I survived a wilderness camp: ‘It’s not necessary to break a person’s will’ | Mental health

I was 17 when escorts drove me to a warehouse, strip-searched me and told me…

I survived a wilderness camp: ‘It’s not necessary to break a person’s will’ | Mental health

I was 17 when escorts drove me to a warehouse, strip-searched me and told me to put all my belongings in a shoebox. This was the culmination of years of alarming behavior that scared my parents: truancy, self-harm and several suicide attempts.

So there I was, being sent away to get well.

The escorts drove me deep into the wilderness of Colorado. I stared out the van window as the houses and telephone poles disappeared from the landscape, and the road changed from pavement to a dirt path. My crafty teenage mind plotted escape strategies, but I realized I was far from a town. I had nowhere to run.

It was the beginning of 12 weeks in a wilderness therapy program, without a tent, a shower, or a toilet. Before this, I had no idea of the kinds of places that existed for teens like me – one of the many kids whose parents turn to the troubled teen industry (TTI) to try and fix our emotional distress. The industry includes programs from lockdown facilities in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada, to therapeutic boarding schools in New England, with more than 120,000 youth placed into these behavioral modification programs every year.

After hours of driving, I was dropped off at a campsite with a group of teenage girls and some adult guides. The girls’ hair was matted, their skin caked with dirt, and a lingering smell of sweat and campfire wafted from their bodies. They were all dressed in the same red shirts and cargo pants. I looked down and realized I was wearing their uniform. I was one of them now.

Quickly, I learned the rules of my new environment: I had to stay within an arm’s reach of a guide at all times. I could not even go to the bathroom alone. I slept sandwiched between two guides, with a tarp over my sleeping bag to prevent me from running away.

My mentor was Rose, a warm 16-year-old girl with scabbed knees and bug-bitten arms. Rose told me she had been in the woods for 22 days. She was taken by escorts from her hospital bed, following a heroin overdose in a church bathroom. Her face lit up as she told me about her two younger siblings and I felt sad, feeling her radiance and love, thinking of her unconscious on a floor.

For the first four days, I was only allowed to speak to Rose and the staff. When I finally earned the privilege of talking to everyone in the group, I chatted with the 10 girls, and we watched a plane fly overhead. It was bizarre to see such a clear marker of the outside world, continuing as it always had, despite the fact I was there, in the woods.

“How far away do you think that plane is?” one of the girls asked me.


She chuckled. Her smile dropped. “Ten to 12 weeks,” she said.

My road to the woods was long and painful.

I felt acutely sad from the time I was a little girl. I started therapy at eight, and it helped some. Then my parents got divorced. At nine years old, watching my family fall apart, I had never known such pain. I was also at my fourth new school in four years, as my family moved back and forth between cities. As the perennial new kid, I struggled to make friends.

At 10, I cut myself for the first time. It felt like I had opened a pressure valve in my chest. I could breathe. By the time I got to high school, the sadness became so overwhelming that I could no longer contain it. I stopped going to school. I hung out with people twice my age. I argued with my parents constantly. At 15, I made my first suicide attempt.

I needed intensive treatment, so I was checked into a psychiatric hospital and prescribed a cocktail of psychotropic medications. After six weeks, I was released on a “home contract”. In that contract, were the following rules, among others:

I survived a wilderness camp: ‘It’s not necessary to break a person’s will’ | Mental health
Teens are rarely included in decisions about mental health camps. Illustration: Lola Beltran/The Guardian

1. Don’t cut class.

2. Don’t drive the car.

3. Don’t hang out with unsafe people.

Two months after my hospital release, I broke every promise on the contract in one afternoon, when I drove my mom’s car without a license to meet my older boyfriend and crashed it. After the police called my mom, I’d never seen her so angry – or so scared. That’s when she called an educational consultant.

These consultants can refer teens to alternative educational services that can cost as much as a deposit on a house. The teen is hardly ever included in the decision. Ours convinced my mom that sending me to a wilderness program would help – with time in nature, I might regulate and heal. I was told it would be like a sleep-away summer camp: I’d live in a cabin, do day treks and see a therapist. At most, I thought I’d be gone for two weeks.

As I connected with the group – on hikes, around the campfire, fetching water – I learned more about everyone’s lives and stories. All had serious problems: disordered eating, substance abuse, self-harm, suicide attempts. One girl disappeared from home for weeks on a meth bender. Another purposefully broke her own arm. Almost every girl had a history of sexual trauma. Most of us had either been in a hospital or rehab beforehand. A few were on their second or third time in wilderness therapy.

We bonded by complaining about the rules and swapping our most shocking stories from home. If we had conversations out of earshot of a guide, we were given days of silence as a consequence. So we passed notes. The humor we managed to create about the whole situation, filtered through sarcastic quips, helped us get through.

The routine was rigid. In the morning we ate breakfast, packed up camp and hiked. Then, in the evening, we set up camp, cooked dinner and slept. We were taught survival skills, like making fire with a primitive bow drill set. We each harvested our own fire set, carving spindles from chopped wood and fashioning bows from branches. Every girl was always on the lookout for a cow’s ankle bone since those made the best handhold, the piece that applied pressure to the spindle while drilling.

There were many layers of discomfort: we were made to sleep on the ground and bathed once a week, with just a bucket of cold water. There was the mental discomfort of not knowing how long I would be there, or where I would go when it was over, as well as the emotional pain of being so far from home, from everyone I loved.

We all held onto memories and future fantasies like lanterns lighting the way – how it would feel to wash our faces again, dip our feet in the ocean. We kept lists of the food we would eat when we got out – banana pancakes, burritos with green salsa.

In the beginning, I hated the program and was resistant to authority. I found the rules oppressive and ridiculous – I had to yell my name when I went to the bathroom, so a guide always knew where I was. My shoes were confiscated every night to prevent me from running away. We were not allowed to know the time of day or the plans ahead, so we were always kept in the dark.

But there were parts of the program I started to enjoy. I wasn’t used to talking with friends about what I was really feeling. At home, I was so ashamed of how “wrong” I was and tried to hide it. There, I realized I was not as strange or alone as I had believed. After a week, I began to understand more about the philosophy of wilderness therapy: the challenges of living in nature were leading us to develop responsibility, adaptability and character.

While I accepted the physical hardship as part of it, we were forced to endure indignities that seemed gratuitous and cruel. We usually got our water from cow ponds, treating it with chlorine dioxide that did little for the taste. Sometimes we’d see cows defecating in the water while we filled our bottles. Ten days in, I got sick. Instead of allowing me to vomit on the ground, the guides forced me to throw up in a trash bag. They told me it was because I couldn’t leave a trace behind, but we buried our feces, so I knew it was because they were annoyed with me. They made me carry the bag of vomit for five days.

An illustrated girl lies in bed.
‘What was therapeutic about denying us basic dignities?’ Illustration: Lola Beltran/The Guardian

The next day, a guide forced me to drink laxatives since I hadn’t had a bowel movement in days. When I refused because they were making me nauseous, the guide told me the group wouldn’t be allowed to eat dinner unless I complied. Crying, I chugged the bottle. I felt completely helpless. I was developing what would become a key survival strategy throughout my entire time in treatment: to ignore my instincts and silence my voice to make progress in the program.

Later that night, I soiled my pants. When I begged a guide to borrow her headlamp to properly clean myself, she refused, saying I hadn’t “earned” a headlamp yet. I was humiliated, but Rose reassured me that everyone had gone through it.

“Shitting your pants is one of the levels here,” she joked, referring to the therapeutic levels students needed to complete for graduation. At that point, I had cried so much that I could only laugh. But I was still angry – what was therapeutic about denying us basic dignities?

Three weeks into the program, our families sent us “impact letters”, in which they described how our behavior had affected them. The process was supposed to help us understand the seriousness of the actions that got us there.

Instead of reading them privately, we had to read them for the first time to the group.

Everyone gathered in a circle, and I was handed one letter at a time: from my mom, my dad and my stepmom. My family wrote about their sadness and fear at my reflex towards self-harm; their anger and frustration with my dishonesty. And in every letter, they wrote that they loved me. And that nothing could ever change that.

“I sent you away on this program because you were on a path of self-destruction, and it seemed you had given up on working towards something better for yourself.

“I have watched your bright light turn dark, and it’s been sad and scary. I found so many tissues wadded up with blood from your cutting in your room.

“You didn’t seem to care about anything or anyone, including yourself. I worried the next step was all too real and might cause you permanent harm.”

When I finished reading, I felt such shame that I cried until I could barely breathe.

My therapist told me to make eye contact with everyone in the circle. I saw that all my friends had tears in their eyes. “I love you,” they each told me. If they could accept me with all my mistakes, perhaps I could forgive myself.

Nonetheless, these exercises were confusing. I was forced to share every mistake from my life, details that made me want to hide. And I had no choice but to stay in the discomfort of being seen. It was a violation of my boundaries, but the excruciating vulnerability was also healing.

The next week, we went through a therapeutic exercise called “solos”. We were alone for three days, separated from each other, but still checked on occasionally by a guide. The idea was to be in solitude and stillness and see what arose.

I was left alone with years of unprocessed grief, sadness and shame – feelings that I had tried desperately to numb. But now there was no escape. So I finally sat with my pain on the forest floor. “I am right here,” I whispered to my heart. “I am not going anywhere.”

After that experience, I began to feel a sense of competence, of worthiness. Slowly, I was creating a body of counter-evidence to all my stories about being defective: I was carrying everything I needed on my back, hiking for miles and miles, holding myself through my emotions. I started to feel clearer about who I was.

Away from the constant noise and pressures that all young people face, we rose with the sun, walked on the Earth, and cooked over a fire we made from sticks and rocks. How good it felt to live that way, the way people had for millennia – rooted in simplicity and connection.

The survival techniques I scoffed at became treasured skills. I learned how to navigate with a map, read constellations, identify plants. Orienting myself in the world helped me feel like I was truly a part of it and that I belonged.

Nature held us in her embrace and imparted lessons through her teachings. One night, I woke up during a thunderstorm, my sleeping bag submerged in water. I was soaked through to my bones. Before going to sleep, I had neglected to dig trenches around my shelter, even though I could tell it might rain. And now, I had hours of wet darkness ahead of me. Lesson learned: every choice I made led to an outcome.

At the very end of the program, my parents and brother came to visit me for a weekend of family therapy. For the first time in years, I could receive their tenderness – my mother secretly washing my hair with hotel shampoo she smuggled in, my father crying when he hugged me, my brother bringing me childhood photos of us from home. We started the process of mending our relationships. Sometimes I am still brought to tears thinking of how bitter and angry I had been before I got sent away, how I pushed them away for years.

The intentions of these programs can be well-meaning – to give young people a transformational experience through time in nature. And the practice is ancient, many cultures sent young people into the wilderness as a rite of passage towards adulthood.

What these programs fail to realize is that it is not necessary to break a person’s will to redirect it. Combining a healing experience with treatment that crosses into abuse is psychologically confusing. There is potential for harm in leading kids to believe that love and mistreatment can coexist in the same relationship. And it is unreasonable to expect that behaviors learned in a synthetic culture will sustain themselves when someone returns home. Of the people I met in wilderness, I know of three who died from suicide and overdose.

Occasionally, I tell people about my time in the wilderness – the months in the woods with only two sets of clothes and the boarding school that prescribed sleep deprivation and peer humiliation as therapy.

Most blink back at me with wide-eyed surprise.

“They did what?”

“That’s legal?”

“And your parents paid for it?”

I nod. Yes, yes and yes.

“I can’t believe you survived that,” they often say.

“Sometimes,” I reply, “I can’t believe I did either.”

In the US the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK and Irish Republic contact Samaritans on 116 123 or email [email protected] In Australia the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org