This past month has been a very exciting time for my 17 1/2 year old son! He has started a new program in a new area of Utah. This program is what is known as a "Step Down" program in the treatment world. It is a small co-ed, boarding prep school with only 37 total students and a place of many possibilities towards a bright future! Much of what he learned at his Residential Treatment Center (RTC) will be put to the test quite quickly! It will be a perfect place to practice!
We left the Ranch last week on a Thursday and drove down to Southern Utah with a car full of clothing, boots, binders and memories! The exact day and time of the departure was kept under wraps by the staff, as close to the last minute as possible, so the students keep participating and working on their issues. In my son's case, he had a vague idea of when he would be leaving, but not the exact day and time. We challenged him to continue to put in the work, in what would be his final weeks of his almost 17 month stay. He was ready and we were ready! He had learned all that they could offer and succeeded in many aspects during his time there.
One of the biggest achievements was that he finished Geometry, and took his final test (a re-test) and passed with 100% on his next to last day! Days earlier he had only scored a 47% on that same exam. In fact he passed three tests during his last week, which helped quite a bit. He had been ready to give up and accept a half credit for the course just weeks prior. But we as parents and his therapist pushed him into getting the studying done! We told him that if he completed Geometry, he would never have to take that class again, ever! Geometry was not his favorite subject (and who can blame him for thinking that!) but he did get the job done and WOW you could see his pride and excitement when he told us all about it on his final day at the RTC. My son also shared he that decided to skip his team's basketball game (his did have a sore wrist, but still getting off campus was always a treat) and so he hit the books in order to finish this daunting math class! It was one of the first times that he directly saw the pay-off for actually doing the difficult work! It was a huge accomplishment!
Another big moment for the kids leaving The Ranch is coming up with a "brand" and having it burned into the wall at the entry of the Administration Building and another on a take-away plaque to keep. There are so many unique symbols from every boy who had left prior to my son. It is considered a very special ritual and as we were landing at the Salt Lake City Airport, his therapist texted pictures to us. We would miss that moment in person, but would be able to participate in the "Goodbye Group" with his fellow students, many staff members and mentors.
As we entered the Bunkhouse, where my son had lived since the very end of September 2017, he warmly greeted us with the biggest smile imaginable! He remembered that is was my birthday and even told me, "Happy Birthday"! Those words were the best gift I could receive! I was very moved! As we were getting ready to begin the Goodbye Group, the boys in the bunkhouse all started singing "Happy Birthday" in unison. That really floored me! Even with prompting from the staff, they were able to show their sweet sides to another parent in their group! That put a big smile on my face!
There is a designated couch at one end of the main room where my son and the two of us sat. He spoke into a small hand held recording device and announced that it was his Goodbye Group, the date and then paused it, as he passed it to the first boy sitting to his right. They each turned on the recorder, introduced themselves and offered words of wisdom, encouragement or memories of my son and their joint time at The Ranch. Some spoke a short time, some a little longer, but all the messages were heartfelt and very thoughtful. The staff members all participated and added their advice and remarks to and about my son. Our son's therapist had a couple of quotes that rang true as perfect advice for his future. One was from Mohammed Ali, though I can not recall what the quote was at present. My son will get a copy of all these special sentiments and will be able to listen to them later.
As the recorder was handed to me, I was overcome with emotions. I was going to miss this place, even though it was difficult having my son so far away from home. This place, that was a safe haven for my son. A place that gave him confidence in himself, where he took care of newborn calves, where he rode horses each week, where he did his own laundry, performed in the Parent Day's Variety shows and succeeded in school! There were so many thoughts and memories swirling in my head, I had to focus on what I was going to say to him as my parting words from the RTC that was his home and school for over a year!
I turned the recorder on, and couldn't speak. His therapist was quick to retrieve a box of Kleenex as I gathered myself. It was very silent and then tears began running down my cheeks. My first words were, "WAY TO GO!" You did it. It may have been longer than we all thought it would be, but YOU DID IT! I am proud of you. You stuck with the challenges, leveling up and then even leveling down. Participating in all sorts of therapy, more than anyone can even imagine! But what stood out to me was that your effort was there, even when it didn't look like if from the outside! You wrote us weekly letters, even if they were mandatory assignments. I am so lucky to have a large stack of them. Yes, they were short and somewhat repetitive but they mattered! I looked so forward to receiving the scan of a new letter every Monday! If for some reason it came on a Tuesday, I was beside myself with anticipation of getting that letter. I was always happy to know that you were okay and were even having a good time!
I then told the boys in the room that their parents and loved ones really appreciated getting their letters, whether they realized it or not! My words to my son then returned back to a simple, yet important theme. I was proud of him, because he was present. I know that being away from home was not something he would have chosen. I know it was hard for him. But guess what, it was hard for me too, not having him home. And most importantly, his original goal (that he stated to the Admission's person on his first day) was to repair and improve the communication and relationship with his moms. I believe as he does, that he accomplished that!
"You did it son! Way to go! I love you! I can't wait to see what's next for you and your future! I'm really excited for you! It's now all up to you! And we are here for you and still have your back!"
The mic passed to my partner who said something awesome to him and I know he was listening from watching his facial expressions. The circle was complete. We then all went downstairs into the CafeA and had some delicious birthday cake that my son had made in the school's kitchen, along with his therapist. There is a tradition (at the Ranch) of getting a cake on your birthday made with your favorite ingredients and that was true for me too: chocolate cake, chocolate icing with Reese's peanut butter cups and Reese's pieces all over the top! What a birthday I had! We said our last goodbyes and hit the road down to Southern Utah. The next day was going to be big! Entering the Step Down program where my son knew he needed be, for now.
In the car, we talked about our various memories of the Ranch and gave tribute to all those people who helped us along the way. We are all excited to see what's next! Our journey continues..... Stay tuned!
I AM ONE FORTUNATE,
In the world of treatment, there are standards and rules in place which makes the program's expectations very clear. For the parents who are far away in distance and without daily contact, there is much that is uncertain and unknown about, regarding our kids. Of course there is a weekly scanned letter that comes to my IN BOX via email on Mondays, usually late in the day. That short letter has a tiny bit of info in it. My son is not a long letter writer, but anything is better than nothing. He usually says that his week has been good. He will often write about what movies they watched for "Movie Night", and if he earned a chance to go to it. He hardly ever answers questions from the letter we sent to him the previous Thursday in our weekly letter exchanges. But at least it is something!
There is also the weekly Skype call every Tuesday afternoon. About half of the call is a discussion with his therapist on what's going on with our son. The other half is comprised of our son reading his therapy assignment to us followed by our asking questions or making comments on his work. Most of the assignments are very thoughtful and complete. Some have parts that need to be amended with additional information by him. We get a really short time for "just personal banter". But at least it is something!
This past Thanksgiving we all had a good visit. Our 17 year old flew on his own to the SF Bay Area, on the Friday after the holiday and was able to stay for one week. He did not earn a HOME VISIT this time, instead it was categorized as an OUT OF STATE visit which meant we were not able to go together to our house, but rather to our cabin in Nor Cal instead. We were excited to share that time and also re-connect with our grown nephew, who took the Amtrak train from Portland, OR to join us for the visit. Our nephew had lived with us a few years ago and is about ten years older than our son. We were all so happy to see him and to be together again. The last time we saw him was on our Disneyland trip in April of 2017, which was during a difficult time in our past, B.W (Before Wilderness). Our post Thanksgiving visit was something special.
As I write this, we know our son will be coming back to California on December 23rd. What we don't know is if he has earned the chance to be at home, or if we have to go on the road again and back up to our cabin. We are waiting for the verdict from his Treatment Team. The group goes over his progress and evaluates what tasks were asked of him during the last few weeks. Our son is back at Level 2 and he doesn't seem to be moving back to a 3 any time soon. Nothing is ever quick in our experience in the treatment world. We are still very proud of all the work he has done, day in and day out; week in and week out. None the less, we are still up in the air regarding our plans. But at least we will see him.
Being up in the air becomes an opportunity to live with uncomfortable feelings and and it forces us to realize that we can only live day to day in this world. Looking at our situation through a positive lens also gives us a chance to stay present and not to focus on what we can not control as parents. Our son on the other hand, holds the key to his future in his own hands. It is up to him ultimately. Letting go of our expectations has been one of the biggest lessons we have learned during the past 18 months. Yes, our son has been away for 18 months and yet we have been lucky enough to have seen him in all but three or four of those months. We continue to try and re-build our connections, and we are happy to have the opportunity to do so. That is something!
Fast forward to right now, today. As I finish writing this blog post, I am happy to report that our son is home with us for Christmas. What a wonderfully meaningful present for us and the whole family. We are truly blessed. We are sticking close to home and get to spend a whole week together. I want to wish "Happy Holidays" to you and your families. Thanks for sharing our journey. More to come in the upcoming weeks. 2019 will be a big year! And that is something to be thankful for!
I am Warrior Mom!
Keeping the Faith!
I still can't believe how fortunate we were last month to have our son visit our Northern California mountain cabin. He had not been back in California for fifteen months. He was now Level 3 and earned it over what seemed like a really long period of time! His therapist was the main force behind making this milestone visit take place when it did. We had our scheduled Parent Days on tap in October in Utah, so we thought, well maybe we will just wait until then to see our son. But our therapist said, "I really think you all should take this opportunity right now".
What a huge statement that turned out to be. One week after that wonderful visit, our son's grandmother passed away. It was sudden and somewhat unexpected. Her health was challenged a month earlier with a "mini-stroke". Her memory wasn't as strong as it once was. But, she in fact rebounded from that August event and was such a trooper as we all picked up our much more mature son (now 17 years old) at the Sacramento Airport on a Friday, for our long weekend visit last month. Grandma and Grandson were very happy to see each other and picked up with their playful ways without a missing a beat, after a very long absence of not being together.
She asked him how he liked his school. He told her about the horses, running 5K races and his classes. She asked if he had made some friends and he shared some of their names with her. He was a 2.0 version of himself: much calmer, much happier and more at ease. We all played cards together and there was work on the puzzle, in the main room of the cabin, that was always set up and ready for action. We reminded him to speak up so she could hear his answers more clearly and he was pretty talkative for a non-talkative kid! She told me how "sweet" a boy he was. She was happy he was doing well in school, in what was one of our clearest conversations in a long time.
How lucky we were to have no regrets! She was happy up until the end and basically went to sleep one night and didn't wake up. Most of us would trade large amounts of gold for a serene scenario like that. The timing was such that we were able to tell our son, during our weekly Skype call with his therapist, that she was near the end of her life. He took it as well as could be expected, but was definitely quiet in his processing of the sad news. He saw us cry and we saw a bit of a lip quiver from him. That was quite a moment that we shared.
We agreed with his therapist that he should join the weekly "Grief Group" at the Ranch to help him get in touch with those sad feelings. When we arrived for Parent Days a couple weeks later, we were able to share stories about Grandma and talk about our good times together. We didn't expect what happened next.
As the date for Grandma's memorial was being set, the treatment team all agreed that it was very important for our son to attend the memorial, back at home. Originally, he was just going to come back with us to Marin County after Parent Days for just three days, since it was his first home visit. Then, they suggested he stay for an extended time, which ended up being a whole ten days.
"How are we going to manage this?"
" Are we really ready?"
After taking some deep breaths and talking it through, it became very obvious that he needed to be home with enough time to acclimate, before all the "hub hub" of lots of family and the memorial actually took place. We took it one day at a time. We had our nightly family meeting. We talked about what the "triggers" for all of us might look like. We supported each other. Most importantly, he participated. The rules were the same as other visits: no cell phones, no internet, stay with us at all times and get school work and therapy work done daily. And foremost, enjoy each other's company.
The activities started slowly. We were greeted at home by a couple of our son's Aunties. We did some cleaning up. We went out to dinner. As the days went on, more relatives showed up. He visited with his local same aged cousin for an hour. We stayed close by. Things were going well.
To describe the faces of each person who had not recently seen our son, greet him over those ten days, would bring a large grin and possibly a tear or two, to anyone who watched. I was so proud to see him navigate ALL the bonus attention he received! The two most spoken comments about him were, "You look so good!" and "I am proud of you!" He heard those wonderful words over and over again. How powerful is that? We took lots of photos and tried not to overwhelm our son with too much. But how could it not? He was part of the family once again!
That's where he really surprised us and made us reflect. He was growing up before our eyes and had made many positive changes over the past year. We celebrated that! He may still be a "man of few words" but he was respectful and helpful with all that we had to do, to host a memorial for over two hundred people. He watched and listened and took important steps towards a new life with his family. We sent him back to the Ranch and felt the sadness of his leaving. We are working on a Thanksgiving visit for November!
Feeling at peace,
My seventeen year old earned his Level 3 a couple of weeks ago, which was an awesome achievement. Things have also been clicking on the school front for him, primarily because the academic team switched his courses to "practical" to try and speed things up. It simply means they just teach and test on the "meat and potatoes" and leave the extra "sauces" out of the learning. By doing that, he has completed more course work in a couple weeks time, than in the past number of months. He is very proud of his successes! And so are we to say the least.
One week ago we picked up our son at the Sacramento International Airport. It was his first flight all alone and he completed it like a champ! His RTC program does what they call "an airport run" for students going on "home visits" and "out of state visits". They drive the kids to the Salt Lake City Airport and get a gate pass to escort them to the boarding area. They watch the flight take off and we on the receiving end, meet our student at the gate when the plane lands.
After his arrival and going to baggage claim, we drove to our cabin in Northern California. Grandma and our doggy were also along for the ride! They haven't seen each other in over fifteen months and it was an awesome reunion. Everyone was so happy to see each other!
"What a sweet boy", Grandma commented over and over again during the weekend. Our son certainly has matured during the past year. He seemed calmer and more amiable. He helped with the meals by frying up some bacon and scrambling the eggs, as well as sautéing the zucchini and squash for one our dinners. He even added a little honey with the salt and pepper seasoning, a trick he learned in Wilderness! That kind of family participation would have never happened before he went to treatment!
The "out of state visit" is part of the "practice" that has to take place as our son goes through his treatment program. The "rules" for the visit are the same as when we travel to Utah to see him there. Dress code and behaviors are enforced, just like at the Ranch. No caffeinated drinks and one soda per meal. No "R" rated movies and we must always stay together. No money, no computers, no cell phone use. It may sound tough, but everyone understands the rules and we have followed them for each visit we've had at the RTC during the past year.
Before the visit, we came up with a list of goals to work on: a family meeting each night, continued discussions about topics that have been difficult in the past (social media, technology, friends). We wanted to enjoy the out of doors by walking or hiking. We had a few things on the shopping list: new backpack, a new pair of jeans and a transistor radio. As a Level 3, our son earned the use of a backpack and a radio, which he could listen to during his free time on the weekends. I didn't even know they made transistor radios anymore, but we did find one at Walmart! He was excited to be able to get his very own to take back to the Ranch.
Starting fresh with a NEW backpack was very symbolic. The old, canvas blue backpack had negative associations for me and was definitely a trigger in my eyes. So when we picked out a canvas style book bag, I felt a lot better about it's appearance and we talked about how it would be used in a positive fashion. It just has to be better this time around. One step at a time, one item at a time!
We arrived at the cabin around dinner time. We settled into a wonderful meal and played a couple of games of cards after that. We had a family meeting and talked about the excitement of our son's return to California after fifteen months. He recognized it as a step in the process! We treasured our time together. We watched a movie, we took a couple of longs walks. He took some photos with my DSLR camera and showed me what he had learned in his digital photography elective at school. He was happy to be the one to spot the wild donkey on our property and was so excited to be able to photograph "DONKEY" like few have been able to do! Our son helped with some chores and also completed homework concepts each of the four days of the "out of state visit".
As a surprise for our son, we asked him if he was interested in "driving" on our private dirt road near the cabin. His smile was as big as I've seen it in years! He climbed into the twenty-one year old Ford Explorer and backed up as his first maneuver. The tires did spin a bit, but overall he was an outstanding driver who took direction well. He had about six to seven "drives" of about 1/2 mile to 1 mile in length. We even picked up a California drivers manual at the local DMV which he took back to Utah so he could learn the rules of the road. This event was huge for us, since he has never really shown any interest in driving in the past. We will take it one step at a time and would love him to get some "real" driving instruction in the future. No rush, but the "wheels are in motion"!
As I reflect on our four days together, I am so grateful for this "practice" visit before his upcoming "home visit" (he must remain a Level 3) next month. To be open and real, we didn't know exactly what to expect. It went very well overall, yet there were a few tiny things that needed to be talked about and resolved. Keeping in mind that nothing is "perfect", our goals were met and we enjoyed spending a long weekend together as a family. We had some down time and relaxed. Bedtimes were met and so were getting up times. I can't remember the last time that happened when we were under the same roof.
If I could answer why everything went so smoothly, I would have to say that his time away (15 months) has had a lot to do with it. We also work very hard each week with our family therapist on Skype calls and writing letters back and forth with our son. His treatment assignments have been completed and it's one step at a time! As we headed to the Oakland International Airport for his return flight to Salt Lake City, Utah we talked about the fun we had and were truly sorry to see it come to an end. I am so proud of my son and his growth and progress. It is truly a "Journey" with a capital "J" and I am very happy to share it with you the reader! I will keep you posted with more news ahead!
Keeping the faith....
As parents we are supposed to care for our kids. We are supposed to teach our kids right from wrong. And we are supposed to be good role models for them in life. Even if all those things are true, as parents we still may need to rely on others for support and strength.
Here is a list of some of the ways I have gotten support during the past year, while my son has been in Wilderness Therapy and at his current placement, an RTC (Residential Treatment Center) in Utah. I will add other resourses to this post in the future. I would love to hear from fellow parents! Please chime in below, in the Comment Section because it does "take a village"!
What are your lifelines and support systems?
1. Therapist - A parent needs someone to talk to who is unrelated to the day to day drama we face when our kids are struggling. A good therapist is trained to help parents navigate all the ups and downs we feel when we can't "fix things" for our teenagers and when life's challenges are too much to bare. Yes, your kid may need help but it starts with you! Find a good therapist.
2. Education Consultant - Here is another major player in the puzzle of helping your struggling teen. Ed Consultants know all the programs that are available out there. They have visited many of them and keep connected with the staff and administrations of Wilderness Programs, Therapeutic Boarding Schools (TBS), Residential Treatment Centers (RTC), Step Downs and Young Adult (18-26 yrs) Programs. A parent just can not make important decisions without the guidance and expertise of an Ed Consultant. It is important to note that judging a program based on their website alone, is not wise. A talented graphic web designer can make a program's website look beautiful, but the staff and location is what makes your child's placement a good fit. The Education Consultant will cost you on the front end of the process, but they are essential at all stages of your journey. A must-have component on your team!
3. Local Meet-Up Parent Support Group - For some folks, this may come in the form of a local Al-Anon group meeting (which I have attended). You can google to see what's available in your area and find out times and locations for those meetings. For me however, I found that a more specifically directed group for parents of kids in Wilderness, TBS and RTCs was just what I needed. There is a local group in the San Francisco Bay Area is called WILLOWS IN THE WIND. They have an additional new meeting location in Broomfield, CO as well. Willows in the Wind is a 501(c)3 non-profit that supports parents and families who are looking for more information of what's out there in the way of help or currently have teens and young adults in treatment programs. They have three Bay Area meeting locations: Oakland, Los Altos Hills and San Rafael, CA. Visit their website for more information. It is a safe place with lots of support for parents of troubled teens!
4. Berkeley Parents Network - BPN is a non-profit online forum for parents who live in the SF Bay Area. Members share advice with other parents about all sorts of topics including parenting, schools, health, career, relationships, travel, and local businesses and services. It has been helpful to me for gathering information and links to other resources, especially when info may be difficult to find. (It is how I found Willows in the Wind!) It is not necessary for you to live in the SF Bay Area to use the website. Many of the posts are older, from the past few years, but it can still be helpful to read those posts on the related topics of Wilderness, Ed Consultants and RTCs for a perspective on how others have handled different problems and their personal situations.
5. W.A.B. Connect Wilderness And Beyond - WAB is an emotional support group with a new website and a weekly parent participation phone call. It began in 2017 by two sets of families who wanted to share their experiences of what therapeutic wilderness was like for them, as well as what follows, with other parents by forming connections. The individual stories may be different but it is very powerful to hear from others going through similar situations, including their wins and set-backs. Weekly call topics and notes as well as a blog are on the website. This awesome group of parents will prove to you that you are NOT alone. It provides a safe place to share, listen and learn from others with adolescents and young adult children at every stage of treatment.
6. Letter Writing - Every week my son writes us a letter. These letters are part of the therapy assignments in Wilderness and at the RTC. It has become such an important weekly connection for us and we truly look forward to receiving the email version of his handwritten letter at the beginning of the week. We answer him back, usually on Thursdays with a typed letter that we send to his therapist, who prints it out on the other end to give to him. Our son's letters are not very long and his penmanship is rather sloppy and rushed, but we've encouraged him to add more content in the letters to create a back and forth dialog. We put a lot of thought and effort into our replies to his letters. Sometimes we keep it light, but the letters are always encouraging and positive. I have saved a copy of all the letters and plan to put them into a three ring binder to save for posterity. Letter writing has become such a lost art in communication these days. I treasure the chance to re-read each one and actually hold that piece of paper in my hand. Yes, it's old fashioned but it has a value that can not be underestimated. It becomes something to look forward to, rather than the quick rewards of the instant gratification of texting or phone calls. One could even say it builds character.
7. Blogging - I don't know what I would have done this past year, if I hadn't started writing this blog. It has been a highlight of the challenging (yet full of growth) year we've had. I feel good after each time I hit "publish". I've learned so much about myself and realize how fortunate I am to have so many family members and friends let me know that they have read what I've written. I know some of you have not gone through many of the experiences that my family has, but you continue to show me how much you care and are rooting for us at every turn. I also love receiving comments from all of you after I publish my posts. It is a rather public forum, but I know my sharing has helped others. I have spoken to many of you on the phone. I've walked and talked with a few of you. I have had coffee and met some of you in person. I plan to continue to blog because it has become an essential release for my feelings and emotions.
Bonus tip: (For those who are not in the position to blog, keep a journal...same idea, and a bit more private! Get your thoughts out of your head and write them down! Try it, you'll like it!)
8. Self-Care - This is an important one! Exercising, eating right and getting enough sleep will allow you to function at a higher level when stress and worry take over your whole being. It can be a simple walk. I have enjoyed swimming, tennis and pickle ball. Others might prefer yoga and meditation. Whatever you choose, do it regularly and if possible daily! As parents we will not be able to offer anything to our kid's treatment program if we are unable to get out of bed and are stuck in a frozen state. It might not be easy, but do one thing per day. Put it on the calendar or call a friend and make a firm date to do something you enjoy. It will allow you to come back to the riggers of parenting while your kid is in treatment!
9. Connections - Without connections, a support system can not work. Everyday I meet people who may not know my family's story and when I have a chance to build a new or stronger connection, I am lifted up by the openness and kindness I receive. I have shared with grocery checkers at my local Safeway. I have shared with other parents and lots of friends who are too shy to ask. I try to be appropriate and not "over share", but that's what's great about having connections first, the realization that everyone's got something they struggle with. And you don't know what someone else is going through, if they don't tell you. So be brave: connect. Then share, then breathe, then let go. Take it slowly. One step at a time. One day at a time. Whatever it is that you are going through, you are not alone. And you can get through it!
10. Books - There are so many good ones. Here's one that I have read and got a lot out of it and was also recommended by a Mom from Oakland, CA: The Parallel Process-Growing Along Side Your Adolescent or Young Adult in Treatment by Krissy Pozatek.
I Don't Have to Make Everything All Better: Six Practical Principles that Empower Others to Solve Their Own Problems While Enriching Your Relationships by Gary and Joy Lundberg
The Five Love Languages of Teenagers - The Secret to Loving Teens Effectively by Gary Chapman
Are there other books that have helped you? Please let me know and I can add them to the list! Thanks!
Feeling at peace and full of gratitude for my support systems,
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!
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