Love, Rock & Roll, and Wilderness Therapy

Posted by Josh Larsen on September 23, 2014

I love being a substance abuse counselor. My formal education and professional experience over the past 11 years has brought depth and complexity to my life that challenges and enriches me daily. In truth, however, my first love is music. I’ve been writing and performing music since I was 16 years old. I wish I could adequately relate to you the thrill I get when I finish writing a new song and the absolute rush of performing that song for a crowd full of friends and family. This passion started when I was a toddler. When other kids were playing t-ball I was rocking out in front of a mirror, pretending to be the newest member of my favorite band – Metallica. Have you ever done that? Stood in front of the mirror, lip-syncing or singing along to your favorite band? Pretty nerdy, right? But we’ve all done it. I still contend that I am pretty much the greatest air-guitar player ever. No, seriously. I do. Yes, music is my passion and I couldn’t imagine loving it more than I do.

Over the years, my passion has expanded beyond a childish desire to become a rock legend. While I still do dabble a little (OK, a lot) in writing and performing music, I’ve come to appreciate and seek out opportunities to use music as a unique and powerful tool in my work with clients. A critical component of wilderness therapy is its matchless and elemental role as a vehicle to emphasize and develop human connection. Few interventions develop human connection more deeply than shared participation in a musical experience. I’m not talking about everyone bursting into song, Broadway-style. I’m talking about the selective, emotive, and cathartic process of listening to and performing music in a group or individual therapy session as a way of channeling emotion and creating meaningful and memorable therapeutic movement.

Recently, Matt [Dr. Matt Hoag] and I had the opportunity to work with a very talented musician in our group. Years of substance abuse, defiance, and truancy had destroyed the spiritually empowering nature of his musical ambitions. As he began to explore the reasons for his admission to treatment, he noted a sense of shame and regret for having lost touch with his talent. His parents expressed similar feelings, as they recounted their experience of watching him struggle. In our efforts to support his integration into his therapy, Matt and I requested that the boy receive a guitar and that he be allowed to play alone or for the group. The boy literally shook in anxious and fearful anticipation as we presented him with the guitar in the field. In short order, the boy was plucking away. He seemed to smile from the inside out as the muscle memory that had bonded him to this instrument in better times facilitated a reunion between him and the spiritual and creative connection he once had with music. Throughout his treatment, the boy used the guitar to process painful memories, the loss of his youth, and the struggles he had to connect with others.

A sincere and strong connection developed between him, the other boys, and the instructors as he filled the wooded air with the songs of his heart. When he became rigid in his thinking about his treatment issues, we used the guitar to challenge him to step out of his comfort zone. During an individual session, we deconstructed his typical process of writing songs and challenged him to approach that process differently. In the process, he wrote a silly song about his favorite superhero (and mine) Batman. This silly song came as the result of his willingness to stop taking himself so seriously, to stop being so hard on himself, and to approach issues from a different perspective. All of this facilitated through the use of music and performing. Pretty cool, eh?

The process of listening to, creating, and performing music is deeply cathartic and incredibly empowering. So, the next time you find yourself stuck or struggling – choose to listen to or play some good tunes! I highly recommend it!


As a musician and a parent of a 2N alumnist, I think that this is a very powerful blog. (Truth be told, I have been an antitrust lawyer for 20 years, but I like to think that this is just a temporary gig until I become a true rock and roll legend!!!) Music is extremely cathartic: it allows be to release after a hard day or during times of anger or sadness. And it also permits me to reconnect to myself, when things seems out of control. Thanks Josh for this post.

Posted by Matthew Cantor

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