wilderness therapy


David and I both knew that the end was near. It’s raining in the Chattahoochee National Forest, the kind of cold rain that sings like a siren, seducing and inviting one to withdraw from the light, airy, cathedral of the mind, to descend into the sweet, watery depths of the soul. He and I were sitting under a tarp, shelter from the rain, huddling around the small, smoky fire that served to dissolve the boundary between us. It was David’s 100th day in our wilderness therapy program, each of the previous days stretching through time, falling through space until they collected into a large pool, which seemed to be the totality of his young life.

Each of these days, in recollection, seemed to be a journey of sorts through all the kingdoms of possible human experience: the outer darkness of parental betrayal, the scented oasis of joy, the citadel of teenage power and the open road of freedom. Yet, on this 100th day, here we were in the most unexpected of domains, the graveyard of grief and loss. David had received the news that his departure from the wilderness was imminent and he was soon to be entering into the next phase of life, a school with all the comforts that wilderness lacked. I expected relief and exultation, for David had planted his standard around his own sovereignty and spent a good part of his 100 days, raging against the starkness of wilderness and the injustice of it all and yet, David cried. It was, like on this January day, a cry that started as a gentle, soft rain, quickly progressing to an intense downpour fed from the wellspring of his grieving heart. As much as David had longed for this day and the news of his liberation, he was devastated at the idea of leaving.

If you are a wilderness therapist as I have been for the last 18 years, then you have met many Davids. How many of our students having raged at the wilderness, at the end express an unexpected sadness in leaving the woods? As if, the sun of their liberation, suddenly eclipsed by the loss of something essential and fundamental to their well-being. What is that foundational need, that in its perceived loss, shakes young men like David to cling to the wilderness, the place that they have dreamed of leaving since their entrance? I believe that need is connection.

On January 17. 2018, Tracey Crouch was appointed by British Prime Minister Theresa May, to be the Minister of Loneliness. Ms. Crouch, whose official title is Undersecretary of Sport and Civil Society, is to lead a governmental task force to address the epidemic of loneliness in her country. Think about that. A relatively affluent first world country is devoting a large share of its resources to addressing….. loneliness.

More than nine million people in the country often or always feel lonely, according to a 2017 report published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The study found that close to a half million elderly folks have not had a significant conversation with a loved one in the last month. In the United States, Vice Admiral Vyvek Murphy who served as Surgeon General from 2014-2017, consider loneliness to be an epidemic affecting more people than other infectious diseases. Research suggests that loneliness is a strong risk factor for premature mortality and is as detrimental to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is deadlier than obesity. Loneliness, which the poet Emily Dickinson called “the horror not to be surveyed” is a quiet devastation and is associated with an increased risk for depression, anxiety, heart disease and age-related cognitive decline.

In his research, Professor John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at M.I.T has shown that loneliness affects several key bodily functions, at least in part through overstimulation of the body’s stress response. Chronic loneliness, his work has shown, is associated with increased levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, as well as higher vascular resistance, which can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow to vital organs. Danger signals activated in the brain by loneliness affect the production of white blood cells which can impair the immune system’s ability to fight infections.

Professor Cacioppo said loneliness is an aversive signal much like thirst, hunger or pain. “Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger”. The very word “lonely” carries a negative connotation, he explained, signaling social weakness, or an inability to stand on one’s own.

And loneliness doesn’t just affect the elderly. Like an epidemic, the disease of loneliness doesn’t discriminate between young and old. Dr. Holt-Lunstad, who with colleagues has analyzed 70 studies encompassing 3.4 million people, said that the prevalence of loneliness peaks in adolescents and young adults, then again in the oldest old. For adolescents, loneliness is a risk factor that is correlated with the onset of depression, anxiety, addiction issues and an inability to form intimate relationships in young adulthood.

Which brings us back to David. David, not unlike many of the teens that enter into Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness, was diagnosed with a litany of complex disorders, such as ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Oppositional Disorder, complex trauma and addiction to a variety of drugs or activities. Yet, it’s not the diagnoses that teenagers talk about, it’s the struggle to find and create meaningful relationship, and when they move into a place of allowing themselves to trust, the stories flow. The intense bullying in middle school that leads a sensitive boy to retreat into a home bound isolation, fearing that expressing hurt and fear will lead to more shaming and ridicule; the child of an abusive alcoholic parent that hides the messiness of her life behind a mask of perfectionism and accomplishment, believing that she will be judged by the sins of her parent; a teenage boy, abandoned by his father as a child, with no positive masculine ideal through which to construct a self, postures behind a mask of lies and stories, seeking respect from his male peers by lying about gang activity and fighting.

What all of these stories have in common is a deep loneliness born of a fear of authenticity. None of these kids, nor did David, allow themselves to be known in the messy truth of who they are. They build walls of illusion and protection expecting the most primal of human fears: to be exiled from the tribe.

“They took the time to really listen and to understand me.”

Like every other student who leaves our program, David filled out a discharge evaluation. When prompted to share what he valued most about his peer group, field instructors, and therapist, he wrote: “they took the time to really listen and to understand me.” When asked to describe the most difficult aspect of the experience, it wasn’t the difficulty of the hikes, the weather or primitive skills that were most daunting, David added: “it was challenging my fear of letting others really know my grief and insecurities.” That’s it. None of this is surprising. Virtually every student that has successfully completed our program has shared the same sentiments at discharge. Loneliness it seems is the true disease that most students enter with, and authentic connections, is apparently the medicine.

For those of us who have worked in a variety of treatment modalities, such as therapeutic boarding school, in-patient hospitalizations, intensive outpatient, this isn’t readily apparent. In my experience, teenagers who receive treatment in these settings don’t seem to value the depth of connections or the importance of daring to be real, the way wilderness kids do. And why is that?

Antonio Machado, the Spanish poet, speaks to this fear of intimacy when he writes:

Mankind owns four things that are no good at sea-Rudder, anchor, oars, And the fear of going down.

We, humans, have a primal aversion to going down, descending and dissolving into the sea. The sea, deeply archetypal, is linked to the human soul, emotions, and the womb. Freud remarked that we have a deep longing for the “oceanic experience” the longing for the womb and that place of warmth and comfort. That place where there are no boundaries between self and other. The earliest of my memories is lying in my mother’s lap, which seemed like a young boy as large as the universe, safe and secure. That union with my mother and the security I felt is the basis for my ability to trust and connect with others as an adult. In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate’, homeless addicts liken heroin intoxication to a “warm hug or blanket around their shoulders.” Most of them grew up in broken homes reared by addicted adults who were absent, ghost-like and unable to provide love or security. It is easy to understand why they turn to heroin. Connection and belonging are vital human needs. The absence of it, loneliness, is a plight or disease that yields quiet devastation. It might be the first time in their life that they have felt and experienced the unattainable object of their deepest unmet desire; human warmth and connection. So why do we resist going down into the sea and why do we cling to rudders, oars, and life-preservers?

Regardless of their stories, each of our students enters our program armed with rudders, oars, and life-jackets; the rationalizations, deceptions, avoidance and self-medication that they cling to with a ferocity almost matching the power of the ocean. But wilderness is more powerful, and she is patient, slowly seducing our teenagers to surrender. And let go. She envelops them in the darkness of night directing them to go inward and to find their lost parts, the emotions, passions, drives, and needs that they have forgotten and ignored. Enter winter with its cold, piercing north winds. Winter’s hidden medicine is its binding quality, the students huddling around the fire the cold drawing them together, touching and connecting, psychological walls designed to separate. The bugs in the summer act as an irritant, triggering anger and the possibility that with the eruption of anger, maybe pain or an old betrayal can be touched. Summer and the flowering of the forest and the sweet-scented air is a remembrance of their own lost innocence and the individuals who stole it from them. It is all there: mother nature and her allies, cleverly and with ancient wisdom, conspiring to deliver the right mix of earth, air, fire and water to dissolve the walls that separate us.

The power of a nomadic wilderness is the inherent trust that is placed in the ancient, potent healing power of wilderness. There are no apologies made and no excuses given. Mother nature in her challenges, draws her human children, together holding them in her lap and helping them to remember the sweet bonds of togetherness that their modern culture has enabled them to forget. This is the antidote to wilderness. The dilution of the wilderness experience and the introduction of a base camp, adventure programming is important in some respects. But why interrupt the wilderness experience to bring our children back to the same culture that has fed their own loneliness, to begin with? Their time in the woods is too short and fleeting, and the stakes are too large. With our separation from each other, the advent of social media and the breakdown and fragmentation of community and the family, we need to help our children experience the joy and salvation of authenticity and connection.

As the research suggests, loneliness is a factor in disease and premature mortality. While there has been so much focus on preserving and saving our environment and our Earth, could it be that it is actually the other way around? The return to wilderness and the peace and connection found in the woods could be healing and saving us. For we need to prepare our children to navigate the inevitable, hard challenges of life, the losses, the trials, sickness, betrayal and returning to David, the eventual death of loved ones. These experiences are too big, just too immense for us to hold and process on our own. We need each other.