The Griffin family was near crisis as their son Peter struggled to stay afloat. The winter woods provided a turnaround.
A group of teenagers hikes deep into the Chequamegon National Forest, hauling tents, backpacks of gear and the lasting baggage of past traumas. They come from different places, but they share a common story. They have been sent deep into the Northwoods as part of a New Vision Wilderness therapy program, where their search for recovery begins.
The lush, isolated woods in northern Wisconsin lend themselves well to a unique approach to therapy. The wilderness serves as the perfect setting to leave behind the anxiety and constant connectivity of modern society, according to New Vision co-founder Drew Hornbeck.
Isolation is what makes wilderness therapy effective, Hornbeck says. When taken outside their homes and comfort zones, people begin to address the deep-seated issues that led them there.
Wilderness therapy combines the challenge of wilderness expeditions with intensive therapeutic immersion, Hornbeck says. The kids in his program hike through the woods with tents on their backs, but they also have traditional one-on-one sessions with a therapist each week.
Programs like his are an option for struggling youth who need treatment to deter them from a dangerous future. Some are spiraling downward and need intervention; others are already in the trenches.
“In some cases, wilderness therapy provides a healthy and challenging alternative to something like incarceration,” Hornbeck says.
In 1997, after graduating from the University of Minnesota, Hornbeck moved to Montana to work with teenagers who were court-ordered to a wilderness therapy program. These programs have been his life’s work ever since.
Hornbeck eventually returned home to Wisconsin, where he and Steve Sawyer founded New Vision Wilderness. With New Vision, he emphasized bringing certified clinicians and their methods into the wild.
“We camp with the kids two nights a week, where we’re immersed [with them],” New Vision Wilderness Therapy Counselor, Amanda Mosse, says. “So we’re there with the kids, and we’re able to address when things come up in the moment rather than days down the road.”
The need for trained staff is high, as New Vision sees clients who struggle with issues ranging from substance abuse to obsessive compulsive disorder, among many others.
According to Hornbeck, New Vision specializes in unresolved trauma histories, and many of its clients are attempting to recover from an incident that occurred long ago.
The difference, he says, is simply being out in nature. It’s empowering, he says, to realize that you can survive and gain self-sufficiency while out in the wilderness. As his clients haul their belongings on their backs, they begin to take control of their lives.
“[Nature] removes the kids from their current environment, where there’s probably a lot of dysregulation going on,” Mosse says. “And they’re allowed to utilize some of that calmness to start practicing healthy coping skills.”
The isolation of the woods, Hornbeck adds, is the perfect atmosphere for reflection. Clients are removed from the stressors of daily life, unplugged from the constant connectivity of modern society. The wilderness allows them to be fully removed.
Ellen Griffin and her son Peter seem the picture of a happy, communicative family.
That ease was hard-won. Two years ago, Griffin reached the moment when she decided enough was enough.
Academically gifted but plagued by anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Peter struggled to succeed in school. A week into the ninth grade, he was already behind in every class.
“We just thought, how could you let this happen?” Griffin says. “But what was really happening to him internally was that his self-confidence was very low, and he was scared and afraid that he couldn’t do it.”
Peter knew that he was sinking into a hole. His lack of confidence and wealth of mistakes led him to start lying. He knew he was in a hole, but was unable to start digging his way out.
“Lying became a way of life for him,” Griffin says. “And that just got worse and worse the more he started realizing he wasn’t going to make it.”
Peter began stealing money from his parents, eroding their trust. The Griffins’ home life suffered as Peter did. Peter’s struggles occupied an enormous portion of their time and energy. With four kids, however, Griffin and her husband knew they couldn’t let their lives revolve around their second child.
Determined to stave off a crisis, Griffin and her husband sought the help of an educational consultant. In Griffin’s mind, it was just a consultation. She didn’t know if the counselor would recommend a therapeutic day school somewhere nearby or what.
“I just wanted to go and listen to what she had to say, just to be prepared for that ‘someday if,’” Griffin says.
It was during the meeting that the gravity of their situation hit home.
The Griffins’ consultant recommended wilderness therapy, an option they had never heard of.
“Right there in her office, I thought, ‘What are we waiting for?’” Griffin says.
Griffin and her husband knew their son needed help, and they trusted their consultant. Hours later, Ellen was on the phone with New Vision Wilderness.
Peter remembers the night, about two weeks later, when New Vision counselors showed up at his house. The visit was a surprise to Peter. He left his house and ran into the night, climbing a neighbor’s tree and sitting in silence.
The Griffins were undeterred. Peter stayed silent during the next day’s six-hour drive to the Chequamegon National Forest in northwest Wisconsin.
From the moment Peter said goodbye to his crying parents and hiked out into the forest, he fought the healing process.
“I was challenging and questioning everything—every instruction I was given,” he says. “I was fighting it for the sake of fighting it.”
After a short time in the woods, Peter says, he began to acclimate to his new lifestyle. As is standard practice at New Vision, Peter’s counselors did not keep him updated on the date or time.
“You live in the moment, and it’s not because you’re confined in the moment,” he says. “It’s because you feel like the moment is all there is.”
A lifelong lover of the outdoors, it didn’t take long for Peter to feel at home among the Chequamegon’s tall maple trees. He made the woods his own and created his own language to describe the new discoveries he made each day.
“There’s a group of boys in the wilderness, and they’re learning about things they’ve never seen before, and they’re not going to know what to call them so they’re going to make up their own names,” Peter says. “We had random names plus local names for trees, plants [and] wildlife.”
Even as the fall days turned to one of Wisconsin’s coldest winters, Peter felt a strong connection to the woods. The Chequamegon, in his eyes, was a trustworthy provider.
“[The woods] is like, ‘I’ll take care of what time it is, I’ll take care of waking you up, I’ll take care of everything; except for your basic needs,’” Peter says. “It’s like the expression, ‘you do you,’ that’s all you have to worry about. You’re responsible for yourself.”
It was a therapeutic time for him. His newfound comfort allowed him to stop denying that he needed help. After stealing food from the other members of his group, he was forced to confront himself.
“If you’re working through your stuff, you look like a mess,” he says. “Because you’re not ignoring [your problems] anymore.”
This newfound sense of purpose helped Peter get his confidence back.
“When you’re living in the woods, you really have very little that you can call yours,” he says. “So you end up making beautiful things out of sticks. Your prized hiking stick, your bow drill, all this stuff that’s made out of things you find.”
It wasn’t all progress for Peter. He would move forward, then find himself stuck in old habits.
“‘If you’re doing well, why would you want to take a step backwards?” Griffin says. “One of the hardest concepts for me to learn is that when someone gets so used to being one way, it’s really hard to be different.”
Peter stayed in the woods for the whole winter. He left home on November 4, 2013 and did not leave the National Forest until February 22, 2014. To his family, it felt like a lifetime.
“The whole process takes so much longer than you think, and I’m glad I didn’t realize that up front,” Griffin says. “I don’t think I would have had the courage.”
While Peter was gone, his family both awaited and worried about his arrival home.
A sudden homecoming is rarely a reality. According to Hornbeck, wilderness therapy is typically the first of several steps. As many as 70 percent of New Vision clients immediately continue to another therapeutic option.
Peter was among the majority. When his wilderness therapy was completed in February, he did not return to Chicago. Instead, he went to a therapeutic boarding school in Salt Lake City.
“Peter was the one saying, ‘I want to come home so badly, but I know I’m not ready,’” Griffin says.
In August, he was finally home, where his five family members surrounded him and where he needed to remember to clean his room.
“[Peter] was scared to come home, which always surprised me,” Griffin says. “Unfortunately, it was a real eye-opener, the number of kids that are in these programs that don’t have loving families. Nobody here was angry with Peter or had any grudges.”
Griffin says that many kids in Peter’s position face an uncertain homecoming. They try to extend their stays in the woods, afraid of coming home to apathetic or angry families who are unwilling to accept their child’s struggles.
As ready as she was to have her son at home, Griffin knew that his homecoming was the ultimate test.
“It’s like putting an alcoholic back in the bar,” she says. “His biggest concern was whether we would allow him to be the new person that he promised himself and us that he would be. And he’s been awesome.”
Although Peter returned to a home filled with memories of the past, he and his family feel he has started a new life. With space and time between him and his wilderness experience, he starts to see how far he’s come.
“You mature quickly there in a different way than you do here,” he says. “You’re a different person by the time you leave. A kid who’s on his way out couldn’t for the life of him convince a kid who’s on his way in that the program is worth it.”