Why Wilderness Therapy? A Field Staff Shares his Thoughts

Posted by Ian Dempsey on June 22, 2022

IanDempseyWhen I first heard about wilderness therapy, I just knew it was for me. I thought, “That exists?! I’m doing that.” Being from the heavily wooded sprawl of the New York suburbs, when I saw the Evoke website, I immediately imagined doing therapy among sparse scrub, cactus, and red rock, with everything but what was absolutely necessary stripped away. And yet, when I began working wilderness (as this line of work is called by field staff), nothing felt more difficult or unnatural.

I started as a field staff in fall of 2018. It ended up being an unusually cold and wet winter in Utah. Just about everything felt difficult. I had worked outside in winter before, I had taken on stressful professional jobs before, but something about this work was more challenging. The extra challenge came down to the fact that I hadn’t done enough work on my core personal and psychological issues to simultaneously care for myself and others the way I wanted to.

I think part of me thought that all my problems would go away in the wilderness. That I would simply be relaxed, the messiness of life would recede, tasks would become easier, socializing would be simpler. In some ways, this is absolutely true. The backcountry provides a respite from the beeps and dings, notifications, 24-hour news cycle, politics, bills, engine noise, traffic, and the overall complexity of life in the front-country (or “fronts,” as we call it). And there is the natural beauty all around you: starry skies, animals, birds chirping and flittering, bright colors of the sky, plants and rocks, and earthy smells. Given enough time away from the immediacy of the fronts, life slows down, and all you have to think about are the weather conditions, how you will feed and take care of yourself, how to occupy your discretionary time, the relationships with the small group of people around you, and what you will say or do when you see those people you aren’t around.

But, ironically, the simplicity of life in the backcountry actually amplified all my existing issues. When you strip everything else away, the things in front of you become the laser focus. And, it turned out, I had significant interpersonal stressors that life in the fronts allowed me to avoid.

However contrived wilderness therapy might seem, the brilliance of it is that life in the 21st century is actually unfathomably more contrived. We can’t survive without the internet, and a thousand other technologies, for instance. It is simply a fact that our world runs on technology that no one person can understand. There are too many specializations and moving parts. A single consciousness can only see so much in a lifetime.

And yet our bodies are running the same biological hardware as our ancestors from thousands of years ago--hardware that was designed for a very different environment. So, to live in a small band of humans like our ancestors without digital technology, is to put ourselves into an environment we are made for. Our contrived 21st century environment allows us to do incredible things; everything is easier. But, the safety of technology also makes it much easier to escape and avoid. So, get rid of 99% of things you don’t actually need, all the things that allow us to compensate and cover up our shortcomings, and what remains are the neuroses, talents, and behaviors at their most raw.

My primary struggles are social anxiety and perfectionism. Among many other challenges, wilderness therapy is ideal for highlighting and working through these things. Take something as simple as my needing to ask for the salt at a typical meal. I’m sitting on the ground, a delicate balancing act in play: I have my tortilla on my lap, tuna spread out in the pita along with cheese. I’m tired, I’m cold, and the darkness will settle in soon. All I want to do is eat and feel better. But I realize, my meal really needs salt, which is on the other side of camp with Jesse.

This is what my inner dialogue sounds like: Jesse’s being really loud right now, and I’m a little intimidated by him, and maybe he won’t even hear me the first time I ask. That means I’ll really have to raise my voice, which would be scary. Alternatively, I could get up, but that would require carefully straining my body to get off the ground, being more exposed to the cold wind, and then possibly making eye contact close-up with Jesse.

All of these little struggles, a hundred times per day, that I could avoid in the fronts by simply working from home in my little cave, surfing the internet on a soft couch, eating Cheetos and binge-watching Netflix. Eventually, something’s gotta’ give. You can’t hide out there. Naturally, the emotion underlying the struggle bursts through the floodgates. Perhaps it’s tears, perhaps it’s rage, sadness, anger, grief right there in front of the group for everyone to bear witness to. Here I am, right out there. Everyone sees me. God this is scary. But I’m still alive. Breathing. Did anything break? Everyone is still moving and doing their thing. The world didn’t fall apart just because I did. I wasn’t the one holding it all together. What a relief.

The active ingredient of wilderness therapy, as I see it, is the experiencing of yourself through the eyes of another. As Martin Buber wrote, “The more direct contact with the Thou (the other as a subject, rather than as an object, an ‘it’), the fuller is the sharing. The I is real in virtue of its sharing in reality. The fuller its sharing the more real it becomes.” The stripping away of all that is unnecessary in wilderness therapy makes it easier to have this unmediated experience with one another, and what was an “it” becomes a “thou.” I’d take it one step beyond Buber, and say that my own self-objectification is overcome as I make real the experience of others. One can’t simultaneously objectify another and remain themselves a subject.

I believe this active ingredient is helpful for everyone who’s a part of it, students and staff. Yes, staff have a different role than the students, but when you’re out there in the group, we all need and depend on each other. I live for the kids out there; they give my life purpose. I hope that I can help them find their own purpose and direction. I can’t think of a better environment to do the work of growing as a human being.

 

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