Decompressing The Year That Wasn’t

Note: A previous version of this was published in the DPW Newsletter and is republished here with the author’s permission. 

I remember my first decompression after my first Burn way back in 1997. Let me tell you, it was no party. Back then, Burning Man was only five days long, and I was there and back again in a week. My experience left me feeling transformed, elated, empowered, and unstoppable. But then the unimaginable happened after I returned: I crashed. Hard. This was well before the official Burning Man post-event Decompression parties started in San Francisco. So, no, I’m not talking about the annual party. I’m talking about the post-Burn psychological experience upon re-entry to the default world known to some Burners as decompression. 

Back in the day, I didn’t know any “Burners” where I lived because there weren’t any in suburban New Jersey. Hell, there weren’t many Burners yet in nearby New York City. This was still a few years before the formation of the Regional Network. I was all alone, without a support group. I didn’t even understand what I was experiencing, which oscillated somewhere between exhaustion, anger, depression, and straight-up psychological discomfort. 

So, what exactly is decompression? Aside from the decompression that affects scuba divers (which would still be an apt metaphor), a quick search on the internet yields these two common definitions:

  • To release from pressure or compression
  • To convert (something, such as a compressed file or signal) to an expanded or original size 

From my perspective, this makes sense. Burning Man is a fully immersive experience that subsequently makes for an overwhelming and unsuspectingly pressurized environment. Nobody back in 1997 described Burning Man as a compression chamber — on the contrary. From the pictures and stories that were starting to find their way to the internet and magazines, it appeared quite the opposite — Burning Man looked like freedom. 

Search a little deeper and you will start to find definitions that address decompression as a psychological experience:

  • A return to a normal, more relaxed state after a period of intense stress, psychological pressure, or urgent activity

Now, this definition is interesting and pretty much sums it up. Burning Man is an exhaustive week-long triathlon-ish experience of sorts — getting to the desert, living in the desert, and leaving the desert (without a trace). However, what is often overlooked, especially for newcomers, is the adjustment from an escape to some strange interdimensional paradise, and then a return back to normal everyday life, responsibilities, and problems. 

Diving deeper still, a search for “psychological decompression” begins to yield entries such as this study published in Military Medicine

“Decompression may be defined as either ‘a release from compression’ or ‘a gradual reduction in pressure.’ In recent years, however, the term decompression has been used to describe a psychological concept, to which, in military environments, refers to a process that is designed to allow service personnel returning from deployment to adapt to the home environment in a graduated way, with the aim of reducing the potential for maladaptive psychological adjustment.”

Now, with the utmost respect for our military and those who have served, I am in no way comparing the Burning Man experience or my 20 years working in the desert to active military service. However, the military study provides the most applicable description of decompression that I have seen to date. 

So, how did I get through my first bout with decompression? Well, to be honest, I thought I was losing my shit and feel quite lucky to have gotten through the experience without much support. I had no choice but to push my way through the discomfort and have a conversation with myself until I reached a moment of clarity. It wasn’t a pleasant experience (sleepless nights, irritability, reckoning with past trauma). I’ll spare readers the details. Essentially I got to a place where I made a decision to start my life anew, get rid of everything, and hit the road out west to sunny California. I decided that how I lived my life would be my therapeutic practice every day moving forward. The quote: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” by Anaïs Nin comes to mind.

Still, it isn’t practical to keep flipping over the table of one’s life every time you come home from Burning Man. After 20 Burns, I can say that each decompression has been different, and not all of them resulted in some earth-shattering, life-changing declaration. Most of the time I just needed to turn down the noise of the world and simply let myself feel whatever I was processing and practice wellness… maybe, if I was lucky, soak in a hot spring somewhere remote before returning to the everyday grind. If you’re experiencing decompression, I would also recommend turning to your support system and, if needed, and make use of any mental health resources available to you.

And after 20 years, I wouldn’t say that decompression itself gets any easier. Factors always change. Even this year, a year without the Burn, it felt like I was carrying the ghost of collective trauma of all the years past. As Playa Restoration manager, I just needed to get past the anniversary date of the post-event inspection in order to move forward. 

And now here we are, post-Burn in a year without a Burn. In the 48 years of life that I have lived thus far, I have never experienced such a worldwide cataclysmic set of events. With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening our lives and our livelihoods, within countries bitterly divided, coming together as a country or even a planet may seem a little too unrealistic at the moment — but we can still come together as a community.

For many of us, these are also unprecedented times. If any of you are struggling right now, I encourage you to reach out and connect with someone, anyone in your community, whether they’re Burners, friends, neighbors, or family.

Lastly, I would like to leave you with one of my favorite videos, one that I play often upon returning home from the playa. It features a puppeteer under a bridge with two Kermit the Frog puppets lip synching David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Of all the definitions of decompression, this one speaks to me the most.

Be well everyone, and I’ll see you on the playa.

Cover photo: taken by a fellow hiker as D.A. was hiking the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand

About the author: DA


DA, wings on fire, crash-landed smack dab in the middle of Burning Man 97, ticket in hand, and never left. Three burns later, DA was adopted by the Department of Public Works' Clean-Up Crew and was awestruck at the transformative power of Leaving No Trace. DA grew to be leader, transforming the Clean-Up Crew into the Playa Restoration All-Star Team, and creating the first Moop Map in 2006 as a way to visualize the community's Leave No Trace effort. As a poster artist, DA has illustrated the launch of the Burning Man Theme for 2006 Hope and Fear: The Future, 2007 Green Man, 2008 American Dream, 2013 Cargo Cult, and 2015 Carnival of Mirrors. DA loves the Black Rock Desert and believes that if we, the community, continue to Leave No Trace, then together we can keep building and burning the world over.

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