ve never met Grizel in person, I feel like I know her. In fact, I’ve often thought about the wide-open spaces she parks her home in as a great big metaphor for the type of wide-open life she leads emotionally. The vulnerability she demonstrates to her online community, and her penchant for gripping, and honest prose draws people in and cultivates meaningful connections.

For example, pre-COVID-19 she began a weekly campaign on her personal account called Mental Health Mondays where she discusses a different mental health-related topic each week and encourages her followers to engage in an open dialogue. Thus far, she has hosted guided meditations, shared valuable mental health resources, and provided journaling prompts to inspire her community to consider new perspectives, practice self-reflection, and get connected to the resources they need.

For all of these reasons and more, I am thrilled to get to share a little bit of Grizel’s world and mental health experiences with you, in her own words.

A Conversation with Grizel Williams, Mental Health Advocate and Latinx Backpacker

Can you walk us through your journey with mental health?

Whether I was aware of it or not, my mental health journey started at a very young age due to family trauma that was ongoing till I left home at the age 18. When telling people my story of facing depression, suicidality, and eating disorders in my youth, I often get a blanket response of how difficult being a teenager and young adult was for me. As difficult as that time period was, it is exactly the reason why I am who I am today: a person who understands that chronic depression is an uphill battle, but who finally has the courage and skills to show up to that battle every day.

What role has therapy played in your life?

I started seeing a therapist when I was 17 years old. According to my parents, I was “acting out”; but in retrospect, I was just an angry teenager who had never been taught how to process anger, emotions, and pain.

My therapist would be the first person I trusted enough to share my dark thoughts, my eating disorder, and my intense anger.

We worked with one another for a few months, and she eventually told me that I would be a great therapist one day.

She wasn’t wrong.

Years later, as I was receiving my Masters in Counseling, students were encouraged to seek a therapist throughout their schooling, due to the intensity of the topics covered in class.

Unbeknownst to me, I would be entering one of the darkest seasons of my entire life. After subconsciously blocking memories for 23 years, I would experience a flashback that would leave me bedridden and depressed for months.

I had no motivation for life. I hated myself. I hated the people who had done the things to me. I had no reason to live anymore.

But not all hope was lost.

After attending a mental health retreat that focused on trauma, as well as seeking my own therapist, I would successfully process through loss, anger, grief, remorse, sadness, depression, and eventually…

Strength.

Two years later, I took my first solo backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, walking 110 miles of difficult mountainous terrain. It was on that trip that I fell in love with backpacking, the peace I felt on the trails, and the strength I embodied with each step.

And those eight days changed my life.

I believe with my whole being that there is a beautiful dance which happens between nature and introspection.

Because when our survival depends solely on what is absolutely necessary, and our energy is no longer focused on all the distractions this world provides, we are raw and vulnerable enough to take a look inside to see what is actually happening within.

And it’s difficult and messy.

But for me, it was an absolutely essential step toward finding true belonging and full self-acceptance.

For the first time in my life, I fully accepted and loved all of my being.

How has your understanding of mental wellness evolved over time?

My journey towards mental wellness has been far from from easy. It has had its share of bumps and re-routes, but overall, mental wellness has meant being okay with the entire journey behind and ahead.

As a therapist, it is so easy to give empathy and understanding to those who are in difficult circumstances, or born with different chemical imbalances that make it difficult to feel “normal.” After giving love and lending an ear to client after client, I realized that I had a difficult time giving that same kind of love to myself.

After practicing as a therapist for three years, I took a step back from practicing and began my own personal journey towards self love and acceptance, because if it could change the lives of so many of my clients, maybe it could affect my own life too.

Since then, I have been choosing a life that is right for me, being more and more aware of my own needs and desires for my life-which I believe is what mental wellness means for me.

What were your motivations for starting a weekly campaign sharing about mental health on your account?

There is a powerful movement that is happening in the outdoor industry. Voices are getting louder. People are beginning to speak up about issues that have been closeted for years and years.

People like Pattie Gonia are talking about the inclusivity of the LGBTQ community in the outdoors. Jenny Bruso, founder of Unlikely Hikers, has created a community of people who believe in body liberation and representation. Katie Boué, founder of Outdoor Advocacy, is using her platform to empower all humans to get educated on what's going on in the environment and how we can take action to help take care of Mother Nature.

And what’s missing?

Mental Health. We are missing a major component that makes all of these movements possible.

We talk about wanting to get everyone, no matter who they are, in nature, but how do we get people who are bedridden from depression into the outdoors? And if we do get them outside, how do we keep these people safe? How do we make these people feel like they belong?

This is why I started Mental Health Mondays, to make sure that those of us who isolate during our depressive episodes feel safe enough to speak up in these outdoor spaces.

Through the power of intimate story telling and sharing my own struggles, I connect with readers about mental health illnesses and tools that assist people to get outside and take care of themselves. Through these conversations, we begin to normalize these illnesses that 1 in 5 of people are dealing with.

We must break the stigma, and the first step is being vulnerable enough to talk about it.

Mental health is difficult for many people to talk about, and the stigma still keeps a lot of people from getting the care they need. How have you noticed people interacting with you about the topic on social media? How do you envision that changing over time?

I genuinely feel like the luckiest human in the world to have a space where people feel comfortable enough to share their own humanness. Maybe it’s because it makes me feel more “normal,” but it is also so empowering to see person after person share their struggles and how they are challenging them. It’s like watching a good film: When you see the hero overcome all odds and arise, you can’t help but also feel proud and empowered.

What do you do to take care of your mental health on a regular basis?

Being outside in nature is a massive part of my wellness regimen. Living in a van full time, you are constantly engulfed in nature. After a lot of self-discovery, I learned that I need to be outside more than most people to be happy and at peace on a day to day basis. Since living in the van, I thrive in a routine of slow morning coffee, writing/working on different mental health passion projects, taking the dogs on long walks, practicing meditation/yoga, eating plant based, and sleeping anywhere from 7-10 hour a night! (I LOVE TO SLEEP!)

What do you wish more people knew about therapy?

I wish people understood that the first therapist you see doesn’t have to be the therapist you choose. It is unreasonable to think that you are going to mesh well with everyone you meet on the planet, and finding the right therapist is similar to that.

When seeking a therapist, create a list of needs that you desire and don't settle for someone who may not make you feel as comfortable as you need to for an open experience.

That being said, it’s also okay if it takes time for you to feel comfortable with your therapist. It may take a few sessions, but if you’re honest with yourself and your therapist, you will make the right decision.

Thanks so much for chatting with me!

Of course! The mental health stigma is very much apparent in everyday life. I still hear people casually calling others “crazy” or “emotional,” with a negative connotation.

One reason I love the Two Chairs mission is because you all are invested in breaking the stigma of therapy and mental health. The more people we educate, the more people take action in their own life. And the more people take action in their own lives, the less violence we see, less substance abuse, less hate, and less shame.

I am so excited about partnering with you because I believe in change, and the only way we are going to change as a people is if we can be okay with not being okay.

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