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!
It has been a little over six months since my son went to a Wilderness Therapy Program and then a Residential Treatment center after that. He celebrated his 16th birthday in the Idaho desert. He has been sober for that whole time and without using any electronic devices, so his brain is getting a chance to not only re-boot, but to thrive. It has been completely worth the enormous expense, financially and emotionally. We are now living in a place of strength instead of fear.
People have called us brave as parents. Some have said they could never do what we did. But, last June were at the end of our ropes and frankly, life wasn't a bowl of cherries during our son's early teenage years. We had no more options. It is tough to be a teen these days. There is so much going on: instant communication and news, pressures about one's future, social anxiety, depression AND digital addiction. We worried about what he was watching, what he was playing (video games), who he was texting, who he was hanging out with......the list goes on.
We tried keeping the "conversation" going. We tried to meet his friends, get to know their parents, provide activities that we could do as a family, eat dinner together. As things went south, we knew things were getting "unsafe" for our son. His local high school wasn't helping matters either. There was an abundance of marijuana and other drugs. My own fear escalated on a daily basis. I sought help to feel better and learn new strategies to cope.
The more I shared about the situation, the more I discovered that I am not alone. I met parents in the same boat, school wise, drug wise, technology wise. The more I opened up, the more others shared their similar stories with me. Wow, there is a BIG club out there! Layer by layer, as we found our way with the help of many professionals, our lives began to lighten up. We sent our son away, which led us to begin the process of amazing self discovery. We can flip this boat around! We can do it. We don't have to be afraid. We will get stronger. And stronger. And stronger.
Yes, there are days that aren't as good, emotionally. But there is strength in numbers. We met some great parents at the Wilderness Retreat. We met some great parents at the RTC (residential treatment center) Parent Days. We have learned that there are phases one goes through in this CLUB. Yes, there is relief initially, then it turns to acceptance and then it turns into strength. We are so much better for having been through all of our challenges. It's called living! We love our son. We miss our son! But we have him back as our son! And he is alive! And he is thriving!
No situation is perfect. We aren't perfect. He isn't perfect. We will make mistakes, he will make mistakes. We can learn from them. We can discuss our feelings and emotions. We will grow! Of course, no one knows what the future will hold for any of us. We take steps forward and a few steps backwards. That's okay. We have a lot of information we didn't before. We are not alone. Our journey continues. One day at a time. One step in front of the other. Breathing! Being grateful for what we've been through.
I am strong! I am no longer afraid.
I am standing tall!
Our sixteen year old son was processing our decision to send him to a new place after wilderness. His stay was thirteen weeks or ninety-two days in total. It was a long time however you choose to look at it. We were proud of his progress and the changes he made and so was he. The summer season was winding down and fewer boys remained at the wilderness therapy program. He became a leader by default at the end of his stay. Not his strength, but when put in that position did amazingly well.
We put the finishing touches on the paperwork for the school/residential treatment center while still back at home. We made arrangements to fly into Utah, drive to Idaho, pick up our son, drive back to Utah, drop him off and then return home. All in just over 30 hours. Whew!
There was a contract in place between us and him about the expectations that were set for the transition. No cell phone use, for us by choice and for him as part of the deal. He would get a short five minute call with his one positive friend back home. It would be monitored and made once we arrived at the new school's parking lot. Sort of a carrot for him, to make sure things went smoothly during the transition.
The graduation from wilderness would take place on a Thursday at 10am. We were asked to arrive at 9:30am at the main headquarters. We flew into Salt Lake City the night before, drove 1 1/2 hours and stayed at a Motel 6. It had been years since I had done that and while it was clean enough, it was more sparse than I recall. We didn't sleep much and woke up at 4:30am. We decided to hit the road and drive the rest of the way into Idaho before the sun came up.
We were both nervous and excited about our reunion and transport. When we arrived at the tiny town where the wilderness program was headquartered we looked for somewhere to eat breakfast. There were only two restaurants: a Chinese restaurant and a basic egg and pancake joint. It opened at eight o'clock exactly which worked great for our schedule.
After our quick bite, we drove to the headquarters and filled out the final release and questionnaire. We waited for our son's van to arrive from his campsite about forty-five minutes away. The graduation was for just two boys: our son and one other. The staff showed short but meaningful slide shows filled with pictures of their personal adventures. What a change our son had made in appearance and attitude. We were so happy to be getting him back after ninety two days in Idaho. One journey ended and the next one was about to begin. We know we made the right decision. We saved his life.
We both agreed, it was school number one! Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Just like our Education Consultant said, it was all about the people! The place had a wonderful home like feeling that seemed like "just the right fit" for our son. It would be a big change from wilderness but kids that entered from that arena, often did very well when they arrived.
The second school felt like the town from the movie, Pleasantville. Very clean, almost to a fault, without any personality at all. The admissions team basically phoned the tour in and was certainly not the "A Team"! They didn't seem to understand what we were looking for at all. The one highlight was meeting two of the boys who were students there, but even they had an edge that we couldn't see our son being with. We were happy that the decision was so easy for us after visiting in person!
We headed home in a whirlwind and by next morning our Education Consultant called and was in total agreement with us. The paperwork was the next hurdle! Luckily most of the documents were ones that the wilderness program needed, so I just had to create a new folder on my computer, make a copy and send them off. Next, get some money from the college fund. It was incredibility expensive, but as I've said before, college wouldn't even be an option without having success in this new school/treatment center.
We wrote our sixteen year old a long letter, sharing all the wonderful things about his new placement. Horses, basketball, positive environment and a one of a kind "calf program". Each boy was given a new born calf to care for. What an opportunity! The boys mixed the formula and fed their calf, three times a day. It taught a huge lesson in responsibility and caring. We added cut and paste pictures into our email letter and sent it off to him.
After we had our weekly therapy session over the phone, on what would be our final session of the wilderness program, we all were ready for our next adventure. Ground rules were set about the transition and this time we were doing the transport. At least that was the plan. Stay tuned to see how we all faired.
Happy to be moving forward,
One of our "heavy" discussions at the family therapy session at the retreat was about what happens after wilderness. Our son lobbied hard to go back to his public high school in the SF Bay Area. We knew that would NOT work. There would be too many triggers and he was not strong enough to combat those negative temptations.
He said that he felt it was still a good fit for him. We reminded him that he didn't even attend the school he liked, so why would that work this time around? Our sixteen year old was very emotional, yet was able to share some of his "raw" feelings with us. There was progress being made. This was a kid who never cried openly, until now.
Many or even most of the kids in wilderness programs go to an aftercare program of some kind. It might be a therapeutic boarding school or a residential treatment center. There were many such places in the West to choose from. Lucky for us, we had an excellent Education Consultant on board to help us select the best place for our son. This was a whole new world that we knew nothing about. But as we shared with other parents in the same boat, we started to learn new things everyday.
Part of the process our family went through was how we took the new information in, and got comfortable with those ideas and plans. Within a week, once we returned home, our son was on board with NOT coming home right away. He had come to terms with his needing more support and help with his many issues. How brave he was in his new decision! We were able to talk about a "list" of his desires for his upcoming transition from wilderness to an aftercare program. NO uniforms was on the list, but we knew that polo shirts might be a reality. Oh well, he could handle it!
The shocking part for us as parents was the "unbelievable cost". Think to yourself how much a school like Stanford costs per year and add more $ on top of that and you might be in the ball park. We had a college fund set aside, but there would be NO college if we didn't get through this next phase of our son's education. So we will take a penalty hit on taxes, so what! It will be worth it in the long run for his success in school and his self-esteem and self-confidence.
We called our Education Consultant and gave her a list of needs. She then spoke with the wilderness therapist and field psychologist to sort out the kind of learning and support our son needed. Decisions, decisions.....What's next in this amazing journey will be coming up in the next blog post. Stay tuned.
"What did you feel when you first saw us, as the van drove down the hill to the Family Spark camp site?" we asked our sixteen year old son?
"I was excited, just like Christmas morning!" was his answer.
That stopped us cold in our tracks! WOW! HOW ABOUT THAT? It gets me all choked up thinking about it again.
It had been eight weeks since we had all seen each other from the time he began his wilderness therapy journey in Idaho. We then asked, "Do you hate us for sending you?" fearing what he would say.
"No, I was surprised that it was happening, and the first couple of days were surreal, but no I don't hate you." he said in a matter of fact response.
"It was the hardest thing we've ever done, but it was the last resort." we said with heavy hearts. We wanted to make sure he understood our side of the event. It was not taken lightly at all! He had to know how much we loved him.
That conversation was one of many that we had like it, asking and answering queries on both sides of our worlds. And they all happened without the distraction of a phone or other technology or substance in the way. Our son had clear eyes for the first time in ages. It was a pleasant and refreshing occurrence . It's like we were able to go backwards to a more innocent and younger time with him.
Over the course of the next few days, we had many group activities. We play acted the time when the "wheels fell off the bus" for us as a family. Each of us took turns as we role played the other, to see what we must have gone through. We watched and observed the other families and could see some similarities in many of they stories. We were not alone.
We participated in equine therapy and tried to maneuver a horse, who behaved much like our son had: stubborn and defiant. That was very interesting and revealing. We learned about non verbal communication from the therapists. We did an obstacle course while we were blindfolded one at a time, using only verbal directions from only one of us, to avoid the obstacles. We learn to work together as a team. We analyzed every action made and every word spoken. There was so much symbolism and meaning to it all. And it was exhausting but a wonderful few days.
The best part was that we were smiling with each other and laughing again, as a family unit. It had been a long time since those days. It was going to be difficult to say "so long", as the end of the retreat got closer. One more hug, one more story, one more day......OUR TIME TOGETHER DID FEEL A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS MORNING.
Our first night at the Family Spark therapy retreat went by quickly and we wokeup at sunrise, ready to start the day. The first group activity was "hand washing". The entire group stood around a hole in the ground while one of the boys (our son this time) squirted a tiny bit of camping soap into our open palms. Then we started saying our "hopefuls", going around the circle with anticipations of the day in front of us. As that was happening, a water pitcher was tipped with water spilling out to activate the soap in our hands. We scrubbed and rinsed and listened to the thoughts and hopes of the group. This ritual happened before dinner as well, but the topic changed to "thankfuls". It was a nice ritual. Everything we did had meaning, even the simple tasks.
"Hopefuls and Thankfuls" were just the beginning of our sharing. We had mindfulness, "highs and lows", and many other topics that were selected by whatever boy was in charge of that session. Listening to everyone's words was very powerful. It sent messages of healing, growth and new understanding. Some of the parents wrote things in their notebooks, others just listened intently. Most of the boys picked up rocks from the ground or fidgeted with strings and made bracelets. There was a lot of ADD (attention deficit disorder) in this group!
Lots of new facts came out of these deep discussions. One of the things we learned about was the fact that our son lost his second retainer before being sent to wilderness. Those retainers weren't cheap, let me tell you. He got his braces off after a long 2 1/2 years, earlier in the springtime. The orthodontics made room for two teeth that he was born without. At age 21, he would have implants to fill those eyeteeth gaps. In the meantime, he was fitted with custom retainers that had two false teeth attached to make his smile complete. He admitted to losing his retainer just two days before he left for wilderness. It happened at a park while he was busy partying!
In the group sharing we learned about natural consequences. The lost retainer became one for him. It would be replaced at a later date, and he would have to go without for a while. I was unhappy about the expense, but it's amazing the things one can let go of when dealing with bigger issues.
One of the group questions was "What was it like when you saw your parents from the van, when arriving at the Family Spark setting?" My son's answer will amaze you. Come back tomorrow to hear what he said. Bring a hankie!
He walked towards us, a bit scruffy and a bit dirty but he was wearing a million dollar smile. We hugged. It was so nice to see him. He actually seemed happy to see us. He had been in the wilderness program for eight weeks. It was a long time.
He was a little shy at first. His pack was giant and really dirty on the outside. His hair was getting long. There was a coat of dirt and grime over all of the boys, even though they did take a shower every week. For some reason, this week they didn't get one. It was the high desert after all and not the Hilton! We showed him to our tent. He was very happy to be given a cot for a couple of days and not have to sleep on the ground.
He seemed very relaxed. We could see in his clear eyes that nature had a positive effect on him. It replaced the omni present technology world he left two months prior. Our son answered our many questions about the camping and other activities the group did every week. There was lots of hiking, but they also did equine therapy, white water rafting, mountain biking, canoeing and rock climbing. Every activity had a purpose of how it related to self improvement, introspection and getting along with others. Positive behaviors replaced negative behavior in thoughts and deed.
After about one half hour the entire group of parents and boys joined in a circle to kick off the first of many circles. One of the boys led us on a mindfulness and breathing exercise. Another led the introductions so we knew why each teen was there at wilderness. Each parent then explained what reasons brought their family to this place as well. We were beginning to feel each other's pain. And we were certainly not alone.
As the sun was setting, we reflected on the "highs" and "lows" of the day. Each person took a turn sharing and when they were done, they "passed" to the next. We heard a word shouted out every now and then by members of the circle, "Aho!" It means "I agree" with what was just said. Most of the boys chimed in and we parents added our "Aho's" as well. When it came time for me to express my "high", it definitely was seeing my son smile. Something so simple, yet so powerful and beautiful, made me happy and teary at the same time.
We were so happy to be together. What happened over the next few days was life changing and wonderful.
About half way through the wilderness program there is an opportunity for parents to come and spend three days in nature with their kids. It is "comfortable camping". It is better than the kids normally experience in there day to day existence, and for the parents is considered "camping with therapy"!
Our trip to "Family Spark" was full of emotion. We flew into Idaho the evening before our expected arrival. We took a walk and then had a very pleasant dinner at AppleBee's! We were expected to meet a shuttle at 8am. There was lots of anticipation in the air.
In the elevator in the morning we saw a couple that had some new REI looking clothing on. I was about to say "wilderness" under my breath, but as expected they ended up on the shuttle with us! The small bus was filled with 19 parents in total. We shared the hour and a half drive together without much interaction. We soon would be sharing our deepest feelings and emotions.
When we arrived at the wilderness program headquarters, we were given large totes to put our non camping clothing and any electronics we brought with us to go into storage for 3 1/2 days. No cell phones, no iPads, nothing but what was on the packing list. It was camping 101 for some. As a group we formed a circle and introduced ourselves briefly and say what our reason for sending our son or daughter to wilderness was.
People were very emotional and the stories were similar, yet individual too. Then we split into a "boys group" and a "girls and younger boys group". We headed off into the high desert for a reunion and a new beginning. I have never been with a more nervous group of parents, including ourselves.
We arrived at our family retreat area that had six large canvas tents and plenty of shade trees. It also had a barn like structure for cooking and a wooden outhouse situated at the far corner of the property. There was no electricity and no electronics were allowed. Peace on earth! For as far as the eyes could see, there was NOTHING. Nothing but nature. Beautiful rolling hills and mesas and lots of cottonwood trees and other ground cover. You could hear the wind blowing in the distance.
We chose our tent and took our bags and placed them inside. There were three sturdy cots lined up ready for our family to camp together for three days. No wonder we were nervous! Then the parents all gathered under the large shade structure and saw a van in the distance. That van was carrying all of our sons! You could hear a pin drop.
The van slowly drove down the hill to the gate. We saw the doors open and out came some boys who picked up their large and heavy backpacks out of the back of the van. The group looked grimy, yet smiling, most carried long walking sticks. The families all took part in embraces. It had been at least seven weeks since everyone had seen each other. It was eight weeks for us. What was our reunion going to be like?
Check back tomorrow to find out.
Filled with emotion, yet hopeful -
This was a tough day on our end. Our son was at a wilderness program in Idaho on his 16th birthday. We were able to scan a birthday card for him and they would print out on his end. You are probably thinking what kind of birthday is that? Well, again we had to take our emotions out of it. As hard as that was to do, we had to focus on the fact that he was actually able to have a 16th birthday. It was not the ideal situation, but hey, difficult times require difficult decisions and that was our summer in a nutshell.
They did have a cake for him. And he wasn't the only kid to have birthday away from home. He was safe and learning things about himself that could serve him well in the future. There was so much to be grateful for: a new day, a new chance to grow, a new perspective and outlook. We were in a parallel process with him, complete with a full of a gambit of emotions.
As the weeks went by, we were able to finally have a phone call with him and his therapist. Everything was always monitored. We he heard our voices for the first time, he immediately broke down into tears. He was extremely emotional during our therapy call. It was shocking, yet touching, because it meant he was actually feeling something.
He stuck to a script of topics and questions. We let him do most of the talking. It wasn't social, but with our limited time, we had to discuss the important reasons we sent him. He said he didn't want to lie to us anymore. He admitted to pushing us away. He said he missed us. Wow, absence does make the heart grow fonder.
The biggest revelation was that he said he didn't realize until he was away, that he did in fact, love us. He tried so hard to keep us at arm's length during the past year, that he rejected the two people who cared for him the most on this planet. And he slowly was opening up his feelings. Very slowly. Another biggie was that he said didn't hate us for sending him. Deep down he had to feel a big relief for not to be living the life he struggled with at home: the negative friends and the negative behaviors. It was exactly what his psychiatrist said it would be: a re-boot!
Happy Birthday Son!
To be continued......
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!