My First Week Working in Wilderness Therapy

In one week of wilderness therapy, I saw over twenty shooting stars from my sleeping bag.  Like clockwork, I was awoken by worried whispers at 3am, by a student who needed to go to the bathroom.  Each day I watched the snow melt off the San Juan’s, and each night I watched the sun dip below the ponderosa pine trees.

In one week of wilderness therapy, I walked for three hours with a student who wanted to get the fuck out of wilderness therapy.  We walked away from camp and for the first time in two days, he spoke.  He told me about his manic episodes in the past.  He told me about breaking everything in his apartment, crashing his car and feeling more alive than ever.  He told me he didn’t want to become manic again, but he did want to feel motivated and alive.  He told me what daily medication he was prescribed.  He told me he was afraid to increase the dosage, yet the current dosage isn’t helping.  He told me he wanted to get the fuck out of wilderness therapy- he felt dirtier then he’d ever been in his whole life- he was disgusted with himself. 

It was the first time he ever slept outside and the longest he had ever gone without a shower. We walked away from camp and we didn’t stop walking until a man with braids down to his waist stopped us.  The moon was coming out.  We didn’t have water or snacks.  We were wearing crocs and tshirts. The man with braids down to his waist tried to run away from a wilderness therapy program when he was a kid.  The man with braids convinced the student to return back to camp.

In one week of wilderness therapy I watched a teen come into camp screaming: “Everything was taken from me! I have nothing!” and “I want to die, I have nothing to live for!” Two days later she allowed me to teach her the bowline knot and the truckers hitch. Four days later she was found practicing four square breathing on her own to prevent a panic attack.  On her fifth day, she had a panic attack.  I laid on the ground with her and asked her to follow my breathing.  For thirty minutes we breathed together, and when she was calm she busted an “I feel…” statement to the group.

In one week of wilderness therapy I watched lightning bolts illuminate the sky.  I counted the seconds between the lightning and thunder, and it never boomed 16 seconds after the flash.  The lightning never came within three miles of us.  We never got into lightning position and the heavy clouds never broke into rain.

In one week of wilderness therapy, I applied a pound of sunscreen and never changed my pants.  I accumulated stains on my butt from dirt, stains on my knees from olive oil and tamari, and other unrecognizable spots joined the team.

In one week of wilderness therapy I sat with an eighteen year old in the dirt; four weeks after she was raped and several days after her missed period.  In the dirt I sat with blue rubber gloves and a headlamp, awaiting the three minute results of a pregnancy test.  

In one week of wilderness therapy I listened to every student’s story of why they came to wilderness therapy.  A man shared that he wished he was a woman, and didn’t like what surgery options are currently available.  For some students, covid made their lives much harder. Isolation in their rooms sent their depression into a deep spiral, fighting with their parents increased, or perhaps they laid in their beds hiding from the screaming of an inevitable looming divorce. For some students who were bullied at school, covid was the best thing that happened to them in a long time.

A woman shared that she thought she was a man- she cut off all her hair, changed her name, changed her pronouns and didn’t feel connected to her new identity.  She grew her hair back out, changed her name and pronouns back to she/her, and started wearing her feminine clothes again.  A woman reported being held at gunpoint and sexually abused at age 9, 12, and 18.  Another woman was physically abused for five years at school.  She came home from her first dance with hand print welts on her back and all her dad could say was “hit him back.”

Every morning guides woke up at seven and drank coffee.  Every morning we bleached each student’s cup and all the surfaces of the “kitchen”.  We woke students up by nine and every morning they ate oatmeal with cinnamon and powdered milk.  We checked their feet daily for foot fungus.  We brushed our teeth after breakfast and after dinner.  Every night before be, we played a game ranging from mafia to a ridiculous improv challenge.  Every night before dinner, we shared what we were grateful for.

And we were so grateful! For our friends and family at home, for our pets- our cats and dogs and horses and Guinea pigs. We thanked the beautiful Colorado weather- the warmth from the sun, the blue skies and the refreshing breeze. We were grateful for each other: for our conversations on hikes, for teaching each other new skills, for listening to each other and for the comfort we provided. We were grateful for Nate cooking dinner EVERY NIGHT and for the warm food in our cups. We shared gratitude for ourselves- for being brave, vulnerable, open, and resilient. We were grateful for our trap called Kevin and for the chipmunks running around camp who we called Gertie and the girls. We thanked the aspens for teaching us about interconnectedness and we thanked our bodies for being healthy and capable.

In one week of wilderness therapy- I cried.  I wept tears of rage for the sexually abused women of the world.  I shed tears of beauty, admiring the grandeur of the San Juan mountains and the simplicity of the hummingbirds flying by my head.  Tears from laughter escaped my eyes when a student named a tree and created an entire backstory for the family of scrub oaks.  Tears of compassion glided down my cheek for the brave souls who entered the world of wilderness therapy.  I cried by myself on an hour break and I cried in front of my guide team; who met my surging emotions and protective nature with compassion. 

In one week of wilderness therapy, I slept in between two students on run watch.  Before bed we wrapped them in a tarp and folded the tarp underneath my sleeping pad so I could wake up to the sound of movement and check for their hair.  We hid their shoes so they couldn’t run far and they weren’t allowed a headlamp at night.  I slept with my knife as a pillow, not because I feared anyone would hurt me but to protect the knife from being used by someone who would want to hurt themselves.

In one week, we hiked to a reservoir with cloudy water. Black cows, white cows, brown cows, spotted cows, and baby cows were all drinking from the pond.  We saw two cows fucking and caught crawdads by the shore.  We hiked to an overlook of the San Juan’s and sat on an exposed rock in the sun, and carved spoons out of juniper wood.  For one hour we hiked side by side with another human and took turns sharing intentional and prompted conversation.

In one week of wilderness therapy, I didn’t eat a single bite of peanut butter.  Every time I had to poop, I pooped in a blue wag bag.  Anytime I was within six feet of another human, I wore a mask; and I used hand sanitizer five thousand gajillion times a day.  I drank tea while staring at the sun setting over the mountains with a student on the four month anniversary of the death of her best friend.  She shared stories of his life enhancing humor and asked for us to share stories of the silliest things we’ve done. The story that cracked me up most involved blowing up a giant pink Valentines Day teddy bear with fireworks!

In one week of wilderness therapy, I did not touch a single soul.  I didn’t hold a single hand or give a single hug, and in that way I was protecting us both from the deadly covid.  I held the emotions of a student sobbing for her mom, who she missed but would never forgive.  I held the emotions of a student who was afraid she was pregnant with a rape baby, and I rejoiced with her- dancing in the night when the pregnancy test results were negative. 

In one week of wilderness therapy, I noticed nature.  I argued whether these trees are ponderosa pines or jeffery pines.  I picked up pine cones and noticed their weight, color, and spikiness.  I watched ants crawl up my leg and over my hand.  I observed the rings in my fingers caked with dirt, which brought out the subtle lines and patterns usually unnoticed. As a team we debated what food constituted as a sandwich, salad, or soup.

Ice cream? Soup.

Hot dog? Sandwich.

Jelly bean? Salad.

In one week of wilderness therapy, I was reminded of the power of breathing.  I led the group in daily meditation and yoga, lasting usually an hour.  We practiced a three fold breathe.  We practiced four square breathing.  We practiced regulating our emotions by regulating our breathing.  

In one week of wilderness therapy, time passed quickly and slowly and at times ceased to exist.  It wasn’t until I laid in my sleeping bag after twelve hours with the team that I realized: I hadn’t thought one single thought related to the outside world all day.  The wilderness was presence inducing and the students were presence demanding.  

In one week of wilderness therapy, Trump threatened to deploy the military on his own citizens. The mayor of DC commissioned a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” mural on the pavement leading up to the white house. New York City’s mayor announced cutting NYPD’s $6 billion budget and redirecting some of the funding to youth and social services. The Los Angeles mayor proposed spending $250 million more on social services and $150 million less on policing. Protesters gathered in Minneapolis, New York, Denver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and dozens of countries around the world. Monuments celebrating confederates in my hometown Richmond, VA are being removed. All over the world, people are having difficult conversations about race and privilege, and demanding change!

Living in the woods for weeks at a time during this pandemic and global protesting is disorienting. When I come out of the field, I wonder: what are the rules? What public places are open? Where is safe? What are the numbers- the death tolls? What protests have happened and where? Who’s been arrested? Who’s still walking free? What justice has been served? Have any more of my friend’s been tear gassed? Arrested? What results and changes have been made? What the fuck is going on?

My brain is pulled to rapid absorption of news and media- what the fuck is going on? I repeatedly wonder.

And beyond that, my brain wants to jump into action. What can I do? How can I help? What voices can I amplify? What, from my own perspective is worth sharing right now? I have hesitated to write recently for several reasons. At first, I didn’t think my voice should use up any space. I wanted to listen. I moved across the country, have been living in my car, and been sleeping in the forest. I have lived without internet for about a month, randomly jumping on friend’s wifi but avoiding public spaces like coffee shops. The radio has been my friend, but overall I have been largely disconnected from the progressing and protesting world, and have been heavily submerged in the therapeutic effects of nature.

My heart is pulled in the direction of healing. What the world needs now is conversation and empathetic listening. We need collaboration, we need connection. We need to seek knowledge by listening to perspectives that differ from our own. We need to look inside of ourselves and welcome change that deviates from our habitual bullshit. We need to sit with the discomfort that is our trauma, our pain, and our past. We need to relax and find comfort in the beauty of life- of ALL living things.

After one week of wilderness therapy, my heart is heavy.

My heart is full, my heart is broken.

My heart is strong and compassionate.

My heart has grown.

My heart developed a deeper love for myself, for others, and for the wilderness.

My heart yearns for global healing.

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