The Healing Power of Exploration

"I'd be a fool not to go up into these mountains and see what's there,” Stephen Simmons said to himself after moving his whole life across the country to Grants Pass, Oregon in 2012. He had moved out west from Bluefield, West Virginia, after a year-long stint in Iraq, arriving light in baggage but heavy in spirit due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Want to order Stephen’s recently-released book of breathtaking photography from his adventures with his pets? You can find it here. The photo featured above is one of Stephen's photos of his dog.

Stephen was right in thinking that great things awaited him at the top of majestic mountains. It was on a mountaintop that he first found his dog, Puppi, back in 2004. And it would be on many mountaintops that he would start to heal himself in nature by practicing adventure therapy with the dog and cat he loves.

Adventure As a Way of Healing

So what is adventure therapy?

"Adventure therapy, to me, is stepping outside that space in my own head where I feel compressed and I can't think,” Stephen explains. "Society is space-invading. It's stressful. You don't have that in nature. You come out here, it's the total opposite.”

Stephen has always been an outdoorsman, and connected with other veterans through the Outward Bound program in 2012. The program seeks to change lives through challenge and discovery, using unfamiliar settings and experiential learning to help people build a sense of confidence and community. But it wasn't until early 2013 that Stephen decided to try using his outdoor adventures for therapeutic purposes. When he began, he put his own unique spin into adventure therapy - bringing his pets along for the action.

The Empathy of Pets

To Stephen, pets help with healing because of their companionship and capacity for empathy. Stephen believes that pets have a sixth sense - an ability to tap into something invisible, something bigger than we can perceive.

Stephen feels that throughout his life with Puppi, his dog has been able to read and absorb his emotions. When he’s happy, Puppi’s happy. When he’s upset, Puppi knows it.

Stephen first found Puppi at the top of a mountain in 2004 and took her in. She waited for him while he was away at war, and, as Stephen puts it, “she’s never wanted to be more than 10 feet away from me since then.”

For his next project, Stephen hopes to create a book that focuses on Burma the "Adventure Cat." The photo above is one of his own photos of his feline adventure companion.

He brought his cat, Burma, into their lives after he moved to Oregon. Already “missing the feline touch,” he was drawn in when a teenage girl outside of a grocery store was walking around with a box of kittens. A particularly unusual brown cat, Burma caught his eye, and Stephen knew he was the cat for him. Soon enough, Burma was keeping up with Stephen and Puppi just fine.

"We're Burma's pack,” Stephen says, “and he grew up doing the same things we do out in the wilderness, in the woods: climbing mountains.”

Stephen believes adventure therapy would be a lot lonelier without his pets. 

“They just fill my day with laughter and funny things, happy things. As someone with PTSD who keeps to myself, if I did not have Puppi and Burma I probably wouldn't have spoken to 90% of the people I've had conversations with.” 

Underneath the PTSD

Bonding with his pets has not only helped Stephen move away from his PTSD-related urge to isolate himself, but it has helped him get back in touch with who he really is. 

“The biggest lesson that I've learned in the last couple of years is that no matter how dark it seems, down underneath all that is the same person that you were as a little kid,” he explains.  "And that hopelessness, it's a lie. It's something that's hijacked your life, and the real person that you were is still there.”

For Stephen, connecting with his inner child is easier with pets around, since they’ve always been a part of his brightest memories. “We had a really good upbringing and pets were always a part of it,” he remembers. “I loved to go play in the woods, and dogs would always be by our sides and cats would be coming along and playing in the trees.”

 

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Stephen’s Journey to Inspire Others

Stephen’s gentle, observant nature and willingness to talk about his feelings have helped him reach out to others in his battle with PTSD.

He recently connected with a fellow veteran, a Marine veteran named Lydia Davey, who helped him raise funds on Kickstarter to publish a book of his photography. The project opened his eyes to how many other people could connect with his experiences, and motivated him to help inspire others. Now, he wants to become a motivational speaker.

Sharing love with people and pets, and staying in touch with nature has been a recipe for a better life for Stephen. His riff on a Sun Tzu quote, painted on the back of his Jeep, sums it up well: “The best revenge to war is to live well.”  For Stephen, the vantage point to a good life is looking down from a mountaintop, his cat and dog by his side.