Great Barrington — Tim Walsh was 15 years old when his parents threatened to send him to Outward Bound, the premier provider of experience-based outdoor learning and leadership programs for youth and adults. “If I go, I’m admitting I have a problem—and I don’t want to admit I have a problem,” he remembered thinking about his early substance use. So he ran away from home instead. Three decades later, Walsh has made it his business to talk with young people, not about substance-abuse prevention but substance-use awareness. And there is a difference. His classroom is the great outdoors, a space into which participants are invited to join in adventures that, by virtue of their unpredictability, allow individuals to problem-solve their way through challenges, which is a key component of the human condition and not simply for those who struggle with substance use.
“Nature, by nature, is very dynamic and alive,” is how Walsh sees it. And teenagers get it, which means there is often no need for any deep, philosophical conversation. “Let’s go have an adventure!” is the starting point; the natural progression then leads to, “How are things going?” Research shows that kids who are deeply connected to nature and their place in nature are much less likely to misuse and abuse themselves, one another and substances—it’s what Walsh calls the prevention model, noting that nature teaches “a level of self-respect and mutual respect that is not being taught in any other environment.”
Walsh is the founder of Adventure Recovery, a recovery-focused adventure-guide service that leads clients through the external and internal wilderness. Since the spring, he and his team have been partnering with Railroad Street Youth Project (RSYP) to offer weekly drop-in adventures on Thursday afternoons between 3:15 and 5:15 p.m. His target audience? Any young person, up to age 25, who is keen on getting support around substance use, whether s/he is in the experimental process and doing fine with no issues or engaged in substance use and has run into some challenges. Regardless of the individual, Walsh and his team of Adventure Recovery guides offer a safe space in which to explore options and engage in frank, open and nonjudgmental conversation. “We are not going to grill you,” Walsh promised, “and we’re not here to ask you a ton of questions. That’s your story to tell when you are ready to tell it,” he added. But one thing is certain: “We would love to see more kids.” On the recovery side, the majority of approaches being offered are talk-oriented, which is where the majority of approaches lie for people addressing substance abuse and mental health issues—not Adventure Recovery. In fact the RSYP group was quickly renamed, by an 11-year-old participant, Adventure Discovery, in a nod to the fact that the recovery piece might be keeping kids away. Walsh keeps his adventures rooted in a piece of wisdom he picked up years ago, one that hit him like a ton of bricks: Let the mountain speak for itself.
“When you take people outside, even if, from point A to point B, there is likely some struggle involved,” explained Walsh, “it is the moment of challenge, struggle, failure, and trying again that allow us to keep progressing naturally until you find what you are looking for: that moment of bliss, in a sense, where you catch the wave, blast through the rapid or achieve the climb.” These are the peak moments—the aha moments—that are both physically and emotionally rewarding. In fact, these are the documented side effects of such adventures. “Neurobiologically, [nature is] triggering all the natural pharmacy of the brain that people use substances for in the first place,’ said Walsh, which means time spent in the great outdoors “makes you fired up.”
Despite the myriad changes Walsh has undergone in the ensuing years (he has been in recovery himself for 27 years), one thing remains constant: The No. 1 concern of teens who struggle with substance abuse remains, “I don’t want to get sent away.” Walsh remembers being there at the tender age of 15, which is why his motto is really simple, one about which he is adamant: You do you—just make sure you are doing it safely. This translates to helping young people define their own boundaries by engaging in a conversation about awareness: What are these things we call drugs? Where do they come from? What are the key ingredients that make them do what they do? By the way, what do they do? “Literally the 101 on what are drugs, why they work, how they work and why people are inclined to use them,” Walsh explained before pointing out another stark reality: We have created a whole culture around avoiding the conversation in the first place and another whole culture that is confrontational when the topic does come up, which is why Walsh and his Adventure Recovery model aim to deviate from the platform of demonization. Did you know that thing called “runner’s high” is actually triggered not by dopamine but rather endocannabinoids that are produced naturally in the body? If one looks hard enough, it starts to make sense.
Last month, Walsh and a handful of local youth ventured to Falls Village, Connecticut, to go river surfing. The original plan had been to navigate a Tyrolean traverse—a method of crossing through free space between two high points on a rope sans hanging cart or equivalent—but the river was calling to Walsh. He noticed, while en route to Great Barrington, a free-flowing portion of the river that was usually diverted by the power plant. As it was shut down for the day, all the water going through the Rattlesnake section of the river formed up to create “a great place to teach river surfing,” Walsh explained. “The consequences of where you swim are very low [and it’s] easy to fall off the wave and get back on,” he explained. To top it off, the group that showed up had taken a river trip a few weeks earlier, and it presented a great opportunity to continue the learning process. “The metaphor of adventure in relation to everyone’s journey and struggle in life is the perfect teacher because you don’t have to explain it,” Walsh said. “The metaphor speaks for itself.”
As to the takeaway lessons that directly relate to recovery? “Know your outs,” Walsh teaches, in a nod to the river excursion where participants must identify multiple options to get off the river before embarking. And if trouble crops up? “Where can I go for help as safely as possible?” It’s something Walsh calls “positive risk management.” If you find yourself at the top of a 40-foot cliff and you spy a pool below, are you going to jump in and learn the hard way? Or will you find another way in, swim carefully, find the bottom, explore and make an educated decision? In nature, this rationale seems rational, but when it comes to discussing substance use with teens, not so much. “Who are the adults in the equation, besides those pushing the substances, who will help you to navigate the journey?” Walsh wants to know. “What are the alternatives?” And perhaps most importantly: “This is not your fault.” Teenagers are open and willing to trust—it’s part of their natural brain development—but they give us one chance. “If you blow it, you’re not getting it back,” Walsh cautions, which is why he is helping them to be discerning—to know when to get off the proverbial river—thereby “activating the biology that is already available to [them].” And above all else? When in doubt, chicken out.
“We don’t take unnecessary risks, [despite the fact that] others perceive these adventures as high-risk.” It’s what Walsh calls calculated risk, a practice that hinges on developing skills to help individuals navigate the risks rather than simply avoiding them. Walsh is not a therapist, despite holding myriad positions at treatment centers from Mountainside to Newport Academy; his work continually revolves around getting a better sense of the clinical approaches while always seeking the next adventure, as well as sharing his passion with others. When a young person reaches out for help, what Walsh has found most effective, more than a phone call or a cup of coffee, is a walk in the woods; the smallest of steps designed to build a lasting relationship. “When you guide a teen to becoming [a climber or a paddler], the core of the relationship emerges: You trust one another; have an epic experience; and make an instant, lifelong friendship,” he explained of time exploring nature. “It’s what fills me up, what fills my soul, [and is] truly the deepest connection to a clinical higher power that I can find in my life.”