Wilderness Interventions: The Spice of Life

One of the best aspects of wilderness therapy is that the process of change is expedited.  In any other treatment setting the typical timeline for a child to go from a state of blame and denial to a state of accountability and confidence takes around 12 -18 months, in the wilderness it takes an average of 2 months. 

This is due to the wilderness setting that creates natural challenges for the teen to overcome and grow from.  Many people erroneously think that saving teens from challenges will give them an advantage in life.  Instead of running away from challenges, Outback works with teens to help them overcome challenges. 

This process can be uncomfortable and difficult, but it is the difficulty and discomfort that prods that teen into action and a positive direction.  While the wilderness provides a foundation of natural interventions, our staff and therapists are ever mindful of intentional ways to invite students to step outside of their comfort zone and into their growth zone. 

Below is an example of a wilderness intervention experience:

The Spice of Life –

“One of my favorite interventions was with a kid that had a pretty serious drug addiction before he came to Outback.  Because he was progressing nicely in Outback he started to become overly confident in his abilities to return home before he had equipped himself with enough tools to remain sober.  thumb-our-team

When asked what he would do if his friends approached him with substances he gave the classic answer, “I’d just say no.”  It became evident that he was treating his sobriety lightly.  Nothing I said seemed to make a difference, so I asked him to participate in a unique challenge that would help him see how ready he was for a life of sobriety.   He accepted, so I had him go through an intervention I call “the spice of life”.

In this challenge, he was asked to remove all of spices from his food drop for the week.  His daily nutritional intake was not changed and he continued to receive all the vitamins and minerals necessary for optimum health, BUT, everything he considered to be delicious was removed and he was left with plain bland foods like rice, wheat flour, beans, masa, oats, etc…

At first this challenge seemed easy to him.  He began to power through the first day with the intention to prove he was ready for anything I could throw at him.  But as the week went on, and as everyone around him continued cooking delicious meals that tasted and smelled so good, he began to feel tempted to stop the challenge or cheat the system in some way.

His mind began to spin with rationalizations like, “My therapist is stupid. This challenge is stupid.  This isn’t going to help me stay sober!”  He also told himself things like, “I’ll bet I can trade something with another student for some spices on the down low.  My therapist doesn’t need to know.  This isn’t a big deal.”

As the days passed by, he became consumed with thoughts of spices and how much better his food would taste if he just had a little bit of spice.  As we met up nearing the end of his “spice of life” challenge, he approached me eagerly, asking if his challenge was complete and if he could immediately begin using spices.

As we sat and discussed how surprisingly difficult it was to abstain from spices and how unbelievably tempted he felt to break the challenge I reminded him that sobriety from substance abuse is very similar.  Many people often minimize how difficult it will be to remove something from their life that provided so much flavor and variety.  They often use the “white knuckle” approach to just power through things and “just say no” when temptations come their way.  But after a while, the rationalizations begin to be accepted as truths, the temptations become overwhelming, and relapse happens.

Treating sobriety with the over simplistic approach of “just say no” is like replacing a car engine with nothing but a 9/16ths socket wrench…it is a good size of wrench, but there are a lot of other tools needed for that complex job.

After this experience, he became much more open to the idea of collecting more tools in his tool box to help him maintain his sobriety.  When I saw him nearly a year after he had gone home, he was still sober.  He and I still stay in touch to this day.”


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