“You need therapy.” This was a popular dis in the ’90s, among other now-outdated and somewhat offensive colloquialisms. Now, therapy has become more mainstream and less stigmatized. I know people who see two or three therapists for different issues.
Still, it took me a while to try it for myself. My issues always felt insignificant compared to the horrific problems people are facing all over the world. But I’ve always been open to unpacking what’s going on inside my head.
So when I learned of Joey Dolowy’s adventurous approach to therapy, I thought, This could actually work for me. Dolowy, 52, is an LMFT (licensed marriage & family therapist), but he’s different. He takes his patients off the couch and into the outdoors. In addition to traditional in-office counseling, he offers sessions that take place while skateboarding, hiking, or biking. As a longtime cyclist and former bike racer, this last type of session got me curious.
Dolowy decided to become a therapist after the tragic loss of a close friend to a drug overdose. “I wished I could have done something, anything to help him,” he says. He now specializes in sports psychology and in treating drug addiction, depression, self-harm, and marriage and family issues.
Dolowy has been an athlete his whole life. “My parents put me in gymnastics at the age of 7 to burn off my energy and it was a good decision: I needed an outlet.” He went on to qualify to train at the Olympic USA Gymnastics Training Center in 1984, which launched him onto the UCLA gymnastics team. Then he found mountain biking a couple years later. “Exploring and riding in the dirt really resonated with me. I found the perfect balance of challenge, goal setting, skill learning, and a new group of people that really accepted me in ways that I lost when I started college gymnastics.” Now, as a Cat 2 mountain bike racer, he incorporates his love for endorphin release into his practice.
He was first inspired to test this method while treating a patient who just could not sit still. They took a walk around the parking lot to continue their session, and something clicked—physical activity helped the flow of the conversation. This prompted Dolowy to chase this new idea: a private practice that offered outdoor therapy. “My wife and parents and some peers were all against this, and at this point I was not really sure it would work.” But Dolowy knew he was on to something, so he decided to ignore the haters. And it paid off.
Now in his 17th year of offering the service, Dolowy has seen growth and success in his specialty, and broke his own record this past winter for the most hiking patients in one week. He’s even done couples’ therapy on mountain bikes. (It’d be interesting to see who attacks first on these rides.) “All of the studies and articles I have read in the last ten years about happiness, contentment, and fulfillment all point positively to being active and outside,” he says. “Every one of my patients who has opted for therapy outside has commented on how great it was to not be trapped in an office.”
I met up with Dolowy for our first session at the trails of Mulholland Drive. Yes, like the David Lynch movie. Except the only thing I was running from was my issues. And Dolowy was going to help me face them.
He showed up on a single speed mountain bike, handlebars accessorized with a Mr. Potato Head, which I learned was his signature. He wore an orange and blue MTB team kit with matching Oakley Jawbone sunglasses. He rocked a long pointy gray beard and accessorized with three thick silver hoop earrings in one ear and a straight gauge earring in the other. He looked like he’d been to Burning Man more than once. All of this was punctuated by an eager, welcoming smile.
He was nice enough to bring a mountain bike for me to ride, since I didn’t own one (yet). I was crapping my chamois about my lack of mountain bike experience. Prior to our sessions, I’d been on two mountain bike rides ever. One resulted in me riding straight off a mountain in West Virginia (I tumbled all the way to the bottom, hitting every branch on the way down and landing in the lake, and had to free climb back up to the trail with a bleeding weenis—that flap of skin over your elbow).
Along with my lack of mountain biking experience, I didn’t know how one exactly does therapy. What topics did I want to focus on? Would he drive the conversation, or would I? Would he detect problems that I didn’t even know I had? Were my issues even big enough for therapy?
Luckily, riding bikes is already a therapeutic experience, which put me at ease immediately. We all know how endorphins can combine with fresh air and a natural backdrop to make riding a great reset or break from reality. Or as Dolowy puts it as we pedal, “Cycling can be a form of escape, mini-vacation, meditation, and/or connection with friends and the environment—all of which are a benefit to mental, emotional, and relational health. “
Dolowy says finding a therapist is like finding the right pair of shoes: They have to be a good fit. If Dolowy were a pair of shoes he would be Teva sandals soaked in Monster Energy Drink. He’s comfortable but has an aggressive exuberance about him. And he’s a real good pick-me-up.
His positivity and friendly disposition were contagious—he greeted every hiker and mountain biker on the trail. At one point, when we were deep in conversation, a beautiful woman with long, flowing brown hair came galloping around the corner on a shiny, majestic horse with another one on a lead rope running alongside. We swerved out of the way to avoid a head-on collision. She smiled at us, knowing that she was breaking the unspoken rules of the trail, but also knowing the sensation of opening her horses up and running wild was worth breaking the rules for. I was into it: Breathtaking, spiritual moments like this have to be more effective than lamenting in an office next to a box of tissues.
The genius thing about Dolowy’s method, I eventually realized, was that he was matching the flow of conversation to the topography of the trail. As we climbed, he would help me unpack an issue. He’d then tie it up in a perfect little bow by the time we reached the summit, so that when we started the descent, I would experience an incredible mental release that doubled with the endorphin high of riding my bike downhill. Once we hit the flats again, he picked up where we left off. He knew the trails so well and calculated this pattern so perfectly, I didn’t even notice it was happening at first. When I did, my mind was blown.
Being a newb to therapy, I expected that by the end of session one Dolowy was going to give me solutions to all my problems. Instead, I left without immediate answers, just a lot to think about. Was I open and raw enough, or was I unable to turn off the daily behavior of putting on the face that says I have it all together? I was frustrated, thinking we didn’t get anywhere. It turns out, there aren’t direct answers to solve life’s issues—most of them are too complicated. I would come to learn that finding the answers comes from gradual evaluation, patience, personal growth, and epiphany.
By the third session, we had covered kissing nobody on New Year’s Eve, biological clock-related anxiety, family drama, artist and career aspirations, and psycho ex-boyfriend problems. The way Dolowy retained information without having a notebook to scribble in was incredible and showed what an amazing listener he is.
I told him that being in my thirties, I was anxious and nervous about the next ten years, knowing that if I want to have kids, time is on my back. The problem for me is finding a partner that I want to do this with. Dolowy said not to get confined by society’s depiction of norms for love, marriage, a house, and babies, and that the expectations for women these days are insane. Today, women have careers and serious goals outside of being wives, partners, and moms. That’s well overdue and incredibly positive, but it also means that now we’re expected to do all of that house and family stuff—while having a career, and always looking pretty.
We spent a lot of time talking about boys. I told him I don’t have time for fuckboys. Dolowy says it’s good to know what I want.
That brought us to the topic of modern dating. He says the Internet has enabled people to keep a little black book so endless, they can go through human beings like rolls of toilet paper. With countless attractive alternates waiting on the bench, “nexting” someone has never been so easy. I’ve been ghosted, zombied, haunted, and breadcrumbed, and I may not always use the best judgment when it comes to choosing partners. We talked about abusive relationships and how to deal with people who react to conflict in damaging ways. Dolowy gave me a helpful tool. He said that next time a guy is vengeful or tries to make me feel like everything’s my fault, to envision this grown man as a five-year-old baby, in a diaper, having a meltdown. As I felt the ridges of the dry fire road rattle through my arms, that visual made me laugh out loud.
He also gave insight on how territorial men instinctively react when they are challenged, which is to resort to posturing or peacocking. This can be seen out in the wild when there’s a Strava segment on a ride and it turns into a spontaneous “dick measuring contest.” I am a romantic dreamer and over-thinker and am only aggressive when I need to be, so it was helpful to get another point of view. Maybe, just maybe, I can be more patient the next time I need to understand the other gender’s behavior.
As we conquered the trails, and made emotional breakthroughs, I also gained a sense of bonus strength from attacking and overcoming the rocky obstacles on the singletrack. This was Dolowy’s plan all along. “Being challenged with the terrain eases the idea of being vulnerable,” he says. Turns out, along with being a therapist, Dolowy is also a great instructor. And now I love mountain bikes, and no longer need to borrow one from Dolowy.
I got into the car after our third session with a cathartic high and a fresh perspective. I now know why people like going to therapy, even if they aren’t there to work through serious traumas, but for a simple mental check up. An educated, unbiased person helps you vocalize your recurring problems, and realize what can be done to move on. I felt light and happy on the drive home. And now when someone projects hostility towards me, I can go for a trail ride to blow off some steam, and picture them having an adult hissy fit in their diaper. Right before I tear it up on the downhill, high off euphoria.