Approaching Substance Abuse Treatment with a Sense of Adventure

By Meghan Vivo

Wilderness therapy and adventure go hand in hand. Trekking through the forest, exploring unfamiliar territory with a group of new friends, and pushing your physical and emotional limits are all part of the wilderness experience.

But at Four Circles Recovery Center, an innovative addictions, substance abuse, and co-occurring mental health disorders treatment program for young adults in North Carolina, adventure takes on a whole new meaning. At Four Circles, wilderness expeditions are only the beginning of the adventure. The young men and women in the wilderness program also participate in week-long adventure trips that feature rock climbing, fly fishing, and other adrenaline-pumping activities.

Adventure trips are not only a fun recreational outlet for the young men and women undergoing substance abuse treatment, but also serve an important therapeutic purpose.

“Adventure activities like rock climbing and fly fishing give our clients more opportunities for peak experiences, which have proven to aid in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse,” says Heather Schnoebelen, MA, LPC, the Clinical Director at Four Circles. “We’ve achieved great success with our ropes course, sweat lodge, and solo experiences, so we decided to incorporate even more of these confidence- and skills-building experiences into treatment.”

Staying in the Present Moment

Both rock climbing and fly fishing are activities that help young adults in recovery stay mindful of the present moment rather than worrying about the things they did in the past, or what may happen in the future. Schnoebelen, who is an avid rock climber in her free time, finds that she is 100 percent present with herself, the rock, and what’s going on around her while she’s climbing.

Being in nature is meditative and relaxing, and helps young men and women clear their heads and tackle the difficult work of recovery. Located near Asheville, North Carolina, Four Circles is an ideal place to enjoy adventure in the great outdoors. With multiple climbing areas within two hours of the Four Circles campus and a number of nearby streams and ponds, the adventure curriculum is an incredible way to connect with the natural world – a connection that is an obvious complement to a wilderness therapy program.

An Exercise in Metaphor

Adventure activities like rock climbing and fly fishing are rich with metaphor, giving staff and therapists at Four Circles new opportunities to explore the issues underlying each client’s substance abuse.

According to Schnoebelen, some young people approach rock climbing with such trepidation, they give up before they even try. Others become argumentative or angry, refusing to engage in the task at all. Still others, in spite of being terrified of heights, will boldly run up the rock face without assessing the risks. These behavior patterns are often a metaphor for the way each person approaches life. When confronted with challenge or stress, they give up, fight back, or throw caution to the wind.

“When you’re up on the side of a rock wall, looking at a 50-foot climb, it can bring out a person’s fears, trust issues, and behavior patterns very quickly,” explains Schnoebelen. “Some clients may express fears of failure or a lack of trust in their equipment, the staff, or the professional guides; others may refuse to climb at all. Whatever issues arise, these experiences have immense therapeutic value as we process the emotions and work to overcome the obstacles that have hindered their progress in the past.”

Achieving Success, Realizing the Possibilities

The hope of the staff at Four Circles is that each new adventure experience will breed small successes and give each client a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence. Just as they question their ability to scale the mountainside, young people may not think a life without drugs or alcohol is possible, but when they push their limits and step outside their comfort zone, they realize the vastness of the possibilities.

Both rock climbing and fly fishing are activities that ask participants to start with the basics and build on their skills until they master the sport. Clients may initially feel frustrated and unsure of themselves, but as they gather knowledge and practice their skills, they begin to build confidence in their ability to try new things and succeed. They begin to wonder, “If I can do this, what else can I do?”

As with all components of the substance abuse treatment program at Four Circles, the staff takes the highest safety precautions during adventure trips. In addition to hiring professional guides, there is always a minimum of four staff members and a therapist with the groups during adventure week. In line with the program’s philosophy of “challenge by choice,” clients are never forced to participate in any of the activities, but are encouraged to observe and learn along with the group.

Having Fun in Recovery

At its core, addiction is often the result of young people trying to fill a void or find meaning in what they perceive as an otherwise disappointing life. Although adventure trips do not necessarily resolve substance abuse issues by themselves, reigniting a passion for living can be an important component of addiction recovery.

For this reason, the adventure curriculum at Four Circles is designed to teach young men and women how to have fun in recovery. During treatment, they will be introduced to heart-pounding activities that make them feel excited and energized without using drugs or alcohol.

“We want to send the message to our clients that recovery is about more than 12-step work and talk therapy,” says Schnoebelen. “It is also about making time to take care of yourself and enjoying all of the blessings that life has to offer.”