Tim works with adolescent boys ages 13-18
Q&A With Primary Therapist Tim Riewald MA, LCMHC.
Q: Tell us about yourself. What’s your background?
A: My name’s Tim Riewald. I am a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor and the Primary Therapist in Group 1. I’ve been with Blue Ridge since 2011. I started here as a field instructor and I worked in that position for about three and a half years. Then, I decided to go back to graduate school at Appalachian State University for Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I worked with adolescent boys during my first year as a Field Instructor, and I decided that I wanted to pursue this as a career path— and as my life’s calling— and I haven’t looked back since.
Q: What is the typical student profile in your group (G1)?
A: There’s definitely some variety. I tend to work with boys that have ADHD or struggle in school, and boys who haven’t really found their place in life yet. Many of my students have sought refuge in substances, trying to figure out how to cope, whether by finding community through substances, or to deal with their feelings of anxiety and depression. A lot of my students struggle with expressing their emotions and experience low distress tolerance, and tend to exhibit more externalizing behaviors. That’s not true for all of them, but for many it is.
A lot of the students in Group 1 come to Blue Ridge feeling like they don’t have a place and struggle with identity development— they’re not really excited about anything in their future. They’re angry with their parents, and the world, and they’re trying to gain more freedom, without really knowing how to do that in a sustainable way.
Q: What would you consider to be the power of Wilderness Therapy? Why do you choose to work in the wilderness, specifically?
A: That’s a great question, and I think that’s like the most important question when you’re considering enrolling your child in a unique journey like this.
Wilderness provides a backdrop where all of the distractions are removed. I think for most kids coming into treatment, they have this sense that they’ve done ‘bad things’, so that means they’ve been ‘wrong’ in some way… And so they have to ‘do good’ or ‘be good’ and to make up for that, which ends up looking like jumping through the hoops; trying to please either their therapist, their staff, or their parents, in an attempt to get them off their back.
So, that’s kind of easy to put on for nine hours a day, for a therapy session a couple of times a week, or in a lot of other contexts that aren’t 24-7. It’s easy to just jump through those hoops and to kind of skate by… And in wilderness therapy, it’s a fully immersive environment where you can’t just lock the door to your room, veg out on your bed, escape from your reality for a while, and keep doing the same thing the next day. Wilderness therapy is all the time.
Also, living with a group in the woods comes to feel like a family. Much of the time, what that looks like is that frustrations and difficulties in interpersonal relationships that don’t come up in other contexts begin to reveal themselves. And that’s when the work starts to happen. That’s when they can learn new strategies or ways of communicating. They can learn that, actually through having healthy conflict, they become closer and more cohesive with their peers, and they can experience increased healthy intimacy with others.
That’s the magic. Part of it is the peer group and living within a group of people that are similar to them, and learning how to be open. Another part is the actual backdrop of being in wilderness, and the healing power of nature. Waking up when the sun rises, going to bed when the sun sets. Drinking plenty of fresh water that they collected and filtered themselves. Living in tune with natural rhythms… Every season has its beauties and its struggles. Students in wilderness learn how to cope with what they can’t control, and how to thrive in tough emotional situations.
One of the things that’s different about wilderness from many other say rehab facilities or other inpatient treatments is that students come out of it feeling really proud. They come out saying, ‘Wow, I did something amazing and I am so much stronger than before I went to wilderness,’ and that’s an incredible outcome that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Q: Out of all the Wilderness Therapy programs out there, what draws you to work at Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness?
A: What has always impressed me about Blue Ridge that I haven’t really seen in any other program is our unique sense of community, and just how much heart and soul is present from top to bottom in this organization. It’s a really special group of people. And I think when people come here, they can feel that.
One of the structural pieces that I love about Blue Ridge and that really supports the work we do is our Family Programming, and how integrated it is with the process for students in the woods.
Other pieces are the Mindfulness and Health and Wellness aspects of the program, and we have put a ton of work into buttressing and building that up.
I also appreciate that we use the Nomadic Model, which sets us apart from many other programs, because it’s a fully immersive journey where the therapy is happening all the time.
Q: What’s your personal approach as a therapist? Are there any specific modalities that you use? What are your areas of expertise?
A: First and foremost, I’m an attachment-based therapist. So what that means is that all of my work is focused on building a secure and loving relationship where there’s trust. And that is, I believe, the primary fulcrum of change.
I tell my clients and students that I’m not there to fix them. It’s not my hope to change them, or to fix them. I don’t think they’re broken. My hope, my aim, is to see them, to understand themselves. And I believe that when they feel seen and understood, they grow. So that’s the bedrock of my approach.
In other aspects of my work, motivational interviewing is a big tool that I use. There’s a lot of research which suggests that motivational interviewing is a very effective modality of working with adolescents with substance abuse and other behavioral health issues.
In general, what motivational interviewing aims to do is, rather than seeing the client as resistant, or stubborn, or stuck and not wanting to change, to recognize that there’s ambivalence there, that there’s a part of them that must change. And there’s another part of them that has been conditioned to believe that the behaviors that aren’t fully serving them are the best solution to their problems… So they’re scared of letting go of that. When we get stuck in a pattern of trying to push them to change, they’re going to hold on more to why they shouldn’t change. So we give them the space to have both sides of that within themselves, and validate where they’ve done their best.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you build relationships with your students’ parents?
A: My work with parents, in many ways, is similar to my work with their kids. Parents in the wilderness process are in the midst of a crisis, and they’re exhausted. Many of them are ashamed… They feel that they failed. It’s a really humbling and devastating experience to admit that you need help, so I think for many of them, they have a story that needs to be heard.
So, earlier on in the process, my goal is to just really hear their story and to understand the child, the parents, and their respective journeys. Over time, we organically shift together into the space of challenging and confronting the parent’s and the family’s patterns, which is integrated with the family therapy that we do. This whole time, the Family Therapist is also providing them with the tools and space to practice self-growth.
For many of the kids I work with, there’s a lack of attunement with their parents. I think many parents struggle with wanting to rescue their kids from difficult emotions, and have difficulty tolerating their child’s pain. So they feel they have to pull away to not get pulled into it. Many of the kids I work with don’t feel like their parents really understand them, or know how to be with them when they’re hurting.
My work with parents, as I get to know the student in the woods, is understanding the child’s wounds from their relationship with their parents, and helping the
Q: What does the word “success” mean to you?
A: The students I work with are often stuck. For example, right now in my group, there are a number of kids that are significantly depressed and have been using a lot of marijuana to cope. And there’s a skepticism around their opportunities, like they’re wondering, ‘Why would I want to be more fully engaged in life?’, and the core of that is having been disappointed, let down, and hurt in the past.
So this wall comes up. The mentality is, “ I’m not going to care about anything anymore. I’m not going to care. And that way I don’t have any expectations, and I won’t get hurt. That works for me. Why would I change it? I’m not willing to try.’
And in that, there’s low self-esteem, there’s a lack of trust in relationships. They’re not acting in alignment with their values. And so there’s anxiety and cognitive dissonance. And so for them, coming out of wilderness, they have an experience that has boosted their self-esteem, and they think, ‘Wow, I’m more capable than I thought I was. I feel good about myself right now.’
There are positive experiences in relationships, and they realize they can trust people. They can engage in healthy conflict. They can share how they feel, and maybe they won’t be judged and embarrassed, but rather they’ll actually feel closer to others. They have an experience of more fully engaging in their lives, and they feel a sense of hope.
They’re also acting in alignment with their values and they have a direction again. So, rather than being rigid in their way of living, they are competent and flexible.
It’s part of our work, and our duty, to also prepare students for re-entry into the world. It’s hard to leave this safe cocoon of wilderness and go straight back into cold, harsh reality, and the diesel fumes, and neon lights, and phones, and social media, and junk food. A successful wilderness experience, whether they’re going home or they’re going to another program, is also preparing them to transition gently into their next steps after such a peak experience. When we prepare them for that, we set them up for success.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share that we haven’t touched on today?
A: Yeah, I want to let people know that I think the Field Instructors are the unsung heroes of our program.
I come in on a Tuesday, and I harvest the crops that have been planted all week by the Field Instructors. Field Instructors have less contact with parents and consultants, so they kind of work ‘behind the scenes’, but I believe they are the unsung heroes who are doing critical, meaningful, and values-driven work.
Lastly, I just want to express that I feel blessed to get to do this work. It’s pretty amazing, what we do, and it’s coming up on a decade that I’ve been in this field, with Blue Ridge specifically. I never thought I would get to do work that is this meaningful, so I’m really grateful for that.
Q: What do you do in your free time? Where can we find you when you’re not here in Clayton?
A: I play with my dog Ollie a lot. I like exploring the mountains, preferably through mountain biking in Pisgah National Forest and around Western North Carolina. I also love to cook, do yoga, and spend time with my family.