Most parents are not aware that there is a hidden world of dedicated professionals trained to identify troubled teens’ underlying problems and begin the process of repairing fractured families. These professionals help family members hear, understand, and accept each other’s emotional pain. It is a hidden world, not because it is a “dark net,” but because it is hard to learn of its existence despite its value. It is a world you should know about, so here is our story.
Our path was not unusual for families in crisis: a strong family foundation for our only child, family activities, regular dinners together, no pampering, family vacations, regular attendance at his activities, and fair rules with consequences for infractions. We cheered for him in his accomplishments and introduced him to faith, spirituality, and ethics. We tried to be good examples.
But, just before he turned fifteen, we discovered he was smoking pot and taking psychedelics. His trajectory led him to eighteen different drugs before he found the help of Wilderness therapy. We went the traditional path of serial psychologists and psychiatrists with many diagnoses and drugs to counter the ailments, but drugs for a teen with a drug problem seemed wrong to us. None of these professionals talked to us about the services of educational consultants or the benefits of Wilderness therapy.
Next came police and emergency room visits for overdoses. As a last resort, he agreed to go to a county-run adolescent rehab center to dry out. Once there, he was furious and demanded emancipation from us in favor of foster care. We were fighting a losing battle – we had lost him emotionally and we were about to lose him physically. Drugs were winning.
Then, out of the blue, an acquaintance left us a voicemail: “My son tells me your son has not been at school this week. . . . If you need to talk, as a parent and a mother, I’ll be happy to.” Our acquaintance had experience with teen issues and introduced us to a wonderful woman practicing as an educational consultant (EC), specializing in troubled teens.
Over a three-day weekend, we had long talks with the EC. We told her of the drugs, the problems at home and school, the turnover in friends and interests, the failure of the medical community to make progress, and the new threat of foster care. The EC introduced us to the magic of Wilderness therapy, where a family can hit the re-set button to begin the hoped-for starting over period. The EC favored Wilderness therapy for our son, and the possibility of a therapeutic boarding school (TBS) when Wilderness ended.
Sunday morning, the EC recommended a Wilderness therapy program in Utah and a particular Wilderness psychologist she thought would be the best for our son. She recommended that after Wilderness, our son should attend a TBS rather than come home to us. She had already spoken with the Wilderness program and they had an opening. To get our son to Utah, the EC recommended a juvenile transport company – two off-duty cops who would transport our son to Utah. The EC made the contacts for us.
The transporters stayed at our house so we could get to know them better before we entrusted our son to them. We talked with them for hours conveying all our fears and they had a calm and reasoned answer to every adverse scenario we could think of. What if our son refuses to go? What if he refuses to get on the plane? They had a plan for every contingency.
The plan was to pick up our son from rehab and drive to a nearby vacant lot and park. We did this and the transporters followed in their car, pulled in behind us, got into the back seat of our car on either side of our son. We made a quick introduction, and then as instructed, we exited our car and did not look back. We went across the street to Walgreen’s to cry. We knew the transporters would talk to our son and transfer him to their car only if he was willing. He was.
Throughout the day, we received reassuring communications from the transporters. Monday night, they called from Las Vegas to say they had turned our son over to the Wilderness transporters.
After an evening at the Wilderness base in town, our son was given a physical exam and lab work. Other than the residual drugs in his body, he was healthy, so he was issued a backpack filled with winter clothing, laundry bags, a tarp, sleeping pad, sleeping bag rated to -30 degrees F, water bottles, and a bag full of food. He was then blindfolded and taken to the Wilderness program to begin his therapy. He joined a group of nine other boys and four staffers and the process of hitting the re-set button began.
On Wednesday morning, we received our son’s first journal entry: I don’t know where I am but this place doesn’t seem that bad. Even though the sky is grey, it is really nice here… I wish I could’ve gone here first but I think I can do this.
Wilderness therapy lasted ten weeks, with an initial period of separation from the other boys to allow a staff member to acclimate and guide him. Once he was willing to accept the program, he joined the group. The boys took long hikes daily, took turns cooking, had group and individual therapy with staff members multiple times a day, and weekly therapy with the group psychologist. Gradually he was prescription-free with no ill effects. He learned survival skills. The boys were given written assignments to share with the group. Back home, we attended almost daily webinars, had written assignments which were discussed with our son, and had weekly phone calls with the psychologist about our son’s progress.
At home, our son had never spoken much about his feelings and it was painful to read his journal assignments… I was extremely depressed, so faced with two options, suicide or bud, I started smoking and within a week, I was smoking daily… I was so depressed and emotionally numb that I was willing to try anything in order to feel happy. I got friends, power, and respect from using drugs, along with happiness.
After four weeks, the psychologist told us to come to Utah. Upon arrival at the base, we were issued the same provisions our son had received and then we were taken to the group in the Wilderness. Once there, we found our son clear-eyed, open, relaxed, thoughtful, kind, informative, and even nurturing as he helped us erect our tarps and made sure we were well fed. We participated in group activities, discussion, and therapy. The three of us also had family therapy. We left shortly after breakfast the next day with huge goodbye hugs all the way around, including from the staff. In four weeks, the magic of the Wilderness had begun to take hold and the beginning of healing was in full bloom.
As the Wilderness program drew to a close, the psychologist, EC, our son, and we decided that he should not return home to finish high school. A TBS in Montana was next. We (all three of us applied) were accepted, we returned to Utah for a final Wilderness family therapy session, and a final restless night sleeping under the Utah skies. We left camp at 6 a.m., had his provisions shipped home, turned in our loaner packs, and off we flew to Montana, and the next phase of the journey.
Our son completed high school at the Therapeutic Boarding School, but the path was not a linear one, with several setbacks along the way. Our Wilderness training, however, gave the three of us the tools and strength to manage the issues openly. For therapy and family healing, we visited the TBS thirteen times before graduation. Our son was one of several students who spoke at graduation. He described the feelings of alienation and self-doubt that started in sixth grade as a result of bullying. We never knew… Middle school was a war zone, rife with drugs and sex, and housed some of the most violent and vindictive children I have ever met.
He explained that he turned to drugs in high school, noting that as his use progressed, his relationship with us deteriorated substantially. He recalled the time he went to the ER because of a Xanax overdose, and later that night took more black market Xanax because he felt hopeless and lost.
He spoke openly of his relapse near the time of his first scheduled TBS graduation… It was both the hardest and the most gratifying experience of my life. For the first time I felt what it was like to overcome struggle, to truly change people’s minds about me instead of becoming something that I thought they would like to see. I felt as if my life was my own… Mom and Dad, I couldn’t have done any of this without you guys. Thank you for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
Our son graduated from college in four years and is a wonderful young, emerging adult. To see him (or us), no one would suspect the path we took. That is typical. One size does not fit all in this world of teen struggles, but there are resources out there, and for us, the answer was discovering the Educational Consultant, Wilderness therapy, Therapeutic Boarding School, hitting the re-set button, and following the path to recovery and a healthy family.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
Author Bio: L. S. and M. S. are parents of a young adult who has struggled with mental health and addiction issues. Their son’s life was turned around when he attended Second Nature Therapeutic Wilderness Program and Montana Academy therapeutic boarding school.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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