Joseph Campbell identified a pattern in all great myths and stories. He called it the Hero’s Journey. In these stories, the protagonist receives a call to adventure into the unknown. Commonly, the hero is reluctant to heed the call. At times, they are thrust into their adventure by calamity or crisis. They are no longer able to stay in the known, but have to move into the unknown in order to survive: in either scenario, accepting the call is something “they cannot not do.” The unknown is frightening and staring into a dark threshold feels like certain annihilation.
In my work with adolescents and young adults struggling with addiction, the above pattern resonates. They must leave some things behind and they will acquire some new traits and attributes. They walk into meetings. They walk into a therapist’s office. Parents walk into rooms that they hoped they would never have
to enter: Al Anon, family therapy, emergency rooms. As with the forests in Campbell’s paradigm, these rooms are metaphors for the unexamined self. The dark recesses of our minds terrify us. Clients often express a fear that if they start to feel their pain and their shame that they will never be able to turn it off.
As therapists, we invite our clients to look inward, to feel the unfelt, and to stare their shame in the eyes. Confronting them or tearing down the walls that have up to this point been a critical means for survival may reinjure the clients: attraction, not promotion. We learn to hold them with gentleness, kindness and non-judgment because we know that we too need that same patience. We know this because we have gone into the dark corners of our own psyches and recognize that our demons share so much with the ones we see in others. When they find themselves in the company of such a container (i.e., a counselor or an old-timer they meet at an A.A. meeting) they eventually take the risk to show up honestly and authentically. When their story is met with loving and accepting eyes rather than disgust, fear or pity, they begin to consider something new about themselves. They begin to consider that they are lovable. This healing has dramatic effects and the need for self-medication to mask their shame retreats just a little.
I have been working in and running a wilderness therapy program for over 20 years. I have been a witness to clients and their families as they literally walk into the woods. But more impressively, I’ve seen clients and families courageously explore their own stories. They come into contact with the pain and their shame and learn to let it go in the company of others. They sit in rooms or in the high desert of Utah and tell their stories and listen to others’ stories considering the possibility that the truth they had previously accepted might not be “The Truth.” The only way we can observe our context is by being in a new one. Sometimes fish are the last to discover water because they have never known the “not water.” Sitting in a room or a circle with an empathic Other allows us to challenge our assumptions.
Our version of wilderness therapy is a nomadic primitive living model, with 3-4 field guides and group sizes of 6-10. The beauty of wilderness therapy is that doing and experiencing is more important than saying. Simply, we provide the basic necessities in the beauty of nature and teach people how to feel. Without the medicators and the distractions of the virtual world we live in, feeling is inevitable. All the unwanted feelings surround you as you lay at night in your sleeping bag 20 miles from any city with only yourself as company.
Several years ago, I remember greeting a new client as he exited the truck and entered his wilderness. I asked him about himself, his story and his recent treatment experiences. His narrative was laced with 12-step slogans and therapeutic jargon. Yet, as the next few weeks were to show, both to him and me, none of it was “in him.” Surrender, humility, and serenity eluded him. He was at war with the elements, himself, his peers, me and his parents as he tried to prove that this time he would take his recovery seriously. I observed many times, “I hear your recovery, but I don’t see it.”
Experiential therapies have some advantage over talk therapy in that they value doing over saying. Accessing our wounds through talk therapy may not be as effective because we don’t know what we don’t know. Experiential therapies (Equine therapy, play therapy, psychodrama or wilderness therapy) provide the therapist with information that even the client is not aware of. Experiential therapy bypasses conscious resistance since it does not walk through
the front door and announce itself. Even in traditional talk therapy settings, it is the experience of therapy that makes the change, not merely the information that is exchanged.
It is important to remember the walls and defenses are earned. They should be honored rather than attacked. When we try to break down defenses, the person behind them is compelled to reinforce them rather than surrender. When we merely call people on their crap, I call it “doing psychology on people” rather than doing “therapy.” Sometimes treatment professionals evoke resistance and when the client fails to make progress and wash their hands with sanctimonious impunity and note, “Addiction is an insidious disease. Some addicts aren’t ready for change.” The insidiousness of addiction should not exclude self-examination of the treatment approach or the treatment professional.
In the end, no matter one’s approach, some will die, some will run, some will refuse the call to adventure that Campbell talks about. And if we as treatment professionals are willing, we will continue to explore the unexamined parts of ourselves. My therapist told me some time ago, many people die long before they are dead. They have learned everything there is to know and are not open to new thoughts or ideas. Recently, at a parenting intensive, a parent whose child was in treatment for addiction, shared that when she started this journey a most frightening thing happened. She discovered that something she had long assumed to be a foundational truth for her wasn’t true anymore and with this thought, she had the realization that all of her assumptions were up for grabs. The experience was both terrifying and liberating.
It is my honor to sit and listen to the stories of addicts and their families. It requires me to stay on my own journey—walk into rooms, into the woods, both literally and metaphorically, that frighten me. I learn as much or more in providing treatment to others as they learn from me. So we wander in the wilderness together and we learn that no matter the story, the heroic journey is always inward.
Brad Reedy, Ph.D. is the Owner and Clinical Director of Evoke Therapy Programs. He is also the author of The Journey of the Heroic Parent: Your Child’s Struggle and the Road Home