Substance Abuse Recovery in Wilderness Therapy

In the following article, Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor Sam Fox shares some thoughts and insights on Substance Abuse Recovery in Wilderness Therapy. Sam is a person in recovery himself and draws on his personal experience as well as his work with clients at Legacy and Juniper Canyon to argue for the effectiveness of Wilderness Therapy. 

Substance Abuse Disorder begins innocently enough in most cases.  We desire to fit in, be social, make friends, and feel “better”.  We, as substance users, started doing this for a reason and on some level, it worked! However, the trap is now laid: the foundation of a powerful and consuming chemical lie we have taught ourselves has developed at a fundamental neurological level.  We now have a disease of the brain, a complex psychological and physical disorder.

Drugs and/or alcohol have become a toxic medicine of sorts; we use them to numb unwanted emotion, to enhance the emotions we want to feel.  Substances wake us up, put us to sleep, make us imagine we are more comfortable in our own skin, the list goes on endlessly.

Imagining a life without mind-altering substances to someone that has come to heavily rely upon them is frightening, to say the least.  We stand before the great gulf of the un-knowable.  How am I to have fun?  How am I to make friends?  How am I to cope?

legacy outdoor adventure blog 2
legacy outdoor adventure blog 1

The willingness to grapple with these questions and rise to their challenges requires of many of us a hard reset in life to clear our heads and to get physically healthy again.  Psychologically we need to take the time to remember who and what is important to us in life, and more crucially, to remember who we are! Who is the person we want to be? Who is the human that was lost in the storm of substance abuse or addiction?

Spending time in Nature, and Wilderness Therapy in particular, is a powerful arena in which to grapple with these questions.  Being in Nature returns us to the roots of who we are as humans, what we always have been. What we think of as our lives in the modern world bears little resemblance to the lives our countless forbears lived over thousands of years… what we need is a reset, an environment to fully remove ourselves as best we can from our Substance Abuse Disorder. Nature becomes a space to start a journey of engaging in life with a clearer, unaltered mind and instincts. 

Here at Legacy Treatment Center and Juniper Canyon, we use many of the same recovery groups and therapeutic modalities done in other Addiction and Mental Health Treatment Programs.  But being in Nature makes the experience so profoundly different!  12 Step groups, for example, have been held for decades in clubhouses, churches, and rented community spaces.  Having a group and holding space for one another around a warm nighttime campfire is an entirely different experience.  It feels safe, encourages vulnerability, and inspires feelings of connectedness to ourselves, to our wilderness companions, and to our environment.

Beyond that, Wilderness and Adventure Therapy is fun! Did I mention that?  Learning to have fun and feel emotion without the aid of substances is also profoundly important for the substance abuse recovery process.  Our adventures make you feel fundamentally alive and engaged with your body and senses. We are capable of having fun without drugs or alcohol! Our staff frequently ask our clients after rappelling into slot canyons or downhill bike rides “Were you thinking about getting high when you were doing that?”  The answer is always “Of course not!” We learn to provide emotional support as well as enjoy life with friends in recovery.  The world begins to feel infinitely larger than we believed, and we are capable of way more than we imagined.  

I facilitate a group weekly with men that are in the last few weeks of our program.  The topic of discussion frequently turns toward what I think of as the “springboard” talk- clients excitedly begin sharing their stories of their adventures and growth during their time here.  This springboard group is filled with hope: “I was able to complete this program!” “ I did activities and saw things I never thought I would do or see.”  “I am profoundly more capable than I thought I was before.  How can I use this knowledge and these skills to live the life I want?  What else is possible for me?”


Sam Fox

Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor and Person in Recovery