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Building Upon The Wilderness Therapy Experience In Young Adult Transitional Living

The majority of clients arrive at ATC having first completed a wilderness therapy program. More often than not these students arrive glowing with a renewed sense of pride, confidence, eagerness and hope in continuing the growth experienced in the powerful container that only wilderness therapy can provide. Typically, clients who go through primary treatment in the wilderness are given a large amount of structure in order to gain a sense of safety, increase self-efficacy and personal accountability. They slow down, gain confidence, begin to realize how their actions impact their group and environment, and are able to exercise a body/mind/spirit approach to their own health in a very natural way free of the distractions and commotion in the more civilized world we live in. The helpfulness of this type of intervention at the early stages of recovery cannot be understated.

At ATC we understand wilderness therapy. The experience of residents who go through a wilderness program is often misunderstood or discounted in the next phase of treatment. The fact that 75% of our clinical staff have worked as clinicians in wilderness therapy programs allows us to be well versed in the terminology and processes that occur in these programs. We understand the wilderness process because we have lived and experienced it firsthand ourselves. Working now in a post primary treatment setting has given us experience in seeing patterns as clients go through the transition from wilderness and acclimate to their new urban surroundings.

There is a reliable, predictable landscape to the recovery process and what the majority of our students’ experience post wilderness. Regression is a normal and expected part of that process. It’s natural to fall back to dysfunctional coping methods that have taken years to develop and will not extinguish after several weeks in wilderness. Wilderness does however begin to confront these dysfunctional behaviors and begins the process of creating new pathways of change. Transitional living must then take that momentum and increased awareness and provide the means by which these new pathways can continue to be practiced and built upon. This can get messy at times as young adults experience life stressors and challenges that wilderness intentionally protected them from.

One of the first things I do in meeting with a new client is ask them to describe their experience in wilderness to me, particularly wanting to hear about their struggles and the work they did to overcome those challenges. It is crucial that students are given space to share these experiences, particularly while the emotions and details are still fresh in their minds. These experiences need to be validated and referred back to as clients sift through the murky waters of post wilderness treatment.

Bow Drill - "Busting"
Bow Drill – “Busting”

I recently had a client describe the struggle he experienced in wilderness with the bow drill method of fire making, also referred to as “busting.” He shared how after 7 weeks of failure he threw his busting set at the feet of his therapist and said “I give up, I’m done.” His therapist wisely set aside his agenda for psychotherapy, grabbed his busting set and stated, “Forget therapy today we are going to spend our time together busting. This just became the most important part of your treatment here.” He then described how his therapist spent a good deal of time assessing his set, focusing on taking the time to prepare it and ensure that the equipment was functional so he could have the best probability for success. Then they discussed how busting is more of a mental vs. a physical challenge. Learning to deal with the negative self-defeating thoughts by envisioning success and then putting in the effort to get the intended result. That week he busted 10 fires!

He became what we like to call in wilderness as a “bust-o-matic.” I asked if he had his busting set with him. We then went outside together so he could show me his busting skills. It’s been a while for me, my busting skills are pretty rusty but I gave it an attempt along with him. I got some smoke but he clearly had become more proficient at this skill then me. We laughed together and I could see the sense of pride he had in being better at it then I was. After swallowing some pride, we discussed the metaphors learned through busting and how it could apply to the challenges and stressors he would surely face at ATC. I suggested he take his bow and hang it on his wall, in his bedroom, above his bed as a daily reminder for him to reflect on what he learned in making fire. When the challenges come and he feels like giving up I refer him back to the bow above his bed as a symbolic reminder of what busting taught him and what he’s capable of overcoming.


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