Rites of Passage: Cabot Therapists offer eco-therapy for Teens

By David W. Smith in The Times Argus
Cabot, Vermont, March 20, 2000

To Dr. Israel Helfand, hazing practices recently brought to light in the ranks of the University of Vermont’s hockey team are a natural thing.

It’s not a healthy thing, mind you, but the practice of older players putting new recruits through a series of humiliating steps is not about power. It’s about the need for ritual. In the absence of organized cultural marking points in young people’s lives, they create their own.

“There is an intuitive knowing of what needs to go on,” said Helfand, a psychotherapist in the process of setting up an unconventional practice on his family’s farm in Cabot. “Young people know that something needs to be happening and that it’s age-appropriate for them. Unfortunately, that’s where it goes downhill.”

In the modem world, marriage is about the only ritual we still observe that honors our passage into adulthood. While older cultures put young people through trials and ceremonies designed to heighten their awareness of what it means to be a responsible adult, modem teenagers are generally left to their own devices, he said.

‘We joke now that the rites of teen passage are sex, drugs and rock’n’roll,” said Cathie Helfand, Israel’s wife, and colleague.

Destructive behavior in young people is only part of the problem, she said. Teenagers grow into “floundering? adults, unable to understand how they should act like adults, thinking only of themselves and demanding immediate gratification from all things.

Recognizing a need, the Helfands decided to conduct an experiment. This summer they’ll take a group of . local young people into the woods and give them a unique chance to reflect on changes going on in their lives. The Teen Rite Project will be the latest addition to the couple’s practice of unconventional therapy through experience and marks the debut of their 20-year-old practice in central Vermont.

The couple has honed their skills conducting workshops for couples, businesses and men’s groups at the practice Israel built in Danbury, Conn., and a brief period in Norwich. For the past three years, they’ve concentrated on getting their farm up and running, but are ready to revive the practice – Four Seasons Healing Inc.

“I wanted to homestead. I wanted to live on an old farm,” said Israel, who raises pigs and chickens and grows most of his family’s food. “This is the first time we’ve really come out and said that we’re opening a counseling center.”

Rocking back and forth with nervous energy in a chair in the loft of the 1800s farmhouse they’ve restored in an appropriately funky rural style, Israel is a direct contrast to Cathie. She perches serenely on the edge of a raised section of floor.

The couple met in graduate school, performing improvised scenarios useful in teaching people to recognize their own behavior. They’ve managed to use their chemistry both in life and work, often counseling couples together. Many clients feel this puts patient and therapist on the same level, and subsequently, they open up more freely.

“The Mutt and Jeff thing works well,” said Cathie.

The five-day Teen Rite Project, like other counseling retreat-type programs they’ve conducted, will begin with a series of ceremonies emphasizing changes forthcoming in the participants’ lives. For example, they might hold a fire ceremony where objects symbolizing parts of their former selves are sacrificed.

Teenagers also learn outdoor and meditation skills in preparation for the solo portion of the program. For a day they will be alone into the woods to contemplate the portion of themselves which must be let go, and figure out what they want from the adult world.

This “vision quest,” is the heart of many of Four Seasons’ therapies, according to the Helfands.

“It’s during the quiet periods where often the most profound insights take place,” said Israel.

If this doesn’t sound like therapy to you, that’s the point. While Israel was trained in classical, clinical psychotherapy, his love of the outdoors and gut feeling that the therapist’s couch was not what most people need has driven him to take a different approach to counseling.

“Ninety percent of people in therapy aren’t dealing with mental illness; they’re dealing with problems in living,” said Israel, who likes to concentrate on teaching patients skills rather than examining them on the unequal ground of a doctor’s office. “There are a lot of people out there who have a bad taste in their mouth about therapy because they don’t want psychotherapy. They don’t want that hierarchy.”

The couple’s “un-therapy” – also called eco-therapy or holistic counseling – is a combination of formal training combined with their experience leading backpacking trips, role-playing, hypnosis and group dynamics filtered through a modem sensibility about ancient practices of ritual and healing.

For Cathie, who has a master’s degree in therapy, it’s very important to conduct programs in the natural world.

“You go walking along and you see things that mirror your life,” said Cathie. “The lessons are all there. Nature helps with therapy so much. It makes our job easy.”

She likes to tell the story of a wealthy man who had separated himself from the others during a group therapy retreat conducted while the Helfands lived in Norwich. He was discovered weeping by a bed of flowers planted next to a yard where pigs were kept.

“He said ‘you know, this is my life it looks beautiful but it stinks,’” said Cathie.

It was Israel’s own vision quest that led him to Vermont. While he had a thriving practice in Connecticut with seven therapists working for him, he wasn’t happy and didn’t want to be a father with no time for their two children.

Israel, who worked his way through school as a carpenter, has spent the last few years renovating the house and learning to be a farmer. Cathie has taught part-time at Woodbury College and Central Vermont Community College in Springfield.

“It’s time to go back to work,” he laughed.

The pair has continued to conduct therapy sessions for families and couples based on contacts they brought with them from Connecticut. They’ve also held seminars for men’s groups, businesses and other therapists. In addition, they have a mobile woodfired hot tub they rent out as a fundraiser and advertising hook.

While their initial plans to fund the Teen Rites Project with money from the town of Cabot’s Urban Development Action Grant fund fell through, they still intend to hold the seminar They will show a videotape at several local high schools in the coming weeks, and will help the six to 12 selected students formulate a fundraising plan. Four Seasons is a not-for-profit organization, so Israel said they will probably accept whatever amount of money the students are able to earn as payment.

“If we get a good response, we’ll add a second program,” said Israel.