I received the diagnosis in January, and found myself being rolled in for surgery on the 20th of February. In those six weeks between diagnosis and surgery, our lives were upended in the ways you’ll find yourself imagining when watching shows like “This is Us.” “What if…” or “If I was in her/his/their shoes…” All of those worries, those deep, primal worries became a very real, almost breathing, ever-present part of our lives- collectively as a family, and in my life as a mother, woman, wife, human. Life insurance? Check. Living will? Check. Professionally I’ve continually been a part of someone else’s treatment team; I write treatment plans and tend to them throughout my students’ journeys through wilderness therapy. Suddenly, I’m 42 years old and I now had an Oncologist as a part of my “team.” I had landed abruptly in a position of powerlessness, feeling very much alone (shock, sadness, anger were all showing up in dazzling colors as well). As any situation that knocks you off your feet will do, there were decisions to be made. There were the concrete, immediate moves to make: how, who, when, where, and when. Then came the others, when I was ready/willing to take a look at those: What does this mean? What will this change? How much of me will be left? How much do I WANT to remain the same? How much could this shift life in all of the right, necessary directions? Everything I knew to be my everyday life, all that I valued was turned sideways.
Fast forward to the days and weeks after surgery (because it all went as well as I could have hoped or asked for). We had nineteen consecutive days of food show up on our doorstep. Along with this incredible sustenance came the notes, visitors, emails, texts, and gifts. They provided, in some of the darkest moments: presence, hope, much needed humor, perspective, and one of my favorites, distraction. Well wishers with comforting words but also the simple, unspoken messages of care. This was love and connection that I hadn’t anticipated, hadn’t included in the image, prior to the surgery, of what this chapter of life would look like. This became unexpected medicine that remedied and healed parts of me that I didn’t realize needed to be tended to. The surgeon and nurses did their jobs well, and for this I am flooded with gratitude I hope to never lose sight of. And…my community- my people- our families, friends, neighbors, colleagues, loved ones from all pockets of life- their focus on holding this space, whatever space was needed, was absolutely one of the most crucial ingredients of my “treatment plan.”
Being forced to stay still for almost two months gave me time to reflect, to research, and to read. All three of these helped me move forward with my own physical, psychological, and emotional healing processes, and to wade into the depths of how these connections matter. Netflix happened, with a large side of Hulu. But books- the smell, the feel, the love affair for books was reignited to the point that highlighters got involved. I was living in connection with my body and my health, while also living in a more exquisite connection with others and my environment. All of this: the pain, the fear, the love- it was all bound together and culminated into thinking beyond my own personal experience. What roles do connection play in healing? It wasn’t just human connection I was interested in, but the notion of connecting with your sense of self, connecting to nature, connecting with one’s community. A situation our students and families often find themselves in, this health crisis gave me (forced me into) a huge opportunity to pause.
During this time I thought so often about the students and families we work with; it wasn’t only a “thinking” process though, but one of powerful empathy. Times of pain, and subsequent growth, can be so lonely. Perhaps this is part of the nature of being injured or hurt. Yet it doesn’t have to be only lonely. We aren’t just individuals being taught to “self” care. While I embrace and teach skills of self-exploration and self-care, I also recognize the beauty of collectivism, or at the least threads of an approach that embraces and prioritizes the needs of “us” in a time when “me, mine” may be overly encouraged and focused on. Our students are often highly focused on themselves: their insecurities, depressive symptoms, flaws, traumas, and how they identify as individuals rather than seeing themselves as part of a greater whole. This is their right and developmental prerogative. However, going into an experience such as wilderness therapy also gives adolescents a chance to look at their place in the larger context; to recognize there are others who have experienced similar pains, who are struggling to adjust and grow.
Our students begin to pull back from their narrative just a bit, and as they do so they recognize there are people they can relate to, identify with, feel seen and supported by. The world, and all of their individual problems, disappointments, losses begin to feel less lonely or overwhelming. Imagine what it would be like, could be like, to browse in both the “Self Help” AND “Help Others” or “We’re In This Together” or “You’re Not Alone” sections of your local bookstore. We spring from a culture of rugged individualism in America, while our rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, and self-harm skyrocket. “Human life is like a big warm coal fire that is glowing. But if you take out one coal and isolate it, it’ll burn out quickly. We keep each other warm by staying together.” (Sebastian Junger, Tribe: One Homecoming and Belonging, New York: 2012)
It’s my belief that our families can experience this same sense of “otherness” or “we” by engaging fully- vulnerably, wholeheartedly in their own work, individually, as couples, as families, as a group of current and alumni parents engaging in a growth process, while their teens are doing their individual and collective work in the wilderness. Being the parent of a child or teenager in crisis may be one of the most intimidating, terrifying, agonizing experiences a person endures, and part of enduring (not just surviving) is to prescribe socially- to acknowledge the feelings of helplessness, confusion, anger, hurt, heartache, and hope with other parents. Doing so not only helps lessen the feeling of isolation, but provides practical solutions. Communicating openly with therapists and other parents gives space to set new goals, to find a sense of belonging, purpose, and place. There is something beautiful in those moments of life where you recognize that we have similarities beyond the superficial- for the students in the woods, and for all of us supporting the kids outside of the woods, having our own unplanned, powerful, profound experiences.
Times of distress and learning also give us opportunities to reevaluate values. We live in a culture of “junk values,” where we’re the average American is contaminated with an upward of 5,000 advertisements, logos, and brands every day (http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/remove-billboards-for-the-sake-of-our-meantl-health). Advertisers profit from this mental pollution while our egos are perpetually irritated by the myth of “buy this stuff, show it off, feel better.” It’s no surprise that children and teens continually compare themselves to each other, and to untenable standards of beauty and belonging. In a time of development that is already vulnerable, the teen years are riddled with extraneous pressures to compete with one another, which leads, for some, to a feeling of ravenous hunger for “stuff.” This ever-present wheel continues to spin, bringing our teens no closer to feeling satisfied or truly satiated. They get the “thing,” yet continue on to the next “thing” that will give them the temporary high of pleasure, acceptance, admiration, or acceptance. Without an intrinsic anchor, these extrinsic values are fleeting at best.
Many of our students arrive on materialism autopilot, craving the “thing” that will fill the loneliness gap, to give them an advantage, to distract them/others from their insecurities. The links between depression/anxiety and materialism are undeniable and measurable (Tim Kasser at al., “Changes in materialism, changes in psychological well-being: Evidence from three longitudinal studies and an intervention experiment”). By taking a step out of their ordinary lives, coming into the wilderness, our students are given time to examine what is most important to them- to explore their fundamental needs and values. Wilderness allows our teens to evaluate what matters to them versus focusing so heavily on what’s the matter with them. They are given an almost immediate invitation to shed themselves of their usual social and cultural expectations and demands, leaving more head space and focus on meaning and purpose. Wilderness creates a counter-rhythm to the “junk values” by coming together with other teens to engage in meaningful conversations, to think more deeply, and to connect with themselves and others in ways that are memorable and authentic. “Being connected to those around you is restoring human nature.” (Dr. Sam Everington, 1978).
Not being able to exercise, to run, or to spend much time outside was the most challenging part of my recovery process. Yet, this was part of the journey. The wanting for the woods and nature has made my love and connection to the woods that much more palpable. This is part of my story, but for so many of our teens and families the prospect of outdoor living is completely foreign and intimidating. Most of our kids have lived their lives almost completely disconnected from nature; this is often times our students’ first real experience of connecting to nature. Often times the natural world our students live in while in wilderness is one of the, if not the most, powerful mechanisms for change and growth. The research showing the positive impact of being outside, of being surrounded by green space is becoming more available. However, the psychological effects of being cut off from the natural world has become more heavily studied in the past fifteen years or so. Biologist E.O Wilson argued that all humans have a natural sense of something we call “biophilia” or an innate love for the landscapes in which humans have lived for most of our existence, and for the natural web of life that surrounds us and makes our existence possible (Hari, Johann, 2018, NY, “Lost Connections”).
One notable finding is the decrease in depression for those spending more time outside. It appears interacting with nature sounds and even outdoor silence can decrease blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body’s fight-or-flight response. Current research also supports the idea that time outside can be enhanced by a group experience in nature. A 2014 study found that group nature walks were just as effective as solo treks of lowering depression and stress and improving overall mental outlook. “When you are depressed- you feel that everything is about you. You become trapped in your own story and thoughts. They rattle around in your head with a dull, bitter insistence…faced with a natural landscape, you have a sense that you and your concerns are very small, and the world is very big- and that sensation can shrink the ego down to a manageable size. It’s something larger than yourself. There’s something very deeply, animally healthy in that sensation. People love it when it occurs- these fleeting moments help you see the deeper and wider ways in which you are connected to everything around you.” (http://psychologytoday.com/articles/201603/its-not-all-about-you).
Every person, every family, every community will go through some predictable, more often unexpected, periods of distress and suffering. My story has, thus far, an incredibly favorable outcome. I never knew the words “clean margins” could mean so much. Isn’t that part of what makes an experience memorable and personal? To have our narratives shifted and altered. To walk away from an ordeal with new meanings, to find value in words or sensations that we previously didn't notice or took for granted? The connections I have made, they made all the difference. It’s my hope, my commitment, my core belief that the wilderness therapy modality can provide something similar to what I’ve experienced personally and professionally. I feel it is a precious gift to be involved in peoples’ lives when they are at their lowest, most lost, most vulnerable, to to offer connection. Connection to us as individual treatment providers and programs. Connection to our beautiful environment and natural world. Connection to our phenomenal field guides who offer safety and inspiration. Connection to other adolescents with similar narratives, self-limiting beliefs, often times myopic perspectives, pressures, and evolving values, resilience, big hearts, and untapped potential. Connection to information, books, resources, poetry, art. Connection to something bigger than ourselves is transformative for all of us, regardless our age or gender our role our title. It is in the connections we’re brave or lucky enough to make that we sometimes find ourselves better, humbler, a little wiser, and certainly more appreciative..all of which gives us a better shot of those goals of happiness, security, and satisfaction that so of us stumble around, hoping to find.