Thursday, May 25, 2017

And Now It Gets Interesting

After 21 long months, Jack has returned to live with us and resume his life experience beyond treatment programs. On September 5, 2015 I took him to Open Sky Wilderness Therapy where he spent 80 days working through some of the issues that contributed to his unhealthy choices. In the weeks and months leading up to that event, Jack would choose skipping school and hanging out with other kids to smoke weed and engage in other nefarious activities.

After Open Sky, Jack was enrolled at Montana Academy in Marion, Montana. The school specializes in helping kids transition from wilderness programs back to a slightly more typical environment. While at MA, Jack made a complete turn around scholastically. In 18 months of year-round schooling he managed a grade point of 3.85, more than 1.5 points higher than his public school history. He also achieved a wonderful level of maturity.

The kid that I delivered to Open Sky is now a bright, engaged young man. The programs he attended have given him new tools that make him skilled at expressing himself, listening to others and coping with the frustrations that he encounters. We could not be more proud of the work he has done and the bright, young adult he has become.

Jack's graduation from MA and re-entry into the world brings with it new challenges. Together, we are adjusting to a life without the structure and protection that the school provided. For months we have been working on the plan for our family's transition to living together and how Jack will navigate his new (old) surroundings, without reverting to the behaviors in which he engaged two years ago.

Both Open Sky and Montana Academy have excellent programs for the parents and families of the kids they serve. It's well documented that when a young person does the therapeutic work they need they will fail later if their families don't complete work on their own. We have done our best to grow in a way that will support the advances Jack has made.

The center of the transition preparation has been Jack's "Relapse Prevention Plan" in which he spelled out his expectations for himself over the next several years. This was a project he didn't take lightly. The document goes into great detail, covering drug use, school performance, future goals and relationships. Lindsay and I both completed our version, referred to as the "Montana Academy Post Plan". In it we detailed how we envision Jack's interaction with the family and the rest of the world. We were impressed at how closely the two documents mirrored each other, giving all of us some encouragement for moving forward with little conflict.

Even with all the planning and negotiation for how life would work, there are remaining trust issues to be ironed out. Jack is learning to trust that we continue to have his best interest in mind. We are learning to believe that Jack will express his challenges openly and not revert to behaviors that he used to avoid conflicts.

Believe me when I say that Jack is fantastic young man. He will spend his summer working with friends that have a business teaching kids to rock climb. He's taking classical piano lessons and continues to play his bass and guitar. We're on the same wavelength regarding with whom he spends time, where he goes and what he does.

It's entirely likely that there will be slip-ups and conflict. Through that we will continue to grow and become stronger.

And now it gets interesting.

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Still Trying to Recover

It's been about eight months since we sent Jack to Open Sky. That event was the most stressful experience of my life. The entire time he was in wilderness the anxiety over his situation lessened, little by little. I was encouraged that eventually I would return to "normal". There's plenty of time when your son or daughter enters a program to second guess yourself about your skills and how you affect other people. Self-doubt is a common state for "wilderness parents".

Shortly before he completed his wilderness work, Lindsay and I had to make a decision about where he would go to continue his work. This part of the journey was unknown to me until the process started. The realization that Jack would not be coming home reignited the stress, mostly caused by separation anxiety I think. I also worried how Jack would react to his new surroundings. The idea of sending him to a program that he would resent and hate was heart-wrenching.

Fortunately, Jack has settled in at Montana Academy in a wonderful way. All of the kids there share some common experiences, including having been on an unhealthy path that ended abruptly when they went to a wilderness program. Many of the kids are musicians or artists. Activities like Magic the Gathering, slack-lining and chess are very popular. Jack fits in very well and when we talk to him he sounds calm and content.

I'm glad for him but envy his peaceful state. The long term effect on me of the last eight months (and maybe some of the time leading up to it) has not resolved in the way it has for Jack. I have not been able to shake the fear of "what's going to happen next?" I had no idea that my parenting was contributing to Jack's bad decision making. What other blind spots do I have that are going to cause a crisis? Do I have the skills and wherewithal to solve or avert other problems?

That kind of uncertainty is a cause of enduring anxiety for me. There isn't a single day that I don't fear that another crisis is on the way. My usual confidence has been rattled. Though I've been talking the situation through with Lindsay and others, I haven't been able to shed my fear that there are forces working against my happiness and well-being.

Of course, there are no such forces. We live in abundance and with continued hard work and mindfulness we'll maintain the level of comfort and peace we seek. Those of us that have been wounded by unforeseen events will receive the support needed to heal.

Everyone encounters challenges and set-backs in the course of their lives. We're no different. The value of such experiences is a function of what you learn from them and how you respond. In my case I think I was affected more deeply than originally thought. The road back is more difficult and longer than I realized. I'll get there.

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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Matt got "Gooned"

Early this week another family we know sent their son to wilderness. Matt, 16 years old, had been doing drugs, leaving the house without revealing his intentions or whereabouts and exhibiting threatening and abusive behavior towards his family. He is going to struggle in that environment. Matt's family is very well-to-do. I don't believe he's ever had a callous on his hands from working. The world has been served to him on a platter from in the material sense.

Matt's situation is unique in other ways. He is adopted, often a big factor with wilderness kids. His adoptive Mother is not particularly stable, leading his Grandmother to take the reins on Matt's life. It could be worse. Grandma and Grandpa are well off. They live in a beautiful house with several vacation homes. When they travel they go on the private jet. Sounds wonderful, huh?

This profile is not unusual in the wilderness world. A family has to have means because the programs are very expensive. The woods are full of rich kids. Jack was able to go because we had financial help. We learned when we attended family workshop and Jack's graduation that we were a bit of a financial anomaly.

Unfortunately, money doesn't buy the things that kids need to become well-adjusted, good-decision-making individuals. That's compounded by the fact that kids with money have access to a lot of things that are dangerous for them. Drugs, fast cars and instant popularity can distort a kid's sense of right and wrong. Non-identified or misguided values provide a faulty framework for decision making and often, the young get into trouble or become addicted to substances.

As it turned out, Matt was met at home by a pair of large men who served as his escorts to the eastern Utah winter headquarters of Open Sky. He'll be gone for a couple of months, living under a tarp, hiking 7-10 miles a day and learning how to start a fire without matches. He will get blisters and callouses. He'll learn how to eat food cooked over a fire from a limited menu of ingredients. Hopefully, he will find himself and a vision for the person he will become.

Jack update;
We talk to him every week and catch up on his activities, social life and school work. The other day someone asked me how Jack was doing. I heard myself reply that he's doing well and that he's an "A" student now. I'd never said that about Jack before. I have such pride in the growth he's making. Jack would be happy to have that support but he's determined to improve himself strictly for his own approval, internal validation.

The last time we were with him he was about an inch shorter than me. When we see him again next month I hope he's an inch taller. He's growing in so many ways. Now his friend Matt is on the path.

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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Values and Decision Making

When your son or daughter goes to Open Sky Wilderness the expectation is that the family will do as much therapeutic work as the kids. The concept is referred to as a "parallel path". The premise is that a family cannot expect their child to mature and grow and do all the necessary work and then be put back into an unchanged family environment. The workbook we were asked to complete is 75 pages in length. It contains a reading list and links to several podcasts and a slew of assignments.

One of the first assignments we were asked to complete was to define our top-five values. Each of us were to  identify our own and then we were to sit down as a family and "negotiate" what our collective values are. The first part of the task was fairly simple. My top five are health, family, honesty, growth and creativity. Simple.

One observed condition of kids like Jack is that their decision making is flawed. Obviously, when you're 15 and decide that school is no longer for you, that's a bad decision. The things these kids are drawn to are often dangerous or detrimental to one's health. The catalyst behind the poor choices is stress. The problem is this - the poor choices conflict with the kids' unspoken, unidentified value structure. This causes a dissonance that creates more stress. A cycle has begun.

The program helps the kids identify their own values to help them with better decision making. As you can imagine, when a teenager leaves their regular life and enters a program there are a lot of patterns to break. Having the individuals ground themselves in values provides a solid starting point. Many new decisions will need to be made in the first few weeks in the field so this work is vital.

I invite you to try the exercise. Sit down and make a list of 10 or 12 things you value. Think about it and then review the list to narrow it down. Get your list to five top values. Once you've completed that, it's easy to look at your behaviors and habits and identify things you do that conflict with your list. Maybe some of the unidentified angst and anxiety that you cope with is really self-inflicted. That is, perhaps some of your behaviors conflict with what you hold dear and , in turn, create a dissonance in your head and heart.

For me this exercise has initiated a significant change in how I operate. I know that some of the anger that seeps out, in subtle ways, was just a manifestation of having violated my own values. Having identified what my top-five values are and considering them daily has helped me become more peaceful. It feels good.

I'm sorry if this post is a bit preachy. Try the exercise. I think it may help you become more peaceful.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Future Tripping

We spent a few days last week in Montana hanging out with Jack. Lindsay went on Sunday so she could attend "Parent Workshop", a three-day gathering comprised of lectures, therapy sessions and time with the kids. She and Jack were able to spend their afternoons together hiking, talking and otherwise just hanging out. Because of the time of year and my occupation I was unable to attend Workshop but did get away for the two overnight passes Jack had earned.

I arrived in Kalispell on Wednesday night. Lindsay had rented a studio near Montana Academy that was cozy and warm and we enjoyed a night there. Thursday morning we picked Jack up at about 9am and headed to a friend's house on the south end of Flathead Lake, a stunning natural lake of incredible size and beauty. We stayed there Thursday and Friday nights and enjoyed Jack's company. Limited access to internet and television allowed us to spend time talking, walking the grounds, and generally passing time together.

It was amazing to be in the same room with Jack. It's hard to feel close to him when he's off at school. Pictures help but there is no substitute for being able to reach out and touch his shoulder or watch his face contort while he plays his guitar. Every time we get together I'm amazed at the person he's becoming. I can see his maturity and how his world is expanding. Each visit reveals a new gift.

Strangely, on this trip I was haunted by the knowledge that on Saturday afternoon I was going to return to Colorado, once again leaving my son behind. In Jack's world it's called "future tripping". That is letting your thoughts and emotions be dominated by what's coming up. The phenomenon robs you of any joy or contentment that the present may provide. I'd hoped that my daily meditation practice would help me control my thoughts better but to no avail.

To make matters worse, while we were visiting with Jack we received news that one of his classmates had run away. "Mikey" and his father were at a movie in Kalispell and somehow he managed to disappear. The news hit me like a punch to the stomach. It made me wonder how much pain a kid must be in to wander away from a secure, warm, well-fed environment. Was Jack feeling that way? Did I need to worry about him running?

Jack and Lindsay were planning trips to the theater on both Saturday, after I left, and Sunday before returning Jack to school. He had run away from me the day I delivered him to Wilderness. In my head the threat was real. I cried.

I'm happy to report that Jack was a perfect Gentleman for Lindsay after I left for Colorado. He is happily back at Montana Academy where he realizes the value of his time there. He is thinking about his future while remaining present enough to succeed at his school work and social life.

Hopefully, on the next visit in May I'll be able to stay present and enjoy every minute I get with Jack. I'll talk to him on the phone tonight. I'll say "hello" for you.

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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Long Overdue Update

It's been a while since I last posted on our family's journey. I think that's because it felt to me like there wasn't much to say. Reports from school, and what we gather from Jack in our weekly phone call, are that he is doing pretty well. There are the usual issues, fitting in socially, regaining confidence in the classroom, missing friends and family. Some weeks his letters are bright and confident and sometimes he expresses his angst over a challenge that's revealed itself.

It was Jack's birthday yesterday, his 16th. It reminded me of when I was that age and all the things that rattled around in my brain. It's not hard to understand why the vibes coming out of Montana Academy are so up and down. He's a teenager, typical in some ways and extraordinary in others. Sound familiar? Does that sound like your son or daughter, or maybe yourself? We're all on a path and this is Jack's.

While it appears that there aren't many huge developments for Jack in fact there are. One of the main objectives of wilderness programs and therapeutic boarding school is pattern breaking. In recent years when school became more complicated and demanding Jack would retreat and avoid. His inability to put order to the tasks at hand were overwhelming and a source of tremendous stress. Jack would "hide" in video games and most recently drugs. His self esteem took a beating as he watched other kids out-perform him academically. His IQ, as high as it is, wasn't enough without the intrinsic organizational skills required to get the work done.

Montana Academy is expert with this condition. When he started in school his course load included Intro Art, Music Theory and Spanish. It was almost too easy. In the second block the stakes were raised as Spanish was replaced by American Literature. To you and me that still doesn't sound like much, but for Jack the American Lit class was a Goliath. His challenges with attention and ordering tasks were suddenly front and center. He spent some time on "Academic Freeze", a status earned by under-performing in school. During that time he received tutoring and help with segmenting his work into bite-sized goals. In addition to gaining a desire to avoid that consequence in the future, Jack also developed some much needed skills. His mid-block grade was a C+, just a few points from a B. Major win!

The second half of the block started a few weeks ago and again the stakes went up as Art was replaced by Biology. On our call Thursday evening, I heard Jack say, when asked how it was going, "Biology is awesome". At the moment his grade is just a few points from an A.

Again, the reason I haven't posted in a while is that it seemed as though Jack was just cruising along. In retrospect that couldn't be further from the truth. He has been making great progress. His pattern of avoidance when faced with school appears to be unraveling. He is gaining the tools and discipline needed to become successful in school.

One of Jack's secrets to making such progress is his willingness to reveal his anxiety and challenges to his group. When he come out of wilderness his mantra was "vulnerability is power". At Montana Academy that has manifested into a willingness to share his demons, allowing others, peers as well as teachers and therapists, to support him in overcoming them. While it's too early to declare "results" it looks as though his approach is working.

We don't know where all this is all going but at the moment we're proud of the progress Jack is making. We're off to see him next week for a few days. While it's nice to hear his voice once a week I cannot wait to wrap my arms around him. It'll be nice to pass some time on Jack's path.

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Friday, February 5, 2016

Productive Frustration

Jack has been at Montana Academy for about 10 weeks now and by all accounts things have been going pretty well. He has adjusted to the surroundings and structure of the facility and has been very happy with his social interactions. The social piece is Jack's strong suit for sure. He is a charming, seemingly confident young man with inviting blue eyes and a warm smile. He listens well to others because, I believe, he genuinely cares about people.

Jack has been playing music everyday. He has a bit of a gift for music and finds enjoyment and comfort in all things musical. He is adept at the piano and guitar and has recently found a fondness for the mandolin. He has joined the choir at school and enjoys showing-off his pleasant voice.

If it weren't for the school and therapeutic work I'd say that Jack has found his Nirvana. The school is located out in the "boonies". From the grounds and windows there is nothing in sight but Montana wilderness and snow-capped mountains. In the winter the weather there is cloudy and snowy yet remarkably mild. I'd have guessed that temperatures would be consistently prohibitive to outdoor activities but that is not the case. As the kids move about the campus, a total of seven or eight buildings, the experience is pleasant. I know that Jack loves the environment.

The last letter we received was the first hint that perhaps things aren't all rosy. We had heard before that school work was a source of great stress for Jack. That was no surprise as academics has always represented that for him. He has a soaring IQ coupled with some deficits in his executive functions. That makes it very difficult for him to lay out the steps for getting assignments and projects completed. The frustration comes from his ability to easily understand the concepts but struggle to get to the work done. Montana Academy is the perfect place for him as that is their specialty on the academic side of things. He will be taught how to plan and organize and create bite-sized goals as a means of accomplishing his work.

This letter brought to light a newer struggle, one in his therapeutic work. In the letter he stated that he wasn't really gaining anything from a mental and emotional perspective. He feels as though he is going through the motions and waiting for graduation. He lays responsibility for that on the school, his therapist and the staff. For Jack this is a regression, a step backward into patterns that helped push him towards his experience of wilderness and therapeutic school in the first place.

Kids like Jack often fail to take responsibility for their situations in life. In the face of adversity they will externalize the causes of their frustrations and consequences. The behavior is a filter through which they soothe over the conflict they feel for having made inappropriate choices. It's a defense mechanism against further crushing of self-esteem.

I can hear the pain in Jack's voice as he describes his perception of the situation and feel bad that he bears such negative emotions about it. On the other hand I am encouraged that he is in a place from which he will need to recover. It's in the recovery that the skills are learned. Jack's counselor, while he was in wilderness, often told us that no progress is being made while a child is sailing along. He'd say it was like "going to the gym without lifting the weights". At this moment, and probably for several weeks to come, Jack has some heavy lifting to do.

As Jack works through this struggle he will be developing the skills he'll need to get beyond other challenges he'll face as he lives his life. He has the advantage of doing this work in a place that specializes in helping kids like him with this type of issue everyday. Before long he will understand that his intention to grow and mature outweigh the negative influences he perceives coming from his surroundings. He is frustrated but in a place of being aware and intentional about progress. His is a productive frustration.

Consider contributing to one of these funds so families that need help can afford it.

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