Why Wilderness?

This morning I was on a call with parents whose 21 year-old son is in a therapeutic wilderness programs. These parents have been worried about their son for over ten years. From middle school, he began having academic problems in school and behavior problems at home. They consulted several psychiatrists and for a time the boy was heavily medicated for bipolar disorder. They enrolled him in special schools. He received outpatient therapy from the same therapist for these ten years. Last fall the parents even enrolled him in a supportive and expensive college program. In the spring he was asked to leave. Nothing seemed to work.

At home simple requests of taking out the trash, washing his own dishes and walking the dog were ignored. At night he brought friends home. The partying kept his parents awake. They hated to ask his friends to leave because they realized he needed friends. Still, they were unable to sleep and get the rest they needed to start a new day

The boy was easily irritated and the irritation could escalate to shouting and shoving. He learned his parents’ vulnerabilities and became an excellent negotiator, even to the degree of intimidating them. His parents began to walk on eggshells.

They started to wonder if he would ever become independent. Would he ever be able to hold a job? Get along with an employer? Have peers who liked him for more than his home or what he had? Find a partner? Start a family? Be a caring son? Would they need to be responsible for him for the rest of his life? And what would it look like?

When I talked with the parents about ways to intervene, I strongly suggested starting with a therapeutic wilderness program. Why? Taking young people out of their comfort zones and into the woods takes them a bit off balance. It requires them to adapt to a completely different setting. They become more open to suggestion and change. One cannot recreate this in outpatient therapy.

Within a therapeutic wilderness program, we would each recreate the roles we play at home. If a person is especially helpful at home and does other people’s work, he will do that in the program. If a person is especially kind and subjugates his needs to the wishes of others, he will repeat that pattern in the woods. Against the backdrop of the beauty and starkness of the wilderness and in the company of therapists, field staff and peers, our young man came across as a self-centered bully with a good sense of humor. After two or three weeks, his behavior had elicited a negative cycle from his peers which was very much like the cycle the boy had created at home and at the college program.. Everyone needed a break.

The therapist suggested that the boy take some time away from the group and go on a short customized trek with two members of the field staff. The therapist realized that the young man’s behavior could be explained by something he saw in the results of psychological testing. The boy had very slow processing speed. This does not mean that he wasn’t smart. It means that it takes him longer to process what others say (or he reads or sees) than it does for most people. In the relatively long time span it takes for him to process information, he can feel anxious and inadequate. To relieve it and to get the upper hand, the young man learned that lashing out kept others off balance and vulnerable. While on the customized trek, he had the time and space to begin to understand how the slow processing speed has affected him and to try new ways of responding. In short, his therapist advised him to “slow down”. The boy was able to start practicing listening and waiting to respond rather than jumping in and alienating his peers.

He started journaling and writing letters to his parents and siblings. He explained to them what he was learning. He wanted them to know that he cared about them and that he could see how his quick trigger had pushed them away.

Of course, it will take time for him to practice new ways of being with his family and friends and later in the world of work. He’ll go on to a supportive program for that very reason. We didn’t start with a residential program because we could not have had the beginning of a transformation as rapidly or as effectively as was possible in the wilderness with a perceptive therapist, observant field staff and peers who cared enough to give honest feedback.

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