I have worked in a multitude of treatment settings from sober living communities, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, a university, and most recently found myself in a new container: the wilderness. I assumed that this treatment modality would be similar to the other environments I have worked in, only, it was doing therapy out in the woods. It had been a long time since I thought about how being outside unquestionably impacted my childhood. However, it didn't take long for me to remember just how profound a connection to the wilderness can be. I see this vital relationship to the outdoors forming in my students, and I know that they are learning so much from it, just as I have.
I work with adolescent boys struggling with co-occurring mental health issues and substance use. These boys often are not willing (at first) or thrilled (at first) about living in the woods for ten weeks, and I quickly discover how much their substance abuse has impacted their daily lives, their relationships, and their perspective on life. When an individual uses substances, his world becomes very small. To someone who uses or depends on substances, the most important relationship becomes the one between the individual and his drug. Anytime this relationship is challenged, we often notice defensiveness or opposition. Typically, the individual will go to any lengths to protect this relationship. It compares to our protective instincts regarding the most important relationships in our lives – the ones with our parents, our children, or our siblings. Often, there is nothing we wouldn't do to protect that connection; that includes making tough treatment decisions for our loved ones who are struggling.
At Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness, we utilize a nomadic wilderness model, which means that our students spend their entire time with the program living outside in nature, amongst the elements. It requires our students to create and maintain consistent connections with each other, their field staff, and most importantly, with nature. The vastness of nature forces down our walls, allows us to let down our guard and opens us up to new possibilities.It can be life-changing. Nature urges us to connect with our natural propensity to heal. The experience is ineffable, and it moves us toward an alignment of mind, body, and spirit.
When a student comes to wilderness therapy, he begins to explore the dynamics in his relationships with family members, friends, school, passions, and alcohol and drugs. The wilderness provides a perfect metaphor for this dynamic. As our students spend all of their time in the woods, their relationship with nature becomes one of the most important that they have while they are at Blue Ridge. Nature can be unforgiving, it holds firm boundaries, and it nurtures all at once. Learning how to have a successful relationship with the wilderness can inform a lifetime’s worth of relationship skills.
Being immersed in the wilderness twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week pushes students outside of their comfort zone. In the past, when they used substances, they had an understanding of what will happen, they controlled the when, the where and the how. However, arriving at Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness forces students to face their discomfort in the uncertainty. They learn to accept and understand that they cannot control another person’s behaviors, actions or feelings - similar to how they cannot control the weather: whether it rains, or the temperature drops, or the humidity rises, or the sun decides to shine. Students learn that what they can control is their reaction to these discomforts. Learning to change the response to stressors can alter the way that students relate to their home and school environments.
Since a student’s relationship and behavior in the wilderness mirrors their relationships elsewhere, we can approach therapeutic conversations through nature. Nature becomes a metaphor for family and peer relationships. Initially, it is easier to explore the feelings of powerlessness in relationship to their environment rather than in their relationship to drugs. It is less scary to discuss the ways they are selfish while in nature living with this supportive group of peers, compared to how they have been selfish with their caregivers at home. Once we identify these patterns in the relationship with the wilderness, we begin to work on ways to change the way our students interact with their environment within nature. With a deeper awareness and understanding of their patterns and reaction to the world, students are more willing to acknowledge how these patterns have shown up and mirror other areas of their life, and how the changes they've made during their time in the woods can apply to the other areas of their lives.
As I mentioned earlier, our students are learning that they do have power and control over their internal reaction to their external environment. Realizing this is a dramatic shift because students who use substances have been relying on an external object to change their internal state of being. Students in a nomadic wilderness program like Blue Ridge, learn that as they take more responsibility for their own internal experience, that the external world begins to feel more manageable as well. When this shift happens for students, they will often speak to how quiet, calm and healing it feels to be in the woods. The woods become a mirror of the student's experience and give us an excellent opportunity to see how they perceive their internal experience.
As students become more aware of their internal experiences, they also begin to learn that they have to continue to engage in relationship with the external world. This piece is important because students who use substances have a propensity to avoid difficult situations. Students often report to me, "I started to use drugs to fit in, then realized it helped me with anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc.". While in the woods, using is no longer an option and students have to continue to be in and engage in relationship no matter what kind of struggles come up. Metaphor again serves as a starting point for students to begin to explore this pattern because nature is the ultimate boundary setter and students must adapt to the situation. These boundaries create a sense of comfort and help students engage more fully in the therapeutic process. Since these boundaries, in many ways, cannot be argued, even our most oppositional students do not have the choice but to comply with what is needed each day. While a student’s initial reaction is often to avoid, it quickly shifts into acceptance because you just can't argue with the outdoors. When this shift happens, we hold up a mirror for the student to begin to explore how they do, in fact, have the ability to follow through on what gets asked of them in that moment and how that reflects their ability to do the same in any environment.
The boundaries and mirror that nature provides are some of the leading therapeutic benefits of the nomadic model of wilderness. No matter what, students cannot avoid their experience, relationship, and patterns. Since avoidance is often one of the strongest patterns that manifest for students who use substances, the importance of group dynamics and supportive community amongst staff, students and nature confront this pattern in full force.