Lighter Steps: Addiction Treatment on the Trail

9985008_sThis blog post was written by guest blogger, Josh White, MA, LPC, CGP, CADC. Josh is the Clinical Director of the Young Adult Program at WinGate Wilderness Therapy.  Josh brings over fifteen years working with young adults to his position as Clinical Director of the Wingate WayPoints program.  Josh has practiced as a Licensed Professional Counselor in two states while earning distinction as a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor and a Certified Group Psychotherapist.  He has also served as Program Director, Clinical Director, and Executive Director in residential programs.

Josh taught in the Graduate School of Psychology at Naropa University and served on the faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University.  He has presented to the American Group Psychotherapy Association and the Northwest Addictions Training Consortium.  Josh is passionate about helping young adults to heal, communicate more effectively, discover their purpose, and meet their full potential.

Please note that the opinions presented in the article are that of the author and not necessarily the opinions of RHN. RHN chooses to publish articles and share individual sites to evoke discussion and show all options, ideas and beliefs.


Drug and alcohol abuse, along with accompanying variations of promiscuity, anxiety, video game addiction, and poor eating and hygiene habits, are disturbingly prevalent among today’s young adults.  “Failure to launch” is an increasingly common term used to describe a son or daughter who is an adult chronologically, but still a teenager developmentally.   It’s only natural for parents to want the best for their children, and this sometimes leads them to inadvertently enable non-working behavior.  The classic example of this is the young adult living on Mom and Dad’s couch – they don’t want to kick him out, but they also don’t want him staying on the couch forever.  Parents often feel lost in these situations, unsure how to motivate their adult child while also knowing that the lack of traction is unhealthy and is damaging not just the young adult, but often the entire family.

These issues are not effectively treated by making life “easier” for these young adults in the hopes they will “see the light.”  Coddling and enabling these individuals just makes them more likely to continue the behavior.  Conversely, being overly harsh with them isn’t the way, either, because when we start to yell and scream and stamp our feet, they just tune us out.  Parents often resort to 30-Day Primary Rehab, which can definitely be effective, but sometimes isn’t a radical enough intervention.   Some young adult cooperate while in Primary, but then lapse back into their old behaviors soon after they come home.

Most clinical professionals agree that radical interventions are necessary to treat radical behavioral issues.  Wilderness therapy is one such intervention.  Completely removed from the stressors, routines, and triggers of everyday life, clients have the opportunity to connect deeply with themselves and others within the framework of a radical shift in environment.  Studies have shown that the frequent relapses and recidivism rates that often occur following traditional treatment are significantly reduced when a client goes through a wilderness experience beforehand.   As a prequel to extended care, or a stand-alone treatment episode, a wilderness therapy experience is the most impactful intervention a young adult can experience.

The wilderness setting, where a young adult has no access to drugs, alcohol, or the internet, provides a golden opportunity to begin the journey of recovery.   Being away from distractions provides an opportunity to dig deeper and help our clients understand the “payoffs” they get from their addictions, and help them see that they’re losing more than they’re gaining from the addictive behavior.  If the program features an immersion in the 12 Steps, clients can learn practical tools for staying sober now and forever.  The potency of the wilderness experience makes it a viable, and often preferable, alternative to more traditional treatment methods.

At the WinGate Wilderness Therapy Young Adult Program, where I work, we connect the “steps” clients are taking on the trail with the “Steps” they are taking in their recovery.   For example, accepting Step One – “Powerlessness and Unmanageability” – is much easier when a young adult is in the middle of nowhere.   The basic question becomes, “If your life is manageable, why are you out here in the wilderness?”   Often there is no comeback for that question in the wilderness environment, whereas in a nice, warm treatment center (or on Mom and Dad’s couch), that question might be easier to dodge or avoid.

Step Two, coming to believe in a power greater than oneself, is also very accessible in the wilderness.   Most programs take place in very beautiful environments, such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where WinGate operates.   In this environment, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, even an atheist or agnostic can come to see that there is more to life and the world than his or her own resentments, ambitions, frustrations, and addictive thinking.

On the trail, we also do experiential exercises such as having clients write their resentments on stones, and carry the resentments with them, noticing how their packs get heavier and heavier as they add resentment.   This experiential approach to Step Four helps our clients connect in a very real way their level of resentment with the “heaviness” they feel in their hearts, bodies and minds.

Step Five, in which resentments are shared and (hopefully) released, is also very powerful in a wilderness setting.  At WinGate, we have clients “sling” their resentment rocks into the wilderness.   They then pick up their packs and see how much lighter they’ve become.   The tangible experience of releasing resentments in this way impacts the clients in a very deep way.

Steps Eight and Nine are also very powerful, from an experiential perspective, in the wilderness.   These steps, which are about making amends, make a more powerful impact when clients not only list the people they’ve harmed and apologize to them, but also make leather bracelets while on the trail, which they offer to those they have harmed as a physical representation of their living amends.

WinGate operates on the principles of Arbinger, a philosophy springing from the work of Martin Buber that advocates for personal agency and empowerment.  We believe our clients doesn’t need to be punished if she does something “wrong” – she needs to experience natural consequences, and understand the relationship between the choices she makes and the outcomes that ensue.  She needs not be forced to cooperate, but rather we must seek to understand her motivations and draw those toward behaviors and actions that will work better for her.  The land itself is a powerful ally in this respect – it allows clients the time and space to reflect on their behaviors and outcomes, free from TV, the telephone, the Internet, or any other way to “numb out” and avoid how they’re feeling.

This strengths-based approach helps clients make healthier choices because they want to – not because someone is forcing it on them.  Again, the wilderness is a powerful ally in this process, as the peace and tranquility our clients experience allows them to awaken to their spirits in ways never before possible.  As clients deepen their connections with nature and deeper truths, their urges to use are greatly reduced.  The Step-work and walking the trail both help them learn to step outside themselves, which opens them to the Arbinger concept of seeing other people as people just like them.  This is particularly helpful for young adult addicts in early recovery, who often have a hard time creating relationships because they see others as objects, vehicles, or obstacles.

In brief, being completely removed from distractions and the usual day-to-day routines provides a radically powerful context in which young adults can connect with themselves, one another, nature, and spirituality.   As the Steps are worked while on the trail, the clients’ steps become lighter, as they find their true selves, release their resentments and non-working behavior, and leave their old ways behind.

Elana Clark-Faler
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