Written by P.J. Hennigan
The first time I passed them they were sitting in the early morning light beside a tangerine-colored tent. Our logistics field coordinator sat warming his hands around a silver cup of coffee while staring out across the pale desert landscape. The student was laid on the ground beside him, her head resting on her hand. Their faces hanging slack from lack of sleep and cold – residuals of a four-mile bushwhack through a maze of manzanita the night before.
It was Albert Camus who said: “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend”.
Young adults come from all over the country to Deschutes Wilderness Therapy. All with the intention of healing from the traumas of their past. An unburdening of the soul through connection and hard work aimed at creating a future where joy and vulnerability outshine suffering.
A “walk” in wilderness therapy is when a young adult chooses to leave the program before the work is done. It is the physical manifestation of student’s avoidance of their issues and unwillingness to connect. How we respond to this event defines us as an organization and can have far-reaching consequences not only for the student but for the community at large.
This positions wilderness therapy as a last bastion for connection. A fertile ground for healing by way of a stark simplicity that offers no refuge for excuses. There are no screens to hide behind. No relationships to hide in. No substance or shadow to conceal who you truly are or the burdens you carry.
When a student walks, they are not provided transportation or navigation. Neither is of any use to a soul adrift. Instead, they are accompanied by two trained field guides. During the walk, the guides work in tandem to bring the student’s awareness back to why they came to the program.
I’ve witnessed first-hand a walk where the student strode purposely down the side of the gravel road, the guides engaging him in friendly conversation the entire time. At first glance, it appears as three friends out for a stroll on a warm autumn day, except for the provisions truck idling behind. The point is not to pull the student back but rather to maintain the connection. The commitment I witnessed on this particular walk was awe-inspiring. The journey covered 23 miles. The guides never falling from their commitment to compassion and connection. Behind the scenes, the entire organization mobilizes into a united front of support.
Once a student walks a text stream begins. That stream includes admissions, the therapist, the enrollment team, the clinical director, the executive director, logistics, field director, office manager, a medical doctor, and the medications coordinator. A coordinated effort of urgency driven by compassion. It’s difficult not to swell with pride over even the smallest role in such an effort. This effort is not aimed at client retention. It’s as Camus said, walking beside the student, maintaining that tether of connection to prevent a dive into the hallow darkness of shame. A journey that offers few returns.
As a student walks, their therapist works feverishly arranging the logistics for an on-road session/intervention. These sessions usually entail a call with family and friends and a sobering but supportive conversation with the therapist. Again, in the hopes of bringing the students attention not to consequence but as a display of support.
I’ve seen the residuals of walk on both sides. A student’s regression into the emptiness of addiction and staff wearing the weight of their failure for sometimes days. The staff has a deep understanding of the consequences. Most, if not all, find their way into this work through their own experience with trauma.
In one instance I watched as a guide milled about the office for hours doing whatever he could to maintain contact after a student checked out of the program. He managed to convince the student to meet for breakfast the following day. The guide waited around the office for the call. Morning receded as the sun climbed out over the day. The guide busied himself around the office, still hanging from a shred of hope. The therapist continued to stay in contact with the student’s parents. No matter how much isolation seemed to be winning… the team kept showing up. The student returned a few days later.
Ships don’t often see the lighthouse until they’re upon it, that is why it’s always lit.
Reflecting back, I think about the countless miles and endless talking. The strategy. The coordinating. The resources. I search for that defining moment. A word or phrase? An action or stage? Something that can be utilized in the future and foster efficiency.
There isn’t one.
Circumstances are never the same. The only constant is the connection.
Escape from the past can often become a passion, one that numbs and isolates us from the world and ultimately ourselves. But the world can only be known as it exists in the hearts of others and their collective experience. Although the world is thought of as a place we live in, it in fact, lives within each one of us. To know the world, we must stay connected to the hearts of others. And to do so we must live with others and not simply pass among them in the shadows of shame.
This is why we keep showing up.