As a relationship therapist and owner of the Vail Relationship Institute (VRI), Jessica Waclawski says her subspecialization of treating backcountry-related traumas has evolved organically, simply as part of living in the Vail Valley.
Adventurers treasure the wilderness surrounding Vail. Unfortunately, there is a darker side to living in a wild environment prized for high-risk, adrenaline-pumping activities.
“It’s like PTSD is in the water we drink,” Jessica said. “Live here long enough, and you will know someone who dies.”
Physical vs. Mental Health: A Canyon of Care
What's typically written about mountain rescues primarily covers only the physical trauma. Yet Jessica noticed a large gap between the advanced support available for physical injuries and the need for mental health treatment for people dealing with rescues. People facing these kinds of traumas often may not even recognize they need help.
When Jessica first started working with this niche over four years ago, she said, "I remember asking, ‘What about the rescuers, how are they being supported psychologically?’ I got stares.” She said. “It's a huge canyon of care.”
Mountain rescue volunteer and intern Brian Magee, who is earning a Master’s in Counseling, currently leads VRI's Wilderness Trauma Program. He is a rock climber, kayaker, mountain biker, snowboarder, and overall adventurer, but he’s also a believer in making self-care a priority. He guides men’s groups, helping men go deeper into their emotional selves.
Treating wilderness active communities is very different than treating people with standard trauma. Fortunately, Vail Relationship Institute has partnered with a wonderful nonprofit that provides funding for people who have experienced traumatic loss, through the Climbing Grief Fund of the Alpine Climbing Association.
Jessica said this has been so helpful in allowing VPI to offer free PTSD trauma screening.
A Mountain Guide of the Heart
Jessica sees herself as a "life teacher" rather than a therapist. She said, “I’m more of a guide on the path, a mountain guide of the heart. I can show you where we need to go, but you are the expert of yourselves and others. You know you.”
Jessica relies on emotionally focused therapy to serve clients who are single, committed, married, or experiencing heartbreak. The cornerstone of her practice is the belief that relationships matter most.
When we show up open heartedly, we know we risk getting hurt. So sometimes we shut down to protect ourselves. Human evolution has led us to do this. However, Jessica points out there is also a cost to showing up guarded. This is true in our work, our activities, and our relationships.
Showing up with an open heart begins within your relationship to yourself, then ripples out to your interpersonal relationships. Healed relationships have what she calls a “multiplier effect.” Jessica’s therapy clients have become, as examples, more engaged parents, more compassionate business leaders, better employees, and more loving family members.
Jessica explains, “If I'm more at peace with myself, you want to be around me more. It greases the wheel. If I'm not at peace, I'm living in fear of mistakes and worried about performance and job loss rather than compassion, understanding and growth.”
She focuses on creating safety in the therapeutic space. “It’s often emotional territory, where vulnerability changes the rhythm of the dance,” she said.
We need a safe space in order to feel our way through pain, which is the healing process. Jessica said, “It’s about showing up more open hearted, even in great suffering and pain. Saying ‘I’m not going to close out my heart, I’m going to feel all of this.’ When we close our hearts, we create ripples of disconnection. That’s the most painful thing we can do especially in times of hardship.”
“It’s about showing up more open hearted, even in great suffering and pain. Saying ‘I’m not going to close out my heart, I’m going to feel all of this.’ When we close our hearts, we create ripples of disconnection. That’s the most painful thing we can do especially in times of hardship.” -- Jessica Waclawski
Therapy in the Era of COVID-19
Jessica said the couples she was working with before the pandemic hit did so much better than couples who were new to therapy, which intuitively made sense to her. In fact, most of her current clients reported lockdowns and similar challenges being good for their relationship, because they knew the ingredients to "know how to cook" -- to have hard conversations, to meet one another with more grace and love.
She did see a huge, continuous influx of new client requests, because crisis heightens unresolved disconnections. Rather than throwing a rug over the matter, post-pandemic couples were forced to face their unhealed fractures. It's a beautiful and challenging opportunity for these couples.
Even as we've been dealing with a pandemic, people are once again finding ways to get back into overwork and distraction.
Jessica said, “We constantly need to be working together to invite in permission to slow down and connect.”
Jessica said couples too often ignore early the patterns of disconnection. There’s a myth that we should be able to solve relationship problems on our own, but that’s fear talking. We’re wired to rely and trust others and ask for help and reach.
Unfortunately, most of us were not taught how to relate well. Most of us come from models of relationships that aren’t very healthy. Jessica said with that background, “Why the heck would we know what to do?”
This is where therapy can help.
Treating Mountain Men and Women
Jessica helps men and women in relationships by offering workshops, retreats, and other experiences--like couples intensives--to cultivate connections.
One of her most popular programs, The MTN, is a 6-week series that provides therapeutic coaching and other support to individuals and couples looking to strengthen and repair their relationships. Individuals may or may not do the program alongside their partner, but the approach benefits to couples.
With MTN men and MTN women programs, women go back to relationships with a better understanding of their male partners. Men in the group help her understand what he might be experiencing and dealing with, emotionally. If they never understood before what he might be feeling as a man or she might be experiencing as a woman -- each person walks away understanding each other better.
She finds that both men and women need support. The men doing men’s work are going into relationships and finding women less than supportive if the women aren’t doing their own version of this inner work. Jessica said many women do not know how to be emotionally vulnerable. They may come across as demanding or critical rather than truly open to meeting their own and their partner’s mutual needs. She works with men and women to help break down the silos between them.
How health and nutrition support relationships
The Vail Relationship Institute has partnered with Almeda and Taochemy to offer support for holistic living in a way that supports good health and good relationships.
Together, the partnership offers “The Release Experience,” at retreats in the Eagle-Vail, Colorado, area. Taochemy’s signature acupuncture allows the body to naturally release stress, fears, and grief. The modality intentionally combines guided contemplation and meaningful music with a stress-relieving acupuncture session to help people enter a non-ordinary state.
Jessica said, “I love the partnership with Almeda and Taochemy, because if we’re not caring enough about ourselves to care for processing and releasing stress, then we can’t show up well for others. We become not as available.”
She added that for couples, “If I’m embodying untrustworthy behavior, my partner will feel it. If I’m not drinking and eating well, I can’t trust that you can take care of me.”
Taking it on the road
Therapy sessions at The Vail Relationship Institute are currently available to anyone remotely, as the organization is operating solely via telehealth. Jessica plans to spend the next six months living and working from her camper. Every day brings new adventures as she seeks to help more people live with open hearts in the wilderness of life.
Jessica said, “It always comes back to connection for me. Pausing. We have to slow down. Nobody’s going to do very well living in a state of disconnection with ourselves and others. Slow down and ask, ‘How connected am I feeling?’”