Wilderness Therapy – The Modern-Day Hero’s Journey

There’s a popular quote regarding the wilderness that goes:

“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”

John Muir

On the surface this quote implies a trade of one for the other. But what if instead Muir was giving us a prescription? A way to bring the stories that we live, the ones of the mind and the soul back into balance.

According to Muir, nature is the place where one finds equanimity. The noise of the world recedes into silence. A place where we are able to reconnect with ourselves and develop new perspectives around the stories we are living.

Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. We’re born, we live, we die. As human beings, story is everything to us. It’s the framework upon which we hang our memories, ambitions and identities on. It’s how we learn and convey information. News, books, movies, and social media are all mediums of story. Without story our lives would have no structure or meaning. We’d be nothing more than a series of chaotic events followed by reactive decisions. According to Aristotle the father of modern narrative, what drives a story forward is the actions and decisions of the hero. What happens to us and how we react defines us as a people.

Without action we become stuck, no longer the hero. We instead become actors playing bit parts in a story that is written outside ourselves. This is the story of the mind. One in which we find ourselves in the middle of a war being fought for our attention. A war replete with social pressures and unrealistic expectations. A war that separates us from ourselves, one in which our mental health is the collateral damage.

The other story, that of our soul, is one that is written through action and is driven by our desires and ambitions. A story, written in alignment with our hearts upon a blank page that according to Muir can only be found in the healing simplistic silence of nature.

You either live as the hero of your story, where your desires, ambitions and decisions drive the action forward or, you live as the victim. This is the story that most children and adolescents who suffer from trauma are forced to live.

Although the wilderness has the healing power to reconnect us with ourselves and our stories, it’s not enough for those suffering with poor mental health.

People who suffer with poor mental health require the support of trained professionals who understand how to develop and reconnect sufferers of trauma with their stories and enable them to transition from victim to hero.

There is a place where those who suffer from poor mental health can get the healing power of nature, free from the triggers of society and the support of trauma informed professionals in a structure built upon our deep innate sense of story that has been present throughout the course of humanity. That place is Wilderness Therapy.

The Role of Trauma in Story

Trauma disrupts our story. A traumatic event is remembered as a singular experience. Think of it as a skip in a record. When this happens, we become mentally and emotionally stuck. The insidious nature of trauma is that it’s not always obvious as the source of our dysfunction, especially when experienced in childhood. People spend lifetimes reacting to the world around them with defense mechanisms developed as a response to their trauma.

“Telling the story is important; without stories, memory becomes frozen; and
without memory you cannot imagine how things can be different”

Bessel Van
Der Kolk M.D. “The Body Keeps the Score”

A major part of processing trauma is the ability to unravel and reconstruct the story surrounding the event. By doing this a single event that once defined us becomes part of a vast mosaic of events that make up a story stretching over a lifetime. Reconstruction of our story gives us the necessary distance to process a traumatic event. Create enough distance and even the most crooked lines begin to look straight.

The Basics of Story

Every story has a basic elemental structure that can be found in every culture throughout the existence of humanity. In 1949, scholar Joseph Campbell highlighted this structure when he popularized the hero myth pattern in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, Campbell described a basic narrative pattern: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow man.”

At its core the Hero’s Journey is essentially a rite of passage. Although a rite of passage can be experienced at any stage of life, it’s crucial in the development of children when it’s time to move from adolescence into adulthood. The essential aspect that gives most rites of passage their transformative properties is the separation from “the known.” The known being the status quo, our families, are friends and all the comforts and distractions we use to get through a day.

When a person’s narrative has been disrupted by trauma, traditional rites of passage fail to provide the environment necessary to process the trauma. Not only does there need to be separation from the known, but it must be in a trauma sensitive environment. Even traditional therapy, for as effective as it may be is continually compromised by a tidal wave of triggers one experiences in everyday life.

Wilderness Therapy and the Hero’s Journey

Wilderness Therapy provides a trauma sensitive format that touches on traditional story beats that we have come to subconsciously recognize over centuries of storytelling.

Below is a diagram of the Hero’s Journey. Beneath that each beat of the journey is directly related to the 90-day process typically found in most wilderness therapy programs and the reason it’s fast becoming one of the best models for addressing mental health issues caused by trauma in children and adolescents.

THE ORDINARY WORLD – This is the world of the known. The day to day of fitting in and finding purpose while trying to navigate relationships, technology and a world that changes every day. For people suffering with poor mental health and trauma this is the unconscious world. A world flush with a consistent onslaught of triggers that render most of us suspended in a state of reaction, void of any space for reflection or change. Our stories, rather than following an arc become a flat line of survival. What follows is anxiety, depression and the need to escape through portals of numbing comfort such as social media, drug use, and self-abuse.

CALL TO ADVENTURE – This is typically an event that jars the victim from the status quo and offers a chance for adventure and change. This could be an accident, an arrest, a psychotic break, or the moment a family in crisis has decided to have their child taken via transport to a wilderness therapy program. Often times there is a refusal of the call. This is where the hero is faced with the decision to leave the world of the known and embark on an adventure or to stay in the confines of their dysfunctional coffin of comfort. For new students in the program, the refusal to call can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

MEETING THE MENTOR – In wilderness therapy program students reside groups of 6-9 along with one field guide per three students. Guides are there to run therapeutic groups, growth zones and teach the necessary day to day skills required to thrive in the wilderness. The guides provide a safe, trauma informed environment with firm boundaries where the student can begin the work of healing and resuming their journey into adulthood. Students meet with a therapist one to two times a week for deeper work in unwinding the narratives surrounding their trauma.

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD – This is the moment the student lets go of the world of the known and crosses the threshold into the world of the unknown. This is the process of buying into the program and accepting the work ahead. Although it can happen all at once, for most students it’s a drawn-out process with many small battles and setbacks that stretch out over the course of weeks.

TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES – At this stage, new skills are tested as students struggle to cope with unwavering support and strong structural boundaries. Students begin to accept the guides and therapist as allies in the fight to regain their sense of self. The enemy unveiled are the faulty coping mechanisms that no longer work to distract the student from the truth of their pain. This process does not follow a straight trajectory. As the student learns more about the trauma and incidents that have shaped them, they often regress and struggle to come to terms with it. While at the same time they are learning the skills to overcome these obstacles and to deal with the unpredictable nature of life moving forward.

APPROACHING THE DRAGONS DEN – Nearing the middle of their process with several weeks of deep work, groups, therapy sessions and required therapeutic reading the students begin to close in on their trauma and begin to understand the depths of the damage it has done. Without the refuge of distraction, students begin to learn how to sit with the uncomfortable feelings they experience as they get closer to their trauma.

THE ORDEAL – The face to face moment with trauma. This moment can result in a false victory or a false defeat. A false victory may be a newfound confidence in facing their trauma while lacking the understanding of its deep roots and all the areas it has affected their lives. A false defeat might look something like a student coming face to face with their trauma and regressing back to their old survival mechanisms. Behind both instances is the same truth – the trauma is one instant or beat in a story and not the entire story.

SEIZING THE TREASURE – It’s here guides and therapist reinforce the lessons and skills the student has accrued along their journey. Reflection of the journey thus far reveals the change they’ve undergone, the layers that have been stripped away and the true self that remains. A self not attached or defined by any past trauma or circumstance. Students come to the understanding that the process is longer and more rewarding then they initially thought. It is here they recommit and start the work of rebuilding their narrative.

THE ROAD BACK – The restructuring of the narrative. Students begin to assemble the narrative they want to live. Part of this restructuring is building healthy relationships with themselves, their peers and with family. They also start to consider what changes will have to be made upon returning back to the world of the known. This entails therapeutic interaction with family to redefine their roles.

THE RESURRECTION – This the reawakening of agency where the student comes to understand that the rudder that steers the ship through their journey is firmly planted in their hand. This is the beginning of empowerment and a sense of self and true confidence for what they have given themselves and what they now have to offer the world.

RETURN WITH BOON – After 90 days of living in the wilderness the student returns back to the world of the known, changed and armed with a healing elixir to offer to the world. The course of their life is forever hanged. Even students who temporarily regress into old habits cannot ignore the self that was revealed through their time and work in the wilderness.

The story parallels between the hero’s journey and the 90-day process of Wilderness Therapy are what make wilderness so relatable and effective. Through its weighted silence wilderness disrupts the status quo and breaks the dysfunctional cycles created by trauma. Students reawaken to the role of hero and regain a sense of agency and action in driving their narratives forward.

These beats not only apply to those in wilderness therapy programs but to all of us. You can find them in the course of a day, a week, a month, a year and a lifetime. By consistently recognizing these beats and seeing the narrative our lives follow we become more aware of our role as the hero. Although fate will inevitably bring chaos and the unknown… as the hero we understand that we are stories are written and defined by the actions we take.