Notes from the Field: Empowering Field Guides to Navigate the Challenges of Wilderness Therapy.

By Nick Ho

Living with and doing trauma-informed healing work with adolescents and young adults in the woods of central Oregon is one of those things that you can never be fully prepared for. Some days you’re doing wound care for a student’s self-harm injuries, others you’re singing Taylor Swift songs in chorus. Some days you’re navigating the complexities of disordered eating in the wilderness, others still you’re sitting next to a student who breaks down crying because you’re the first male figure in their life to say you’re proud of them. Even on the simplest of days, you’re practicing calming and controlling your own nervous system when surrounded by dysregulated teenagers threatening to run away in the middle of the night or punch you in the face.

I began as a field guide for Deschutes Wilderness Therapy a year ago, and still, every week without fail, I come out of the woods thinking to myself, “Did I do right by my kids this week?” Sometimes it’s second-guessing how I showed up to a one-on-one check in. Did I ask the right questions? Did I choose the right moments to challenge their distorted beliefs? Other times I wonder how I could have facilitated better interventions to maintain the emotional health and safety of the group. Why is this student being scapegoated by the others right now? How do I hold this student accountable for their actions without triggering a shame spiral? For that matter, is a student’s shame spiral something worth fearing and avoiding?  Or maybe I’m worried that I’m enabling students’ pre-existing behaviors of unhealth. How can I learn to register emotional manipulation hidden under the guise of “self-advocacy”? By affirming a student’s experience of despair, am I allowing them to sink deeper into their pit of depression? Is the easy, compliant student actually making progress, or simply learning to hide their dysregulation?

Certainly, the training I receive as a field guide is ongoing and extensive. Weekly, we attend training modules led by clinicians and field directors on topics of broad relevance to our programming. Heart math and the applications of quick-coherences. How to build rapport with students without relying on disclosure of personal life details. Why we run experiential activities in the woods. How to stay warm and dry in a high desert winter. What eating disorders look like in wilderness and how we programmatically address them. While these trainings equip me to address the broad scale of issues I encounter on a weekly basis, it’s often impossible to dive into the specificities and nuances of guiding within the limited time frames of these trainings.

That’s where Steve’s support group comes in.

Run by DWT cofounder and chief clinical consultant, Steve Sawyer LCSW CSAC, our support group meets online every Thursday to receive direct coaching on topics crowdsourced from the guides of all three Embark wilderness programs. Making repairs with students. Group control when staff are spread thin. Working with students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Feeling triggered by specific students’ trauma narratives. Differentiating appeasement from behaviors of true trusting relationships. Having just come out of the field the day prior, we guides often arrive on Thursday mornings with these topics fresh in our minds. Over the course of an hour (or longer, as Steve often expounds upon complex clinical modalities to contextualize the coaching support he provides to his captivated digital audience) we dive into each topic, Steve asking for specific details about students and group dynamics, all the better to give direct, targeted guidance and feedback.

Through Steve’s weekly groups, I’ve learned the importance of familiarizing myself with enrollment paperwork so that I can do targeted, specific work with the student who might otherwise pass through the program without addressing the underlying issues that brought them to wilderness therapy. I’ve learned that a peaceful student milieu isn’t necessarily a healthy one – that the objectives of wilderness therapy crumble when students can exist in a constant state of ease. I’ve learned about the importance of radical candor in challenging students, and of the value of taking accountability for my own missteps as a guide. I’ve learned that therapeutic interventions are only successful when we connect before correcting; I’ve learned how to seek out healthy conflict in order to lay the foundation of trusting relationships with therapeutic repairs; I’ve learned that beneath the many misdiagnoses of ODD, ADHD, and OCD are the often-disguised symptoms of disruptive relational histories – that beneath diagnoses are people in pain.

Through this support group, I’ve grown as a guide and as a caretaker. I’ve expanded my toolkit of therapeutic interventions and approaches, and my empathetic capacity for my students has increased exponentially as a result. I’ve learned to do my own healing work on off-shifts out of the woods, and how to develop grace for my mistakes. I’ve learned to apply the therapeutic principles Steve imparts in my direct care work as a guide and have been able to share the insights I’ve garnered with more recently tenured co-guides. Steve’s meetings build camaraderie. I’m reminded that the challenges I face are not unique to me or to my milieu, but to Embark’s wilderness therapy programs as a whole, and likely to the broader world of adolescent behavioral health. In this way, Steve’s group does exactly what it sets out to do: to create a safe, community-oriented space where I can process the challenges of working in wilderness, and can feel less alone in doing so. Logging off of Zoom every Thursday, I no longer think to myself, “Did I do right by my kids this week?” Instead, I think: “I know how to do better by my kids next week.”