My Heroine’s Journey

how I went from drug-addled teenage runaway to frontlines forest activist and published author, down into the depths of a suicidal depression, and baby-stepped my way back, one seed, one page, and one breath at a time, to find happiness, wholeness, and sovereignty.

I was born in Oregon in 1971. I grew up on the road, moving from place to place with my young single mom and my little sister. My mom was a survivor of severe childhood abuse, but none of us had the skills or language to even begin to cope with that. She couldn’t keep a job, a house, or a relationship, and we had horrible screaming fights, on the regular.

​I remember feeling lost and confused, reduced to hysteria and hyperventilating after my mom would yell without stopping for hours, often late into the night, starting when I was about five.

Now of course I recognize that I was being abused, gaslighted, bullied, berated and deprived of sleep and food, by a person who was not in control of her behavior.

As a result, I spent more time living in a vehicle, sleeping on a stranger’s floor, or staying with relatives, than not. By the time I left for good, at fifteen, I’d already lived in more than twenty houses.

I dropped out of high school in tenth grade and spent some years couch-surfing, sleeping around, snorting speed, and stage-diving my way across the Sublime-driven ska-punk music scene of late 1980’s Southern California.

Because I’ve reconciled with so much of it, my childhood and teenage years are kinda fun to write about now. But back then, it wasn’t fun.

I wasn’t safe, and I wasn’t cared for. 

I was a child, and I was exposed to real-life drugs, violence, homelessness, chaos, and sexual molestation. Almost daily.

I mean, I had some good times when I was a kid — who doesn’t? But my point with sharing this part of the story with you is that I didn’t grow up learning how to cultivate happiness, stability, or healthy, mutually-beneficial relationships.

Truly, it was nothing more than dumb luck that I didn’t end up dead, on heroin, in prison, sex-trafficked, or all of the above, but somehow I managed to survive. ​

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I spent my fourth summer living with an aunt and her filly, Lotta, on a dusty farmstead in rural OR.

When I was twenty-one, I hitched up to San Francisco with a suitcase and a hundred bucks to my name, determined to find my way in the world. I met some hippies at Golden Gate park and they got me a job canvassing for Greenpeace.

I knew nothing about the planet, the environmental movement, or what it means to be a kind, ecologically-minded human, but I’m a quick study, and by the time I was twenty-five, I had left my drug-addled youth behind and was working full time as a front-lines activist and community organizer in the 1990’s battle for the last of the Northwest’s old-growth forests.

But my favorite part about activism has always been about feeding people.

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That’s me, serving the daily Food Not Bombs vegan slop in Scobert Park, Eugene, 1998.

I was a “bottom liner” (read: daily soup-kitchen manifester) for the Eugene chapter of Food Not Bombs for several years, and when I learned about permaculture in 1999, I started Food Not Lawns. Our mission was to share surplus food, seeds, land, tools, and other resources, to build food security on our own neighborhood and beyond.

And in 2006, when I was thirty-five, I published my first book, Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community. ​

At the time of publication, I’d been renting a cabin on a big organic farm, living with a kind, like-minded man, and succeeding as a writer, teacher, and a leader in my community.

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A section of my 2-acre garden at River’s Turn Farm, where I lived, on and off, from 2003–2011.

I should have been happy.

But I struggled with the daily economic reality of trying to survive as an organic farmer in the rapidly gentrifying West Coast landscape.

My relationship was imbalanced, culturally, sexually, and domestically, and we bickered, all the time. We even ended up drawing a line down the middle of the garden, so that he could have his weedy beercan junkyard and I could have my lovingly tended permaculture paradise!

But he wasn’t an abuser. He was always kind, funny, easy to love. He was a good man with a good heart, who didn’t want the same things I wanted.

And I was living with undiagnosed and uncontrolled symptoms from the latent trauma of my childhood, so I really had no idea what I wanted, let alone the self awareness to allow myself to want anything at all.

I had learned all sorts of stuff about activism, permaculture, art, writing…but I had never learned how to have a healthy relationship with myself or anyone else. And I floundered, badly.

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Things began to unravel.

Behind the scenes of our burgeoning permaculture movement, darker forces were at play. The FBI rounded up a bunch of my friends on domestic terrorism charges, and I was among dozens of activists who were investigated. This caused chaos in our community. Everything fell apart.

In late 2007, I fell into a deep, debilitating physical and mental health rabbit hole. I couldn’t get my work done, ran out of money, and my relationship with my partner shriveled and died. I had to move away from the farm but I had nowhere to go. I was broke, homeless, suicidal, and had no interest in doing anything about it.

All of that passion and curiosity with which I had engaged in activism and community work for so many years was just gone. I couldn’t even remember what it felt like to care. I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to truly and deeply know my purpose, and I doubted it was possible. I felt like I had been faking it the whole time. And I didn’t want to be alive anymore.

So I did what I was best at, what I learned since I was a kid: I ran.

I sold all of my books, clothes, plants, and tools, bought a $250 car, and lived out of it, traveling from place to place, town to town, farm to farm, helping where I could, and spending weeks a time just crying, binge-eating, and hating myself, my life, and everyone around me.

That’s when I ran off to Spain, the first time. I had $1300 to my name when I got there, and I had the idea that I would either make it work, or kill myself on some anonymous cliff on the Mediterranean, where nobody would even know I had gone.

Albaycin, Granada, Spain, 2009

In Granada I was able to escape even more completely from everyone and everywhere I had ever been. I could be anyone I wanted to be, in Spain. So I chose to be a musician.

I had always tinkered, but now I studied. I practiced, I performed, and I started writing songs, with a fervor. I overcame a lifelong stage fright and got comfortable singing in front of others.

And for a little while, it felt like I was starting to recover, like I had found a new way to enjoy life.

But it was a pretend game.

I had no money, no stability at all, and was crippled with loneliness. I met lots of people in Spain but had no lover, no job, and no real purpose other than making it through each day without offing myself. I started slipping again, crying myself to sleep and self-abusing with cigarettes, alcohol, and questionable sexual encounters.

Soon enough, I ran out of money and was literally homeless, squatting a dirty cave with no water, and shitting into a plastic bag in the middle of the Andalusian summer. It was time to go home. I begged and borrowed enough money for a one-way ticket to Oregon.

But, between the economy, my shoddy mental health, and the fact that I had never had a straight job or a steady housing situation in my life, the entropic pattern continued. I found work in the California ganja harvest and made enough money to buy an old car, which I promptly moved into, with the idea that it was “temporary, until I can find a healthy, stable place to live.” Once and for all!

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broken down on the Interstate, while moving to a ranch that turned out to be owned by a pedophile

Easier said than done.

I spent the next six years literally driving from town to town, searching for a place to live that I could afford, and that didn’t include tolerating an overtly hostile or abusive landlord or housemate.

Sometimes, people who didn’t know what was going on would bump into me at a bar, or at the Farmer’s Market (because you know I was still going, shopping, hanging out with the ol’ timers, as much as I could). I’d tell them where I’d been and what I’d been doing.

I’d say something like “I just drove 16 hours from Southern California to work this landscaping gig, but then it got canceled so I went and volunteered at X farm for a week in exchange for some meals and a place to sleep.”

They’d say something like, “oh Heather you’re so free! You vagabond, you.”

But I wasn’t free. I wasn’t trapped. I wasn’t wandering, exploring, driven by curiosity and the desire to connect, but restricted, tangibly and from several direction, by a lack of access to resources, not just for housing and income-producing work, but for the deeper, darker need for mental health care.

I was a trainwreck, skidding out of control. And I had no where to go. And for the most part, nobody around me seemed to notice.

Other times people I bumped into would ask about my work.

What are you writing these days?

When’s your next book coming out? Is it about permaculture?

I felt like a complete fraud. What business did I have, writing about “sustainability,” when I couldn’t even find a place to live, let alone manifest long-term eco abundance.

Truth was, I had written a novel. A good one.

But I was so caught up in my own chaotic thoughts, and so oblivious to the idea that anybody might genuinely want to hear my own unique story, that I just kept focusing on the fact that I didn’t have another permaculture book to offer, and just told people I hadn’t written a damn thing.

I never even sent the novel to a single agent! How’s that for self-sabotage?

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Years later, I finally released my novel, Naked Lady Soup. Get it for free if you join my mailing list! It’s hilarious, I know you’ll love it.

Of course, during these years, several friends and family told me I needed meds. But I refused. Sure, I wanted a magic button that would just make all the pain go away, but I knew the drugs wouldn’t be that. Not for me.

Somehow, I intuitively knew, even in the grips of the worst moments on the worst days, that the only way out is through. ​I knew I could find a way to heal on my own.

I had to choose. I had to take control.

And so I did.

I woke up one morning and I could barely remember the last four years of my life. I hated myself and wanted to die, but I couldn’t quite pull the trigger. Plus, I had no gun, no pills, and the razor blade method seemed really gross, especially for whoever happened to find me, days or months later. I thought about jumping off the a bridge. I was in Portland, so I had twelve to choose from.

The whole suicide thing was just…depressing. And honestly, after thirty years of running from my shadow, I was kind of bored with it. I felt like such a cliché. The brooding writer who doesn’t write anything. Yawn.

So instead of ending it all, I started doing yoga.

I did it at home, using directions in a book I got at the thrift store. I watched YouTube vids and made up my own stretches, just rolled around on the floor, every day for an hour, while half-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer kick the arses of every literal and metaphorical monster that came her way.

And here comes Our Heroine.

I started thinking about when I used to study the hero’s journey, way back when I was a twenty-year-old wannabe screenwriter in L.A. I wondered how a heroine’s journey might differ.

I started reading up on the topic, plowing through the books of Joseph Campbell, Maureen Murdoch, Augusto Boal, and Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppet. From there it was Ursula K. LeGuin and Helene Cixous, then a revisit to the works of Anais Nin, Erica Jong, and Clarice Lispector, but with a completely new perspective. I was onto something, and it felt good.

So, in a flurry of somewhat impulsive yet creatively-driven ambition to learn as much as I could about how to write and live a story that feels good, inspires others, and feels meaningful, I enrolled in an Interdisciplinary MFA program, with a dual focus on writing and movement-based trauma recovery. #studentloans. (Don’t ask! My story is almost through and I don’t want to get distracted here!)

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self-portrait, with monsters. Oil on wood, 2014.

Best of all, I was writing again. A lot. Daily.

I picked up a little work, made a little money, and rented a moldy but deliciously private cabin on the Oregon Coast, for the winter (half-price rent for the offseason, see.)

Determined to make the transformation stick, I found a therapist, convinced her to see me for what I could afford, and, after telling her details about my life that I had never told anyone, was diagnosed with a classic case of Complex PTSD, which had been compounded and reinforced, by my own choices and a myriad of other forces, again and again, throughout all stages of my life.

Phew. Nasty!

The good news was, I could cure myself.

It wasn’t going to be easy, but, once I had that diagnosis, I felt even more motivated. It wasn’t my fault what had happened to me, but it was my responsibility to get through it if I wanted to enjoy my life.

Fortunately, I was surrounded by options and opportunities. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I had friends and connections because, through all of the struggles, over all of the years, I had continued to save seeds, organize the sharing of community resources, and show up in real time to get good and dirty turning all sorts of lawns into gardens.

Sadly, all that social capital doesn’t get you much these days. But I was able to find a renovated porch, behind a run-down punk house in North Portland, at a price I could just barely afford, and I moved in for the summer. The backyard was trashed, full of brambles, beer cans, and rotten piles of free crap from housemates long moved on.

So I cleaned it up, dug out all the grass and thorny stuff, and planted it full of veggies. Like you do! The garden thrived, and so did I.

​The situation wasn’t perfect but I just I kept doing yoga, working in the garden, and avoiding sugar. I still cried myself to sleep almost every night. But I was able to smile and laugh during the day, most days, which was a huge improvement on the last few years. ​

Years later, I finally released my novel, Naked Lady Soup. Get it for free if you join my mailing list! It’s hilarious, I know you’ll love it.

I’d been writing often, but not with much structure or discipline, apart from scrambling together packets for school and waiting until the very last minute to type up whatever gardening article was due the next morning.

As I continued to practice yoga, and continue to feel better, look better, work better, and care more about pretty much everything, I became obsessed with the notion of daily practice as a direct path to pattern disruption, trauma recovery, and ultimately, personal and professional success, I added a daily writing practice, a la Natalie Goldberg. Every single day, writing, immediately after yoga.

But I didn’t like Natalie’s “just write anything” approach — it was too vague for me — my permaculture designer’s mind wanted specifics — so I started making long lists of writing prompts, based on the topics I was interested in, and using those for my daily practice.

And Voila! Now I was generating actual content that I would be able to use and share and publish.

After about a year of yoga and writing every day with the clear intention of healing myself I could see that I wasn’t just fighting bad symptoms and trying to stay alive, like I had done for as long as I could remember.

Now, I was actually starting to shift towards becoming a healthy person for the first time in my life. ​

self-portrait, with monsters. Oil on wood, 2014.

And still…

I still felt cursed. I was still dating idiots, to no avail and for no fathomable reason except that my shadow still wasn’t balanced. It was toxic.

I had gotten a lot healthier. But I hadn’t gotten any happier.

Not that I needed a man to be happy! But come on. I knew I still had a lot of work to do, and it was overwhelming.

I began to spiral backwards, slipping into old habits, neglecting yoga and writing. I moved out of the punk house when the mold season came, and took up residence in a sketchy basement with a couple of alcoholic dudes who lived upstairs and were generally assholes but they gave me a killer price and mostly left me alone.

Then, I had a near-death experience. A tiny splinter I got while dumpster diving art supplies in Portland festered into a blood infection and I almost died. It sounds so flip, just in a sentence like that! But it happened.

And I. Almost. Died.

From a freakin’ splinter!

And I am so grateful, because that’s when I realized something had changed.

Somewhere between the yoga practice, the gardening, and the growing stack of new writing based on my singular obsession with the heroine’s journey as a tool for personal and cultural transformation, I had “accidentally” let go of any desire whatsoever to kill myself.

I still wasn’t happy. I didn’t even know what that meant yet: “happy.” But I no longer wanted to die. I wanted to live, and I wanted to live well.

​I spent my last year of grad school completely immersed in a rigorous, academic study of how to heal C-PTSD through creative expression.

I did a yoga teacher training.

I revised my novel and printed a few copies to show to friends and colleagues.

I wrote every day, stopped dating idiots, and when my sweet old Emma dog finally died after sixteen years by my side, I cried for three days and then dried my eyes and got on with my life. I was becoming resilient!

I conducted a rigorous personal metamorphosis, adding in the layers of yoga, permaculture, creative writing. I used every tool in my toolbox, read dozens of books, tested theories with my peers and colleagues. And I healed.

I got even more fascinated with storytelling and the heroine’s journey, so I focused my MFA thesis project on how to use the Heroine’s Journey not only to tell feminist stories and heal from trauma, but also to empower others and create a legacy that could, in the long game, completely transform our traumatized, broken culture.

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My backyard garden in North Portland, Summer 2012.

I even fired up a fresh Food Not Lawns tour and went all around the country for three months in Summer 2015, turning lawns into gardens, organizing neighborhood seed swap events, and teaching permaculture.

I realized I could love teaching again, and I realized I was gonna make it. This time for real.

My recovery didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t easy.

But it did happen, and it is possible. Complex PTSD takes years to accumulate, and it could take even more years to recover. But I found a path, through plants, writing, and getting control of my own damn body!

Beyond trauma recovery, I have also shed all of those old excuses and ways I used to build walls of resistance around my work, my relationships, and my ability to be happy.

Fast-forward to three years later and I am living my absolute lifelong dream on a small organic homestead in Southern Spain, with a kind, wonderful and committed man and two hilarious little rescue dogs.

Depression? It’s been six years since my last episode.

Imposter syndrome? Nope. Not any more.

Writer’s block? What even IS that? I can’t even stop writing! It’s so fun!

Yoga didn’t make me into an Instagram babe, but it showed me that I have the power to heal myself, and that changes everything. Photo: Lauren Howland.

My mission is to help other women find the time, space, support, and inspiration to write, to heal, to create, and to step into the role as protagonist of your own story.

I LOVE teaching online and I’m constantly doing more research about how we can use our struggles and stories to lift each other up!

But I am not your guru.

I’m not here to preach to you or show you the one true path. Because at the end of the day, I’m still just the messenger. Ultimately, my goal is to help you find your own voice, your own path, your own story.

Because you, you’re the heroine.

Exploring a giant eroded tree trunk on the beach with Emma, Oregon 2013.

Thank you so much for reading my story!