Getting outside to change what’s inside
Adventure therapy is having a moment. Increasing studies show that it holds benefits for people experiencing trauma, alcoholism, abuse — even gaming addiction. There are more than 100 adventure/wilderness therapy programs in the U.S. alone. There’s even a podcast where wilderness therapists bring the wilderness to listeners who don’t have access to outdoor adventure.
And here in Alaska, at CITC’s Ernie Turner Center (ETC), there’s a group of “sober misfits” who gather every Friday to hike, ski, and kayak their way through the recovery process.
Before coming to ETC, Becks Jacobs had led youth on adventure therapy sessions; she had seen what therapy in the great outdoors could do for young people.
“I saw the changes they made in self-sufficiency, confidence, self-efficacy,” she recalled. “And they saw the change in themselves as they learned to master things like climbing a mountain.”
“Outside, we’re navigating new terrain, and … the walls are down because you’re outside your comfort zone.”
Adventure therapy isn’t just about confidence building, though. Studies involving troubled youth (including youth in recovery from substance abuse) who undergo adventure therapy have shown that graduates of such programs maintain their mental health and sobriety at higher rates than those who engage in traditional programs.
For adults in recovery, being outdoors and engaged in a physical activity opens doors that regular talk therapy sometimes can’t.
“You’re vulnerable right out the gate,” Becks explained. “If you’re sitting inside four walls, talking to a counselor about trauma from your past, you put your guard up. But outside, we’re navigating new terrain, and you’re already vulnerable — the walls are down because you’re outside your comfort zone.”
Becks also knew firsthand what adventure therapy could do: It was the thing that helped her achieve sobriety herself.
A Moment of Reflection
Charles hates journaling. “This is my least favorite part,” he grumbled.
But journaling is part of the adventure therapy process; each resident writes from a prompt Becks gives them before each adventure.
So Charles reluctantly wrote about his experience hiking up to the Twin Peaks lookout at Eklutna Lake. He reflected upon the view from the lookout, and how Becks had asked each participant in ETC’s “Recovery Through Adventure” group to think about the landscape — the peaks and valleys, the beautiful lake, and the sometimes treacherous terrain — and how it reminded them of the positive and negative aspects of their recovery journey.
Charles, who started abusing alcohol in the seventh grade and came to ETC “crawling and spiritually ruined,” journaled about his family and his concerns about staying sober once he graduates from the treatment center.
“It just helps you reflect on what you need to do,” he admitted. “That moment of looking down, then writing about it, made me realize what I need to start building out there for when I do walk out the doors of ETC so I can be successful in my treatment.”
But many times the activity itself sparks reflection.
“One gentleman who hadn’t been on a bike in twenty years, and he related being on a mountain bike to his recovery,” Becks recalled. “He knew how to ride a bike, but he didn’t know how to ride on new terrain. It was just like his recovery — he’d been in treatment before, so he though he knew what this treatment experience was going to be. But he learned a whole new skill set.”
The participants in Recovery Through Adventure equate the twists and turns of a single-track with the twists and turns they encounter in recovery. They reflect on the mountain biking idea that you look where you want to go — because if you look where you don’t want to go, that’s exactly where you’ll end up; the same thing is true when you’re trying to stay sober and surround yourself with positive supports.
“We’re a metaphor-happy group,” Becks said.
Then there’s the adrenaline component: Individuals who used to get high on heroin find themselves discovering the natural high that comes from “dominating a really gnarly single-track,” Becks said.
“Some of these guys, the last time they sweated this much was when they went through withdrawal,” she pointed out. “Now they’re out here getting sweaty, connecting with their higher power. They’re healing.”
The Right Environment
In 2018, ETC was relocated from a house on the corner of Tudor and Elmore Roads to a parcel of land, owned by Eklutna Inc., just off the road to Eklutna Lake. Director of CITC Recovery Services Rebecca Ling hoped that the secluded, natural setting would provide an “environment where participants will really be able to focus on healing.”
“Out here, it’s peaceful,” Charles said. “Even if you just want to step outside for a second, you’re surrounded by nature, and you can just connect. It’s healing for everything — mind, body, spirit.”
And thanks to the natural landscape, plus the proximity of Eklutna Lake, the Recovery Through Adventure crew can take advantage of all Alaska has to offer through the seasons. Already, they have gone on cross-country skiing, mountain biking, hiking, and snowshoeing adventures. Later this summer, they will travel to Old Minto for fish camp. Becks has got other plans in the works.
“Especially in Alaska, adventure is limitless,” she said.