Therapy Without Walls

I frequently get asked the question, "What is a recreational therapist?"  I am always hesitant to respond.  As I explain that I go rock climbing and wake boarding and spend long hours fishing and canoeing with adolescents, people don’t always believe that I have a real job.  I’ve been accused of making a living by playing hard. While there is some truth to that statement, recreational therapy is so much more than just lying out in the sun catching rays, or taking a joy ride on a boat with the wind in your hair.  I can’t always step back at the end of the day and look at what I’ve accomplished because so much of the work happens deep in the hearts and heads of the youth I work with.

It is difficult for most adolescents to connect with their feelings and talk about relationships, especially when there is a history of trauma or abuse.  At times sitting down in an office can inspire fear and an unwillingness to open up.  This is particularly obvious when a student begins treatment.  Within the recreational therapy department our goal is to get rid of the literal walls surrounding therapy, so that students begin to let their own personal walls down.  Fortunately Calo’s location allows for wonderful and exciting outdoor opportunities year round. 

As students participate in experiential exercises they have opportunities to expose very genuine and sometimes very intense fears that are hidden deep within.  Take for example two boys I once took out on a canoe.  One of them was very experienced and the other was just learning.  In an attempt to paddle from point A to point B these two boys successfully completed numerous circles until eventually the experienced boy got angry and jumped out.  Filled with frustration he swam to shore and swore never to share a canoe with his partner again.  His partner, now afraid and alone, threw down his paddle and yelled for help.  It was tempting to hurry out and rescue the boy still begging for help, but in doing so a great therapeutic opportunity would have been missed. 

After some validation and persuasion the experienced boy on shore agreed to swim back to the boat and accompany his stranded partner back to dry land.  This was not an impressive sight to behold.  The two of them struggled and zigzagged until they finally made it back to shore.  I was able to sit down with this frustrated partnership and discuss two issues that were meaningful to both of these boys.  The first issue was abandonment.  We had a great discussion about how tempting it is to abandon others when they are holding us back.  We were also able to discuss what it feels like to be abandoned.  The boys were able to connect the dots when I asked my favorite question, "How is that like your life?"  Suddenly there was a safe opportunity for these boys to share insights and feelings about their own adoption experiences.  The vulnerability demonstrated in this conversation opened doors that led to a discussion about helplessness.  The boy left in the canoe had everything he needed to get himself back to dry land.  His fear however, had hindered his ability to look for solutions.  Again the question, "How is that like your life?" was begging to be asked.  The connection made with those two boys that day inspired a friendship that grew and lasted a long time.  From that point on a portion of empathy for one another helped them support each other through difficult times and frustrating moments.

It may very well be true that I have the greatest job on earth.  However, it is not because I get to spend my afternoons scouting out the lake’s best fishing holes, or because I get to climb around on our exciting ropes course each week.  I have the greatest job on earth because I get to be an active participant in the process of building and repairing relationships with impressive boys and girls, then observe how the values and principles we learn together are applied to relationships in their lives as they strive for interdependence with their parents and family members.  The memories of the fun we have will certainly last a long, long time, but the principles of communication, trust and service that we discover together will hopefully bless their lives forever.