When Claire Nelson took a wrong turn on a desert trail, she ended up lost and gravely injured. Four days later, hours from death, she was miraculously rescued, a changed woman. Emma Johnson spoke to her about survival, resilience and starting over
It often happens in our lives that we go searching for one thing, but end up finding something else entirely. As we journey to explore ourselves, new truths are uncovered along the way and, in many instances, our destination changes, shifts or moves – or is simply never reached.
For Claire Nelson, this couldn’t be truer. Fed up with a life in London that felt empty and meaningless, having battled depression and anxiety, and feeling lost and needing to disconnect, Nelson took up the offer of housesitting a friend’s desert ranch home on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park in California. A lover of the outdoors, a keen hiker and a fan of solitude, she was sure this adventure would be the tonic to the nagging sense of self-doubt, fear and uncertainty that stalked her days. ‘I had gone looking for wilderness, and now it had found me,’ she writes in her recently published Things I Learned from Falling.
In her book, Nelson sets off on a hike to the Lost Palms Oasis, a journey from which she very nearly doesn’t return. It’s an ordeal that she chronicles with exacting honesty. Wandering off the main route, she slips from a boulder into a narrow canyon, shattering her pelvis. Unable to move, and hidden from view, miles from the main pathway, she lies alone for four days, becoming increasingly dehydrated and slowly facing the reality that rescue is a very remote possibility.
With nothing to do but contemplate her own death, and by association her own survival, her days shrink into a terrifying seesaw of coping with the searing midday heat and the chilling cold of a desert night. She aches for the sun’s warmth each morning, then gasps for the relief of shade. Meanwhile, hydration threatens to consume her every waking thought.
But the mind is a cruel beast that leaves space for plenty of self-doubt and self-flagellation. Alone, lost,
hopeless, Nelson is brutal about her past challenges with mental health and the choices she made that led her to find herself lost in the middle of the Californian desert, and open about what she learns during her ordeal. She provides transcripts from the video selfies she made while lying in the desert, waiting for death, hoping for rescue. They make for uncomfortable reading. ‘This is not the way I wanted to go,’ she says at one point. ‘I don’t want to be here. (Sobbing) I really don’t want to be here.’
She considers all the ways she has isolated herself in the past, pushing people away to make her appear stronger – yet only, as she begins to realise, making herself weaker in the process. The recriminations flow fast and free. ‘It’s your fault; you’re such a loner,’ she repeats, over and over, castigating herself for choosing isolation because of a fear of getting hurt or letting people get too close. ‘My biggest regret was fear,’ she writes. ‘The utter bloody pointlessness of it all.’
She recalls how she has moved through her life from place to place, and group to group, never allowing anyone close enough to see her vulnerability, never allowing herself to connect with other people, never giving herself a chance to make those vital human connections that make us feel whole, loved, accepted. As she lies in the baking desert, broken and lost, Nelson is sure that, because of her life choices, she is now utterly, utterly alone.
But, as it turns out, the importance of human connection becomes the thing that saves her life. After friends of hers start to worry – having seen no recent posts on her Instagram account – they alert the authorities, and a search and rescue team is despatched to find her.
Against all the odds, the rescue helicopter flying over the vast Joshua Tree National Park spots a tiny movement in the rocks below as it is making a return journey to base. Nelson is found alive, and saved.
Without those friends, without someone noticing she was gone, Nelson would never have been rescued. And for her, and the book as a whole, this is her central message: that in trying to protect ourselves from hurt, through fear and isolation, we leave ourselves more exposed to crisis and danger.
The answer she says, is to open our hearts to pain and vulnerability – because in doing so, we also open them to love and connection.
Charting her recovery – both physically and mentally – Nelson expertly guides us on her journey from a strong, distant, solitary character, who keeps her emotions pushed down, to someone deeply connected with both herself and others. She cries, daily, welcoming with warmth and love the many family and friends who travel from all over the globe to be at her bedside. She is suddenly openhearted and positive. \I felt like love was oozing through my veins, so thick and fast that I felt the greatest affection for everyone who came into my orbit,’ she writes.
And so, like her pelvis – which in her fall had been reduced to splinters – Nelson begins to pick up the pieces of a life gone wrong, and slowly put it back together. ‘I had a second chance at life now, and this life, this new and brilliant second life, would not be like the one before,’ she writes. ‘There I lived in an emotional fortress, a sanctuary in which I could be safe from the things I was afraid of, but which was also keeping the good and the great out. It had become an obstacle to connections. This whole time I was locking myself in a room with my fears. It was time to put an end to this. In this life, I would be open.’
Q&A WITH CLAIRE NELSON
How do you feel watching the videos you made in the desert back now?
It’s uncomfortable viewing – I don’t really like to watch them. I am so removed from the mindset I was in when I recorded those videos that I feel strangely distanced from them. What’s interesting to me about them is that I’d never planned what I would say when I pressed record, no intention of posterity, and that’s really evident. I ramble, I repeat myself, and I don’t really film much of my surroundings. It’s something I did from a momentary, instinctive need to be seen, and heard, and to feel less alone. Some of my recordings are directed at my loved ones, but for the most part I am just talking – a conversation between me and the camera. Being so removed, even I tend to feel a bit intrusive watching them.
What has this experience taught you about vulnerability?
That being vulnerable isn’t the same thing as being weak – nor is it a weakness. I think we can so often confuse the two. Vulnerability is just part of being human. I think of it as the part of us that has needs that we can’t meet alone – that fundamental longing to be known, loved, and understood. So, if we try to hide that part of ourselves – or any part of ourselves, for that matter – then, of course, we’re never fully seen or recognised. That was a big part of what drove me into feelings of loneliness and disconnection.
One of the rescuers describes you as having ‘the mindset to survive’.What do you think is a ‘survival mindset’?
I can only speak from my own experience and mindset, as it’s all I know. We all have that biological instinct to stay alive, and I think a lot of people would surprise themselves in that kind of situation. But if I were to describe the most optimal ‘survival mindset’, it would be one that straddles logic and hope, with a firm footing in each.
When survival mode kicked in, my mind shut out all of the ‘unnecessary’ emotional responses and shifted into a purely practical way of thinking. So I guess the more practical a person you are, the more tools you’ll have in that regard. But by far one of the greatest tools is hope. Where the mind leads, the body will follow. So you want to hold onto hope for as long as you can. The effect it has on everything else is remarkable.
In the midst of a global crisis, how did your experiences arm you with the tools to cope?
When I came back to London, I planned to live a life less reclusive. So it was surreal to go headfirst into a lockdown, and on my own. Thankfully, I’ve always been comfortable in solitude, but now I feel better equipped to avoid it becoming isolation. I know the value in asking for help, and how to accept it without feeling I’m a burden. How to overcome the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and instigating connections – with neighbours, strangers online – and being open to that human connection in a real way, something we all need more than ever before.
I’ve also had to forgive myself for how much time I’m spending online again – something which almost came to be a deathbed regret – as these are exceptional circumstances.
But I remember how vital it is to go offline too, and soak in the present moment, taking in the tiny little details around me. It sounds corny, but that is when I’m most clearly reminded that I am here and living. Where I best tap into the deep gratitude for life that I carry. Even on days where my mood slumps to the floor and everything is a struggle, there’s that part of me that is grateful to be right here, feeling these things, the good and the bad. Because I almost missed out on feeling any of it.
You talk about the importance of human connection. Can you explain why this is such a key thing for you?
Opening yourself up to connection is very much like writing a book: you face the fear, become vulnerable, and put this thing out there, knowing everyone will have an opinion. Some will hate it, some just won’t get it, while for others it’s absolutely not their cup of tea. But there are also those for whom it has resonated, who have found comfort and strength in this story, who have reached out to tell me it has made them feel less alone. And so, the same goes with human connection. You cannot be afraid to put yourself out there and let people see you. The positives gained will always far outweigh any negatives.
Since the accident, and the book being published, I feel more seen than I ever have – which has led to stronger, more authentic relationships with the people in my life, and a greater acceptance of myself. And that’s really down to me pulling back the curtain and saying, ‘This is me: here I am.’ Before, that felt impossibly terrifying. What if I was misunderstood? What if I was rejected? What if I was disliked? The thing is, those things are possible, but the opposites are all possible too – and what if they happened? What would that be like?