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Q&A with Primary young adult therapist Anne Wilzbacher MA, LPC 

Q: Tell us about your background and how you came to become a Primary Therapist for young adults at Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness.

A: My first exposure to this industry started with being a field counselor at Eckerd Youth Alternatives, where I worked with adolescent boys who were in the adjudicated system. The program allowed the boys to attend wilderness therapy instead of going to a detention center. I took that position right after college, so it was my first experience in this line of work. But I was open to the possibilities, and had established a connection to the outdoors throughout my childhood. I graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a degree in Public Relations and Marketing, but something about the work felt really intriguing to me.

I worked there for about three years. That was the job that opened me up in ways I never knew were possible; the work helped strip layers of myself away and exposed me to deeper emotions, like fear and courage. At the same time, I was exposed to these kids who were struggling at a level that I hadn’t witnessed before. They were ages 10-18, and they stayed at the program for 1-2 years while visiting home every six weeks. There was one student I got to know really well, who was 10 when he arrived and 12 when he left. I actually dedicated my master’s paper to him— his name was Jimmy. He played a huge role in growing my fascination for working with others in a therapeutic setting, helping them to heal. That relationship completely changed my life.

That was the hardest job I think I’ve ever had, and it’s what led me to grad school at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Because I already had a robust experience with wilderness, I went into the Contemplative Psych Program. At the time, I was really diving into mindfulness, meditation and self-growth, and I think because of my previous job, I was able to start looking at myself and learn to deal with all that was coming up. My education was a continuation of self exploration and learning how to relate with other people.

Throughout that time, I also worked at a couple of other wilderness programs as a field staff, so I got to see the different work environments in wilderness therapy. When I graduated, I worked as a therapist at a young adult transition program in Boulder, CO called AIM House. This was my first official job working with young adult women. It was my first job providing individual and group therapy with such a difficult population, and it actually kind of felt like I was thrown into the trenches. Thankfully, I received incredible training, supervision and mentorship there.

During that time, I always had wilderness in the back of my mind, so I went to work with young adults at Open Sky Wilderness in Durango, Colorado. I already had the field staff perspective, and this allowed me to gain the family perspective as well. I realized then that I loved the young adult population because it was mixed gender and so dynamic.They were in a place where patterns are more ingrained and they had to decide whether to do something about their path or continue to struggle. They were coming to grips with the internal crisis of entering adulthood and questioning their old patterns.

From there, Dan McDougal reached out to me with an exciting opportunity to launch the young adult program at Blue Ridge. When I first arrived at BRTW in 2017, I worked with adolescent boys while I developed the young adult programming. During that research and development stage, I interviewed others from the wilderness therapy industry like alumni, consultants, and families. I drew from my life experiences, my graduate school training, and my time as a field guide and therapist, and the program really began to come together. I got to create opportunities for young adults to have the best possible experience in wilderness. Finally, Emerald Arrow: A Bold Path for Young Adults launched in October of 2018.

Q: What different challenges do you find your students facing when they arrive at Emerald Arrow?

I work with young adults, ages 18-30. The students I work with feel stuck and need support propelling themselves into a path forward toward their values and goals. They are often struggling with depression and/or anxiety, self-doubt, lack of motivation, and substance abuse or addictive patterns. I work with young adults who have experienced abuse, developmental or sexual trauma, suicidal ideation or self harm, or emerging/ diagnosed personality disorders. I often see a range of cognitive functioning in my students— they might have a high IQ, ADHD, learning challenges, or processing challenges. Often, they’re presenting with some combination of these challenges.

Q: What’s it like for students to be in your group?

In the milieu, you’ll see a mixture of both playfulness and therapeutic depth. When I’m in the group, I might help draw the group’s awareness to a pattern being played out, and I enjoy engaging with the silliness and fun. I enjoy doing work in this format because I can interact with the group during transitions between activities along with the individual and group sessions. I lead my group with the goal of cultivating a healthy group dynamic. The group milieu mirrors a family system. I help the group remain intentional about how they are showing up and mixing things up from their normal routine to add some diversity to the days I’m out there. When I’m not in the group, the wilderness setting allows for my students to experience generative interventions with nature, each other, and their field staff.

Q: What is your therapeutic approach?

The way I work is integrative; I’m attentive to what may be needed for an individual student and their family. I do work with each individual differently, depending upon their personality and what they’re struggling with. This means getting a good understanding of where the individual is at physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and so on. I see through a systems theory lens and holistic lens (seeing the whole person, including awareness of their cultural background).

I also take a relational approach, and believe that each person has strength and innate wisdom and clarity that is there to be illuminated. Getting to the root and core of what is informing their way of being in the world currently is essential. My education and my background is very much rooted in psychodynamic/ psychoanalytic theory, as well as mindfulness. So my approach is often to address and draw awareness of the unconscious, bringing it to the forefront and illuminating deep seated patterns for each individual. That’s where the mindfulness and meditation practices naturally come in, along with DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) skills. These modalities help students to develop greater awareness of internal experiences, an increase in emotional awareness and resilience, and change in brain chemistry (thickening the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain charged with planning, concentration, decision making and contributes greatly to personality development).

My students know that if anything comes up, they’ll be held accountable. They know we’re here to do really important work, but there’s also often a sense of lightness. I put a lot of effort and energy into building rapport and getting to know students through my relationship with them, which helps me to understand the best way to work with them. This helps to facilitate improved communication, relationship skills, and awareness of interpersonal relationship patterns.

I also make assessments within myself, which goes back to my Naropa training of attuning to how to best show up for them in each moment. In each interaction, I ask myself, “how seriously do I need to approach this (thing they are bringing up)?” and “in what areas do I need to be softer and more validating?”. In that sense, the treatment is really individualized. I imagine that, across the board, my students experience trust, consistency and some level of discomfort with continuing or hiding the patterns which are no longer serving them.

Q: What are the different needs of young adults that set Emerald Arrow’s programming apart from the adolescent programming at Blue Ridge?

I see the group dynamic and group-oriented process, combined with my personal approach, to work really well for young adults as they’re going through the developmental stage of trying to form their own identity. Many of the young people I work with are stunted in that process, often because of cultural and societal shifts in how people connect and communicate today. Emerald Arrow is an opportunity for young adults to connect, communicate and to feel a sense of belonging that they might not have at home— and for them to learn ways to continue forming strong relationships to themselves, their families and their peers after they graduate. It’s imperative for them to learn how to meet their needs in a healthy way at their age.

Emerald Arrow is probably very different from what they’re used to in their life. As far as knowing how to be honest, how to confront, how to give feedback, and how to connect on a deeper vulnerable level. I’m constantly trying to nurture those skills so that they feel the experience of being in real interpersonal relationships with their peers as well as others, like me or their field staff. It’s through that process where the willingness to commit to their growth happens, and they begin to feel hope or inspiration through the relationships they’ve built with others and themselves.

Many of my students will come to the program not feeling safe, emotionally or physically. Research shows how structure and predictability can help to form healthy attachments, safety and resilience in individuals. So we attempt to create as much safety as possible with structured practices that happen every single day, no matter what. I’ve put a lot of value and intention into building a solid, consistent culture, with some level of predictability to promote safety and structure.

This all incorporates them becoming intentional and consistent with mindfulness, journaling, gratitude, celebration, and doing their therapeutic work. Each practice comes from an intentional and evidence-based practice relating to research that helps to retrain the brain. They also participate in activities that bring them together, such as ceremonies which mark accomplishments in their process. They will create those for themselves and for each other, which helps to build a group culture where the students are invested in each other. It’s important for young adults to witness their peers interact assertively and vulnerably so that they have exposure to what is possible for themselves and can feel inspired about their growth.

Emerald Arrow also incorporates creative and skill-building intensives. We have a professional series, where an outside guest joins the group for a few hours to share their story and/or teach the group how to do a skill or activity they enjoy. The intention behind our creative and skill-building intensives is to ignite curiosity, clarity, inspiration and motivation within students. They support young people in creatively expressing themselves through a variety of ways as well as learn more about who they are and what they want to do. The skill building helps them to hone in on skills they haven’t yet developed, either emotionally or concretely. There is much evidence that along with increasing brain functioning, creativity supports problem-solving, stress-relief, independence, self-awareness, and confidence.

Q: What is your ultimate hope for students when they graduate from Emerald Arrow and transition into their next steps?

My ultimate wish would be: One, that they feel reconnected to their spirit, their magic, their life-force, and that they feel that in relationship with others. Two, would be that they walk away from this experience believing that they have the capacity and the foundation to move forward confidently into young adulthood. Overall, I wish for them to feel resourced and trusting of themselves.

Q: When you’re not at work, where can we find you?

I live in Greenville, South Carolina. I love being outdoors, hiking, traveling, and visiting the ocean. I value spending time connecting with my friends and family. I’m also very spontaneous, so it’s not uncommon for me to go on a little road trip or travel somewhere. I also love photography, engaging in creative activities, and working on my personal growth through journaling and working with a coach to build the life I ultimately want to have.