Wilderness Therapy Develops Self-Worth

In the summer of 2010, I had the privilege of witnessing a student from her first day through to her last day. I was on rotation the day she arrived, worked in her group throughout the summer, and was on rotation the day she left. Amy was here for a variety of clinical issues including depression, self-worth, and substance abuse. From her first day, Amy was compliant yet avoidant with a lack of resilience and self-worth.

On Amy’s first hike, she did OK at first; however, it was an evening hike and as the sun went down, so did Amy’s resilience. On the hikes, the students do not normally know how long the hike is until the hike is complete; this provides a letting go exercise. As we hiked along on Amy’s first hike, she slowly began to struggle more and more. Finally, a mere 50 feet from the end of the hike, Amy shut down.

The easy solution would have been to advise Amy that we only had another 50 feet; easy was not beneficial to her though. As we sat together, Amy was crying and talking about not being able to do this, not being able to be here, not be able to work this program. We sat together for about 45 minutes; most of the time, I was simply listening to Amy. As the conversation continued, her lack of self-worth started to come out culminating in her statement, “I can’t believe you are sitting here with me. No one should have to deal with me and sit here listening to me cry.” She had provided a very clear picture of herself and her perceived worthlessness. My reply worked to shatter some of this thinking, “Amy, you ABSOLUTELY deserve to have someone sitting right here, right now, right next to you. Someone listening to you, someone providing a shoulder for you to cry onto. This is an extremely tough journey you are beginning and you are worth having someone walk beside you.” After about 45 minutes, she got up on her own and finished her hike; Amy’s journey was just beginning.

Further into Amy’s stay, we made a peak attempt (hiking to the top of a mountain). While she had come a long way, Amy continued to struggle with resilience, self-worth, and determination. She would avoid chores and, at times, try to sit off alone in avoidant manner; her behavior could easily be seen as simply being a “lazy” teenager. Of course, there was more to the behavior.

Amy was still hiking slower than the rest of the students and was at the end of the hiking team; she was also take more breaks than the other students. About half-way up the hillside, Amy shut down during one of her breaks. As we all stopped to give her time and to let her process, tears began to flow from Amy. Sitting with her, listening, and letting her process, Amy made a singular statement that summarized so much of what was happening with her internally, “Why am I a failure at everything I do? I am going to fail at this too.” That moment, that statement, that was critical. Saying that, she gave insight into how badly she viewed herself. After having worked with this girl for weeks and reaching a point in which I felt like I had a little sister, the path became clear: she would do this hike. As before, a simple reply, “Well Amy, thank you for sharing, thank you for giving me the information needed to show me what needs to happen. You are NOT a failure. You are going to complete this hike. If it takes us all day and all night, we are finishing this hike. Tomorrow, you will not let yourself think you are a failure; we will do this.”

With the statements she gave, it was clearer than ever that this was not a “lazy” teenager, this was someone who thought very little of herself. As she continued to need breaks over the rest of the hike, the prodding and pushing needed was coming from “you are worthy” verses “stop being lazy”. Sadly, we did not make it to the top of the mountain that day, we reached a point where the rocks made it so we could not go any further. While Amy had not peaked a mountain, she did go as far as logistically and safely possible.

Fast forward to week eight and there I was working with her again. This would be Amy’s last week and luck was on our side; there was another opportunity to peak a mountain. On Sunday, Amy’s last hike of her stay at Outback, we started the hike to the top of a mountain. From the young woman who sat on a level road at night week one to the student who showed vulnerability mid-mountain about week five to this moment, the growth was remarkable. On this, her final hike, Amy was leading, she was determined; SHE knew she could make it to the top. Amy had no idea this would be her last hike; only the staffing team had any idea the significance. This was it, the last chance to reach the top.

Over the course of Amy’s eight weeks, her growth amazed me. A young woman who presented as a defiant and “lazy” teenager hiding her depression and self-worth issues with substance abuse and avoidance moving into a position of becoming vulnerable by sharing with us her belief that she was a failure and then ultimately becoming a strong woman believing in herself and her own abilities. Living in the wilderness every day had helped to instill a sense of resilience and self-worth: every fire she built, every meal she cooked, every hike she completed, and camp she set up helped to foster resilience and self-worth. Day by day, things built up onto each other until a new Amy emerged from the desert.

And the peak? There is a picture of Amy and her fellow students atop a mountain in the Utah West Desert hanging above my desk; a continual reminder of the growth of one student during her tenure at Outback.

Aries McGinnis - Field director at Outback Therapeutic ExpeditionsAries M. McGinnis, ACMHC
Primary Therapist/Program Director


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