I want to share some of my struggles during the three months that my son attended Wilderness in Utah. I am hopeful that writing about my experience, and the tools I utilized for coping will help at least one parent. My purpose is simply to offer you the knowledge that you are not alone. That there is healing in camaraderie.
It's a Wednesday afternoon and I'm already late to our weekly yoga class. Much like other people, I have tried to fit too many things into a short amount of time. After hosting a staff breakfast at my house I had decided to schedule a pest control appointment during a 10 minute window, I only sort of had, before I needed to head to yoga. You can imagine my added stress and frustration when the employee arrived late to my house. I hustled him as quickly as I could and rushed over to participate in yoga. We provide this class for our employees every Wednesday as an opportunity for them to engage in their own practice of health and wellness and bring that back into the field. After struggling to find where I needed to be, I wandered into class late and was warmly welcomed by our Health and Wellness Coordinator, Elise Mitchell, who has a phenomenal ability to incorporate inconveniences and distractions into her yoga and mindfulness classes.
Last week I received another call from a law office looking for background information about Evoke’s wilderness therapy program. She let me know her client, a previous parent of our program, was bringing a suit against their family’s insurance company. As I got off the phone I noted this case would make 7 current cases I’m aware of just this year, and 3 more already settled in favor of the families. Wilderness therapy is making significant headway in getting families insurance coverage.
Perspective from the Frontcountry
Several weeks ago I began a new job as a Wilderness Therapist at Evoke. Previous to my start date, I had been working as a psychotherapist in Madison, Wisconsin, working with individuals, couples, and families; all with issues and challenges not unlike the ones that present with clients coming to wilderness programs. How I came to Evoke and wilderness therapy is a story in itself, and relates directly to the amazing process wilderness therapy provides for hundreds of adolescents and young adults attending these programs year after year, with, from what I read in the research, high levels of success.
Last summer, I found a low nest in the tree near staff packs. Glancing around to make sure everyone was okay, that no one needed me, I slowly, quietly, pulled the branch down to peek inside. Momma, or daddy bird, jumped and chirped nearby, anxious. My curiosity overcame my hesitation. Inside, three tiny, alien looking creatures, smaller than my pinky toe raised yellow yawning mouths, begging for food. Scattered fuzz, more like a boy’s first facial hair than like feathers, covered pink wrinkled skin. They were more fetus than bird. I returned the branch to its natural resting place. I didn’t want to risk scaring off the parents. These chicks would not survive.
At the time I was working in group 1, one of our adolescent boys’ groups, as a lead field guide. I wasn’t sure whether showing them the nest was a good idea. Members of the group were there to work on emotional literacy, social interaction, and boundaries. I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction they would have to the vulnerable life forms in the nest, but my desire to share the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime sight overtook my hesitation.
We instinctively hushed and moved slowly. Anxiety washed over me as the member of the group who struggled most with boundaries and respect cried out sharply, “Let me look!” But even he was able to pull the branch down, peer in and not let his curiosity, his impulsivity or his desire for power and control cause any damage to the baby birds. In that brief moment, we became stewards of the Ochocos, protectors of the thrushes and sparrows and bluebirds.
Wildness surrounds us: coyotes sing us to sleep, flickers alarm about a passing hawk, ravens call and chat. One morning, I awoke to the piercing cries of elk. Out of sight but close enough to hear the distinct textures of sound, two bull elk crashed into one another; cows cried out. I snuggled into my sleeping bag (wig); the sun already splayed across my face.
Our society often associates wildness with freedom, unpredictability, or acting “uncivilized.” Working in the ebb and flow of life and death, weather and seasons, though, I have witnessed an order in the wildness. I feel a storm brewing at times days in advance. We put on rain gear and string up the large tarp. If I’m looking where I’m walking, a wasp nest is easily spotted and avoided. We hang our food at night and sleep away from camp. Of course, if these precautions are not followed, there are natural consequences: Mice chew through spoons and ziplock bags. Improper layering results in cold bodies, cold feet. We only let these natural consequences play out when not dangerous. When they can happen, though, they are the most powerful teachers.
Two months after finding the bird nest with G1, I found another nest at a different staff tree. Something swung from a low branch. It drew me closer. A ball of feathers was still attached to an abandoned nest. What could have caused this? I looked into the ball of feathers, and there in the mess of old feathers and dried up grass were two small bird skulls. I jumped back. The baby bird skeletons continued to swing unceremoniously.
Flooded with images of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction in Houston, Texas, we know that psychological trauma will be an inevitable part of the storm. It is nearly impossible to comprehend the magnitude of pain connected to the grief and loss that the residents of Houston are experiencing. Among some of the most vulnerable victims are children.
Without fail, my clients come to me having lost traction in the world. They are locked into patterns of behavioral stagnation (i.e., narrowed or limited behavioral repertoires), wherein they’ve become disconnected from what they want most in life, aside from relief from psychological pain. The reason most often given to explain this stagnation and paralysis is that they just don’t “feel” like they can move effectively in the world; their feelings of depression and/or anxiety dictate their behavior (or lack thereof). The implicit agreement they’ve made with themselves and the world is that they have to “feel” a certain way before they can act a certain way. “Once my depression/anxiety goes away, then I can live the life I want,” is the underlying agreement or assumption. It becomes an “if only…, then…” situation.“If only my depression would get better, then I could live the life that I want.” I’m reminded that my Zen teacher, Daniel Doen Silberberg, would often talk about this “If only…, then…” approach to the world. He would say, “We live our lives this way: ‘If only… If only… If only… If only….’ Dead.” Doen was referring to our relationships to both our external worlds (e.g., “If only I could have that house or car I want, then my life would be better.”) and our internal worlds (e.g., “If only I could make my depression go away, then I could live the life that I want.”), but it’s particularly poignant and pertinent when considering the impasse that many of my clients have come to in their young lives. Again, the implicit agreement they’ve made is “If only my bad feelings would go away, then I could live the life that I want.” It’s as though they’re waiting for the world-- someone or something--to come along and change their feelings so that they can begin living the lives they want. From this position, until their feelings change, they are doomed to lives of inertia and behavioral stagnation. The absence of “good” feelings (or the “right” feelings) becomes the reason for their paralysis.
One of the most challenging aspects of my job is helping family members understand what it means to do their work. When working with chemical dependency/addiction, the problem is most often pretty clear. Typically, addicts have a slew of consequences and easily observable patterns. The problem is tangible. When it comes to co-addiction, co-dependency, parental anxiety, etc., the problem becomes much more difficult to define. During my first phone call with families of Evoke clients I will say, “The more you treat this as if it is YOUR treatment, the better off this goes. The best thing you can do to help your son is to do your own work.” A common response to this point, “Wait… What? My treatment!? I’m not the one with the problem!”
In an effort to meet clients with compassion and understanding, the mental health industry has made a shift and replaced the often negatively referred to term, Failure-to-Launch, with a more empathetic term, Emerging Adulthood.
In 2003, I became a field instructor at Entrada. I could not have predicted that I would spend the next decade living in Southern Utah and working at the same company, first as an assistant therapist and then as a primary therapist. The truth is that I fell in love with the work and the company. On a weekly basis I had the honor of witnessing profound transformations for young people who initially showed up feeling angry, sad, depressed, anxious, hopeless and the list goes on. I had the privilege of sitting under the stars by a warm fire listening to people courageously tell their story and start to find healing. It often did not feel like work.