27 Oct A Visit to Wilderness Treatment Center – Part 1
Wilderness Treatment Center (WTC) began helping young men recover from drug and alcohol addiction in 1983 and just celebrated their 31st anniversary last August. I had the opportunity to take a visit to North West Montana in early October and interview WTC Clinical Director, Patrick Hawkins. It is evident to see and hear the passion Pat has for his calling helping young men achieve sobriety, and understand his affinity for the wilderness as an effective teacher.
Located on a 4000 acre working cattle ranch, the air is clean, the Rocky Mountains, stellar and the wildlife abundant. Young men might arrive with no wilderness experience but they are leaving with something even more than that, life experience. In Part One of our interview, Pat shares what he believes to be an exceptional program and what sets WTC apart from other wilderness programs.
- What do you believe is the effectiveness of wilderness treatment as compared to a hospital or residential treatment approach?
- How does wilderness work for the young addict who has never spent any time outdoors?
- What makes WTC unique as compared to traditional wilderness programs where the young person is in the wilderness the entire time?
- What is the effectiveness of incorporating both wilderness and on site treatment?
What do you believe is the effectiveness of wilderness treatment as compared to a hospital or residential treatment approach?
Wilderness Treatment Center provides an opportunity for young people to experience something they’ve never experienced before, something that’s uncomfortable, new. Most profoundly it provides them with the ability to experience a sense of purpose and a right of passage. Certainly that’s what we look at when our guys experience the wilderness aspect of our program.
As our founder said, “You can’t cheat the trail.” What that means is that the trail doesn’t care who you are or what you are, the trail is the same for everyone. You have to face what the trail gives; it’s very much like life. With drug addicts especially, they’ve seldom had to actually experience facing life. It also provides them with an opportunity to experience the natural consequences of their actions, in a very profound way and in a very immediate way. Sometimes in the world the natural consequences of their actions don’t happen right away or it takes some time, or their families and other people around them prevent them from experiencing the natural consequences of their actions.
For example, if they don’t take care of their stuff, their stuff gets wet and now they have to deal with their wet things. If they lose an article of gear, then they don’t have that article of gear. If they don’t have the skills, then they experience the effects of that immediately. There’s no one else they can blame and so it also forces them to begin taking responsibility.
There are a whole lot of programmatic aspects of what takes place in the wilderness that can’t necessarily be replicated in the real world.
How does wilderness work for the young addict who has never spent any time outdoors?
You just described the majority of our clients. Especially being in Montana we have a lot of guys who come here and have never experienced snow before. Wilderness is powerful for anyone, whether they are young men from Montana or from Southern California or from Georgia. It’s not necessarily any more profound for somebody who hasn’t experienced the wilderness. Sometimes it’s awe-inspiring and sometimes it’s scary, it’s anxiety provoking, it’s exciting. But for all of them, whether they’ve been in the wilderness or not, it’s new, because no matter what – it’s just as foreign to them as the real world sober is!
What makes WTC unique as compared to traditional wilderness programs where the young person is in the wilderness the entire time?
While the first part of that question catches my eye in the use of the term “traditional wilderness.” The second part of the question of course differentiates it a little bit and I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek but also very seriously. Programs that were developed out of the “Utah Model” (for lack of a better term – that take place in the wilderness the entire time) are often presented to me as “traditional wilderness.” It’s really hard to make that distinction when you talk about a program (WTC) that been in its current existence for 31 years, and when you consider what our founder was doing, even prior to that. So the term “traditional” stands out for me. It’s not that one is traditional and one isn’t.
What makes us unique is that we have the first part of our program on the campus where they get a great deal of education, a great deal of focus and they get the premise of sobriety. Another thing that makes us unique from other wilderness programs is that we only treat young people afflicted with the disease of addiction, so the homogeneous nature of our program makes us unique overall. The initial stay that takes place on the campus allows them to get a lot of focus from a lot of therapists. It’s essentially similar to a conventional 28-day treatment stay, which you can find in a freestanding program or in a hospital-based program. That’s the whole premise of it, it’s that 28 day – 30 day model of treatment, but when the conventional program is discharging their clients, we’re discharging ours into the wilderness.
Our young men go in the field with the therapist who’s known them for the first four weeks of their treatment stay and is able to watch them universally regress in some degree, back into their old skills of coping. After the first 28 days, they’re on that treatment pink cloud and they think they have this thing licked. They’re feeling really good, then they’re out the field and they find that they don’t. When that happens it allows them to crash in a stable, relatively risk-free environment with someone who can illuminate that for them, hold that up and say, “Look how you thought you were really doing well, and look how easy it is to slide back into your old ways of coping, back into old behaviors.” What that does is it helps them connect to and experience the chronic nature of addiction in a profound way. They become much more amenable to doing what they need to do when they’re done with Wilderness Treatment Center.
We also have a clinician in the field with them for the entire trip. The clinician is going through everything with them, is modeling appropriate behaviors, able to address issues as they arise, process experiences right after they happen and to give a lot more strength to the events that take place in the wilderness. There’s a rapport that’s been built up and it doesn’t need to be re-created or rehashed every week as new staff come in. This allows for a lot of continuity throughout the course of their trip. It’s designed to primarily treat addiction and the bio-psychosocial aspect of the disease, and especially the spiritual aspect of the disease. It’s designed to address their behaviors, not in a behavioral modification way, but to ultimately remember that addiction is a primary illness in and of itself, and to get them to begin treating that. I think that’s the difference.
They’re able to come back to campus and experience that sense of accomplishment as they are greeted by their peers, almost as conquering heroes returning from battle. These trips are designed much like hero’s journey idea from Joseph Campbell and the idea of a rite of passage; they go for three weeks with the group and become part of the community and then they do their introspective, three-day solo journey where they write their 4th step. It allows them to move into that next stage of life, not just the next stage of recovery, but into manhood.
What is the effectiveness of incorporating both wilderness and on site treatment?
Connecting to the chronic nature of addiction. The 2 milieu’s together really accomplishes that.
Stay tuned next week for Part Two of the Wilderness Treatment Interview with Patrick Hawkins where he discusses the family after treatment and what he hopes for every young man completing WTC.