Saturday is a milestone Autumn Veatch once doubted she would reach: Her 17th birthday.
The Bellingham, Washington, teen nearly died last summer in a small-plane crash in Washington’s rugged North Cascades mountains that killed her step-grandparents. Injured and traumatized, she hiked through the wilderness for more than two days to reach safety.
Veatch is still recovering from the crash – both physically and emotionally. She has scars from the burns she suffered and said that the accident initially amplified the bouts of anxiety and depression she had suffered from for years.
But unexpectedly, the trauma has illuminated a path out of those woods as well.
"I’ve been struggling with mental illness since I was a kid, and I’ve been told a million times that it gets better," she said. "This is the first time in a really long time that things feel like they are going to get better."
Veatch, a junior in high school, now speaks almost casually about the crash, which occurred on July 11 as she flew from Kalispell, Montana, to Lynden, Washington, with her step-grandparents, Leland and Sharon Bowman.
She remembers everything about the crash, except the moment she escaped the plane. She recalls fire searing her hand and spreading to her hair. She remembers unsuccessfully trying to pull her grandparents from the wreckage of the Beech A35 Bonanza before finally retreating.
“I wasn't really thinking of my own life or anything,” she told NBC News this week from her home in Bellingham, Washington. “I just didn't want to be alone, wherever we were. … After I first stepped away from the plane, I was literally hysterical -- screaming and crying and running without looking where you're going. Just falling and stuff."
She also recalls the surge of adrenaline that rushed through her afterward, pushing her to start walking through the wilderness and helping her survive two nights in the wilderness before reaching safety.
Hungry, dehydrated, and covered in burns and bug bites, she told herself over those two days, "I’m never going to take life for granted if I survive this."
She acknowledges she hasn’t been able to fulfill that vow.
"I totally take life for granted," she said. Rather than fighting to survive and deciding whether or not to drink potentially dirty water or eat unripe berries, Veatch says, she now worries about trying to pass her classes and whether junior prom is worth the $60 price of a ticket.
Memories of the crash still come back at inconvenient times: When she's sitting in class, or when she's driving to meet up with her boyfriend.
Trying to cope has been made more difficult by everyone knowing her story.
"I get asked a lot of personal questions by teachers about my mental health and the plane crash," she said. "Every single time we have a substitute and they see my name, they are like, 'Sit down with me and tell the entire story.'"
As challenging as it it is, Autumn said she's willing to revisit her story now because she feels she can offer hope to people who are struggling in their own lives.
"So often the opportunity to help someone else is a real gift, and the traumatized person does very well when they help others."
Dr. Frank Ochberg, a renowned psychiatrist and former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said that’s not uncommon. While everyone reacts differently to trauma, one of the most effective ways of coping is by helping others.
"So often the opportunity to help someone else is a real gift, and the traumatized person does very well when they help others," Ochberg, who is now a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, told NBC News.
Veatch also has defined a new set of priorities for herself, doing activities she enjoys in her spare time such as painting and drawing. She doesn't excel in school, and has decided to switch to an alternative school next year where she'll be more comfortable. And she's interested in going to a cosmetology school after she graduates.
Her father, David, said he’s watched his daughter overcome setbacks as she’s gained her equilibrium.
"It was hard enough just being a teenager. I can’t imagine being a teenager who went through this," he said. "She’s kind of here and there. She has a lot of trouble one minute, then I think she’s doing OK and then she kind of falls apart."
Autumn Veatch, who said she plans to celebrate her birthday by going ice skating with her boyfriend, Newton Goss, and a couple friends, says Goss’s support has been instrumental in helping her through the tough months immediately after the crash.
She said she’s come to realize that emotional recovery takes time, but is optimistic that she’s heading in the right direction.
"It takes time to get over terrible things, and that’s just how life is," she said. "You’ll find your place in the world eventually."