Finding Your Child: How Wilderness Therapy Provides an Unprecedented Container for Healing
All of the stories and cases that I can think of—those that have impacted the way that I conceptualize therapy and what works and how I "do" what I "do"— boil down to a few basic themes. Within each theme there is one glaring force that trumps all. That is, the quality and nature of the relationship I had with each person that came my way.
Each story in these memories has to do with somehow not plunging into action mode, not giving into the urge to do something, anything at all sometimes, too quickly. Some of the stories are about the times that I lost that focus altogether, missed something, or times I let my own feelings and needs for purpose and clarity override my core belief about therapy. This guiding belief is that without first establishing a deep sense of a person (their needs, unique trauma history, attachment style) any effort to direct or firmly influence "therapy" isn’t likely to be a productive or healing experience. People need time and space to unravel and expose themselves, to get truly grounded and ask themselves "Can I handle myself this raw?" They need time to test us too as they begin to wonder, "Can you handle my darkness? Can you handle my awfulness, my mistakes, my flaws, my neediness?"
It is my experience that too much external influence in the beginning of establishing a therapeutic relationship is distracting at best. Rushed efforts to diagnose and treat are likely to yield situations wherein an individual has to choose between rejecting a therapist’s authoritative stance on his process, or, he can abandon himself altogether and perform the role of the "engaged client" to please the system. Said another way, such a choice becomes about honoring ones own needs at the risk of disappointing the therapist, or honoring the therapist’s agenda with the desperate hope of being accepted. It is reasonable for a client to conclude that his best option is to align with the therapist’s agenda and gain acceptance for his performance, however inauthentic. That dynamic may yield a version of the connection he seeks, without doubt it will further reinforce his troubled understanding of how to get his needs met and feel “okay”. As a clinician I can tell you, that psychologically and developmentally, this circumstance would be the catalyst for the worst kind of outcome.
Following poorly paced treatment, individuals may continue to suffer from the same issues, or even more severe manifestations of those issues, later down the line. Worse, these individuals may have further compounded shame and identity issues for having been through treatment to no avail. The message one walks away with is “I failed”. In thinking about all of this I can't help but wonder how many clients have been labeled "resistant" or "failures of treatment" when what is really lacking comes from the other side of relationship. I am just as guilty as any well-intentioned clinician of wanting to feel sure and effective in the role of providing therapy. That drive is important to me, it is part of my identity that I am insightful, observant and effective in helping others make positive changes in their lives. I am grateful for this drive to be a healer. Where it can become ineffective, even dangerous, is when clinicians and programs act on that desire to be helpful without pausing to honor and absorb the bigger picture. Wilderness therapy has an organic way of unveiling that bigger picture. By bringing the focus so finely to an individual’s emotional process in the wilderness, these recreated microcosms become vibrant with opportunity to notice, observe, explore and heal in profound ways.
Clients come to Evoke with vast arrays of diagnoses and complex histories. Individuals present with everything from personality and mood disorders, drug and alcohol addiction, attachment disorders, symptoms that suggest a failure to launch and undemonstrated abilities to thrive. Some individuals come to us before their self-destruction reaches such an extreme. Our experience working with individuals and families from such varied walks of life suggests that—regardless of one’s age, culture, diagnosis, background, drug or habit of choice—nearly everyone stands to benefit from this kind of extended relationship building and introspective space. This container for development, inherent in the wilderness therapy environment, is rarely provided naturally in the larger society. And while parents do their personal best to provide this for their children they too are searching for a road map through suffering in an under-resourced culture.
One of our founders, Dr. Brad Reedy, has a saying about therapy. He says that the process of therapy “is being found each week, over and over and over, until someone learns how to find and know themselves.” Nearly all of the people I work with have struggled long and hard to find themselves, to feel okay and to find a way of reasonably managing their lives. Therefore, it makes sense that time is required to "find" these individuals so that they may learn to find themselves. Otherwise as professionals we run the risk of finding something that we unknowingly put out for ourselves to find. Wilderness has a way of filtering through these illusions and distractions, unveiling for us what is true and real for a person. From that place we gain access to an individual and engage in a relationship built on genuine intimacy and trust. The experience of living out in the wilderness is foreign enough to crack us open to the experience, and yet comforting enough in it’s primitive nature that we are moved and guided to connect with ourselves and each other in ways that have been long forgotten. It is through the balance of self-reflection and shared experience that our clients grow and begin to sense power and purpose in their lives in ways they have deeply wanted but often never thought possible.