As a field staff, I am honored to witness powerful moments in the wilderness while students explore their therapeutic process. Many times, this exploration occurs through therapeutic assignments colloquially called “yellows.” After a year and a half working in the field, I’ve concluded my favorite yellows are assignments we call Empty Chairs. An Empty Chair is a chance for a student to address a concept or person that has had a significant influence in their life or “process.” I’ve seen Empty Chairs to students’ younger selves, family members, to anger, or school, for example. If this person, concept, or emotion was sitting in front of you in a chair, what would you say to them?
Recently, I was preparing for an Evoke Parent Support Group, stumbling through different topics looking for something that spoke to me (it may or may not have been at the last minute). I finally arrived at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, something I have looked at dozens of times, and discussed with both parents and clients on numerous occasions. One of the things I appreciate about the world of mental health is that I can look at something many times and still have a new takeaway. I was struck in that moment of preparation by Maslow’s understanding of our need to belong. Maslow posits that our love and belonging needs come just after our need for things like food, water, and safety. Our need for belonging even comes before our need for things like self-esteem, recognition, and freedom. The gravity of the need was truly apparent to me in that moment.
When my daughter was eight years old she asked to be signed up for city league basketball. I signed her up, and bought her some sweet basketball shoes and a jersey. I was excited to watch her bouncy brown pony tail move up and down the court, and to see her try a new sport. After the first two games, it was clear that she hated it. Hated it. She begged to quit, and I responded with one of my favorite "Mom-isms" at the time. “We can do hard things!” I pushed her to each game, where she would sit on the bench in sadness, and what I know now as anxiety.
The night before I started Online Finding You, an Evoke Therapy Intensive, I hardly slept. I deeply feared being vulnerable with a group of strangers and possibly facing their rejection. I worried they would think something was wrong with me or with my feelings about what happened to me. What I learned there is that each member of the group is doing the same growing alongside you over the three days. Nobody is in your row, but you're all in the same garden. Ultimately, I might not have had the exact experience as another participant, but I sure could relate to the emotions they felt. And that’s what made it feel so safe for all of us.
I feel rejuvenated as I process my last shift in the field. This week I saw our kids share real truth about their character: steal each other’s food, squabble over the most banal topics imaginable, show up as leaders, class clowns, and saboteurs. I saw their old patterns of dealing with the world come into play again and again. I heard their laughter as they scrambled across red sandstone domes overlooking the borders of Utah and Nevada. I listened to them groan, complain, and sob as we hiked into the night to locate our next camp. Some well-worn paths of behavior were archaic and destructive, a few freshly cut footpaths emerged independent and empowering. I felt joy and exuberance as I heard a student check in as powerless, then correct himself: "Wait. I'm not powerless, I am empowered. There are so many things in my control. I am not powerless!" I found meaning and power for myself in that moment.
Anxiety is a feeling. A common emotion. It basically is the warning signal of a threat. That perceived threat can be physical or emotional or both. When excessive, anxiety can become problematic. Once anxiety reaches a high level and causes personal distress or interferes with an individual’s ability to function adequately, it is termed an anxiety “disorder.”
When I was 23, I attended a 50-day Outward Bound course in the mountains of western North Carolina. This experience propelled me into the career I have today and was the beginning of many years spent devoted to the wilderness. After I completed my course, I decided to make a blog out of the many journal entries I went home with. One of the blogs I wrote was called, Everything Is Better in the Wilderness. I remarked on several days that were incredibly challenging during that course, but how eating, sleeping, bathing, etc. feels better when earned. I had never tasted pizza that good even though it was made on pita bread on a small frying pan with a backpacking stove and contained no marinara sauce. When you’re living in the wilderness it feels like everything you do is earned. It’s just more satisfying and sensory to enjoy a meal at the end of a day when you have hiked 10 miles carrying everything you need to survive on your back.
Each week I come into the field and, as I walk into the group, I usually have a number of dirty teenagers clustering around me. They approach at varying speeds and rates of enthusiasm, but almost without exception, they pause what they are doing to come over. I am their therapist and they want to talk to me and tell me about their week, yes. But I am also the letter carrier and Tuesdays are mail days—the one day of the week when therapists bring out letters to students from their parents and immediate familes.
I thought that would grab your attention. 2020 was, as they say, a dumpster fire. Like most, if not all of you, I and my family began physically/socially distancing in order to minimize the spread of Covid-19 almost one year ago. It was challenging and depressing being physically isolated from extended family, friends, co-workers, and normal in-person interactions. Generally speaking, I would consider myself an introvert and don’t mind being by myself. Going on a fishing trip or spending a few nights on a solo in the wilderness renews me. With that said, I would not associate the word "renew" with 2020! Isolating for such a long period of time didn’t feel rejuvenating to me at all.
So, you have just enrolled your teenager in a wilderness therapy program. You eagerly await that first call, waiting to hear how they are doing, wondering how they are settling in. You get the initial update, and it sounds like they are still repeating many of the same behaviors from home. You get the next few weekly updates, and they are still being __________ (fill in the blank with the concerning behavior). You start to wonder when the change will begin to occur, and when the magic of the wilderness will impact your child. You grow impatient and question, “Why isn’t this working?”