Wilderness Treatment Center

In Part Two of Into the Heart of Addiction’s interview with Wilderness Treatment Center (WTC), clinical director Patrick Hawkins shares how important rehab aftercare is in the recovery process and what he considers the top asset of his program.

Patrick discusses the influence of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous the Twelve Traditions on the infrastructure at WTC and how he guides young men to lead lives of unity, recovery and service. Patrick expresses his desire and the goal of Wilderness Treatment Center, that every young man who completes the program achieves success in recovery, and a purpose filled life.


Wilderness Treatment Center

Q: How do you cultivate a sense of community and family into your program?

A: There’s a real sense of community and I think it starts with the homogeneous nature at WTC – that all of our young men are suffering from the same thing, the disease of addiction. We have guys at different phases of recovery and they’re able to begin sharing some of their experience with the younger guys. The positive peer culture idea is sometimes is overused but really incorporating that and striving to make the community strong. My job as the director, I believe, is to ensure that we allow guys to create a positive community that’s moving toward sobriety. Then it becomes easier for everyone to receive the individual things that they need…through individual therapy and through the groups. Also facilitating a sense of community by incorporating and exposing them to the 12 traditions. We already have this model for community, for unity and the 12 traditions really do that. We especially hit that when the guys are in the woods with Tradition One (Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity).

My recognition when I became the clinical director here is that there’s been a real disconnect between the recovery community and the treatment industry. There is a disconnect between what people are taught in regards to the disease of the addiction and what AA and the 12 step community is teaching in regards to the disease of addiction, and as to what it means to be an addict.

I’ve really taken on this notion of, let’s teach the guys, let’s teach the clients what AA describes as the disease of addiction. And hit really that physical, mental and spiritual aspect of the disease as it’s outlined in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. Let’s not confuse it with a whole bunch of science (which I find very fascinating but most laypeople and clients are not necessarily all that interested). If you fail to connect the threefold nature of the disease, then all you do is talk about the brain chemistry and the part of the brain disease. If all you do is talk about the insanity and how your thinking is off, then where do the steps fit into that? I’ve seen a real failure to educate people on what spiritual aspect of the disease means but the purpose of the steps is to address the spiritual aspect of disease.

We teach our guys what AA teaches; so they have the language of recovery, not the language of treatment, not treatment lingo. They are young people who are probably going to feel somewhat insecure going to a meeting which are primarily filled with older people. And, if there’s a language barrier and an age barrier, we’re increasing the likelihood they’re not going to feel they belong or understand what’s being said. Through teaching the basics, including the traditions and introducing the prospect of service work, we are striving to incorporate and enhance the three legacies of recovery through education, which creates the community in and of it self. Our guys have what we used to call “kitchen chores,” and now we call them service jobs. They link that to the notion of service positions and General Service in the recovering community when they leave here.


Wilderness Treatment Program Top of the Line?

Q: What do you consider your top strength or asset?

A: Our entire program is driven by the team concept and that is the notion that all the clinicians know and interact with all our guys. We’re able to process and address, therapeutically, individual issues going on with anyone at anytime. Each therapist has their strengths. Because we all know everyone, they can’t hide, they can only escape. It’s always been about the nature of the team, everybody brings something unique and it’s oftentimes strategized about: when a young man might be projecting, or there’s some transference going on with one counselor, bringing in another counselor to address that, to illuminate it or to circumvent it, and get everyone moving through those kinds of things. As we communicate with each other, the guys can’t get off the hook, everybody’s involved. They get such an intense amount a clinical focus from more than one person, not only in the wilderness setting but in the residential setting as well.

The school year is upon is and unique situations present themselves at this time of the year. Summertime can be known as the season of undetected drug use….parents may not know how much their child was using because there is so much less structure than during the school year.

 Primary Treatment Center Attendance and Residence

Q: Being a primary wilderness treatment do you see a rise in attendance after summer?

A: Historically, there are a few periods: we see a lot of people in summer. I think some parents say, “Let’s send our son to treatment this summer.” It’s almost the summer camp idea, they are trying to hold on to them through the school year and then after the school year ends, they may come in.

There tends to be another bump at the beginning of the school year, things spiraled during the summer as there’s less supervision, less structure and parents go along with this misnomer that when school starts again, they’ll be okay. So we’ll see a bump again as school starts as parents recognize that just having that structure back in their life isn’t insufficient. We see that with college-age kids more so than adolescents. Our mean age will vacillate throughout the course of the year. Summertime it tends to be a little younger, other times during the year it might be a little older and then a little younger, it goes up and down.


Why is Aftercare Important?

Q: What would you tell the parent who is adamant that their child comes home immediately after wilderness treatment?

A: I would ask them, “Are you ready to have your child at home?” It’s not even necessarily whether it’s appropriate or whether or not the identified patient is prepared to go home, is the parent prepared to have them come home? Typically they are not. The whole term “identified patient” stems from the notion that once we get them “fixed,” everyone else will be okay. Oftentimes, that’s not the case, which is what our family program is about: getting the family into recovery themselves, getting the family to do the work. It’s about the family getting an education about the difference parenting a young man afflicted with the disease of addiction versus parenting one who is not. There’s a huge difference between the two. It comes down to the fact that the risk is much higher in addressing a young man afflicted with the disease of addiction. When you ask the parent if they are ready, they recognize that there is more work that they need to do.

Most of our guys go on to a residential continuing care; we strongly encourage and are adamant about it. This week I had a mom accuse us of pushing continuing care to pad our numbers. I take that on as a badge of honor because it is true! We do strongly encourage and insist on continuing care because we do want to pad our numbers. We want to have a bigger success rate and I will not apologize for that; every young man is someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone that we’ve come to know very well and we want them to be successful. Every young man who relapses is a young man that we worked with and know very well. Want the best statistics we can possibly get.


What do you hope to accomplish with each resident during his stay at WTC?


I want him to recognize the fact that his disease is so serious that he is willing to do whatever he needs to maintain his recovery. In his book, “I’ll Quit Tomorrow,” Dr. Vernon Johnson talks about the five stages of treatment and the fifth and final stage that he identifies is surrender – if we can get someone into that stage prior to discharge – then we’ve done our job.


Pat and I walk across campus and are now standing in the equipment room filled with maps:


Most of the wilderness programs I am familiar with, you can almost drive to a group. Our groups are nowhere near anyplace you can drive. John always said, “We are a true wilderness program,” we are truly back beyond the roads end. From a risk management standpoint I understand you can’t do that with somebody who just came to treatment. You can’t have them be 30 miles back initially, if they run, you’ve got to be able to coordinate services.

That first 30 days allows them to become behaviorally stable enough to go out and take these trips. Think about it, our guys are getting ready to go out in the field – they’re going to go over this pass (Pat points to a spot on the map, miles and miles away from any town – all green!) and then they’re going to go down here (he points still further away), they’re going to be 30 to 40 miles out. If it snows and they can’t get over the mountains they could be 50 – 60 miles from any place.

Over the last couple of years I’ve done a trip in June where I was literally 60 miles from the trailhead and could not get over the mountain pass. And, if we couldn’t have crossed the stream, we would’ve had to go all the way back 70 miles.


Do you go to different spots when you go out or do you return to the same places?


We’re flexible; we adjust to whatever’s happening. We also do volunteer work with the forest service, clear trails, and build fences, work on cabins.


What are the qualifications of the wilderness instructors, are they young adults who are totally into the outdoors?


They are college graduates usually with a degree in outdoor recreation. They have a wilderness first responder, first-aid certification. We call them the technical guys. There’s one of them and one clinician in the field on each trip. We have the clinical background and the technical background. Those are the two staff who go out in the field with the clients, and their roles will overlap a little bit.


You have a lot of maps.


Yes, we do a lot of leadership training out there. When I talk about what our wilderness trips are; wilderness trips are what I would consider, therapeutic “NOLS” courses, that’s our model. People ask us. What’s your model? Is it nomadic? Is it base camp? Ours is about leadership, so we have maps. The guys actually learn how to do mountaineering; they learn how to read maps.


The rite of passage has always struck me as being so vital to a young man….


Yes it is. The expedition provides that when you go out as a group and complete something like this, you can’t help but be transformed. When you spend 3 days by yourself taking an inward journey, you can’t help but be changed. One can’t help but feel they have accomplished something, to have succeeded to be considered a man. That strengthens recovery so very much.

Looking at our culture, there’s a lot of things that used to happen not so long ago – it used to be that sons and dads could work on a car together, let’s say. That they had those kinds of manly activities they could do together. Joe Smith can’t work on a car anymore. Even those things that used to bring men together, they don’t happen anymore. We used to have some old cars around that I still worked on. I kept my son out of school one day and we replaced all the struts and drive shafts in an old Honda that I used to have. He stayed home and helped me work on it that day.


That’s more valuable than a week of school.


I viewed it that way so did his principal. We don’t have that anymore and we’re so disconnected in the urban environment, but you can watch stories of survival on television!

A special thanks to Patrick Hawkins and the staff at Wilderness Treatment Center for allowing me to visit and highlight their remarkable program. Being situated in the Montana outdoors, having a solid foundation for recovery based on unity, recovery and service, and utilizing the wilderness as life’s fundamental teacher, WTC demonstrates all the principles of healthy living.


  • larry smith
    Posted at 18:21h, 16 November Reply

    Thanks! I really love the continuum of care! We, family, spent two years, every Saturday, driving from Minnetonka, MN to Albert Lea, MN for Aftercare. All AA, Big Book, and peer “reactions.”. Thanks again, Connors Grandpa

  • Martha
    Posted at 11:21h, 17 November Reply

    Larry, Thanks so much for taking your time to reply to this post. As families of young people struggling with addiction, we go to any lengths to help them, don’t we?! I’m sure Connor is grateful.


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