Lasting Change in Wilderness Therapy

“He saw it in her eyes. The anguish, the frustration. The terrible nothing that clawed inside and sought to smother her. She knew. It was there, inside. She had been broken. Then she smiled. Oh, storms. She smiled anyway. It was the single most beautiful thing he’d seen in his entire life.”

Brandon Sanderson, “Words of Radiance”

Everyone comes to us with pain. Many hide it, smiling and telling stories of their perfect lives back home. Others have internalized it for so long that it leaks from their pores as anger, cynicism and spite. None have embraced it.

It’s a strange idea, embracing pain. It seems to be the opposite of your intuition, of self-protection. What does it mean to look at a terrible part of your past, then walk towards it smiling, arms outstretched? That’s tantamount to condoning some of the worst atrocities you’ve seen.

As surprising as it sounds, the most amazing thing I’ve seen in my almost year of working in wilderness therapy is a student saying a genuine “thank you” to the worst part of his life.

This thank you doesn’t mean it’s okay, and it doesn’t cancel out years of pain. It simply says: “I am in control of my own life.”

When you experience something terrible, it will always hurt you once; when you carry it with you, you allow it to hurt you every day. Saying “thank you” is making the choice to find the most positive thing you can in something utterly dark, to see how you grew instead of how you failed, to tell that memory it no longer has power over you. It’s standing up to the bully inside of yourself.

Imagine a student who comes in with a history of emotional and physical abuse from his father. Being a victim of abuse has taught him to associate violence with power, so he responds to feeling insecure with aggression and anger; he pushes people away before they can hurt him. His naturally caring, sensitive personality is hidden behind a protective mask brought on by his trauma. He has become controlled by his past.

Over the course of his stay, he works through his abuse, remembering so he can forget. Instead of memories of his father bringing pain, they bring acceptance. One night around the fire, he tells his groupmates his story. He is open about his struggles, but also about his triumphs. He tells a story of noticing a kid from his class in the hallway when his defenses were down. Although the kid wears a smile, he recognizes the pain in her eyes and the subtle slump of her shoulders, like she’s been defeated by the world. When he pauses, unsure of what to do, she smiles tentatively at him and he feels a wall inside of him dissolve. He smiles back and asks how she is and becomes her first real friend. Years later, she admits that moment was what kept her from killing herself. The student lets his groupmates sit with this, then takes a deep, shaky breath. His father, he explained, put him in a state of constant vigilance. Scared of inciting his father’s wrath, he became masterful at sensing the slightest shift in mood, the twitch of every muscle.

Empathy can be as much a defense as a connector. He will never accept what his father did as okay, but he learns to forgive the flawed man behind the acts. He focuses on the empathy he developed, on the pride he feels in helping his friend and countless others, and begins to recreate the narrative. He begins to heal.

We are each on our own island in this world. We cannot control what happens to us, what atrocities we are forced to witness, but we can control ourselves. We can choose how we want to feel. We can choose what we want to do. This doesn’t condone our experiences, instead, it helps us to rise above them. It takes away their power.

I have seen countless students come in with an unfathomable past, who have learned to stop pushing back and accept the unacceptable. To understand that some of the best parts of themselves came from their darkest times. To have pride in their weaknesses as well as their strengths. To accept their past and create their own narrative for the future.

Healing is a lifelong process, and I am grateful to see my students, each with their own fears and trepidations, find the courage inside to change their lives.

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