A Former Student’s Inside Perspective: Watching Wilderness
I walked out of the theatre after seeing the play Wilderness with all of the feelings that I had felt when I was a teenager in a Wilderness Therapy Program fresh on my mind again. I was 13 when I went to the wilderness. I got “gooned,” or transported to the program straight from Juvenile Hall. I knew it was coming because my dad owned the program and I had gotten myself into enough trouble. I knew when they dropped me off out there in the middle of nowhere that it would be a long journey. I didn’t know, however, all that I would learn and the person that I would become by the time I left.
When I got back, friends asked if “it worked,” or if I was “fixed”. Those seemed like strange questions, because, of course, at the age of 13 I felt like I already had a B.A. in communication, understood myself well, and knew how to deal with my emotions. I also thought I knew how to take care of myself and take responsibility for my actions. However, out there in the wilderness, I learned that when I fought against the system and didn’t build a good shelter, instead of being lectured or grounded, I just woke up in the middle of the night drenched from the rain. That was a powerful lesson.
When I watched the Wilderness play, I felt again all of the feelings that I had felt during my process in the wilderness. Coming from a background in art, I was so excited to see the journey of Wilderness Therapy portrayed by an artist. The opening scene depicted a dance between the youth and one of the main characters who represent an interviewer of real parents with struggling teens. Dance is a powerful way to express and talk about close relationships, but this dance illustrated the distance between a parent and child with feelings of hurt for both sides. I felt the desire for connection and the loss of other options and had some insight into the feelings that led my parents to send me to Wilderness Therapy.
In the play, the child’s experience and interactions are mostly between the staff and students. I was surprised at how accurate the culture in the “field” was portrayed and communicated. From the games that students play to the things that they talked about, I could feel myself there. Anyone who wants to get an idea of what it’s like socially for a group of troubled teens to be in the woods against their will would be able to get a good picture by seeing this part of the play.
The play was raw and authentic with real families sharing their stories that were recorded from Skype, projected on a large screen with actors on the stage playing them out. One of the most powerful moments for me was when one of the fathers on Skype was sharing his experience and his love for his daughter and he broke down during the interview. That moment pierced my heart reminding me that these were real stories and real people. It made it very human and set the tone for what was happening. It was humbling to be in the presence of such vulnerability.
Photo: Anne Hamburger
I believe that the power in Wilderness Therapy comes from many different places. The staff, the groups, the letter-writing home; all these parts create a safe place for teenagers to find themselves and reconnect with their parents. I remember when my parents visited the field and I was trying to teach my dad how to “bust a fire”. He is an experienced Wilderness Therapist, just took over and started without me. When my therapist asked me how that felt, I broke down in tears and said it was like this at home. I couldn't talk to my dad because he always won. It was like trying to play basketball with an NBA player. My dad and I talk about this story to this day and it is a reminder of his taking over in our relationship and my temptation to shut down rather than fight to keep my voice.
I remember feeling a lot of healing when I learned that my dad was concerned about our relationship, whereas before I viewed his worried and overprotective behavior as angry and punishing. In a moment of safety, in regards to my drug and alcohol use, my dad shared that he was scared that he was going to lose me. You’d think that a child would already know this…and I could have probably recited to you that that was his reason for how he reacted to my behavior, but out there, in that vulnerable setting, at that moment, it hit me. I felt it, and from then on I also wanted to avoid the things that would put our relationship in jeopardy.
One of the play’s other missions is to continue to change the conversation about mental health. The hope that people can come together and share their stories. As I was sitting on the balcony during powerful moments of the play, moments like those that I have also personally experienced, I felt so much excitement that others were now able to feel these same things and see what Wilderness Therapy is all about. The New York Times chose this play as their Critics’ Pick and mentioned that the play was “deeply affecting” and “eloquent”. As a real participant in Wilderness Therapy and an audience member in Wilderness the play I agree. This story was a masterfully artistic and emotion-filled example of what change and healing feel like when it’s happening. I look forward to continuing the conversation.