The Bow Drill Fire: Nature’s Rorschach Test

Second Nature Uintas Clinical Director and Primary Therapist, Dr. Steve DeBois

Clinical Director/Therapist, Dr. Steve DeBois

Steve DeBois, Ph.D.
Clinical Director/Therapist, Second Nature Uintas (Boys Group)

“What does making fire with sticks have to do with therapy?!” It’s one of the most common questions students ask early in their stay at Second Nature. The answer, of course, is “Everything.”

But first some background:

Making bow drill fires (or “busting” as it is referred to in the field) is one of the most integral activities that we do at Second Nature. People often picture the scene from Castaway when Tom Hanks rubs two sticks together to create fire. Although they took a few poetic liberties, the basic concept isn’t that far off (the bow drill technique is a bit different, but the basic concept is essentially the same.)

The practical rationale for using bow drills to make fire is pretty simple. We use fire for just about everything in the field. It cooks our dinner, keeps us warm, heats up water for bathing, gives us light in the evening, and provides a calming centerpiece to host therapy groups. And, as important as fire is to the health and safety of the group, the last thing we want is to have to rely on lighters, matches, or other technology that may fail or get lost. The beauty of bow drilling is that all of the materials you need are right there and ready to be utilized.  If one part of the bow drill set is lost, just find a sage bush and you’re ready to harvest another one!

The therapeutic benefit of bow drilling is where things get interesting. The truth is, bow drilling is difficult, and completely foreign to just about everyone when they first arrive at Second Nature. But as we rely on bow drilling to make fire, everyone must learn how to “bust” since each student is part of the group and it is important for everyone to contribute. Because it is a novel and difficult activity, the personality and dynamics of each individual tend to rise to the surface when attempting this task. Students with poor frustration tolerance? You’ll see it emerge quickly at the first failed attempt. Avoidance and procrastination issues? They suddenly appear once it’s busting time. The same applies to dynamics surrounding self-esteem and insecurity, competitiveness, entitlement, anxiety, and just about every other therapeutic issue.  And the beauty in this is that it doesn’t feel like “therapy,” so even students who are guarded or prone to being “all talk” will showCopy of USABLE Bowdrill (1) their core patterns when learning to bow drill. The therapeutic value comes from being able to highlight these patterns when they emerge and process through these dynamics with the students. It may take the form of problem solving, learning emotional regulation skills, or working on positive self-talk techniques, but it all stems from the in-the-moment experiential process that bow drilling provides. It is the intentional utilization of that experience which transforms busting from simply a “camping skill” into a therapeutic process. Under the guidance and direction of the therapist, the field counselors seek out those opportunities to connect the dynamics emerging for a student as he or she learns how to bow drill to those broader individual treatment issues. In this context, the bow drill experience becomes a powerful catalyst for deeper therapeutic work.

Copy of USABLE sparking nestThe process of making fire by bow drill is also rich with metaphor and practical lessons that are unmatched by any other single activity that happens in wilderness or a residential setting. Success in bow drilling requires practice, patience, and persistence. It entails multiple parts of the busting set, all of which are important and if any one piece is not in good working order then no amount of effort will produce a flame. It requires thoughtful preparation (jumping into the task impulsively without adequately preparing the set will produce a lot of smoke but no fire.) To our students, fire by bow drill initially seems impossible, but once the components are in place just about anyone can achieve success, regardless of age, gender, size, or athletic ability. That moment when everything just “clicks” for a student and he/she achieves a first flame is truly inspiring. There is the typical pride and excitement that comes from finding success at something challenging, but something much more profound happens as well, and that moment is when the therapeutic groundwork starts to take shape. Students begin to internalize what, up to that point, they discounted as idle adult lecturing and instead see the value themselves—lessons about resilience and persisting through challenges, connections between their experience in the field and the dysfunctional patterns at home, and the belief that with effort and motivation they can find success and contentment. It’s a pretty magical process for something as simple as “rubbing two sticks together.”

 

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Adaptation in the Wild

James-Healey-5483James Healey, LCSW, LSUDC
Primary Therapist (Boys Group) – Second Nature Uintas

All living things adapt to their environment. From the large interconnected Aspen forests of Colorado and Utah, to the smallest bacteria in a microbe on the floor of the ocean, living organisms must adapt to the world around them in order to survive. Simply put, those organisms that do not adapt do not survive. Unlike animals living in the wild, people who expect their environment and surroundings to accommodate their whims and desires may be able to survive, yet, not independently, and without a sense of purpose or personal autonomy. It is a tough pill for some adolescents to swallow, the fact that the world will not change to fit their demands. They must learn to navigate life on life’s terms. And this is tougher to learn the older one gets.

The high desert plateau wilderness of Utah holds numerous examples of adaptation. This year we experienced a big, wet winter. We enjoyed a lot of snow, and much more humidity than we are used to. You can see the ramifications of the big winter in the deep greens of early summer. There are more wildflowers, the cacti bloom more flowers than usual, and the wildlife venture lower into the valleys searching for grass as the snow lingers at higher elevations. The Juniper trees, sometimes inaccurately called Cedars, by local ranchers and farmers, grow new branches in the spring. Some of these branches will thrive and become as thick as the trunk of the tree. Some branches will prove a burden in future years.

Unlike a human, the Juniper does not think, and therefore will not overthink a problem. Even though it made sense, so to speak, to develop this branch or that branch because of the abundant moisture and sunlight one year, it may not make sense to keep sending resources to these branches during years when there is limited water or sunlight. A tree might spend years sending lots of nutrients to extend a branch out one direction to capture more sunlight for the organism, only to have a couple of nearby Pinion Pines grow up to block the sunlight from that angle a few years later. The Juniper does not waste time complaining about the unfairness of the world, it gets on with redistributing its energy in an adaptive way. You do not have to look far within a Pinyon, Juniper forest to find a Juniper tree that has large twisting branches extending along the ground or jutting out from the center, long dead and dried out, protruding from the same tree as living branches sprouting leaves and reaching for the sun. If only it were this clear for us as humans, to let go of something we have developed, even nurtured and protected, when it no longer serves any purpose but to hold us back. The Juniper tells us, “If you can, it is okay to let go.

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From the branches, on which they tie off their nightly shelters and routinely harvest bow-drill fire set materials, to the nesting bark and kindling twigs that fuel their fires, the Juniper tree represents many things to a Second Nature student. Yet, the Juniper, with its example of letting go, is only one of many teachers in the “big outside.” An authentic wilderness experience is abundant with lessons on adaptation. It is striking to witness a highly-intelligent, and highly stubborn, teenage boy trail off in the middle of a profanity-laced tirade directed at a breeze that carried off his belongings for the third time, because he made the choice to not put a rock on his notebook. In field jargon, when a student refuses to hike it is referred to as “sitting.” This is usually a habitual response to a difficult task that the student does not want to do, and in the “front country” it often works. When the older students explain that they would like to get to the water and food drop because it is calzone night, the newer student realizes that camp is much more comfortable than the spot where he is sitting.  Of course, refusing to move when your community is working together to cover ground and procure food, water and shelter, is a maladaptive choice. Such humility is a purging of adolescent narcissism and omnipotence. Living in the wilderness empties one’s cup of bravado and arrogance, leaving room for new information. Such humility makes way for empathy, compassion, self-discipline, forgiveness, and accountability. Many Second Nature students often look back on their early days in the wilderness and have a good laugh, full of kindness and acceptance, and a sense of ownership of their past, present, and future.

Untitled 7My favorite illustration of “letting go” in nature is the Bristlecone Pine. The Bristlecone Pine is the longest living tree, with one specimen estimated to be over 5,000 years old. There are healthy, living, blooming Bristlecone Pines with branches and areas of the trunk that have become fossilized; petrified wood on a living tree. Indeed, many burdens we cannot just leave behind, as they will stay with us; the memory of a loss, the scar from a wound, altered chemistry from a habit, a dimming traumatic stress response, or chronic pain. The fossilized branch may remain, yet we can choose to change our relationship with it. We do not have to send it precious energy and feed it.

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In Defense of Our Youth

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Greta Lutman, LPC, LCAS
Primary Therapist (Girls Group)

Second Nature Blue Ridge

On a Saturday not long ago, I went with my husband to an old-school barbershop in a small town west of Asheville. Beside us was a young father and his four-year old son. The boy was exploring a box of toy fire trucks and wreckers and cars. Pretty soon, my husband and the boy’s dad were both called to the barber chairs and I was left in the waiting area with him. He was playing with the toys and every now and then we would talk about this truck or that, and he proudly announced that his dad was taking him fishing later that day. If I could tell by looking and by his interactions with his son, I would say the boy’s father was a traditional, small-town dad, raising his child to enjoy typical country activities like hunting, camping and fishing.

At one point, while I was working on a project on my phone, he looked up at me and smiled and said, “You worry too much.” I looked at him, curious, and said, “How do you know that?” and he said, “I can just tell.” In his world, growing up in the country, maybe looking at a smartphone means you are worrying. Or maybe he could see something in me that gave it away, and he was right. He could just tell.

When I think about that lovely, tender-hearted child in the barber shop, I find myself thinking about all of our youth, and how, more often than not, my students in the woods have this kind of innocence and purity. And while this innocence is often obscured by the speed of technology and relentless access to the darker parts of our culture, it does not take long in the wilderness for those hazy layers to fall away.

Too often I hear people talk about teenagers as entitled, lazy, superficial and materialistic. Many adults perceive that teenagers don’t care about anything important and are focused only on themselves. These are the kinds of kids you might expect to find in the wilderness. They must be really troubled, stubborn, or lacking empathy; “bad kids,” what do you expect? But this is almost never true. The kids that come to the woods tend to be the most sensitive, the most readily hurt, the most easily lost, and the most thoroughly obscured. After just a few days in the wilderness, in the simplicity of living in a small community of caring individuals, a student’s natural sense of concern and empathy arises.

My students teach me everyday what love is. They teach me about acceptance. They do not care about race, religion, looks, gender identity, sexuality, or any other personal characteristic that, in the past (and sadly, in some communities still today), might have been used to divide them. For example, I recently had a transgendered student in my group. When I slipped and used the wrong gender pronoun, the rest of the students respectfully corrected me. “Greta, he is a boy, and his name is __________.” What I find remarkable about this is that they did not say, “He is transgendered,” they said, “he is a boy.” To them, it is was not a strange phenomenon that a student would say that he was the opposite gender than the one into which he/she was born. He is a boy because he says he is, and that is enough for them. There may be therapeutic issues to look into with regards to identity, but for these young people, they barely see these differences any more. Students are much quicker to react to a peer that is acting rude or inconsiderate than to one who may simply be different.

Parents are often worried about whether their teenager knows the difference between right and wrong, whether they have empathy, and, at the extreme, if they have a conscience. As parents, this is our worst fear, isn’t it? By the time they are in the wilderness it may have been years since their last genuine display of regret for anything. It is a common concern.

But when they read impact letters to their group, students often show real emotion, vulnerability, tears, and even shame. It is so clear that they feel regret about many of the things they have done, but I often ask just to see what they say. “Do you feel remorse about these things in your past?” And they almost always admit that they do. Then, “Why didn’t you show any of that remorse to your parents?” Nearly every time, the answer is, “If I showed my parents my shame, they would know something was wrong. They would know that I was in trouble, and they would have sent me away!” Of course, sitting under a big blue tarp during a rainstorm with nine other teenagers and five staff, the irony is not lost.

Surprisingly, it is not when they read the stories of the worst things they have done that they become emotional…they have heard these stories many times before. They are not shocked. What is more likely to draw out these raw emotions is when you speak of tender memories of your teen; the time you swam with dolphins, how good your son is with younger children, how your daughter left a sweet note under your pillow that time. Just as these are bittersweet memories for you, they are painful for your son or daughter too. Despite their involvement in troubling situations, at the core, they miss their innocence too. They miss those good times. They are afraid they cannot get back to that innocence, so if they think that their peers and staff can help them restore relationships with you and with a truer part of themselves, they begin to accept help.

Your teenager is still the same interesting, brave, thoughtful, caring, giving, generous, humorous, sensitive, hilarious child he or she always was, even if it has been years since you have seen those qualities. There is work to do, there are amends to make, and there are bumps in the road ahead, for you, your family and your child. But as your teenager sits in a circle with others around a fire, trying to reconnect with the truth of who they are, maybe you can trust that some of those obscuring layers will fall into the earth, which is always ready to absorb them. Perhaps when they leave the woods, they will be able to keep alive the sense of wonder and gratitude that has awakened in their hearts, so that they can bring these gifts to others who are suffering. And maybe they will be at the forefront of their generation’s ability to see people as people, and bring kindness to a world that so clearly needs it.

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7 Questions with Uintas Therapist, Bryan Lepinske, LCSW

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn Interview with Bryan Lepinske, LCSW
Primary Therapist, Second Nature Uintas
(Boys Group)
Tel: 801.350.1655
Fax: 435.738.2040

What attracted you to Wilderness Therapy?

For me, it’s been a lifelong process. I grew up in the middle of nowhere in central New York, on a small island carved out by rivers and a lake. We drew our water from the river and heated our house with a wood burning stove. I found respite in the wilderness from a very early age. I didn’t know anything about therapy, other than that it wasn’t something available to poor people.

My first degree is in anthropology. I have always loved people and learning about them, their heritage, etc.. When I came out west I met a gentleman who was a wilderness therapy guide. When he explained it to me, it just clicked. It resonated with me deeply. Doing sound, sophisticated psychotherapy in a wilderness setting just made all of the sense in the world to me. It gives people the opportunity, for the first time in their lives, to really see themselves clearly. The wilderness is powerful. It’s certainly where I find peace – a sense of serenity and calm – in my own life. I am able to reflect in ways that I couldn’t possibly with the world’s noise and chatter around me.

What are the theories that inform your work?

Interestingly enough, cultural anthropology has had a profound influence on how I approach this work. It necessitates a deep, sensitive regard for people, their families and their cultural upbringing, and there is a simplicity to it that is so beautiful. An anthropological lens has been much more useful to me, in a lot of ways, than the theories and methods that typically inform therapy. Motivational interviewing is profoundly important with individuals who are resistant. Family Systems Theory is also incredibly important to what I do. Helping individuals to develop strong critical thinking skills and the use of dialectics is also integral to my work. What is (perhaps) more important than anything else is coming from a place of understanding in terms of where the client is at and being deeply personal with that. We happen to work with a lot of adolescents who have been afforded a comfortable upbringing. With that, I’ve often found there to be an attitude in this work that we are supposed to “knock them off that high horse”, so to speak. That approach comes with a flavor of pretension, rather than one of compassion and understanding. We are often conditioned in our culture to be governed by jealousy and fear, rather than having deep regard, and the desire to understand. I prefer to do this work from a place of simplicity, and healthy attunement and attachment are at the very core of that simplicity.

How does a nomadic approach strengthen the wilderness therapy experience?

I’m not sure if it’s the nomadic as much as the primitive that I’m passionate about. That said, I do know that I am a very strong proponent of movement. It is essential. If you could only choose one intervention when treating depression – either movement, psycho-pharmacology, or psychotherapy, you would choose movement and exercise every time. Standing alone, it is proven to be far more effective than the other two. The repetition and practice that comes with being nomadic is also incredibly advantageous to behavior change. It lends itself well to cognitive restructuring and the cementing of new, healthier patterns of behavior. This is why movement is involved on so many levels at Second Nature. The hard work and discipline that comes with being nomadic is critical to the development of confidence, self-esteem and overall well-being, and it’s not something that our students are accustomed to, historically. All of this said, it is the simplicity of the primitive experience that, for complex individuals, is so often able to facilitate deeper therapeutic work where other interventions could not. The awareness, insight, and sense of self that is attained through being with one’s self, without distraction, is remarkable.

How do you help families adjust to wilderness?

Fortunately, by the time families get to me they are fairly committed to the process. They have already received significant support and coaching from their educational consultant. At that point, it’s a natural progression. Once they get through the initial fear of their child being away they typically begin to settle and, more importantly, they begin to experience the respite that they’ve needed. They start to explore the notion of where their child ends and where they begin. I love helping them to see the value of that kind of healthy separation, becoming more aware of what’s going on, and capable of identifying “their stuff” while their child is identifying his stuff. Helping them to understand the value of their child entering this experience of chopping wood and carrying water, so to speak, in order to develop a sense of self for the first time in his life.

Is there another team member at Second Nature you would like to recognize, or that you rely on?

Without question, those who are the most influential to the students are the field mentors, the staff who are out there living with the students 24/7. This is such a collaborative process, and the field mentors at the ground level are the ones who are true agents of change. If outpatient therapy worked for these boys and girls, they wouldn’t be here. They need a cultural experience, and that’s what the field mentors do so well to create.

Can you share something that has happened in your group recently that is representative of your group’s profile and culture?

Recently, a boy who is kind of quirky and a little bit of an outlier decided he wanted to give me a spirit name. The more socially sophisticated boys in the group who have historically had less humility and empathy really went to bat for this boy and showed up to help him create this beautiful ceremony. They did this in a way that really followed his lead and celebrated his uniqueness. We climbed a hill, shouted at the sky, and experienced an amazing ritual. I love those moments where the boys turn toward one another and connect in ways that they never before would have.

What would you say is important to remember about groups in wilderness therapy?

Eclectic and heterogeneous groups are incredibly valuable! Groups that become too niched and lose their diversity also lose the ability to allow for those who are different from one another to learn from one another.

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Welcome Back! Therapist, Tom Jameson, MS, LMHC, returns to Second Nature Blue Ridge

Tom Jameson, MS, LMHC

Tom Jameson, MS, LMHC

Second Nature Blue Ridge is excited to welcome Tom Jameson! Tom will work with adolescent boys, and will begin accepting clients in mid June.

Tom Jameson is a respected mental health clinician with years of direct care experience in residential and therapeutic wilderness settings. Tom is skilled at providing highly effective individual, group and family therapy. He believes deeply in the power of wilderness therapy and is passionate about empowering his clients as they work toward healthy change.

Tom began honing his clinical skills, at Second Nature Blue Ridge, working as a Senior Field Instructor from 2006 – 2010. He departed Second Nature to further his education, earning his Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Tom then returned to his work with adolescents, accepting a position at a residential program as a Primary Therapist. This experience gave Tom a greater sense of residential care and the efficacy of wilderness therapy, as many of his clients transitioned to the school after successful completion of a wilderness program. Most recently, Tom served as a Primary Therapist at an outdoor therapy program, working with adolescents struggling with a variety of mental health issues.

Throughout these experiences, Tom continued to hold a heartfelt affinity for Second Nature, having experienced first-hand, the power of the nomadic model during his years as a Senior Field Instructor. Tom is thrilled to return “home” to Second Nature Blue Ridge and to utilize his experience and his passion to help students and families.

Tom’s strong belief in wilderness as a highly-effective treatment setting, informs and influences his clinical approach. This approach centers around building a positive therapeutic alliance with his students and utilizing the earth and its seasonal cycles as both teacher and metaphor. Tom is fascinated by the link between internal transcendence and emotional growth and how this connection effects the unique growth experience he has witnessed in wilderness settings. Tom finds deep meaning in manifesting goals in his life and he shares this process with his students, assisting them with the tools they need to do the same.

Tom’s clinical areas of expertise include depressive disorders, the grief and loss process, oppositional behavior, anxiety, family systems, ADHD, adoption issues, and helping students develop healthy coping strategies. Tom practices DBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, reality and client-centered therapies. Tom is highly skilled in working with complex family dynamics and meeting his students and families where they are, while providing clear guidance and direction in support of healthy change.

In his free time, Tom enjoys hiking and spending as much time as possible outdoors. He is excited to call Asheville, NC., home again!

Welcome back Tom!

 

 

 

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Orientation Second Nature Style: Reflections on my Week in the Field

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Jenn Charrier, Outreach Director

Jennifer Charrier
Outreach Director, Second Nature Therapeutic Wilderness Programs

Being “new” to the Second Nature team, I thought it necessary to experience a week in the life of our students. I’ve spent fourteen years in the treatment industry and have worked with countless kids and families transitioning from wilderness into residential treatment. I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything monumental as I thought I thought I knew most everything there was to know about wilderness. I therefore felt confident turning off my devices and trekking into the woods.

I left Second Nature base with my gear and began a stunning drive through the Uintas. The gorgeous desert landscape exhilarated me as I inhaled the crisp and fragrant mountain air. I spent the two-hour drive learning a bit about the ten (female) students with whom I would be spending the week. We climbed to an elevation of nearly 9000 feet and found our group of staff and students in a beautiful Aspen grove getting ready for lunch. I quickly unloaded my gear and jumped right in, excited to meet the group.

The girls were hard at work, each pursuing their assigned tasks with enthusiasm and pride. I watched as one of the older students unsheathed her beloved bow-drill set and deftly started the campfire. Two students huddled over a cutting board and prepared fresh vegetables, quinoa and seasonings. As the cooks worked, they mindfully separated out vegan portions for those students and staff who preferred a vegan meal. I saw girls collecting firewood, fetching water, and setting up a large wok to cook the meal.

Lunch was delicious. Fresh veggies were flavorful and added sweetness, texture and color to the quinoa. This was certainly not the standard beans and rice I was anticipating. During lunch the girls called a group in which they introduced themselves, shared why they were at Second Nature and asked me questions so that they could get to know me. The girls were incredibly open, honest and supportive of one another. They provided feedback in a reflective and solution-focused format, with some jotting down notes throughout the process. Much of the feedback was direct and emotions ran high but each student remained respectful and took in the feedback without argument or defense.

After lunch, a new set of staff arrived and all eight staff, ten students and the group’s Primary Therapist gathered for the weekly Milan Group, one of Second Nature’s early and most effective innovations. The name (Milan) was derived from a therapeutic model of family therapy in Italy renowned for its effective intervention techniques, including one where clients listened behind a one-way mirror as a group of therapists discussed their case. At Second Nature, Milan Group includes the therapist, students, and staff both entering and leaving the field at the culmination of the week. The group includes a full exchange of information about the student, feedback, and the opportunity for the students to assess their progress from an objective perspective.

The Milan Group I witnessed began with each student offering a self-reflective summary of her week. This gave each student the opportunity to identify personal progress and struggles, which helped each to self-assess and feel empowered in the process. Current staff followed, presenting an overview of each student’s week, which included progress related to individual treatment plans, challenges and continued areas of focus, while the Primary Therapist asked clarifying questions. The girls sat quietly as they listened to the staff summarizing the above. This group was truly powerful. There are no secrets at Second Nature. No student is ever left wondering how they are doing or where they stand with staff and therapists. Feedback is delivered in an objective, direct and yet nurturing way to shed light on issues and provide encouragement and support. This group eliminates the possibility of triangulation and therefore prevents potential power struggles and manipulation in the week ahead. I watched as staff and students took notes and identified specific goals for the upcoming week.

After the Milan Group, the therapist began individual sessions. In each session, the therapist, student, and assigned staff mentor met and addressed information shared in the Milan Group, processed therapy assignments, and further solidified goals for the upcoming week. I learned that having the staff mentor in each individual therapy session is vital to ensuring that each student’s daily wilderness experience is fully integrated and consistently centers around his/her therapeutic goals. Each staff is responsible for a maximum of two to three students and assisting the therapist in carrying out individual treatment plans. The staff skillfully turn day to day experiences into therapeutic lessons using each experience to teach the students how to manage emotions in real time as various situations occur. These experiences then seamlessly transfer back into individual and family sessions, creating a cohesive therapeutic process for every student and family.

The therapist remained with the group for 48 hours, conducting individual therapy sessions and facilitating clinical group sessions as well. After the therapist departed the field, we awoke Thursday morning bright and early, packed up camp and began our hike. And this is where the real therapeutic work began! With everything we possessed on our backs, we set out through the endless stretches of Aspen groves with little to no idea how long we would hike or where we would end up (of course the lead staff knew exactly where we were going.) The energy in the group shifted and the girls’ anxiety became palpable. Within ten minutes of hiking one of the girls began to lag behind and wanted to stop.

“There’s a pebble in my shoe!” she exclaimed and she unstrapped her pack and bent down to remove it. The whole group waited for 15 minutes while she addressed her discomfort.

Another ten minutes into hiking another girl insisted on stopping.

“My pack is killing my shoulders!” she hollered, as she threw her pack to the ground and sat down.

Some of the older students were visibly annoyed. They wanted to get to the next camp area quickly so that they could eat a hot lunch and get some personal time. But no one said a word as the student sitting took her time and eventually, got back up and resumed hiking.

As the hike continued, a few students insisted on stopping, going to the bathroom, complaining about small discomforts, and stopping the group to address them. At lunchtime we were nowhere near our intended campsite and so we stopped in the middle of shrubs and trees to eat. Again, some students began complaining about the lack of comfort at the site chosen for lunch, the fact that they weren’t having a hot lunch and the length of time they had been on the trail. As staff, our eyes glimmered with the therapeutically rich lessons built into the day thus far. We decided this was the perfect time to call a group. The parallels occurring on the trail that day were symptomatic of the issues each individual student was facing at home. So often, our students cannot stand to experience discomfort of any kind!

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Taking a quick break on the day’s hike.

As a mother of three sons and as a professional with 14 years experience working in the mental health field, I have become increasingly aware of the lack of core resiliency and grit in our kids today. So often, when kids begin to feel uncomfortable they avoid. Choose the avoidant skill be it drugs and alcohol, school refusal, shutting down, acting out, suicidal ideation, self-harm, you name it, we’ve seen it. These kids often lack the skills and confidence to push through challenges. And here we were on the trail grappling with the same exact issues. Each time a student experienced anything remotely uncomfortable, our journey stopped, halting our long-term process and perpetuating more discomfort. On this day, I watched ten adolescent girls realize, for the first time in their lives, that they themselves were the ones getting in their own way and causing their own struggles.

Again, the energy shifted, but this time the energy was positive and full of motivation. Each girl identified a problem she had been avoiding in her life and then made this problem the focal point of the hike. With each step, log, and mountain conquered the girls pushed on, encouraging each other, shouting out to the universe that they were strong and capable and determined to never give up. The hike was not easy. There was no trail paved by previous hikers, there were no shortcuts, no distractions from the angst we each experienced. But there was a feeling of pride, accomplishment and sheer determination to not let these challenges deter us from our end goal. That day, on top of the highest mountain peak, we felt on top of the world. I witnessed ten young women realize how strong and capable they really are. I witnessed self-esteem bloom, resiliency develop and pride reside within each of these girls. And on top of that peak I realized why Second Nature is the première wilderness program in the industry. Second Nature has not succumbed to the pressure to make wilderness more fun, exciting and enjoyable. Second Nature has stayed true to their identity of providing a safe, challenging and nurturing therapeutic experience to help kids be better prepared for life’s challenges and obstacles. Second Nature is not about protecting our kids from life experiences or providing fun distractions from internal turmoil. Instead Second Nature provides the opportunities, skills and support necessary to get through these challenges and develop resiliency within each and every student with whom we work.

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Snapshots from the Woods: What to Expect When Your Child Enters the Wilderness

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GRETA LUTMAN, LPC, LCAS
Therapist, Second Nature Blue Ridge
(
Girls Group)

So there you are, sitting at home feeling the weight of your decision to send your child to the wilderness. Perhaps your child has dropped out of his or her life, crossed important family boundaries, flunked out of school, started experimenting with alcohol or drugs, or put him/herself in other dangerous situations. I’d like to offer some predictions about what your child’s wilderness journey may look like. Keep in mind that every child is different and every family is unique, but there are milestones that seem to be similar for many of the teens with whom we work.

First, your child may land in the woods and wonder what happened. Some teens feel relieved that their out-of-control behaviors have been interrupted. For some however, it will take time to feel anything positive about being in the program. When you receive your child’s first letter from the woods, be prepared as it may bruise you in the most personal way. After all, your teenager knows you and they know what your values are; so what is said in those first letters is often intended to hurt you or play upon your guilt. If your child has never used alcohol or drugs, he/she may try to convince you that the group is full of “hardened criminal drug addicts”. If your academics are important to you, there may be an attempt by your child to convince you that he or she will do homework and get all A’s in exchange for coming home NOW. Some kids say they have “seen the light, thank you so much for sending me here, I’ve already changed so much! I’ll walk the dog every day and wash the dishes…you can take me home now!” Some teens attempt emotional blackmail, threatening to withdraw from a relationship with you, especially if they believe that relationship is the most important thing for you. If eating healthy is important to you, your child may complain that the food is awful. Don’t be surprised if your child addresses you by your first name. The more personal the letter is, the more you are likely to feel doubt, guilt, and fear. Just breathe. These are all fairly typical initial responses to having just landed in wilderness.

After a few days, your child will receive your impact letters, strategically placed after reading his/her life story to the group. Your child will feel the full force of your concern, if he or she is willing to let it in and be vulnerable about how things really were at home. As therapists, we are observing the level of maturity, healthy emotional connection, a sense of insight or remorse, and whether your child is willing and able to take responsibility for his or her behaviors. Oftentimes, after the impact letter – especially if group members provide feedback to the student about discrepancies in the life story – the student is appropriately humbled. Sometimes kids are angry but at least they now know where you stand.

After this, there is a period of getting used to the woods, the staff, and the peers. Students typically begin to feel more comfortable in the environment as they get used to the people, the setting, the structure, the therapeutic components, the chores, and the daily events. During this time, students often gain a greater sense of who they are, how they interact with others, what they believe about themselves, how capable they believe themselves to be, and so on. T. Harv Eker said, “how you do anything is how you do everything,” which, in this case, means that it is inevitable that the child’s inner world will begin to project itself onto the blank canvas of the group. Their peers become their little sisters, older brothers, students they’ve struggled with in the past or, their best friends. As they become more comfortable, their “stuff” starts to leak out. In this regard, wilderness works because the students bring all of their “baggage” and none of their luggage!

Once the group members and staff become stand-ins for important relationship figures at home, then we can really get to work. Instead of “lecturing’ students about how they treated their parents, we can provide immediate feedback when they treat us the same way. When this occurs, we have the full power and immediacy of the in-the-moment relationship we have essentially created with that student to make his or her actions or words actually mean something in real time. It is no longer academic at this point; it is relational. At Second Nature we call the willingness to observe and discuss our feelings when these things happen “emotional immediacy”. We teach by becoming models of the people we hope to inspire them to become. Not perfect, sanctified or sterile people, but real, warm, living and breathing, sometimes unpredictable but always emotionally-alive people in the world.

It is often at this point, that the student is ready to look deeper into him or herself. As a therapist working with adolescent girls at Second Nature, I take this opportunity to show my students how they affect others in real-time in the wilderness. This is when I might ask her to look at underlying childhood wounds, grief or loss, or hidden shame or beliefs about herself that drive behaviors, attitudes and words. This is where miracles happen; where the wilderness outside collides with the wounds that need healing on the inside; where past and present meet, where the child can clearly see that if she is still doing what she has always done, then the wounds are inside herself and not the fault of those around her. I try to show her that the healer is inside as well.

After this deeper work and the epiphanies which often result, most students move to a place in the wilderness where they become proud of what they are accomplishing for themselves. They understand that they are no longer participating for their parents, or to get home by a certain date or event, or to be anyone other than who they really are. Students at this stage often show an interest in leading the group, in getting to Water Phase or Air Phase, and they often begin to have greater investment in the group’s emotional safety and physical functioning. The focus turns to actively working in the here-and-now instead of regretting past mistakes or obsessing about the future. At this phase, most kids have some awareness and acceptance of what is happening next on their journey, whether it will be at home or a school away from home.

Above all, we work with teens to develop a sense of agency, resilience, capability, teamwork, recovery, and healing INSIDE themselves. And when they leave, they get to take these attributes with them. The wilderness is a mirror in which students can learn to see themselves clearly. It is a window through which they can see their relationships and the wider world with humility and courage.

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7 Benefits of Wilderness Therapy for Preteens and Younger Teens

Footsteps Girl (1)Elizabeth A. Lucarelli, MS, NCC, LPC
Second Nature Footsteps
Primary Therapist

I’ve been working with preteens and younger adolescents for over ten years and I am a strong believer that all kids benefit from time spent in the woods. As a young child my most impactful and life-changing experiences and relationships came from my time in the wilderness. For parents, making the decision to send a middle school-aged child to a wilderness program is (understandably) an emotion-filled and for many, daunting process, however it is my experience that what the child gains is truly invaluable.  

So what exactly do younger students have to gain from a wilderness therapy experience? I’ve given this question a great deal of thought and broken the answers down into specific, tangible benefits, all of which are highlighted below:

1 – Wilderness Therapy provides kids opportunities to learn that they are strong, capable, and resilient.
A common theme for kids who come to Second Nature’s Footsteps Program is that they lack confidence, feel incapable or do not believe in their abilities. If we don’t believe in ourselves or our capabilities than we certainly are less apt to take on tasks or challenges that are outside of our comfort zone. If anything, we will avoid discomfort and challenge at all costs! Many kids avoid school, social situations, chores, feelings, consequences, and relationships because they are uncomfortable or believe they are failing in these important areas of life. The wilderness is a powerful way to challenge old ways of existing and help kids establish new ways of thinking, feeling, and approaching life. While in the woods, kids have the ability to experience success in areas that are new to them and that seem challenging. Within the confines and safety of a nurturing and clinically supportive environment, they begin to internalize that they are capable and strong. They learn that if they can endure a rainy day that they can face those tough math problems. The develop new tools to address challenges and problems and have opportunity to process, apply and practice those new tools on a daily basis. From the very moment they enter the field to the day they leave, they are immersed in so many moments and experiences that are reinforcing these powerful beliefs about their capabilities. Staying within our comfort zones, keeping things easy and comfortable and avoiding challenge, kids will not have the opportunity develop the skills needed to navigate real life. Young people at Footsteps are surrounded by loving, caring and supportive staff as they face healthy challenge. This process allows for kids to build confidence and resilience. 

2 – In the distraction-free purity of the wilderness setting, kids have the opportunity for authentic connection.
Relationships are fundamental to our contentment and well-being. All of us want to be accepted, understood, and considered in our relationships. Most of the kids I work with want desperately to have relationships with other people, however for various reasons, they often struggle to build or sustain these relationships. When kids come to the field with preconceived notions about others and or struggles with how they may be perceived.  At Second Nature Footsteps kids can’t hide behind trendy clothing, the newest smartphone, or distorted online persona, or use material items as a way to be cool and connect with others. By removing these distractions, our kids have the opportunity to connect with themselves and others on a more authentic and genuine level, which will serve them in the greater world.    

3 – Gratitude becomes more than a word.
Gratitude is the recognition of all of the positive things or experiences in our lives. We can spontaneously feel moments of gratitude but we can also make a choice to truly feel grateful for what we have in our lives. Practicing gratitude builds and strengthens relationships, fosters empathy, reduces stress, anger and other toxic feelings such as jealousy, and promotes self confidence, personal wellness and happiness. Gratitude is nothing more than a word many for many of our kids and not something they have practiced or even contemplated. If anything, most are often focused on what they don’t have or how things are not good enough vs. what they do have and how fortunate they are.  A lack of gratitude or entitlement is can cause kids to feel angry, jealous, and unhappy, causing misery and added tension in their relationships with loved ones and others.

We practice and teach gratitude daily in the field. After a couple of weeks, it is amazing to see them wake up and share how amazing the sunset was or thank their families for sending them a photo album. they also become more grateful for the everyday creature comforts they use to take for granted, more thankful for their families and overall happy about the opportunities they’ve had in life.

4 – Time in the woods nurtures a young person’s natural need for adventure.
Adventures are the best way to learn about ourselves and the world around us. Adventures stretch our minds, cultivate curiosity, make us stronger and more resilient and allow us to build greater tolerance to adversity. Wilderness therapy adventures promotes personal reflection, and FUN, especially when “adventuring” with people with whom we feel connected. It is imperative that kids embrace adventure and begin to see all the exciting adventures that await them in life. Also everyone needs adventure in their lives, not just children. Often parents come to the field and say they wish they could spend more time in the woods or they wish they had had this experience when they were younger. Wilderness is the perfect backdrop to enhance and foster our innate sense of adventure. Middle school kids need to adventure, explore, dream, reflect, and tap into their curiosity and wonder of the world. 

5 – Younger teens learn that’s it’s actually okay to be vulnerable.
I was recently listening to an audio recording on intimacy that a parent recommended to me. The speaker shared that the core fear that keeps us from being vulnerable with others is that IF they knew who we were, then they would not love us anymore. I would say that is true for many of our Footsteps kids. So often, they are afraid that people will not love, care or want to be in relationship if they were honest about who they are and how they struggle. It can be painful to acknowledge our struggles as we are afraid that others may use this against us. When we are not vulnerable with people we are not being true to ourselves and we’re not attending to our needs, which hampers our ability to heal and grow. It also limits us in terms of relationships and daily life. At Footsteps we’re teaching kids the power of vulnerability and creating the space for them to experience first-hand, how much better it feels to share their inner thoughts, feelings, needs and wants. They begin to experience a difference in how they feel and within their relationships. And, while it may feel scary to them at first, they begin to see how powerful vulnerability can actually be.  

6 – Kids learn they are not alone in their struggles.
We can begin to heal and grow when we know we are not alone. It is in middle school that kids begin to compare themselves to their peers and notice each other’s differences. This can be a painful process, especially if you believe you are falling behind or are different in a bad or negative way. Many kids come to Footsteps thinking that something is wrong with them because they struggle to regulate their feelings or keep up with homework. Or perhaps they feel different because their parents are divorced or because they are the only adopted. When kids come to Footsteps they begin to see that they are not alone in their struggles and this challenges their belief that they are somehow flawed or something is simply wrong with them. When we separate our struggles from who we are, we can begin a healthy healing process. We can begin to make adjustments in how we handle and express the pain associated with these uncomfortable situations.

7 – Kids and their families experience change, together.
Coming to the woods allows parents and kids time and space to pause, evaluate, and rebuild or strengthen family relationships. While the child may be in the woods working on their issues, parents are expected to engage in a parallel process and work and learn right beside them. I find that the harder kids and parents work, the more they get from the experience. It feels counterintuitive that taking space would rebuild a relationship but it actually does. The space, letters, visits and weekly calls with the therapist really allow for intentional communication, processing and reflection, which in turn, builds honesty, vulnerability, and a deeper understanding of each other.

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Liz Lucarelli, MS, NCC, LPC

It is an honor to be apart of this journey young people and their families. It is an honor and privilege to watch them become more confident, aware, responsible, happy, and healthy while in the wilderness. And, there is nothing “cooler” than watching middle schoolers learn how to bow drill, set up shelters, cook, hike, laugh, joke, share their feelings, and support other kids their own age.  Kids who experience time in the woods, leave with unique skills, tangible tools and rich experiences which they can carry with them for a lifetime.

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