The Power of Experiential Therapy at Onsite

After my mother stopped drinking and started AA, she was recommended a program in South Dakota called Onsite that could help her unlock the root causes of some of her behavioral patterning and offer her tools to remain on the path of sobriety.

It worked. She was sober 35 years before she passed.

My mother attended a number of programs at Onsite before I decided, in my 20’s, to attend a program called “Learning to Love yourself.”

Onsite uses Experiential Therapy: “Experiential therapy is a therapeutic technique that uses expressive tools and activities, such as role-playing or acting, props, arts and crafts, music, animal care, guided imagery, or various forms of recreation to re-enact and re-experience emotional situations from past and recent relationships. Through the experience, the client begins to identify emotions associated with success, disappointment, responsibility, and self-esteem. Through guidance, the client can begin to release and explore negative feelings of anger, hurt, or shame as they relate to past experiences that may have been blocked or still linger.”

The first day of the 5-day program began with a re-creation of the ‘Star’s” life. The “Star” was a program attendee who had been chosen months prior by the facilitators to reveal her life through a series of experiential therapeutic exercises. In the morning, she would introduce her “family of choice’ which where those people who had loved, supported and protected her throughout periods of her life. And, in the afternoon, she would introduce her “family of origin”, her father, mother, brother, sister and any other family members. All the characters in both her “family of choice” and “family of origin” stories would be played by the programs attendees.

The attendees that were chosen to play characters in her story were directed to stand in front of her so she could, from the deepest depths of her heart and soul, tell those people in her life how each one may have saved her, supported her, abused her, protected her, lied to her and used her. She spent the morning introducing her sponsor from AA and NA, therapists who had helped her, boyfriends who were patient and understanding (both of whom I happened to play), and a host of other characters that were advocates, angels and supporters in her life. She poured her soul out in thanks and gratitude.

In the afternoon, she began by introducing and confronting her mother, who had stood by while her father abused her. With a trembling tone, tears and pain she revealed her most inner feelings about her mother’s betrayal. She cried and asked over and over why her mom failed to protect her. Next, she introduced her siblings, who she asked for forgiveness for not being able to protect them from their father’s abuse.

She stood up there, in front of 45+ strangers and poured out a lifetime of resentment, guilt and agony. All of this paled in comparison to the confrontation that was had with her father. The therapists provided kicking bags for her to use before, during and after she confronted her father about his abuse. She kicked for what seemed like hours. She lay in a fetal position for 5 minutes, which felt like an eternity, bellowing over and over again “I can’t bear the truth”. You can’t imagine listening to that for 5 minutes. It’s too much to handle for most.

After 8 hours of this emotional rollercoaster, she was exhausted to the point of being comatose. It was then that the facilitators encouraged the man that played her father to keep the role-playing going by attempting to buy his way into her good graces. He offered to buy her a new pony and offered her everything a little 12-year-old girl would want. See, this pattern was a part of their relationship. And he would do it, when she at her weakest.

In this role-playing the therapists had a way to protect her. They called those characters that played her sponsors and a few of her angels to help repel her father’s advances on her. With the program participants all watching, a group from her family of choice locked arms with the star and began pushing her father away, something she was unable to do with him when he tried making up with her after the abuse.

The scene was so powerfully surreal we were all drawn in, despite most of us never having experienced anything of this nature.

The program at Onsite was an experience I will never forget. From the first day events to the remainder of the 5-day program. It is what started me on a journey of self-evolvement which continues 25 years later to this day.

By the way, I sat next to the Star on the plane on our return flight home. Sitting next to her on that flight home was probably the most meaningful part of the program. I learned a lot more about her and her journey to emotional, psychological and physical health.

She told me that in her late 30’s, she took efforts to “deconstruct and reconstruct her life.” This reconstruction began slowly with a “2-degree shift” because a 2-degree shift in her thought & behavior had changed her life. “Just a minor 2-degree shift made all of the difference.” It offered her insight into the events of her childhood and helped to break destructive patterns later on in life.

Too often we believe that change needs to begin with monumental life modifications and alterations, but REAL change doesn’t work in those terms.

Most meaningful change begins with small steps, slight degree alterations.

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