At Oxford Treatment Center, outdoor experiences aid in addiction treatment
One by one, the members of her group jumped across as she stood back from the edge, hesitating. “You can do it,” they called, stretching out their hands in her direction.
A deep breath, a focused stare. With a running start, she jumped across, grasping their hands as she found her footing. That’s when therapist Troy Young invited the group to sit down beside the creek, pausing their hike to point out the connection.
“This is a picture of what your full recovery is going to look like,” said Young, who leads Wilderness Therapy at Oxford Treatment Center as part of the Young Adult Program.
“We call those ‘anchor points,” he later explained. “We sit down and talk about what we’ve just done, and connect that to what life will look like for them after Oxford Treatment Center. When they struggle, they will be able to look back to these places and remember.”
Since its launch earlier this year, the Wilderness Therapy program has become a life-changing tool for young adults who come to Oxford Treatment Center for help with an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
The arrival of warm weather this spring opened up even more opportunities for Young. He’s been taking groups hiking in the Holly Springs National Forest just minutes from Oxford Treatment Center’s residential campus, as well as leading rock-climbing expeditions to Tishomingo State Park in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
“From the outside, it simply looks like fun activities,” Young said. “What it’s really about is providing an experience where people forget they’re in therapy. Out here, their real issues come to the surface much more quickly.”
That effect is key among young adults, who often enter addiction treatment because of family pressures or legal problems, rather than because they know they need help and have decided on their own to get clean.
“Most people — especially young people — perceive therapy as very sterile,” Young said. “They imagine they’re going to be sitting in an office with somebody who’s going to psychoanalyze them and ‘fix’ them.
“They’re resistant already. But wilderness therapy breaks down those barriers.”
“I have spent a lot of time in the past pretending that I was not afraid of danger,” he said. “I realize it was an illusion. I was afraid today, and I faced it! I worked through being scared of falling, and I learned how to trust someone to take care of me in my fear. I became vulnerable, and it felt good not to pretend.”
At the other end of the lead rope, Young ensures the climber’s safety by feeding rope through a belay as the climber ascends. That practical, physical support reinforces the instructions and encouragement he shouts from below.
“Researchers say that about 80 percent of the efficacy of a therapist is the relationship they have with their patient or client,” Young said. “So that’s my focus. I just join them on the journey and connect therapy along the way.”
In the program, physically demanding activities like hiking and rock climbing are balanced with time spent fishing, boating or simply being still in the midst of nature.
“We’ll go off in the woods and just concentrate on all the things they can hear or smell,” Young said. “Drugs have dulled their emotions and sensations; these outdoor experiences can help them learn how to feel again in a healthy, natural way.
“I had a guy tell me recently, ‘I can’t remember the last time I came to the lake and didn’t get trashed.’ They can come out here and realize they can experience nature without needing a substance to enhance it. It’s beautiful enough.”
*Patient names have been changed. Images are actor depictions.
Q&A With W. Troy Young, M.Ed., MA, NCC
How did you come to appreciate the power of wilderness-based interventions?
“For me, personally, it started with wanting to be with my dad while he was out in the woods hunting. I would go with him, and he would leave me in a hollow by myself. I would put the gun down and get in a creek and explore all around. There was just something about being right in the middle of the woods, with nature all around me — being an observer, but an active participant, too.
“So I found early on that I’d rather spend time in the woods than anywhere else. But it was much later that I began to realize the powerful therapy aspect of being outdoors. I was working with at-risk kids in Waco, Texas. They were rough kids, from all over. But most of them were just hurt kids. I started taking them into the Texas countryside, camping, fishing and just hanging out. And I saw how their attitudes changed. I realized: You can use the outdoors to help people get comfortable, and then we can work on their issues.
How has wilderness therapy as a field evolved over the past decade or two?
“Even the definition of ‘wilderness therapy’ has evolved during that time. It’s not just taking a group into nature and seeing what happens. There are purposeful interventions you keep in mind when you’re working with a group.
“Much of the basis for wilderness therapy was developed more than 50 years ago by Outward Bound. Through that program, people go out and engage in challenging experiences that push them to grow.
“But wilderness therapy has since become a lot more intentional and goal-oriented. We approach it now from an outcomes perspective: ‘What do we want to be the result at the end?’ It’s important to have a research-based therapeutic goal, and for us, those are tied to substance abuse treatment.”
How does your work fit in with the broader clinical program for drug and alcohol addiction treatment at Oxford Treatment Center?
“Wilderness therapy is one spoke on the wagon wheel. I echo the same messages that groups receive during the other parts of their treatment experience. I use the same terms Garry Reifers has talked about with them in addiction education, when he breaks down the brain science behind addiction. It helps them understand why, for example, they might experience cravings after a rock-climbing session; it’s triggered the release of dopamine and adrenaline in the brain.
“I also communicate with patients’ primary therapists, so that they can continue working with patients on the same issues that came to light during wilderness therapy.”
What do you do if someone in your group can’t take part in a physical challenge?
“We operate off ‘challenge by choice.’ If a person is not ready yet, I don’t force anyone to do anything. I will encourage them to push through, if it’s more of an emotional issue or about their confidence. We can go slow. And not everybody is able to do everything.
“Our physicians advise me when someone is not able to take part for medical reasons. Perhaps they have a heart condition or have had recent surgery. We’ve also had people who are badly out of shape physically. They can’t rock climb, but they still go. They actively participate and encourage other people. A real big value to these experiences is community, so everybody can offer something and everybody gets something out of it.”
Can outdoor experiences play an important role in lasting sobriety?
“Absolutely. Some of the most difficult challenges in recovery are boredom and isolation. And unfortunately, a lot of entertainment venues are filled with triggers and temptations. For an alcoholic, going to football tailgate parties is a really hard thing. Even going to the games — it’s all around you. At the baseball games, they’re throwing beer into the air.
“At so many places, you’re confronted with the marketing of alcohol and the lifestyle of drinking. It’s hard to even watch television.
“Being outdoors is a way to fill your lifestyle with healing leisure activities and spent time in places of peace. It makes recovery so much easier and better. You don’t have to feel like you have to constantly battle this mindset. Just get out there and live.”
Our Young Adult Program for drug and alcohol addictions is based upon the clinical needs of those age 18 through mid-20s.
About Troy Young
Troy leads Oxford Treatment Center’s Wilderness Therapy program. He is a National Certified Counselor and holds a master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling from Denver Seminary and a master of education degree from Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.
Troy began working with adolescents utilizing Adventure Based Counseling in 1990. He has administered outdoor adventure programs on three different college campuses. After 15 years of adventure programming experience, he resigned from the University of Mississippi to plant and pastor Grace Bible Church in Oxford. He has worked in private practice in Denver, Colo., and serves as the lead guide for a private Colorado-based wilderness therapy company. He also maintains a private practice in Oxford where he works with clients from the surrounding area.
For further reading on the process of finding oneself in the outdoors, Troy recommends “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness” by Edward Abbey.