A Parent’s Journey: How Wilderness Therapy Made the Crucial Difference for a Family Impacted by Mental Illness

walking in the woods

At 3 am on January 18, 2018, a cold winter’s night when most everyone was fast asleep, my wife and I were wide awake.

Our then 17-year-old daughter, Audrey, was about to be abruptly woken up and transported by a third party to a wilderness therapy program.  She had no idea this was about to occur because we were afraid for her safety.

As she left the house with her professional escorts, her life and ours were about to drastically change.

For more than a year prior to that night, our family was in a lot of pain.  Audrey, who was tested for short-term memory challenges several years earlier, was continuing to try to cope with growing academic and social pressures.  And, she wasn’t succeeding.  Trying to be good parents, we tried to create a support system, including focus and anxiety medications prescribed by a psychiatrist, local therapy, tutoring, and in-school accommodations.  They proved to be a band-aid that ultimately didn’t remotely address her ability to live a happy life.

The result was she began to spiral.  She missed a lot of school.  She hung out with the wrong crowd.  She smoked pot and drank alcohol.  She snuck out late at night and put herself and others in danger.

In the heat of the moment, our reaction was to try to lock her down.  This was because we viewed her as being in harm’s way and felt we needed to punish her disrespectful and obstinate behavior.  Boy, were we wrong.

Audrey was actually in crisis and calling out for help.  She didn’t know how to cope and was turning to anything that enabled her to feel a bit better about herself despite her situation.  She wasn’t trying to be a bad kid who would upset her parents.  In fact, she was simply doing what she could to survive.

During the holidays in December 2017, we were communicating rarely, and when we did, it was heated.  We knew something had to change, and, unfortunately, we weren’t prepared to make that change because we didn’t know how to do it.  And, we didn’t know where to turn until we serendipitously learned about wilderness therapy, residential treatment, therapeutic boarding schools, and other off-site programs that could potentially provide the support Audrey desperately needed.

Fast forward twelve months, and Audrey returned home.  She had spent three months at Pacific Quest for wilderness therapy that proved to be a reset button for her and nine months at Dragonfly Transitions for residential treatment to reintegrate stressors into her life.  As Audrey has suggested, “Before treatment, I was very depressed and anxious and had no healthy coping mechanisms.  Now, I am thriving.  I know how to nourish my mind, my soul, and my body, and I know my patterns.  I’m now working, pursuing my passions, and have healthy relationships.”.

When Audrey left for wilderness therapy, my wife and I breathed a big, collective sigh of relief as we knew we were over our heads as parents and were grateful she was getting needed help.  At the same time, we also felt a wave of guilt.  We thought, “Where and why did we fail?”.  Though not fully responsible for the way Audrey was wired and how she reacted, we realized we weren’t helping the situation.  A big reason was our differing parenting styles.  My wife was a nurturing parent who tended to “hover.”  While demonstrating a strong ability to care, at times she inadvertently prevented Audrey from learning how to deal with adversity.  At the same time, as someone who was a high and independent achiever, I acted as the tough guy who wasn’t attuned and suggested Audrey needed to “suck it up.”  What I didn’t realize was she just wanted to be heard and understood.  She didn’t seek agreement but support.

Thankfully, my wife and I engaged with a parent therapist to learn, forgive one another and prepare ourselves for life once Audrey returned home.  Many spouses let this situation destroy their marriages.  They end up in divorce, or the stress impacts their go-forward relationship irreparably.  Our marriage wasn’t at risk, fortunately, but it was undoubtedly strained.  We thankfully now are happier, healthier, and better spouses, parents, and friends resulting from the investment we made in one another.  As a result, we highly recommend this for any parents who have struggled with their children as it helped us understand our daughter and ourselves far better and taught us several approaches we could use to align our parenting styles and support and connect with her better.  It has made a huge difference in so many ways.

In early 2020, before COVID hit, I reflected and realized that our journey was very fragmented.  First, we didn’t know the wilderness therapy and residential treatment ecosystem existed.  Once we discovered it, we found it to be extremely difficult to navigate.  Every time we had a question or had to evaluate and make a big decision, we realized there were few, if any, places you could go, even as a starting point, to find information or get support and comfort.  Most of these decisions were emotionally charged, needed to be timely, and were typically very expensive.  This was serious stuff.  Finally, there’s a stigma for mental health that turns people inward.  It’s no wonder people in similar circumstances feel so isolated and alone.

While Audrey was away, we were contacted by a number of parents who were also struggling and needed help and support.  We were thrilled to be there for these parents.  With that in mind, as well as the above-referenced fragmentation, we decided to give back and help parents, so they have a potentially smoother path than we did.  So, we created a hub, appropriately called Parents Journey.  The website is www.parentsjourney.net.  It is for parents by parents and contains resources for most decisions parents need to make for them and their children when they are evaluating, in the middle of, or completed wilderness therapy, residential treatment, therapeutic boarding schools, aftercare, and other options.

Key parts of the site include:

  • Our podcast, called Wilderness Therapy & Residential Treatment Center Journey, is the best part of the site. It contains a link to inspirational, insightful, and informative interviews with industry experts in a variety of areas.  Examples of relevant topics include educational consultants, insurance coverage, transportation, parent therapy, a variety of mental health issues, wilderness therapy, and residential treatment options.  The podcast can also be found on well-known podcast apps like Apple, Spotify, and Google.  There have been thousands and thousands of downloads, and the show has been highly rated, so we know having a voice and context to this topic is indeed resonating.
  • Articles and links to provider websites. These are meant to make it easy for parents to find what they need to do some more research and feel inspired.
  • Information about our certified parent coaching services. We offer a unique perspective in that we have been in the shoes of parents who are experiencing the highs and lows of this journey.  We have been able to help many parents determine how to best move forward given the circumstances.

 

If anyone has any questions or would like to discuss our experiences or their specific situation, feel free to reach out to me at andy@parentsjourney.net.

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.

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About the Author: Andy Goldstrom is a Parent, Podcast Co-Host, and Certified Parent Coach.  He is dedicated to serving parents who have children struggling with mental illness through the website www.parentsjourney.net and his innovative parent coaching business.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

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