Train Wreck: When Your Writing Retreat on the Train Goes WAY Off the Rails – Part Four (The Aftermath)

In my last post, I wrote about how my Rhythm on the Rails Writing Retreat to Vancouver, BC went WAY off the rails. I outlined the details of the events that led to a less-than – even disappointing – experience… not at all what I had in mind or would ever want for my participants.

The six weeks that followed the retreat were fraught with an ever-devolving encounter between me and Ophelia. Ultimately, what happened was that, for the first time in my life, I got sued. Here’s what happened…

We returned home from Vancouver, BC on a Sunday afternoon and parted ways at Union Station in Portland. I headed home and focused on my own self-care – unpacking, getting settled, and relaxing while doing my best to remove myself from the fallout I sensed was around the corner… and the self-beating I was holding at bay. Just one night, I thought. I’ll give myself one night to not be ensconced in the drama.

The next morning, I woke up and set to work calculating the difference in hotel bills for Ophelia and Tracy, as well as their cab fares, based on the receipts they had given me on the train and the difference in U.S. and Canadian currencies. I sent them their money via PayPal and drafted a long email to each of them by, I believe, the Tuesday of that week.

In my long email, I again apologized for the condition of the hotel and let them know that their relationships mattered to me and that I wanted to do what I could to make things right with them. I asked that they view the circumstance as a mistake made by a well-meaning fallible human rather than a malicious act to deceive or disregard anyone’s needs and/or feelings.

I offered them each a complimentary hour of coaching and 10% off any future trip I might offer, indefinitely. I also, in an effort to empathize and let them know I understood how they might be feeling, wrote that I could understand how it might feel that trust had been broken. Little did I know, my choice of words would be used against me.

Beyond a “Thanks!” email from Tracy for the money I sent them, I never heard from her again and have not to this day. She neither accepted or declined my offers. I heard from Ophelia soon after when she wrote to tell me that she wasn’t ready for her pre-scheduled coaching with me that Friday because the whole incident in Vancouver had triggered her CPTSD, which had activated her autoimmune disorder. She said that, because of this, she was not ready.

The reality was that she hadn’t done any work on her book to date – even before the retreat. I wrote back to say I was sorry to hear that the weekend had had that effect on her and that I was happy to schedule her next session for the end of the month to give her some time to recover.

I didn’t hear anything for a few days, and when I did, she informed me that my offers weren’t going to work for her. She expressed that she had been triggered and that she felt abandoned on the trip. She asked if I would be willing to process her emotions with her – because trust had been broken.

My day was full with other clients and obligations, and I didn’t see her email until later that evening. I wanted to make sure that’s what she asking of me before responding, so I decided to sleep on it. She wrote me the next morning, frustrated (angry?) that I hadn’t responded yet. I explained why and promised she would hear from me soon.

Meanwhile, I had scheduled an email to my list on a variety of topics, one of which was the train retreat. I didn’t feel ready to talk about the retreat as a whole (the sub-standard hotel part of the story), because I didn’t know where the situation was going to land with Ophelia, so I held off on that facet of the trip. No out of denial and not to be sneaky or disingenuous, but to give the situation time to breathe, evolve, and settle inside me.

What I did mention in the email were some of the highlights from my perspective, which happened to be our afternoon activities at Queen Elizabeth Park and our group dinner at Chambar on Friday night… activities Ophelia and Tracy had opted out of. Between my lagging response to Ophelia’s email (in her opinion) and my email to my list, which Ophelia was on, she became enraged (my perspective). What followed was a show of aggression that comes from, in my opinion, a striking sense of entitlement (and other things I’m not professionally qualified to label).

She informed me that my email was “distasteful” and that she “took it personally.” She said that because trust had been broken and because of this email to my list of people, she could no longer work with me as a client. She unsubscribed from my list and requested a refund for coaching.

I wrote back to explain that I could understand feelings of being “triggered.” I also reminded her that she had signed an agreement with me stating she could stop coaching at any time and that there were no refunds. Still doing my best to understand and empathize with her fragile emotional state, I offered to give her a three- to six-month pause so she could process her emotions and feel stable enough to begin coaching again. She responded with threats of legal action and a public review.

I decided to stop engaging. I had done everything I could think of to make up for her discomfort and dissatisfaction.

Two weeks later, I received a demand letter from an attorney. I didn’t read it (I had been exposed to as much caustic energy as I could handle), and I promptly acquired an attorney myself. I knew Ophelia didn’t have a case, but I wanted to put a bow on the entire situation and move on with my life.

My attorney submitted a letter to Ophelia’s attorney recapping the situation, detailing all my offers to make up for the hotel, and a reminder that she had signed a coaching contract stating there were no refunds, as well as pointing out that her emotional responses were not a provision of the contract. (I had also received signatures from all participants prior to the retreat stating, among other things, that they were psychologically and physically well enough to take the trip. More about these in my next post.)

We received a second demand for part of the money being requested in exchange for a non-disparagement agreement. Our answer was ‘no’. By this point, I was over the emotional charge of the situation, and I didn’t care (never did, to be honest) that she might write a “public review.” To whom? She was/is one person in a big world. And while she may have smeared my name (may still be, for all I know) to people we have in common and beyond, I felt comfortable knowing that aware, stable people would see the bigger picture.

I wasn’t worried about my public image because, despite my mistake of inadvertently choosing a sub-standard hotel, I know that my level of integrity is high. I know I’m honest, that I care about people – especially my clients and retreat participants – and that this was just one blip on the heartbeat of my work and my life. And I trusted that people who really know me would know this, as well.

My attorney wrote back to the other attorney to say that Ophelia was free to write what she liked so long as it wasn’t something that would damage my business. I don’t know what she’s written, if she has written anything, and I don’t ever care to know. It has nothing to do with me. It’s none of my business.

I support her right to share her experience from her perspective, and I trust that it might even take care of some pre-qualifying of clients and retreat participants for me because anyone who might read her account, if written honestly, would know that in the big picture of life, unfortunately, mishaps occur and people – even retreat leaders and coaches – make mistakes. Or, they were to consider me a thoughtless piece of shit, I wouldn’t want to work with them, anyway.

So, the “story” ended there, in terms of our interactions with each other. I confirmed with my attorney that I could write about the ordeal – from the perspective of a “retreat gone wrong” and what I learned from it (because I know I’m not alone when it comes to retreat mishaps), so long as I didn’t use Ophelia’s real name.

My hope in sharing this story is that if you’re a retreat planner/leader and have experienced something similar, you won’t feel so alone. Or if you haven’t had a similar experience, maybe mine and what I learned, which I’ll share in my next post, will help prevent you from ever having to navigate this kind of predicament.

And… if you’re a retreat participant, I hope some of the tips I have in my next post will help you in choosing future retreats to ensure you can have the best experience possible, even when things go “off the rails.”

Please check back for my next post – Lessons Learned, which offers a few points for retreat success and other thoughts about what it means to be a retreat leader and a retreat participant, and well as a writer and a human… all from my humble, limited perspective.

As always… I send you mad writing mojo.

Bright Blessings and Creative Courage,

Johnnie
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