As my second to last semester of Graduate school comes to an end, i've been asked to reflect. What follows is my final reflection paper for my course on 'Body, Mind & Nature' which included a bit of insight regarding my experience working in Wilderness Therapy. I've also included some images that i've created throughout my experience. As always, enjoy & thank you for exploring my words!
“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
As I sit here in my warm, cozy living room, sipping tea and smelling the remains of the burning Nag Champa incense, the room illuminated by my thoughtfully ornamented Christmas tree, I can’t help but reflect on this past year. The holidays have a way of inviting nostalgic reflection about everything that has occurred during the past year as I finish up my semester and prepare for the New Year to arrive. As I attempt to stay present and focused on starting this reflection, I can’t help but feel distracted in thought. In this past year I’ve suffered through a crippling heartbreak, lost a family member to disease, temporarily put graduate school on hold after quitting an internship, was “officially diagnosed” with anxiety and mild depression, endured the terror of panic attacks, was put on medication for the first time ever, lost friendships, and at times completely lost myself in ways that are painful to revisit. 2018 has been quite eventful, to say the least.
As of recently, as I finish out my second to last semester of graduate school and prepare to enter my final semester come the first of the year, I find myself reflecting on the feedback I’ve received from friends, family, classmates, teachers and supervisors. A year ago I was so lost, fragile and broken that my perspective was skewed to one thought: “I’m not worthy to succeed. I want to give up on it all.” A bit defeating, yes- but that’s the genuine pains of someone whose vulnerable and willing enough to admit that I completely lost confidence in myself and my abilities not so much as a year ago. Yet as I begin to reflect I can’t help but feel gratitude for it all and how it’s shaped me. The ways in which my own personal emotional and physical “seasons” have been transitioning just as the literal seasons change from one extreme to the next. Just as the plants turn in and begin to wither during their own change, my psyche turned inward, in hibernation, seeking comfort and refuge by avoiding those not so pleasant months of change and transition. However, just as all the plants and animals do, I have also endured the “darkness” and “cold” of my own experiences only to blossom and flourish in a new, refreshing, colorful way. I’ve learned that as long as the trees stay hopeful that their brown, dried out leaves will one day return as fresh, lush, green ones- I will also stay hopeful that my own existence will work in the same way; continuously exploring this cycle of decay and rebirth.
This world can be brutal, especially for those of us who are sensitive, empathetic, abstract, curious deep thinkers. This profession I somehow found myself in, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, is also a bit of a whirlwind. The saying is true; “you can’t help others until you learn how to help yourself.” I’ve come to experience first hand that this work- the true, holistic, passionate, authentic work of compassionate counselors- is not something that can be done by someone who hasn’t explored their own shadow side, or “darkness”, first hand. Thus, this whole experience of entering graduate school thinking “oh, I’m an artist, I just want to do art with people and make them happy” was completely and unexpectedly naïve. There’s a lot more to it, and at times it’s been overwhelming and almost frightening to dive so deep into the psychology of the human mind, my own mind included. Over this past semester I’ve had the privilege of interning at a wilderness therapy treatment center here in North Carolina. I knew wilderness therapy existed, and have always personally been inspired and comforted by my own connection with nature, but truly didn’t fully comprehend what the process entailed when it came to utilizing nature within the therapeutic process. While being a clinical intern for a wilderness therapy program for the past six months I can now say with confidence that I find nature to be an incredibly useful resource to working with the mind and body of an individual in therapy. Honestly nature may be the BEST resource when it comes to healing, self-awareness and building resiliency. While being in and with nature we humans are exposed to our true humanness- our innate, raw, authentic selves and world at large. In the words of John Muir, “ the clearest ways into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
This course, “Body, Mind, & Nature,” was graciously approved to be offered as an individual study for me to explore throughout this past semester. Meaning I was able to collaborate with my professor to co-design the curriculum to my own interest and perspective. I was allowed the opportunity to choose a selection of literature that personally resonated with me and guided me throughout my journey of exploring the body, mind, and nature dynamic. But truthfully the greatest resource I owned was my personal experience thus far working in wilderness therapy. At the program I’ve been interning at the system is very direct and intentional. The kids are brought to the program (usually without knowing) and are then cut off from all technology, meaning they are not allowed to call their family or friends when they first arrive. After going through all the initial intake assessments and medical evaluations they are sent out into the woods with a selected group and from then on will most likely be living in the woods from anywhere up to three months. Every so often, depending on weather or other setbacks, the groups may come back to base and spend a night or two in the cabins, but for the most part the kids are out in the woods all day and all night. It may seem like punishment or even abuse to those who are unfamiliar with this type of work, and believe me there is A LOT of resistance from the kids when they first arrive, but after even just a week of those kids being out in the woods- completely disconnected from their normal worlds and refocusing on their own psyches and connection with nature- there’s a very, very clear transformation. Although I’m still fairly new to the world of mental health treatment, the transformation I’ve seen of clients in wilderness is nothing like any other program I’ve seen thus far. I’ve come to support and believe that connection with nature may be the one, true “medicine” that humans truly need to survive and thrive in life.
After taking a semester off from school I am currently halfway through my third, and final year. In that time I have experienced almost three full semesters of practicum/internship at two different therapeutic programs. Both these programs had as many similarities as they had differences, and being a new counselor-in-training I acknowledge that my insights and observations can still be slightly naïve or misinformed. However, the one major similarity in both programs that I noticed when working with clients is that traditional talk therapy is very easy for clients to skew and manipulate to their favor. In my experience I’ve worked with mostly adolescent boys and girls, and most of those kids have been in and out of treatment for majority of their lives. Thus, they know what to say and how to say it when face to face with a therapist to further help them avoid facing their real struggles. Most kids who get sent to wilderness are there either because of substance abuse issues, behavioral issues, suicidal/depression scares, lack of motivation or direction, unhealthy lifestyles etc. The typical age range for kids sent to wilderness is anywhere from 13-18. These are pivotal years of development for the human brain, thus why it’s so terrifying when these young kids enter treatment and truly don’t understand, accept or comprehend how their actions and lifestyle are destructive or even lethal. These kids aren’t stupid, actually many of them are extremely clever and creative, but they usually know how the therapeutic system works and only want to get out of it so they can go right back to their old lifestyle without ever taking a minute to really hone in on the unhealthy patterns and beliefs that have intruded on their psyche. In normal talk therapy they may have been able to charm or seduce their way out, but wilderness is a whole different ballgame. In the middle of the woods, stripped of all ones believed comfort, that’s where the real truth comes out.
The client I’ve been working with in wilderness has shown me exclusively how nature plays the most significant role in unraveling and exposing an individuals insecurities, anxieties and self-doubts. My client has been in and out of therapy for a few years, thus he knows how to “talk the talk” to make him appear in control and stable with his emotions. However, wilderness therapy strategically asks clients to complete nature-based tasks like building fires and traps, backpacking long distances in the woods, maintaining personal hygiene away from traditional amenities, rationing food and supplies, enduring harsh weather conditions, and all the while doing the deep, therapeutic work of exploring their own vulnerabilities through group work, discussion and individual therapy sessions. My internship supervisor told me early in my experience that our job as therapists working in wilderness is to provide guidance and support, but to allow nature to expose the truth and real work being done. Although these kids can manipulate a conversation to talk their way out of a distressed situation, they can’t hide when they are struggling during a hike or loosing patience when trying to build a fire that continuously fails. The true emotions come out when there is nothing around to numb or distract. That itself is the greatest gift the woods offer to the therapeutic process.
A lot of the kids who wind up in wilderness therapy have continuously resulted to using substance, aggression, and self-harm to avoid their own struggles. Yet when in the woods, fully exposed and dependent on one another and themselves to survive, they can’t hide behind the external distractions that they normally turn to. There is no tv or computer game they can turn on, no cell phones to text or call their friends, no substance or junk-food to feed their addictions. They are fully present, enduring the sweat and tears that come with being fully embraced and guided by the healing power of the wilderness. Their skin becomes thicker, their endurance begins to build, they begin to recognize that their decisions and actions determine if they go to sleep comfortable and fed. The woods teach these kids that they are resilient and responsible for their own well-being. They are offered an opportunity to reconnect with their innate humanness and build confidence in themselves that otherwise was lacking. Their time spent in nature not only helps their bodies and minds cleanse and detox from the physical and emotional pains that have endured throughout their lives, but also helps them connect with the teachings nature offers of transition, change, decay and rebirth.
When I personally connect with nature I am reminded that I am a part of something bigger and more beautiful than just my own thoughts. Whether it is through hiking, swimming, painting a landscape, walking through the woods, laying in the grass, digging my hands in dirt, or feeling raindrops on my skin- I am in connection with an ancient energy that guides and comforts me. The elements (earth, wind, water, air, ether) have become a major inspiration for my own healing and creativity as of lately, and I don’t believe that is coincidence. The mind-body connection has been studied and explored for years, our thoughts effect our physical experiences, and how we treat our body effects our mentality. However, the cycles, transitions, images, chaos, beauty, decay, rebirth, resiliency, and connection found in the teachings from nature teach us so much more than any data, study or research could offer. As humans we are always evolving, changing and growing. Sometimes this is scary and uncomfortable to acknowledge. However, nature reminds us that without transition or disturbance there would not be the hope for rebirth, renewal and recovery. In the words of Albert Einstein, ““Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
All the love. -D