TEEN BOARDING SCHOOLS
Wilderness Therapy Prepares Young Men for Lifelong Sobriety
By Hugh C. McBride
In today's high-tech world, it often seems as though we are rapidly approaching the point when the answers to all of life's most pressing questions will be but a mouse-click or programming trick away.
Yet amid a vast expanse of wilderness in south-central Utah, an innovative drug addiction recovery program is attempting to help young men overcome one of life's most difficult challenges without computers and cell phones, without text-messages and Twitter tweets, without even (gulp!) electricity.
Stranger, still, is the fact that it seems to be working.
Committing to Recovery
"The wilderness is a great place to get sober," said Lucy Taylor, the clinical director of Passages to Recovery, the drug addiction recovery program described above. “It is the place where people who are struggling with addiction can get in touch with themselves, and with something bigger than themselves."
Combining the principles of the 12-Step model with intensive therapy, comprehensive professional intervention, and more than a month in the wilderness, Passages to Recovery has established a reputation as an innovative and effective drug rehab program for young men.
"The Passages to Recovery drug rehab program gives clients novel experiences [in the wilderness], gets them to 90 days of sobriety in primary treatment, and helps them to develop supportive relationships," Ms. Taylor said. "These are the three elements that studies tell us are important in breaking the recovery/relapse cycle."
It is the wilderness experience, Ms. Taylor said, that provides clients with the solid foundation upon which they will build their long-term recovery. "In the wilderness, they have the time, space, and support to come to terms with their own identity," she said. "They can get rid of the negativity that had invaded their lives, and identify the values and beliefs that they're willing to commit to in recovery."
The Therapeutic Benefits of Wilderness
Following an initial assessment period of seven to 10 days, the young men who enroll at Passages to Recovery spend about a month in the wilderness component of the program (which is referred to as Passages I). During that period, removed from the chaos and stresses of "normal life," they have the opportunity to identify the issues that led them into substance abuse, and begin to develop skills for living a healthy, drug-free life.
They also have the opportunity to reflect upon their role in their families, their position in their communities, and their significance in the world.
"The wilderness helps you get right-sized," Ms. Taylor said. "It makes you realize that the world is such an enormous place, and we're such a small part of that world, and that the only real control we have is over ourselves."
Conducting a drug rehab program in the wilderness offers three significant therapeutic advantages, Ms. Taylor said:
1. The wilderness itself – “The elements, the situations, the environment – there's nothing artificial in the wilderness, and nothing to manipulate," she said. "You can't tell it to stop raining, you can't blame the snow on your parents. You realize 'I can't control the world around me, but I can control how I think, how I feel, and what choices I make.'"
2. The physical component – As young men learn the skills that are necessary to thrive in the wilderness, and as they build their strength through healthy diet and physical activity, they experience significant boosts in self-esteem, self-worth, and self-reliance.
3. The relationships – In this diversion-free environment, the young men confront their inner conflicts while also learning how to develop healthy relationships with the other members of their group. This enhanced ability to live and work productively with others will yield countless benefits as they pursue long-term recovery.
As a result of the natural processes that occur during the wilderness component of Passage to Recovery's drug addiction recovery program, Ms. Taylor said, "we see symptoms of anxiety and depression being reduced, and we get a healthier client to work with."
Placed in a foreign environment, the young men who are completing the wilderness phase of Passage to Recovery's 90-day drug rehab program soon discover that the coping strategies and manipulations they are used to using are ineffective in the wild. Though this may initially be viewed by the clients as a disappointment, the reality is that it opens them up to discovering healthier and more positive means of dealing with challenges and working with each other.
"The opportunity to learn new strategies occurs as a direct result of being in the wilderness," Ms. Taylor said. "Then when they encounter challenges later in life, they have the skills that they need. They don't have to sidestep the problems they face and use drugs instead. They've already found success in an environment they never thought they'd be in."
By ultimately thriving in what first appeared to be a foreboding environment, Passages to Recovery's clients discover that characteristics such as accountability, responsibility, and resiliency are within their grasp.
"In the wilderness, our students learn that they are capable of accomplishing so much more than they ever thought they could," Ms. Taylor said.
Having begun to develop an appreciation for their own skills and abilities, the young men who are undergoing drug rehab in the wilderness also begin to understand that they are capable of providing and accepting assistance when necessary.
Though the young men do not realize it at the time, they are forming supportive relationships – one of the three essential components of an effective drug addiction recovery program – from the moment they arrive at Passages to Recovery. "That starts from the day they get here," Ms. Taylor said. "From the very first person that they meet, our goal is that every conversation our clients have is a supportive and welcoming one."
From these first encounters to the trusting relationship they begin to build with each other in the wilderness, Passages to Recovery clients learn that successful recovery involves both self-reliance and an ability to identify other supportive individuals who are worthy of relying upon.
"In the wilderness, they learn that there are others who can help, and as they relinquish control, they learn to turn their lives over to a higher power as they come to understand it," Ms. Taylor said. "The wilderness offers an amazing opportunity to make connections."
Lessons learned in the wilderness have the potential to change one's life, but they'll be useless if they can't be applied to a world that is home to difficult bosses, peer pressure, and a thousand other stressors. At Passages to Recovery, learning to transfer the wilderness experience to the rest of the world is one of the primary objectives during the Passages II phase, which clients complete at the program's Valley Site and within the local community.
Yet even when they are in the wilderness, the young men who are in the first stage of their drug treatment program are already learning the core concepts that will serve them well both during Passages II and throughout the rest of their lives.
"Much of what we do at Passages to Recovery is about finding balance in our lives," Ms. Taylor said. "In the wilderness and at the Valley Site, we work on five general areas: physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual. We're teaching our students how to work on their recovery and still take care of their other responsibilities – how to deal with the stresses and pressures of life in a healthy way."
From learning to make a fire to understanding how to maintain healthy relationships with one's peers, achieving balance and learning how to overcome obstacles without resorting to substance abuse are central to the wilderness experience, and are at the core of lifelong recovery.
"We talk a lot about the fact that recovery isn't a short process," Ms. Taylor said. "It's a lifestyle. And the wilderness is an extremely empowering place to begin that recovery."
About Passages to Recovery
Passages to Recovery is a 90-day residential addiction treatment program for young men. Divided into two phases and featuring an intensive 40-day wilderness experience, the Passages to Recovery drug rehab program combines time-tested techniques with emerging methodologies.
With a dedicated staff of empathetic and highly trained recovery professionals, Passages to Recovery offers a dynamic option for young men who are struggling to overcome their addictions and regain control over their lives.