Learning to Live and Feel in the Present
Justin Stum, MS, LMFT
Primary Therapist, Second Nature Entrada
They leave their families, often angry and upset to enter the wilderness. These teens enroll with a wake of difficulty and heartache at home and parents hoping for change. Often these teens are plugged in, yet at the same time tuned out. They talk about friends and memories, boasting of their hundreds of virtual “friends,” yet often are very alone and isolated. They are living via trite connections and frequently lack ‘doing’ and ‘experiencing’ because of the generation they are living in. It is in the wilderness that many, some for the first time, come to think, breathe, and relate to others in real-time, in the ‘now’ as I call it.
At home they have the world at their fingertips, on demand via their smart phone or personal computer. They connect quickly and instantaneously, yet are distracted and self-absorbed rather than self-reflective. Apathetic with regard to sibling and parent-child relationships, they claim their problems are really about their parents not them.
Therapeutic treatment with adolescents in this generation and age is very difficult. As a therapist, I have found that enlisting resistant teens into the therapeutic process is a significant task, but not insurmountable. Helping teens engage in a process of openness and change consideration is difficult. It is through the process of working through the issues in wilderness therapy that adolescents can surrender past defenses and gain significant insights into themselves and their relationships.
The adolescent brain is a work in progress, a developing organ. As the teen brain matures, the prefrontal cortex or 'executive leader' of the brain helps the individual reason more rationally, manage impulses, and make sound judgments. The difficulty is that many of these developing teens are flooding their bodies and brain with drugs and chemicals that disorient the brain from more healthy normal development. In addition, mood swings, intense conflict, and family avoidance impedes their progress and further complicates their understanding and growing in ways that promote healthy relationships at home and overall maturing as they enter adulthood.
As adolescents grow and develop they seek to comprehend and engage with peers outside their family of origin. In time they develop circles of peers, some virtual and some not. Adolescents are hard-wired to reach out and connect with others their age. They undergo an emotional revolution within which they attempt to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world. They want to direct and control their own destiny. During this same window of time, parents are trying to hold lines and guide their former child now-teen, into making healthy decisions, keeping up and learning academically, and communicating and relating well at home.
Wilderness therapy offers a unique environment that assists adolescents in unplugging and leads them headlong into a peer group removed from distractions while being confronted with their own process of what-in-the-world-is-happening-to-me-and-ehy-am-I-here mode of thinking It is this process that does not and often cannot happen in traditional talk therapy at home. In fact, many parents feel hopeless as talk therapy and other interventions at home proved ineffective or marginally effective at best in many cases.
Through the process of wilderness, young men and women can come to understand who they are and how they relate to others, the very developmental achievement needed as they attempt to differentiate from parents and seek independence and autonomy. They come to learn how they can, in fact, live in the present and relate to others in ways that prolong relationships and help to bolster their sense of self. This process occurs relatively free from the distractions and elements that are a part of normal urban life, and would cumber the process. Being in the wilderness without electronics, peers, family, substances, and pastimes helps create space for them to naturally work on understanding who they are and what is happening for them. This process happens through everyday activities in the wilderness.
It is through the process of wilderness therapy that they learn what they are feeling and become astute at identifying and understanding themselves. I recently had a student inform me that for the first time he has begun to feel things he hasn’t felt before. Feelings like genuine regret, disappointment, and sorrow for how he treated his parents and siblings. We discussed the possibility that he may have been ‘attempting’ to feel for some time while at home, but blunted and misguided his emotional process with daily marijuana smoking. As he has come to know and understand how to communicate and interact with others, he has begun to feel emotions he thought he never had experienced before.
The therapeutic process in wilderness is not merely an hour or two of therapy each week, rather the environment itself is a clinical garden that is lead and directed by the treating therapist who takes advantage of opportunities that will provide insight and reflection for young men and women. I have witnessed that individuals learn and grow in productive ways when they participate and learn to live in the present while in the wilderness. Many of the young people I work with are therapy savvy, meaning they can talk the clinical terms but have little grasp on the process of what is really happening at home for them and have not really ‘experienced’ working through issues. For example, it is during a reflection hike when wilderness staff may direct the students to hike for some length of time without talking or chit-chatting with others. Windows of opportunity are often created by staff and therapists to help them reflect and spend some unique time thinking to themselves. I have found that it is during those windows of quiet pondering and reflection that many teens come to ponder on their relationships and where they are heading. The physical rigor of hiking also provides a time for them to focus on their inner abilities and confront a physical challenge, something that cannot and is not done on a smart phone or on the couch. Just enduring at first, then managing and finally conquering the challenges of wilderness living offer the adolescents success and pride in something they know few of their peers and adults have accomplished. For the first time for many, they feel they have achieved something to be proud of.
Fire building is an integral part of wilderness therapy, not simply for its utilitarian principles of cooking and warmth alone, but for the process it provides for teens to feel and work through. Holding the bow steady, listening to coaching from staff and peers, and humbly realizing that they cannot charm the fire into being are a few of the myriad of processes that take place during the fire making that occurs daily. Attention, work, persistence, patience and openness are required prior to the fire’s combustion. It is through this process and ones like it that help them learn to open up and surrender to new ways of thinking. These ways would include listening, being humble, working consistently, and overcoming difficulty. It is these processes that are born out of the fire building process that help them reconnect and begin anew a relationship with parents and siblings that is healthy and stable.
Group activities that require team-work and cooperation are key moments that happen on hikes, during dinner preparation, camp setup, and during group therapy. It is during these moments that teens learn real-time how to work with others. No longer can they avoid by leaving the house or checking out on an iPod. It is through the process of dialogue and feedback that they learn to know and feel others’ perceptions and in turn assist themselves and the group. Groups can only hike as fast as the slowest member—if they want to get to camp sooner they will have to help, not complain, their peers that may not hike as quickly. During meal time it requires many hands, those stoking the fire, others doing meal preparation, others cooking, some on clean-up, etc., for meals to run smoothly. Staff will not do it for them, they are empowered to do for themselves things they often avoided at home. Unlike home where they may have been bailed out often, wilderness teaches them that choices consistently have consequences. Through these processes growth is naturally occurring and often they don’t realize it.
Family therapy is a significant element of the wilderness process. This occurs through letter writing, satellite phone calls, and parent visits to the field. Letter writing occurs weekly and provides a solid slow process for teens to be intentional and present when speaking to parents. It also provides space for parents to become more aware of their own patterns and process with the child. While teens are working in the field parents are reading, pondering, and referencing online webinars on how they can better grow and make changes in their own lives to be the healthiest parent they can be.
The therapeutic process at Second Nature can be a significant process for both parents and child. Change occurs by thinking, feeling and most importantly by doing. Simple cognitive possessing around issues, like what occurs in an hour therapy session at home, often is not and does not carry enough clinical power to help them pull out of the emotional rut they are often stuck in when they enter treatment. Wilderness is one of the most powerful environments to help young men and women break away from old patterns and unplug while coming to terms with who they are and what they ultimately want in their lives. As they come to live in the present and work through the challenges inherent in the wilderness, and away from their ‘former’ life, their minds and hearts open to a better understanding of what was really happening back home. They are then able to face their relationship and behavioral problems with resources and strengths they already had but were buried behind anger, resentment, drug use, and avoidance. It is through the journey of wilderness that young men and women gain a glimpse into their potential and greatness.