If you have been following our work, you will know that Nature Therapy CIC were fortunate enough to receive a Big Lottery grant to be the very first not for profit organisation in the UK to run a Wolf Medicine programme for individuals in recovery.
Prior to gaining this grant we undertook substantial research into the possibility of involving wolves and what function they would serve. This included exploring the meaning given to wolves down through history as well as contemporary cultural perceptions of an animal long since extinct from our wild nature bank.
We also drew heavily on our own knowledge and expertise in delivering horse medicine and looked at how the wolf and horse might differ in engaging participants. A key factor in working with those in recovery is offering something that excites and engages as individuals may have been through all types of programmes in their recovery journey. The horse might engage one client whilst a wolf another simply because they offer insights into different aspects of our own characteristics and interests.
A framework of research evidence was established around the programme design that included Metaphor Therapy, Wilderness Theory, Ancient Knowledge, Creative Arts, Animal Assisted and Eco Therapies as well as Mindfulness.
Once we had in place the basic framework, the programme was piloted with 23 individuals to see what needed to be adapted to meet the identified needs of our proposed client group. We were helped in this by the willingness of the local substance misuse service to ask their clients if they wanted to be involved in co-creating a brand new and very unique way of supporting others in recovery. A marked component of many people going through recovery is their willingness to help others.
One of my main concerns in creating this programme was we talk about ‘the wolf within’ and how to connect with this inner wolf to gain resilience to what life will throw at us. I was concerned that an individual who had experience of psychosis might literally believe there was a wolf within which could seriously impact on their well-being. Four people on the pilot did indeed have either a diagnosis of schizophrenia or had psychotic episodes but ultimately they reported the programme to be an enjoyable success as far as they were concerned. They also added that I shouldn’t unduly worry about ‘over egging the metaphor stuff’ as they perfectly understood it was not a real wolf.
The whole concept of not being a ‘real’ wolf is an interesting one as neuroplasticity is demonstrating that to our physical bodies it does not matter what is real and what is imagined as the physiological responses are the same. Thus, even if we only imagine we have the strength of a wolf, we are just as likely to experience the impact of that strength as if we really did have that strength. The power of the mind it seems is unlimited.
Contact with real wolves however is limited to just one session out of the six week course but it was entirely obvious right from the start this is the essential element of the overall programme. No amount of therapeutic research, models or theories can compensate for the experience of actually interacting with a beautiful wild animal. When a wild animal validates you it is an extremely powerful message that says you are a worthy part of this universe.
Howling with wolves it seems speaks to us on a very basic level. It is a call to connect, to feel you are part of the pack and you are not being judged by past behaviours or mistakes. Wolves don’t label us with the judgemental names constructed by the socially inept to make themselves seem superior. Language such as ‘druggie’, ‘junkie’, ‘alchie’ or ‘addict’ has no place in Wolf World. Wolves have no such perceptions. If you are part of the pack you are cared for by the others and in turn you care for them. If you can’t hunt, food will be bought to you. When you get old or sick you still have a place watching out for the pups. No wolf gets left behind.
Wolf loyalty is fierce. They mate for life and the female will watch out for the throat of the male by positioning herself under him when there are any threats.
This fierce protective and loyal nature of the wolf is what gives it strength to survive in some of the most inhospitable places on earth and always under threat from human’s hunters.
It seems participants strongly identify with the wolf. They too can feel ostracised and painted by society in poor light. They too live in a shadowland trying to bury part of their lives. They too have been stereotyped like the big bad wolf in Red Riding Hood with all the ills of our culture being laid at their door.
As participants learn more about wolves and how they walk their own path, so they become inspired to follow in their paw prints. The ancients knew only too well that the wolf gives us survival strategies to draw on in a crisis.
For example a wolf chooses its fights carefully. It cannot risk being injured and unable to fulfil its function or it could put itself and the pack at risk. Just recently I felt cornered by a situation which I knew there was no chance of winning as I was up against a powerful but deeply flawed system. I turned to my inner wolf for help with what to do - just roll over and accept the situation by showing my belly and expose my vulnerable throat for a savaging, show no fear and turn to fight, or simply pass stealthily through the mess with my nose to the wind and an eye on the future.
By turning to face the enemy and holding my ground I knew I would go down in a blaze and give myself a modicum of respect. If nothing else I might even exude a hint of madness and savagery that might make others think twice. Yet by turning to wolf for help I knew her strategy would be to only turn and fight when the odds were so stacked against her that there was no other option. Why waste all that effort and energy fighting a battle I could not possibly win simply to save face. What does a wolf care about face. As much as I wanted to bare my teeth and rip apart all around I chose to pass quietly into the shadows with my wolf by my side. I needed her symbolism to protect me from my own ego.
The ancients used animal symbolism to help them draw on the strengths and skills of a species and for the wolf it has always been about survival. Wolf teaches strength, connection and protection and these are all also factors that help individuals build resilience as they try to survive in this brave new world. So, we are specifically measuring if there is any change in resilience from taking part in the programme.
Wolf Medicine is already surfacing some important issues about resilience and recovery. One of the key points for us has been the majority of participants to date state they are more likely to trust a wolf than a human. So we needed to know how wolf can help re-build a destroyed belief in humankind. We are doing this by structuring the programme around enhancing each of our five senses so an individual becomes more in tune about what they senses are telling them in any given situation. Bearing in mind that often people with a history of addiction can be so divorced from sensory experiences at times they have no recognition of hunger and thirst.
Wolf Medicine is uncovering heart breaking stories that are as painful to hear as to tell, but it is also showing the strength of the human spirit and what can be achieved when we once again connect with our inner selves through interacting with nature with all our senses.