Rachel Otis, somatic therapist

How self-care, mental health and outdoor access are interconnected for somatic therapist Rachel Otis. Words by Rachel Otis. Photos by Sada Reed.

Step. Inhale. Step. Exhale. Step. Salty air. Step. Sand crunches. Step. Slippery seaweed. Step. Inhale. Step. Exhale.

Immersion in nature is part of the daily self-care schedule that I’ve worked so lovingly to set for myself. My time outdoors has felt especially infinite during the year and a half that has shaken many of us to our cores. As a somatic therapist and a human, I needed to get back to the earth in every way possible to ground myself.

Grandview GTX

The waterproof Grandview Gore-Tex hiking boot.

Rachel Otis.

Somatic therapy, for me, is a particular way of practicing mental health, which aims to connect the mind to the physical body. It’s about creating space for the sensations, emotions, memories, movements, sounds, feelings, and images that arise in any given moment to be honored, expanded, and compassionately explored.

In many ways, my re-discovery of Teva sandals has empowered me—giving me the ability to explore my surroundings—in all of my Queer, disabled, Mi’kmaq, Jewish, fat glory in a way that many other physical objects, like seating and clothing, do not.

Grandview GTX
Grandview GTX waterproof hiking boots.

From Surviving to Thriving

I think back in this moment on the rocky coast of Maine and recall the sensation of being both so connected to the ground below me that I almost felt bare-footed, and yet being so supported by the foundation of my shoe (think: ocean deity floating on a cloud vibes) that I couldn’t feel as many painful sensations as I normally might.

Rachel Otis explores the outdoors.

Why painful? As a chronic illness survivor of the past 20 years (shout out to my fellow Crohn’s Disease warriors), I experience many offshoots of what it means to both have an autoimmune disease, as well as to be someone who receives IV infusions of chemo-adjacent medication for it in the hospital every other month. Although I am extremely tuned into my bodily sensations and the effect they have on my emotions, I recently realized how much of an expert I’ve become at separating myself from painful sensations. I genuinely wasn’t aware of how much pain I was carrying when wanting to go out on these daily nature adventures, and would unconsciously push through.

Hurricane XLT2 Christian Cowan with earth-friendly glitter.

Rachel wears the Hurricane XLT2 Christian Cowan.

Looking back now, I can see that there was a whole different level of energy being expended for something I just wanted to be fun and freeing. I finally decided to invest in some serious footwear (enter: my Hurricane XLT2 sandals), which, along with my trusted handicap placard, my beloved bestie/service dog Luna, and pre-researched public bathroom knowledge have turned my summer into one of accessibility.

Summer of accessibility.

The Summer of Accessibility

I have a deep passion for creating accessibility and inclusivity in all situations, both of which are vital points that I get to model for my therapy clients and lean into outside of my sessions. One of the ways I do this is by continuing to advocate for things like handicapped-accessible parking in ALL nature spaces: from the tops of mountains to local beaches and hiking trails, and quite literally everywhere in between.

Sadly, despite the legalities supporting the disabled community within the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), I have found that many areas immersed in nature don’t actually take this into consideration (here’s looking particularly at you, New England). It’s almost as if they assume disabled folks can’t explore nature in our own ways! What others painfully fail to understand is that something as seemingly simple as having access to parking provides support for my mind and body: relieving my mind from anxiety and enabling my body with another tool to feel seen and supported. In case I haven’t made it super clear: having one’s basic human rights respected does this!

Hurricane XLT2 Christian Cowan

For most people, accessibility to activities like hiking, swimming, and camping may appear limited to those folks who are fully able bodied. For example: many rugged or secluded nature spots I’ve visited don’t include one handicapped spot in their parking lots and the majority of beaches I’ve visited in my life don’t include a simple ramp leading down to the ocean. I’ve experienced nature enthusiasts often holding judgment for “cushy” campsites when sometimes a blow-up mattress is the difference between being able to sleep outside with extreme pain or not.

However, many of us, like myself, live our whole lives actively walking, floating, resting in the grey areas and learning to love them along the way. Therapeutically, I call this living in the both/and, and I highly recommend we all try it.

Hurricane XLT2 Christian Cowan

Invitation: the next time you come up against your own black-and-white thinking, take a moment to pause and see if there is in fact a middle path. “I can’t make it all the way through that hiking trail so I just shouldn’t go at all,” now has space for, “I know that I physically won’t be able to sustain myself for that entire trail so I’m going to explore it partway and then turn back.” Can you feel the difference in your body as you read my offering?

To me, living in the both/and means leaving space for more than one thing to be true at a time, and then finding a middle pathway to be with that truth. Notice how I also invited us all into this exploration: abled body folks and disabled folks alike. I believe that the more able-bodied folks call themselves into moments of self-compassion and remove rigidity for themselves, it can provide a stronger basis for extending those same factors to their disabled counterparts. It’s going to take all of us to create a larger shift.

Rachel Otis explores outside.

The intricate paths I’ve traveled to get to this point have also been traveled by my ancestors, whose intersectionalities converge within my soul each step of the way. I reflect on how they had to maneuver these same spaces barefoot, and then I remember that I no longer need to do it that way. It’s not just my transgenerational trauma that has walked me to this very moment, but also my transgenerational resilience. Pain is not our only birthright my fellow nature-loving friends, pleasure is our birthright too!

And when you take this moment with your mind-bodies to consider my words, I’d ask you if pleasure is perhaps why you love nature so much? The sheer joy of a raindrop falling off a brilliantly-colored leaf; the smell of the salt air as it co-mingles with the roar of the waves; trees chattering away in their own love-language; a mama bird feeding her babies; a single smooth stone. Each moment is its own universe, each memory a sacred somatic imprint. Step. Inhale. Step. Exhale. Step. Salty air. Step. Sand crunches. Step. Slippery seaweed. Step. Inhale. Step. Exhale. Step.

Hurricane XLT2 Christian Cowan.

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