Moving Forward
Young men and women struggling to transition to adulthood find their way at The Retreat, part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System
by Bill Donahue

By the time she had reached her mid-20s, Beth Wilkinson* had reached a dark point in her life, with one persistent question rattling around inside her head: “How can I end it?”

Wilkinson had been on medication to treat a particularly persistent depression since the eighth grade, and she was also struggling to cope with some unresolved emotional issues stemming back to her childhood. As a young adult who was supposed to be well on her way, she felt “helpless and hopeless”—lacking direction and the motivation to do anything about it. These overwhelming feelings plunged her into “a deep, deep sadness” that, in turn, prevented her from sustaining a healthy romantic relationship, from succeeding in her classes as a psychology major at Northeastern University in Boston, or from otherwise leading what she considered a meaningful life.

“I was getting into a space that only spiraled down,” says Wilkinson. “I had moved back into my parents’ house in New York, and nothing seemed to fit. I went from seeing my therapist twice a week to three times a week to four times a week, and when it almost reached five, even she wasn’t available to help me. I wasn’t eating, and that’s when we decided I needed to seek additional help.

“Truthfully, I was so numb to everything,” she continues. “As opposed to fighting it, my reaction was, ‘OK, this is fine.’ I’m really glad I did [seek additional help], though, because it saved my life.”

Upon researching her options, Wilkinson settled on two different facilities, ultimately choosing The Retreat, which is part of the Baltimore-based Sheppard Pratt Health System. She walked through The Retreat’s doors for the first time the day after Thanksgiving in 2009. There, at The Retreat, she discovered a safe welcoming environment staffed by health care professionals devoted to helping her address the issues that had been holding her back, including the depression that would not resolve through therapy or medication.

She also met people from all stages of life who had committed to seeking treatment for various mental health disorders: professionals dealing with substance use problems and other stressors; adults trying to cope with marital problems or other significant life changes; and young adults, like her, who were struggling to make the transition to adulthood. Like every resident who comes to The Retreat, Wilkinson had a hand-selected treatment team—including Don Ross, M.D.—to diagnose her condition, guide her care and craft a plan to stimulate her recovery.

“Everyone has different brain chemistry and different conflict areas,” says Dr. Ross, formerly The Retreat’s medical director and currently a senior psychiatrist. “With every resident, I zero in on the person who is suffering from depression or a panic disorder or whatever problems brought them here. … I look for and bring forward their unique qualities and build their strengths to recognize them as a person, not just their illness or their pathology.

“[Wilkinson’s] treatment included some deep work on a number of childhood experiences that hadn’t been metabolized,” he continues, referencing an “emotional abandonment” in which Wilkinson had been separated from her parents for an extended period of time after her father fell ill during a family trip to California. “Because of those early experiences, I think she had a sense of safety that never fully developed. Here [at The Retreat], she was able to form some important relationships with some of the other residents, and that really sustained her and provided that sense of safety in times when she might have given up or lost hope.”

One of the most dynamic aspects of Wilkinson’s treatment was dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, which is commonly used to address problems related to emotional dysregulation. Through this therapy, The Retreat helped Wilkinson think differently about herself, the world and her future, all while enabling her to learn critical coping tools such as mindfulness, distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness.

“A big part of DBT is acceptance,” says Wilkinson. “I came to realize I was here because of traumatic experiences that had distorted my life. Now it’s almost like second nature to me.”

Besides becoming immersed in psychodynamic psychotherapy and having her medication adjusted to curb her depression, Wilkinson found another foothold in her recovery: recreation. “An angel” by the name of Terry Marvel, a certified recreation therapist with The Retreat, led the way.

“Terry wouldn’t let me ‘do nothing’ or sit around by myself,” Wilkinson says. “We would go on these weekend retreats, and they turned out to be some pretty awesome experiences; I learned how to snowboard. It was an opportunity to be out in the world, and it allowed me to realize I was still human.”

Depending on the resident, The Retreat’s recreational experiences might include kayaking, rock climbing or sailing. It might also include trips to area destinations, such as the National Aquarium in Baltimore, designed to build community and foster independence, according to Marvel.

“People need recreation; it is a part of well-being,” says Marvel, who joined Sheppard Pratt in 2003. “When I’m working with adults, I reiterate this thought of play. It’s so important for adults to play because it sparks innovation. I like to re-inspire them to discover that piece of themselves.

“I’ve been a part of so many different experiences where you take residents outside of their comfort zone, and that’s where exploration and growth can happen,” she continues. “You can see them start to come to the realization that, yes, you can return to the things you love most. You can have a life.”

For some people, one extended stay at a place such as The Retreat is all they need to find their way. It took Wilkinson three separate stays over the course of a year, and she gained a deeper level of clarity with each visit. Her “graduation day,” as she calls it, came on Nov. 17, 2010.

“For me, it’s been very gradual,” she says. “I was terrified to leave The Retreat because of the fear over losing Dr. Ross in my life, but I’ve come to realize he’ll always be part of my life in some way. Reflecting on the experience now, with me having been at The Retreat three times … I’m everlastingly grateful for everyone who came into my life and was part of me getting better.”

Wilkinson has reinvented herself since last leaving The Retreat more than five years ago. Although she never did graduate from college, she realized that a college diploma for her “wasn’t necessary to be a good person,” she says. She did, however, spend a year living in Costa Rica. She earned a job with a museum in New York. She became a personal trainer. She continues to self-improve by seeing her longtime psychologist twice a week and staying active, including boxing three times a week. She is open to a healthy romantic relationship and has even considered what it might be like to start a family—an idea “the old Beth” never would have given a moment’s thought.  

“There was a time when I didn’t care enough to take a shower for two weeks straight,” she says. “Now, nearly six years later, I’m a high-functioning woman of society who is working on living a full life. I lived so many years not being in the moment. I’ve come to realize that it’s so important to have control of myself, and it dawned on me that you have one life. That realization has been empowering and awesome. … Life is treating me well, and I’m treating life well.”

The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt
6501 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21204

Photograph by Jody Robinson

* Name changed to protect privacy