Seeking Understanding and Connection
by McKay Deveraux, LCSW, Executive Director @ outBACK
For over a decade now, my wife and I have loved taking our family down a local river on canoes, rafts, and tubes. Because the river has just enough rapids to make it exciting but not enough to make it feel unsafe, it draws several hundred people to it each summer day. One year we decided to take my wife’s brother while he was visiting. As we pushed off the riverbank, it became obvious that his 6’4” frame combined with his lack of canoeing experience made the boat harder to stabilize. When we went through the first rapid, my brother-in-law got off balance, over corrected, and tipped the canoe. Our legs hit the rocks beneath the current as we swam the canoe to shore. After some brief recovery and instructions, we loaded back into the canoe and set off again. Over the next hour, we tipped the canoe over many more times. Each time, collecting more bruises and scrapes from the rocks. Each time feeling more exhausted from swimming the canoe to shore. Each time feeling more deflated about this “fun” adventure. As we loaded into the boat once again, this time approaching the largest rapid on this stretch of river, I couldn’t help but feel impending doom. Sure enough, the rapids rocked our boat and we flipped yet again into the current. This section of the river was narrower, which forced the water into a faster and more powerful flow than previous sections and resulted in a more desperate experience for each of us swimming to shore.
As the three of us sat on the riverbank bruised, bleeding, and panting from utter exhaustion, none of us spoke. We just sat there quietly feeling as if we had just escaped serious potential harm. After several minutes of this mild state of shock, I was suddenly jarred from this silence by a noise that seemed so foreign to the experience I was having–laughter. Several groups of young adults in tubes had rounded the river bend and were floating effortlessly through the rapids as they laughed, drank, and talked like there was not a care in the world. I was stunned at what I was witnessing. Their experience was so incredibly different than mine that it caused a mixture of shock and pain. Not only were they blissfully unaware of the dangers they were passing through, but they were obviously unaware of my bedraggled party on the riverbanks.
I have thought about that day many times over the years. The fact that these two paradoxical experiences could happen on the same river on the same day was a poignant reminder of what some people are experiencing on the “river” of life. Some parents and adolescents appear to be floating effortlessly, while others wonder if they are going to survive at all. And what is worse is that most passersby are not even aware of those who are bruised and struggling on the riverbanks. Many that do notice will give critiques and suggestions instead of a helping hand. For those tired and struggling to stay afloat, it can feel like they are isolated or even broken. So, what can be done?
Starting with the basics, it is incredible how much awareness and acknowledgement will do for another’s healing process. Knowing that someone sees us and cares for us can foster connection, direction, and most importantly hope. outBACK provides this vital therapeutic alliance in multiple ways:
- First, the wilderness setting helps us to truly see our clients by providing a unique baseline assessment. This is only possible because wilderness therapy naturally controls many of the variables that are so disruptive to a standard assessment at home (i.e., diet, sleep, exercise, substance use, problematic tech use, peers, etc). With a more accurate understanding of the underlying dissonance that drives their maladaptive pathology, we can more accurately address the issues with various wilderness strategies.
- The identified clients are not the only ones we are seeking understanding and connection with. By looking through the lenses of intergenerational trauma and a family systems approach, we begin to identify the shaping patterns that create dysfunctional homeostasis. This perspective allows the family to make systemic adjustments that will foster long-term change.
With greater awareness of the need families may be in, we are more capable of providing the help they need. outBACK provides this therapeutic assistance in multiple ways:
- The zone of proximal development is that space beyond our comfort zone that helps us grow. The problem is that it is outside of our comfort zone. Getting adolescents to willingly be uncomfortable is extremely challenging. Therefore, outBACK utilizes a mixture of strategies to invite teenagers to willingly engage in therapy. These may be necessity driven activities such as making food or building a shelter. They can be fun-focused activities such as spelunking or swimming. Or they can also be skill-building activities such as rock climbing or sand boarding. outBACK utilizes a myriad of engaging experiences that invite teenagers to push beyond their comfort zone and into their growth zone.
- Parenting can make rocket science look like kindergarten. And yet, parents are often judged harshly for children that are anything less than the stereotypical norm. outBACK sees parenting as a lifelong graduate degree program on yourself, your child, and your family system. Healthy parenting does not require perfection, but it does mean we are seeking understanding, refinement, and resources. We provide a curriculum of resources designed to help parents better understand their child, themselves, and their family system. We provide ample space for parents to openly explore their system and to receive outside insights and direction.
McKay Deveraux, MSW, LCSW
outBACK Therapeutic Expeditions