Why Coming Back To Wilderness Feels Like Coming Home
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.
In 2014, my family and I decided to move to Bend, OR. I was incredibly sad to leave the Southwest landscape and my job as a wilderness therapist, but also excited for a new adventure, new experiences, and new challenges. I spent the next few years working in private practice and working part time as a parent specialist for a young adult transition program in town. Both experiences were very positive and have helped to hone my skills as an individual and family therapist. Most of the parents I worked with through the parent specialist position had children that were transitioning from a wilderness program. It was certainly apparent by their language and therapeutic skills, that these parents were more equipped after their wilderness experience. This was a constant reminder of the power of wilderness not only for the client but for the entire family. In contrast, working in private practice reminded me that the majority of people are not exposed to the therapeutic skills I had come to take for granted working in wilderness.
A few months ago, I was presented with the opportunity to return to wilderness at Evoke Cascades. As I reflected on my decision, I quickly remembered everything I loved so dearly about the wilderness process. So here I share my top 10 reasons in making a comeback in wilderness therapy.
The Top 10 reasons I chose to come back to wilderness therapy
(Not necessarily in this order.)
1. The transformative process of the wilderness
I can’t say enough about this. Over my nine years working at Entrada I witnessed this transformation too many times to count. I have countless memories of listening to veteran clients telling the new clients how much this program has changed their perspective. I have yet to experience any other therapeutic setting in which change takes place so quickly. On a personal note, as I look back at my most powerful life experiences, the vast majority have taken place in some sort of wilderness setting. I don’t think that is a coincidence.
2. A step away from society
Wilderness provides clients with the unique opportunity to step outside of their day to day routine, away from the pressures and triggers they may be experiencing at home or at school. Just this week I had an adolescent girl say, “in this group no one cares how they look. That’s not what this is about.” How refreshing for a young woman to be able to take a break from the stress of maintaining a certain image and realize she can be seen and appreciated for so many other aspects of who she is as a person.
3. Empowerment based work
I consider myself a strength based therapist. I genuinely believe in people’s ability to strive to become their best selves. So often the wounds we incur throughout life leave us with shame, negative self-talk, and low self-esteem. I believe that a crucial part of the healing process is learning to believe in who we are, embracing the many parts of ourselves even the ones that are more difficult to accept, and finding self love and esteem. Living in the woods, carrying all of our belongings on our back, sharing who we are with people who are willing to listen and embrace even the shameful parts inevitably begins to chip away at the hurt and build a sense of accomplishment and pride. It is incredibly empowering to make a fire with your own two hands, share your life story with a group of strangers, cook your own food over a campfire, survive the elements of snow, rain, wind, and lay under the stars each night by yourself and realize you are maybe not so alone in this big great world.
4. The collaborative and systemic team approach with staff, students, and families
Nothing takes place in a vacuum. It takes a village. I find both statements to be profound and true. One of the most daunting aspects of outpatient therapy was being on my own little island without the support of staff to help my clients follow through on assignments or notice unhealthy behaviors during the week in between sessions. I also missed working directly with families with the hope of shifting the entire family system. We all have room to grow and we all impact each other. I find that it is nearly impossible for one member of a family to begin the change process without creating a domino effect. I believe the domino effect is crucial and can be guided so that it has the most positive outcome possible.
5. Space for creativity
One of the basic tenants of wilderness therapy is experiential learning. We don’t just talk about the fact that sharing our feelings, moving our bodies, and accomplishing our goals makes us feel better, we do it, we experience it. This alone is incredibly transformative. Often, we don’t know how to change or what it would be like until we actually start to feel it. As a therapist, I love taking this to the next level and becoming creative with assignments, groups, and interventions. For example, I might assign a student that really struggles asking for help or feels unimportant, a day where they can’t use their hands. In turn, they have to spend the entire day leaning on the group, asking for help, and seeing how receptive and willing the group is to support them.
6. The opportunity to coach and teach staff
One of my favorite parts of working in wilderness when I was a staff was being able to work so closely with the therapists and learning how to interact with clients therapeutically. When I eventually entered a masters program, I could see just how valuable and extensive my knowledge and training had been. Field staff are individuals who are willing to step away from their life for eight days at a time no matter the time of year and pour their energy into a group of individuals. I typically find that field staff are incredibly eager and passionate when it comes to learning how to best work with clients. I love being able to teach about my theoretical orientation and how to balance setting boundaries with compassion.
7. Masters in communication skills
I find that everyone from field staff to clients to families walk away with a Masters in communication skills. Wilderness does an incredible job at helping individuals learn how to identify what they are feeling and share it in a constructive manner. We teach how to be vulnerable and get to the root of what we are really experiencing below the anger, frustration, or hurt. This is a life long skill that I believe is invaluable.
8. Group work and team building
Many of our clients come to our program because they have struggled in relationships be it with family, peers, or authority. Wilderness provides daily challenges of having to work with your group members in order to make a meal or complete a hike for example. The opportunities to work on how clients show up in a group setting are endless and rich and met with both positive and constructive feedback from staff and the other group members to provide a mirror so they can grow. In addition, I believe that group therapy is incredibly rich. It can be so healing to know we are not alone in our experiences, the way we think, and the way we act. It is often more powerful to be challenged by someone who has walked a very similar path.
Unlike most traditional outpatient settings, wilderness truly incorporates body, mind, and spirit. Clients have the opportunity to experience just how linked all three are. I have often heard clients share their experiences of how slowing down, practicing mindfulness skills, and connecting with their body physically has also had a tremendous impact on their overall outlook of themselves and the world around them.
There is rarely a dull moment as a wilderness therapist. It is nothing short of an adventure. I drive on dirt roads in all sorts of conditions to meet with my clients. I have spent countless nights under the stars. I am able to have exciting therapy sessions hiking up a mountain while a client carries a few stones and tangibly lets go of all the burdens they have been carrying and we reach the top for a new and fresh and much lighter perspective. Inevitably, I get to go on a weekly adventure and call it work.