A series of excerpts taken from an interview with Wilderness Therapy field guide, Mac Murphy.
The most frustrating thing is getting people to understand where you are at. Physical disease is much easier for people to empathize with. Most of us can relate to physical pain – it’s obvious – you can see it – but with mental health, it’s really hard for people to grasp.
I was hard-charging down the traditional road of success for a long time: private high school, Dartmouth College, Bridgewater Associates. Something I learned pretty quickly through those experiences is that, even though most places offer mental health resources, the people they attract will almost always create a culture that focuses more on overcommitting and nominal success than on being truthful about their struggles.
I had clinical depression for about a decade before anyone realized it. That’s the problem with being a “high achiever,” you’re not allowed to not be okay. You have what so many people say they’d kill for and your gratitude for that should outweigh pesky inconveniences like pervasive exhaustion and hallucinations. I was one of the lucky ones. I suffered, but I didn’t let my achievements define me. I was able to walk away.
After I quit Bridgewater, I spent a few months living out my lease in NYC so I could deal with my mental health. I didn’t quit with a plan, I quit so I would create one. It’s amazing how easy it can be to choose to stay miserable over change. Misery has certainty, and for most people, certainty matters more than a chance at happiness, at least until you hit the end of your rope. I had a lot of people compliment me on deciding to leave, but to me, it never felt like a decision. It had become inevitable.
So how did I get from there to here? Well, I come from a quantitative scientific background. In some ways, I am very calculating and systemic, but when interacting with people in the moment, I’m very instinctive. I just ask questions about the things I’m noticing. While interning at the CIA I was tasked with looking at whether we were using data effectively and determining how to map out groups of people and the relationships between those groups. I also did a lot of mathematical modeling research, trying to take qualitative things and turn them into math to make them more generalizable – more understandable. I looked at things like tree growth, but also at human interactions: how groups make decisions and whether or not group discussions change people’s minds.
I stumbled upon wilderness therapy while asking for some career advice from my college’s Outing Club alumni listserv. I was hoping to combine a desire for mentorship, interest in mental health and juvenile delinquency, and a love of the outdoors that I had developed at Dartmouth. That was really how I started my college experience – working at a hiking cabin in Norway, as an editorial intern and freelance writer at Backpacker Magazine, and as president of our outing club. By the time I graduated, I was trusted to run a week-long off-trail backpacking trip with three of my best friends through Death Valley, one of the most dangerous and extreme outdoor destinations in the United States.
At work, I try to avoid building relationships around the therapeutic content. Many of these kids have been in other programs and have had therapy for years. They are well versed. They have the language down and can easily give you canned answers to avoid revealing anything personal.
I like forming deep relationships, but for the most part, I’m always sitting at a little bit of a distance, where I can both authentically connect with people, but also be constantly analyzing what differences are occurring. What comparisons I can draw. I like to observe where a student is at, then where a pair of students are at, then where the group is at. At any one time, there can be several different multidimensional relationships transpiring.
I personally don’t like individual check-ins. If I want to talk to someone and learn about them, I don’t do formal check-ins. I feel like they put people on guard. You have to do a lot of work to make that personal again. You’re going to get a canned answer, or it’s going to take a lot longer to get to the real answer. Unless someone asks to check-in with me and has a bunch of things in their head that they want to spill.
Rather, I prefer to slide into things. I’ll wait for a time where we’re maybe the only ones tying up the corner of a shelter tarp and start talking about football and, while we’re talking about football, at some point, I’ll make my way to asking them what is it in their life that leads them to be super angry all the time. You have to just kind of unknowingly mosey your way into it, then it’s like “Oh we’re talking about therapeutic stuff now? No way!”
“You can’t just go from here to there. You have to talk to them and get to it naturally. Once you do, and it’s positive, they’ll be much more willing to go there again because you’ve established that rapport.”
When you’re in the flow of conversation with someone they are going to be so much more willing to answer the deep questions than if you try to have a philosophic or therapeutic conversation with them right away. You need to get them in a state of feeling comfortable and open with you, then make it part of the relationship you already have with them.
I try to steer away from spaces where people can give me canned answers. I do that by being more creative in what I ask them. I do my best to break them into a real person instead of a
projection of the person they may think I want to see. I find that when people talk about things they enjoy, they’re more apt to reveal who they truly are and connection becomes much easier.
You still have to hold firm boundaries, that’s incredibly important. I just think it develops more of a connection when you meet them where they are as a person first. I’m not a clinician, they already have their therapist. The therapist is there to work on the deep stuff with them. That’s not my role and they’re never going to see me in that light.
There’s definitely a bunch of different guiding styles and I think they all work in different ways. We did a leadership quadrant exercise this past shift that showed there isn’t one type of good leader and everything else is a bad version of that. There could be good versions of a bunch of different things, which is a preamble to: people can either be uptight with very strict rules or be a little bit more laid back. I definitely lean toward the laid-back side. For me, it’s led to better outcomes. I work with one guide that is like a big kid. He’s amazing at what he does – he holds really strong boundaries but his method of coming at it is by connecting with the kids and having fun with them and everything organically blossoms from that.
One of the challenges with teenage boys is that they often like to talk about drugs, mostly war- storying and trying to compete over what they’ve done and how badass they are. I think a lot of the guides with the boys will squash all drug talk. I try to figure out if the conversation could lead somewhere productive. Are they in a space where they could salvage it? Sometimes it’s just very inappropriate and they’re in a joking mood, so we move on.
One night I remember being in the group by myself and they were talking about drugs. There were one or two things that were said that were leaning toward productive. It was at night; we were around the fire. All the best conversations happen at night around the fire. Instead of shutting the conversation down, I gave them a little space to direct it themselves. We ended up having a really good conversation about how they got into drugs and what led to their addictions. The conversation was very therapeutic because it was about personal experiences and the trauma around them. Basically, a: “This is how I went from being a pretty good kid to doing a lot of drugs.” They identified their turning points, which was valuable for them to think about and verbalize. At one point, one of them started war-storying and another student cut him off and said: “We can’t make this about war-storying or we’re not going to be able to talk about this, and it means a lot to me to have this conversation.”
That’s a conversation that most guides would not have let happen, or it would have had to been introduced as a group about addiction or drugs. But then it ends being a little rote, because they know it’s a group, and they don’t want it to be in a group, because they hate when people tell them what to talk about. Most of them are defiant or have some sort of defiance issue. So, it’s hard to introduce those issues, even if they are introducing their own topics. When it opens as a “group” everybody treats it differently than they would a conversation. I lean more towards: how can you figure out where this can go positively and give it a little time, space and prodding to get it there. Because I think those are going to be the most productive conversations.
“People are going to be genuine, open and own the space if they’re empowered to create it for themselves.”
The best thing that can happen is that we’re needed less and less. You try to empower and excite a group about going in a positive direction but sometimes it might blow up in your face. If it does, you have to deal with that. You have to be in a space where you have enough control over the group that if they take things in a bad direction, nothing serious is going to happen. They’ll just be toxic for a little while and you may have to spread them out.
I would rather have a group space with a little more room for people to express who they are then have a seemingly perfect group space where no one ever does anything inappropriate. They need boundaries. There’s safety in the boundaries and we do have to keep them consistent, but I like giving them the space to explore and direct things themselves. In my experience, they’re much more able to come around to positive conversations and it’ll serve them way better in the long run.
I don’t want to be a guide forever. It’s not a sustainable work-life balance. At some point, I want to have a family. Being in the woods for a week at a time is not conducive to relationships and family the way I want them to be long term. I can see myself going the Ph.D. route, studying the effects of early childhood trauma and mental health on teenage delinquency. Possibly becoming a clinician and being a wilderness therapist myself. I’ve been here for six months so I’m still trying to figure some things out, but this job has certainly helped develop my ideas on how these kids got here and what we can do to help.
Shaped and transcribed by P.J. Hennigan.