Our family is about to have an anniversary. This is not your average celebration, in fact it's more of a milestone involving a series of acts of courage, bravery and change. In just a matter of days, on June 29th, it will be exactly one year since we sent our son (then 15 1/2 years old) to a Wilderness Therapy Program in Idaho. He did not know about it in advance. We hired a transport service to take him there. The boys in wilderness call it "being gooned." We called it surreal and unthinkable. How could we send our son away?
As we look back, we can honestly say, without hesitation, we did it to SAVE his life! It took all the courage we could muster and then some. We have met many other brave parents who have done the same. Like us, many of them also faced scrutiny and criticism from family and friends.
"I couldn't do that", was one of many comments we heard. My reply is that until you walk in someone's shoes, how do you know? We tried everything first before finally making one of the most difficult decisions we have ever faced. Yet, we did it.
One year later, what have we learned? What has changed? How do we feel?
1) We told people about our situation. We didn't hide what happened and became vulnerable in accepting the help from professionals. And as we opened up, the people around us began to understand. Some even said they now realize they should have sent their own teenagers to wilderness and beyond.
2) We found that we were not alone! We are part of a "club" of parents/families that we never thought we would be a part of! We met those parents/families at our wilderness retreat. We met them at the RTC (residential treatment center) after wilderness. We met them in our own community. They are out there and the numbers are increasing in our society. Anxiety, depression, digital addition, drugs and alcohol are just some of the many reasons why some of our kids are in trouble.
Here is a conversation we've had multiple times.
"Is your son at the local high school?" they would ask.
"No, he's in Utah."
"Oh, Utah.....hmmm" (BTW, it's sort of a code word - because so many of the programs are located there)
"My kid was in a program in Utah."
"Did they go to wilderness first?"
"Yes, they went to ______________". (fill in the blank: Hawaii, Vermont, Utah, Oregon, Montana).
"How long were they away?"
This one is a multiple choice answer: A) One year B) 16 months C) 2 years D) My kid is still in treatment and we don't know when he/she is coming home.
"How did you pay for it?"
This answer is also a multiple choice: A) Used the college fund B) Re-financed the house
C) "I can't say." (Another code for a school district paying for placement but with a NDA - non disclosure agreement in place, sort of like HUSH MONEY). D) I have no idea!
Once the info was spilled, we found out how common our situation has become. If you don't know a family experiencing these tough times, then you don't get out much! We have talked to many folks in various stages of this experience. All I can say is that help is out there. Get an Education Consultant! Get a therapist! Get to a support group! Don't be ashamed, you can do it! Help your kid, help your self and your family NOW!
3) We slowly built our family relationships back. We have visited our son practically every month since last June, strike July, January and March. We have participated in weekly Skype calls with our son and his therapist. We have all written letters and by now that total is close to fifty or so (from each side). How many of you reading have received fifty handwritten letters from your kids? (A nice advantage of treatment). We would like to think letter writing would continue without it being a mandatory assignment, but we are realistic that it probably won't. I know that I will not stop writing. It's very therapeutic. This blog is so important in my process!
4) We got our son back. No, he's not "fixed". He is still a 16 year old. He's still a boy. He still doesn't always see eye to eye with his parents. Sure that's "normal" stuff, but in our case, the good news is that for now, our son is free from electronics, free from drugs and alcohol. He exercises every day. He wakes up at seven am on weekdays. He participates in all kinds of therapy: equine, ropes, adoption group, intervention and social skills group. There are so many ways for him to work on himself. Opening up is not easy for him, but he knows that's what he has to do to move forward. He is happy and that counts for a lot! One step at a time. It's not a race.
5) We feel empowered. We are not perfect parents. We still make mistakes in some of the interactions with our son. But, the biggest difference is that we have re-established that we are the parents and he is the child. We have more boundaries in place. And not the kind that you may remember from a tough disciplinarian parent who said, "My way or the highway!" We try to be kind. We are trying to be better listeners. We pick better words in our comments and conversations. The result is that we are no longer afraid. We have our strength back. We have learned some valuable lessons in the past year. Yes, we have cried our share of tears. We have talked and talked about what we could have done differently. We also know that beating ourselves up isn't the answer either. We are patient and take a lot of deep breaths. We are present and continue to work on ourselves in a parallel process.
6) We have put our focus on our own self care. It's just like they say when you are on an airplane. When the oxygen mask drops down, put yours on first, then take care of others around you. What kind of things have we done? Swimming, walking, blogging, pickle ball, tennis, baking, going to movies and watching silly TV shows. We have called friends and family and shared with others. We have gardened and fixed things in our house. We have struggled some, too. We take a step forward, maybe a couple backwards, then forward again. This road is not a straight path. We call it a journey and it's not predictable. It's real life. And we keep breathing.
7) We try to take one day at a time. We try to live in the present. We try not to worry about cost and expenses (and believe you me, it's not cheap, but we are trying to make it work). We have acceptance. We practice positive thinking and positive self talk. We rely on the positive people around us and discard the negative. There is little room for that. We are grateful for our lives. We are so very lucky. We have come so far. We know the best is yet to come. Yes, we will stumble. But we will pick ourselves up and keep going. Because we CAN!
Here's to making it through ONE YEAR in our new "skins"! The reality is that we terribly miss our son not being at home. We still need time to get to that next step right. We will not give up!
We took another trip back to Utah, this time with Moab as our destination which included Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. We picked our son up early Friday morning with the intention of having a therapeutic family trip. It turned into so much more than we expected: filled with magnificent beauty and many difficult conversations. Our 16 1/2 year old is back at Level 2 and we were all excited for him to be in the hotel with us again! The last time he stayed overnight with us was back at Christmas time in Salt Lake City. It had been a while!
Our first stop was shopping for shorts. The weather is beginning to warm up at the Ranch, so our son requested that we buy him some shorts. Most of the boys wear them during school hours, so we got permission to add that activity to our contract and list of things to do and goals. We all have to agree to the rules for being off campus: no cell phone use, we have to be together at all times, no use of money, no R rated movies, no highly caffeinated drinks, etc.
The store didn't have the biggest selection of brands and styles and that has become important to our son, surprisingly. We went back and forth and finally decided on a couple of pair. The tug of war began between us, but we talked about it openly and then hit the road for our three hour plus trip. We stopped for food and our son had signs of more resistance to choices before he settled on a box of fried chicken for lunch. I point this out because looking back we can see how innocently it started but by the end of the weekend, we had more power struggles regarding food and portions. Some old habits and "hot" button topics showed up during our weekend.
We had a picnic lunch along the shores of the Green River and it was a perfect temperature outside. We talked about what was new. It was fun just to be together again. Our trips back to Utah have been about five to seven weeks apart and honestly it's not easy being so far away from our son. We looked at the map of where we were heading and checked out the John W. Powell History Museum and then hit the road on to Moab.
One agreement we had was for our son to bring his homework and therapy assignments along on the trip, to work on them during the weekend. But time management is not his strong suit and with some prompting he did get a little work done. My personal level of frustration started to rise each day as he began to make excuses for not doing the work. We ended each day with better family meetings than we previously had during past visits, which took some of the edge off. But there was still a power struggle lying underneath it all. We set it up that he was going to lead the meetings and not just "phone it in" as they say. We succeeded in that department.
We arrived at Moab late Friday afternoon and checked into the hotel. It had a nice pool and a good location so we were very happy. We decided to put our hiking shoes on and explore Arches. First stop was "Park Avenue" and then onto "Delicate Arch". Our son was a champ for carrying all of our water bottles in his backpack. We did more talking and then the topic of school came up. We went over past issues with his education and the conversation became quite difficult. He admitted to not having the right mind set for learning as a freshman, which led to more discussion of what worked and what didn't work last year. We listened and learned and even though we disagreed, we talked it out. That was the biggest take-away. Yet, something remained unresolved for him.
We went to the movies on Saturday night to see The Avengers. Not my favorite film choice, but we did enjoy it. Our son really liked it. It brought home the point that we are all different, including taste in movies and our journeys are different as well. We went swimming at the hotel pool. We ate ice cream in town. And we continued to talk. We never lost sight of the fact that we are trying to re-build our relationships. There were tough moments. There were hard conversations. Sunday turned out to be our biggest challenge.
We were tired. We had hiked and hiked. We had talked and talked. I challenge any family to do what we had done and have them be smiley and peachy keen as a group. But Sunday was a arduous day. We decided to drive through Canyonlands National Park instead of hiking and found ourselves on the end of his silent treatment without understanding exactly why. This was an old pattern and one that I never hoped to endure again. Our son wanted a few more pair of shorts and he wanted to head north to the Lehi outlet mall instead of enjoying more of the beautiful Utah dessert. We didn't pick up on his desires until late in the day. We probably should have just headed back to the Ranch, but no we continued to prompt him, which led to more power struggles and more one or two word answers to our questions.
Later at dinner we talked about what was really going on. If he didn't get his way, then we had to pay for it with his silence. It was deja vu all over again. We had experienced the son we had from a year ago. The good news is that his therapist said that was the best case scenario for our weekend. Why not go through some difficulties while still in a safe environment and there was a support system in place? It was not easy, but there were silver linings after all. We talked. We didn't yell. We were able to disagree and listen to each other's points of view. And finally, with the therapist's help, we validated each other's feelings without having to agree with the viewpoints. It was a great trip from that stand point. We were actually getting to real feelings, not just going through the motions. Our son was the most like he had been at home and that allowed us to practice new methods, even after the fact. After the trip we wrote letters separately to each other pin-pointing moments that worked and others that hadn't. We continued working on things in our Skype therapy call last week as well. I am aware I am still processing it and have ups and downs in dealing with the feelings. As they say at the Ranch, "The Strength is in the Struggle".
It was a good weekend. We didn't see eye to eye all the time. We talked about our differences. It was done in the safety net of treatment. We are lucky to have help navigating our relationships. We will never forget the beauty of Moab and the beauty of communicating. See you next month son!
Keeping the Faith!
I am Warrior Mom. I am a self proclaimed Techy and I'm NOW calling a halt to the excess use of it! Let's put some balance back into our lives, especially our teens!