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Trigger warning: We discuss sexual assault, trauma, mental health, and suicide in this episode.
In my last episode, Stephanie Coren shared her story of childhood sexual abuse, drug and alcohol problems, PTSD, chronic health issues, and mental health. Stephanie credits psychiatric hospitalization for saving her life several times. On the same day I interviewed Steph, I met Katrina Nilsson-Gorman, who had a distinctly different experience with mental health care.
Even before I began speaking with Katrina, I knew we would hit it off. Even though she is much younger than me, we have traveled many of the same paths. We both attended college in Tacoma, Washington; love music (she was studying to become an opera singer); studied English (it was my major and her minor); have a passion for collecting quotes and traveling; are connected to the UK (she studied there and my husband is from the UK); survived sexual assault; adored Ubud, Indonesia; and traveled to India after leaving Bali. I loved my conversation with the amazing Katrina.
Born in Vail, Colorado, Katrina spent the first five years of her life 10,000 ft above sea level, living on the side of a mountain before moving to Fort Collins. Raised by her mom and grandma, she comes from a family of strong women who have been through a lot and who taught her about unconditional love and compassion.
From 2013 to 2017, Katrina experienced a perfect storm of insane events that nearly ended her life.
After college, Katrina felt called to travel so she saved as much money as she could to fund six months of travel in Asia. She began in Ubud, Bali, where she had an intimate experience with a healer there. The meaning of "Ubud" as a word is medicine.
“It really opened my eyes to this whole world of energy and it made me realize there’s so much more to this world than what meets the eye. I was very humbled by my time there...I knew very little from my upbringing. There’s so much more to explore.”
Bali captured her heart, just as it did mine when I was there in 1989. Katrina did an internship to learn Reiki, which rocked her world and opened up a new door for her.
“Balinese are the most amazing people I’ve ever met. The sheer amount of gratitude and reverence that they have for life was mind-blowing. It was a big lesson for me.”
A great follower of her own intuition, she said, “I think India’s next.”
We shared our stories of arriving in India without a place to stay, when we were both around 23 or 24. For me it was 1989 in Delhi, and for Katrina it was 2013, alone in Chennai after learning her couch surfing reservation had been cancelled. It proved to be incredibly challenging to travel alone in India. Fortunately someone answered a last-minute call for a new couch surfing spot, and that host became an amazing friend. He knew a lot about Western culture, so he helped her melt into her new surroundings.
After the open, welcoming atmosphere in Bali, Katrina had to learn how to put up boundaries traveling as a single woman, and she had to learn how to grow a backbone. Nearly every time she was in a crowd, she got groped. And she was constantly propositioned. Although I too learned to set boundaries to protect myself in Japan, in India I had a huge amount of privilege and protection from traveling with my then-boyfriend, now-husband.
Katrina was drawn to a town called Tiruvannamalai. “There are temple towns, there are mountain towns, and then there are temple-mountain towns where God appears as a phallus of fire,” describes the Lonely Planet website. Tiruvannamalai is one of Tamil Nadu's holiest destinations and a huge pilgrimage for Shiva worshippers.
Every full moon, thousands of pilgrims worship walk barefoot for about 8 miles in a circle around a temple on a mountain. According to Hindu legend, the walk removes sins, fulfils desires, and helps achieve freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth.
Katrina thought it would be a ripe place for her to begin exploring what it means to be a person on earth. She did a lot of meditation and had deep soul conversations. But first, on her second day there, she was sexually assaulted.
She still had that heart openness from Bali and would talk to anyone. She met a Kashmiri shop keeper who at first seemed like a great person. But when they agreed to exchange energy healing, as she had done so many times in Indonesia, he raped her.
India is rife with sexual assault problems. In 2019, violence against women had increased by 7 percent from 2018, and the conviction rate for rape cases was only 27.8 percent. Police, doctors, and judges are insensitive towards victims, and police often refuse to register complaints or delay doing so. According to India's National Family Health Survey, 80 percent of women who have experienced sexual violence never tell anyone. And women from disadvantaged social groups are at even greater risk of gender-based violence.
Can you imagine traveling in a new country alone and being in Katrina’s position?
Terrified, she didn’t know who to contact or what to do so she called her couch-surfing friend in Chennai. He jumped immediately into action, connecting Katrina with an underground network of women who are there to support women who have survived sexual assault. A woman dropped everything and came to pick Katrina up and took her home. Even though what happened was horrific, Katrina found an amazing circle of new friends in this underground group. Describing how they cared for her gives her goosebumps to this day.
She had to walk by this man’s house every day, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. However, word got round. Soon another Kashmiri, Muslim shopkeeper reached out to her and invited her to have chai with his Jewish wife. They ended up becoming a huge support to Katrina, the most profound spiritual teachers she’d ever met in her life.
Even though her mom and grandma wanted her to come home to the United States, Katrina was determined to stay in India and work through her trauma. She ended up spending another three months in India.
She realized when she returned to Colorado, though, that she hadn’t really worked through the trauma. She had huge reverse culture shock. The whole experience changed her and disrupted who she was. Finding it very difficult to reintegrate into life with the ongoing PTSD, she couldn’t function and had a hard time working and making money because she felt disassociated from herself. Then in 2015, she survived a cerebellar infarct, also known as a stroke.
“The stroke hit close to my amygdala, the fight or flight center of my brain. It felt like a lightning bolt went through my head and into my back. It caused me to have severe panic attacks and migraines on the daily for nearly 2 years. I suffered debilitating anxiety and depression for several years.”
The random panic attacks felt like she had a gorilla on her chest, and she started to have personality changes. It felt like she was losing it.
Then a year later, she was diagnosed with a serious case of polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, and doctors recommended that she get a hysterectomy.
“I followed my intuition and did not get a hysterectomy, but instead sought the help of Chinese medicine and herbs and was able to reverse my symptoms.”
At the time, she was a perfect victim for an abuser. A great therapist helped her see she was in an abusive relationship, but it wasn’t until she figured out she’d rather be homeless than in that relationship that she finally found the courage to walk out the door. She felt like she had a big, universal hand saying “GET OUT!” Fortunately, she was able to stay with friends so she could get her bearings and start over.
But even though Katrina found a community full of unconditionally loving people, she still experienced depression, anxiety, and PTSD from all of these events right after each other. Sexual assault survivors often end up blaming ourselves. Still experiencing migraines, Katrina felt too ashamed to talk to her friends about her anxiety. “Isolation is a terrible beast,” she said. “It was not helping my case.”
Soon she began contemplating suicide.
“Being in my body felt like a prison, and I couldn’t get out.”
A suicide hotline recommended she check herself into the hospital. After confiscating her phone and taking some blood, they put her into a room with only a bed...in complete darkness. No one came to check on her for 12 hours. She felt like a prisoner. It was horrible and retraumatizing.
“There’s such a huge mental health crisis in this country that often staff are overwhelmed...Even though there are a lot of beautiful people who work in the mental health care, the system has a lot of flaws.”
After they finally came in to inform her they had found a bed, Katrina called her mom, who flew from Colorado to help. On anti-anxiety meds, Katrina felt like a zombie. She knew being drugged was not a long-term solution, but every time the drugs began to wear off, she asked for more because being in the psychiatric hospital, lumped together with all different types of mental illness, was terrifying. She knew the drugs weren’t helping, so her mom had to fight to get her out. Once you sign yourself in, it’s hard to get out, and that too was traumatic.
But Katrina’s hospitalization lit a spark inside her. For the first time since she began experiencing depression and anxiety, she felt angry. After taking a ride through the mental health care system, she discovered how terrible and downright traumatizing it can be for people who are struggling.
“Anyone can and probably will hit rock bottom at some point, and we really need to have better systems in place for that. I’m lucky, I’m privileged, and I have people who care about me...if that wasn’t the case, I might have ended up on the streets.”
When I expressed disbelief that Katrina had experienced all of these difficult things within the space of a few years, she laughed and said, “I like to joke that I hope I just got it all out of the way.”
After her hospitalization, Katrina started to reclaim herself. A few days after she left the hospital, she felt like she had to drive somewhere and go into nature. She hiked into the woods, found an old growth cedar tree, and sat with the tree for five to six hours.
“I felt what I was so hungry for all those years, and that was connection. We don’t have real connection available to us all the time. We don’t have the encouragement to connect to ourselves at a deeper level...we don’t have the structure to connect with our environment and our land, where we live, and the beings around us.”
Something shifted in her.
“When I have gone out into nature, I feel like it’s a place that is a reflection of me...I can see myself in these beings...and I can understand that this tree that I see that’s been completely ripped to pieces on one side...it’s still growing, it’s still flourishing. I see myself in that. I’ve been through this, but I’m still growing, and I still have a contribution to this forest.”
Katrina found herself making frequent trips to the woods. She discovered that nature was a far better therapist (at least in her case). After doing research, she discovered the practice of forest therapy. In Scandinavia they have mental health centers in the woods. In Japan, it’s called shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), where they even have designated forests for people to connect and find therapeutic benefits. Even in Scotland, doctors have started prescribing forest therapy.
Now Katrina is a certified nature and forest therapy guide, soulful mentor, and intuitive healer. She has her own business, The Nature in You, helping people navigate anxiety, depression, and stress. She also found her soulmate and they have been happily together for two years. She still suffers from depression and anxiety, but she has found her own way to manage them. They no longer control her life. Now she uses them as fuel to help others in a unique way that is effective and restorative.
Katrina has a passion for helping others find deep connection to their true selves, unconditionally loving communities, and the natural world. She also has 20 years of experience reading Tarot and Oracle cards and works with clients to better understand the archetypes present in their lives and to help them connect with their own personal intuition.
“That’s why I minored in English...I love story, and I think there’s so much power in story and archetypes and claiming that story and finding our way to our own hero’s journey.”
Katrina is also studying to become an herbalist and teaches classes like “Reclaiming Intuition" and "Creativi-tea" sometimes alongside her partner, who is a Chinese medicine practitioner and tea master. She’s always searching for opportunities to be creative and find connection with community and with land.
If you need a forest recommendation, contact Katrina. Her personal favorite is the Salmon-Morgan Creeks Natural Area in southwest Washington, a good place for contemplation and where Katrina first discovered the forest’s healing powers.
Katrina is inspired by her mom’s story. She grew up in an abusive household and was a child of divorce. Then she got in a horrendous car accident before Katrina was born, sustaining brain damage and physical issues. As a tough, resilient single mom who listens to her intuition, her mom is titanium according to Katrina.
“Single moms are the most incredible people on the planet.”
I told Katrina that she is her own form of titanium, or perhaps the strongest type of wood in the forest.
“I’m a little like cedar or sequoia, soft wood but some of the biggest and strongest. My strength is different—I am softer, but I can grow big.”
I am wowed by all Katrina has experienced in her three decades and what a spirit- and joy-filled presence she has in spite of her setbacks. Clearly, she’s stronger and softer because of everything she has experienced.
Next week I interview my dear friend Annette Stixrud, who spent spent much of her life working as an educator and public health nurse in India, Tanzania, and Egypt. She too has a Tamil Nadu story, as that's the part of India she still calls home. Annette has always inspired me to be the best person I can be. She had to face many obstacles in her life, growing up as a pastor’s kid and becoming a professional woman in the 1960s.
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