Reflections on Wilderness and Addiction
During the fall and winter I often spend time reflecting on my own recovery journey. It somehow surprises me how much more continues to reveal itself with adequate space and thought. My sobriety date falls on Halloween, a sort of gateway to the holiday season. This is a slower, more reflective part of the year for me. This year, after having made the transition from a Clinical Assistant to a Primary Therapist for Evoke, I’ve had another opportunity to zoom out and examine the work we do in the woods and why I believe it has such a profound impact on young people struggling with addiction.
In my early to mid-twenties I went through several treatment centers. I tried traditional inpatient rehabilitation, detox, outpatient, intensive outpatient, individual and group therapy, 12-step support, non-12 step support, and sober living environments. It ranged from glamourous campuses offering exquisite cuisine overlooking the San Francisco Bay, to tired and scrappy sober homes near rough parts of Oakland, CA. While I had not seen it all, I like to think I had experienced an eclectic mix of more traditional treatment offerings.
When I agreed to wilderness at age 25 I had almost no idea what to expect. I spoke with an alumni, a therapist, and my family, and still felt confused and uncertain. It’s likely nothing they said would make sense until I experienced it myself. I struggled to make any connection as to how this kind of intervention could make a difference in my life. I was at the end of the line, and despite my pleas for another sterile hospital program it fell on deaf ears. What I came to find over the course of a few months out in the woods was that wilderness began to address an important issue I did not know existed.
Now, I don’t want to sound jaded or cynical about more traditional programming and intervention. I learned a lot and grew considerably at a variety of different placements. The wilderness, however, helped me do something I hadn’t truly been able to do prior: learn to be with myself and others in a different way. This may seem trite or obvious, but it seems to be so common with those that struggle with addiction (and many other things to be fair). At previous places I always found ways to avoid. I was masterful as the escape artist, and when the pain was near I found a way out. Sometimes it was television, unhealthy relationships, video games or my phone. Other times it was food, working out, or other simple distractions. In the wilderness I was offered conditions and circumstances that allowed me to face myself in a way that wasn’t driven by shame. While at times I felt I couldn’t hide, I realized that my capacity to stand in the reality of my own life was far stronger than I gave myself credit for. Little by little I was able to withstand being Ken. The more I was able to tolerate that, the more I began to not only tolerate others, but love and empathize with them. When I think about some of the differences, I think about the wilderness therapy experience as more of a re-discovered way of being. I don’t remember all the individual therapy, groups, or psychoeducation. What I do remember is the sensibility of being heard, feeling empowered, becoming more aware of myself, and sharing that with young men on very similar journeys. It offered me an opportunity to connect with myself in a way that I had not been able to in different settings. In an authentic, untethered way...removed from the countless numbing agents that kept me comfortable and stuck.
I think back to Bruce Alexander’s studies of Rat Park. If you’re not familiar, I’ll link to a synopsis of the work. It’s a fascinating example of what may happen to those that are addicted when we work to reduce isolation, shame, and disconnection in our lives. In short, the rats tended to drink less drug laced water when they were in a Rat Park that met their needs in healthy, connected ways. When the rats were isolated and disconnected from other rats and meaningful activities they drank the drug water at a much higher rate, often until they died. While the study isn’t perfect, and the findings are often oversimplified, I believe the takeaways are still relevant. I think in some ways what we try to do in the woods is re-create a version of Rat Park for humans. We learn to meet some of our deepest needs of connection and belonging, and increase our ability to be present in our lives.
Out in the woods we certainly discuss addiction and problematic substance use. At the same time, I spend less time doing this as time goes on with clients. The conversation changes to how one can re-discover themselves and engage meaningfully in relationship with others. It’s interesting how often I see clients change their tune when they feel more understood and a part of. We don’t spend as much as time on the symptom of the wound, but instead focus on the wound when the relationship is in tact, and the client is willing and ready.