Sunday, December 27, 2015

Into the Wilderness

This post comes to you from 30,000 feet somewhere between Kalispell, Montana and Salt Lake City. I have been in Montana visiting Jack for Christmas Eve and Christmas. He is currently attending Montana Academy (“MA”) where he’ll be studying and continuing his therapeutic work for the next 11 months. We were able to visit Jack because of the Holiday Break that occurred between school blocks. Most of the kids, those that have been here for a while, were granted passes to visit their homes for the Holidays. Because Jack has only just arrived, he’s been there a month, his pass only allowed us to visit for three days.

The next time I will be able to visit with Jack will be in March. That’s more than three months from now. Jack was in wilderness for 81 days and the span of time between today and our next visit will be more than that. Somehow, I know it will be easier. While he’s at MA we get to talk on the phone every week. Hearing his voice and getting his story from him is soothing and reassuring.

When your kid goes into wilderness it’s as though they’ve gone to the moon. Communication is cut off. In our case we sent him off with people we didn’t really know to an unknown location somewhere in the woods northwest of Durango, Colorado. We didn’t know the conditions under which he was living, whether he was warm and dry or what his mental and emotional state were. I could only imagine the mind-frame of a teenager that had been snatched from his life and was now living a bewildered existence under the direction of a team whose reputation was all I had on which to base my trust. The first month was a nightmare.

The only form of communication we were allowed was an exchange of letters that occurred every Tuesday. Jack was directed to write us letters while “in the field” that expressed his thoughts and feelings about his experiences. Those letters were scanned and uploaded to our “Family Portal” on the Open Sky website when the kids returned to basecamp on Mondays. They were available to read by Tuesday afternoon. We too, were charged with authoring letters that expressed our thoughts and encouragements for the path he had undertaken. After the first week my organization of time was based around the letter exchange on Tuesdays. Almost immediately, Tuesday was my favorite day.

Even the early letters from Jack were cause for relief. The tone of his messages were generally upbeat and positive. Most of his writing centered around the hiking he was doing (15 to 20 miles per week under a 50 pound pack) and the mountains he had climbed with his group. Some of the letters were assignments in which he was required to address the specifics of his pre-wilderness behaviors and how they had affected our family and him. Regardless of the content, my world revolved around Tuesdays. Even my family and friends became accustomed to checking in with us to share what we had learned from the Tuesday letter.

Open Sky Wilderness does an excellent job of involving parents in the process of growing alongside the children with whom they work. When we dropped Jack off with the Open Sky team I was left with a feeling of vulnerability and helplessness as though I could do nothing about his care. That was soon relieved when I was introduced to the “Parent Pathway”, a workbook for parents with weekly exercises and Podcasts designed to help the entire family grow alongside their teenager. The workbook, some 75 pages worth, also included a reading list to help parents and families better understand the thinking and behaviors of adolescents.

The premise of the program is that if you help the child grow and then return him or her to a family that interacts with the same dynamics as before, you have wasted the work. The teenager, in that situation, will return to the old behaviors 100% of the time.

We were also encouraged to attend therapy as a family and as individuals. In the interest of helping Jack, we all, Lindsay, Katie and me, sought out counselors and attended weekly sessions. We also enjoyed a weekly therapy session with the therapist with whom Jack was working. The two of them met weekly in addition to the regular group sessions Jack had with “Team G”.

From the letters and reports from Chris, Jack’s therapist, we knew that positive changes were happening in Jack. Still, the absence of hearing his voice and not being able to see him or give him a hug was heart-wrenching. I missed him dearly. I counted the Tuesdays until I would be able to wrap my arms around the same way I did on the day I dropped him off.

Please help those that can't afford to save their own kids.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Delivery to Open Sky - A Kidnapping Story

I wasn’t able to get Jack to Durango in time for him to be received and “processed” by the Open Sky staff on Friday, which meant I had to spend the night in a hotel with him. This was a risky proposition. He was not a willing participant. The evening was filled with Jack’s condemnation of our parenting seasoned with expletives and threats of running away. He warned me that if I fell asleep I could expect him to have left in the night. I managed to stay awake until about 3am but finally surrendered to me need for sleep. I took the comforter off of the bed and laid down in front of the door, cutting off his only exit.

I don’t sleep well on the floor, especially when in the throes of what was essentially a kidnapping. I can understand Jack’s defiance. We had removed him from his life and friends. He left behind the comforts of home, his dogs and beloved guitar and piano. He was plunging headfirst into the great unknown. He knew that he’d be involved for at least 65 days. I’d oppose this scenario as well. I imagine his regrets were weighing pretty heavily on him too.

It took considerable effort to get Jack out of the hotel and moving towards the car. Every step of getting ready seemed to take forever. When we finally got outside he stopped in the parking lot, looked me in the eye and ran. There is a bike path behind the hotel and by the time he reached it he was 30 yards ahead of me, and pulling away. My 53 year-old body was unable to answer the call of sprinting fast enough to catch his youthful effort. As we ran down the path I removed my phone from my pocket and dialed 911. Through my labored breathing I described the situation to the dispatcher. She assured me that officers were on the way. The path rounded a corner and as I watched Jack disappear I feared that it would be the last time I ever saw him. He was terrified and seemingly desperate to elude authorities.

Upon rounding the corner myself I spotted two homeless guys exchanging cigarettes. I asked them if they had seen someone running down the path and they calming indicated that the runner had slid down the bank towards the Las Animas River. Following their direction, I too headed down the bank. There was Jack, hiding behind a bush.

When the first officer arrived on the path above us Jack agreed to talk with her. She was a specialist in negotiating and quickly talked Jack down. While they spoke I called Open Sky. Two of their intake experts were quickly dispatched to pick Jack up. I separated myself from the discussions to allow the experts to do their thing. I sat on a rock and sobbed uncontrollably. The stress of the last few months came out in a torrent.  My comfort and counsel came in the form of the two homeless guys that helped me find Jack. It’s odd how comforting a hug from a homeless man can be.

The Open Sky staff was successful at helping Jack reach a place of compliance. Together, the four of us went to a nearby restaurant and exchanged questions and answers. After 30 minutes or so we all went out to the parking lot. For five minutes Jack and I hugged and cried then said goodbye. I stood there silently as I watched Jack and the Open Sky team drive away.

Please help those that can't afford to save their own kids.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Dangerous Behavior

We’re learning more and more about the effects of common drugs on the adolescent brain. Substances like weed, cocaine and pharmaceuticals have always been out there but we’re seeing other drugs like Molly, Ketamine and Heroin at an increasing rate. The adolescent brain continues to develop until well into the twenties. Scientists have learned that essential growth can be stunted by drug abuse. Teens can potentially lower IQ and motivation with consistent use. Those with a predisposition to mental illness can accelerate the onset of those diseases. Hallucinogens are thought by some to initiate the onset of schizophrenia. It’s a dangerous world.

My wife Lindsay is the youngest of twelve children, yes twelve. There were ten boys in her family after which they had two girls, Lindsay and her sister. Of the ten boys three of them became schizophrenic and two developed schizoaffective disorder. Those genetics put my children, including Jack, at a higher risk of mental illness than the general population. For them, drug use is a game of Russian Roulette.

Since Jack’s troubles came to the surface we learned that he first smoked pot in 7th grade. That sounded shocking to me but in my case I wasn’t much older. For him it wasn’t a regular thing at that age but more of a novelty. As he finished Junior High and entered High School his use became more regular, maybe a couple of times a week. By the second semester of his freshman year it was almost daily. I know this because he told me. We should have seen it as his already weak grades dropped even further and he retreated to his bedroom as soon as he got home. Was it permisssiveness or denial on my part? I’ll never know but I was blind to the problem.

When school ended for the summer we saw Jack morph into something we didn’t recognize. Suddenly his group of friends changed from the straight-laced theater and music kids to the boys that hung out at the skate park but didn’t skateboard. These kids wore their jackets all the time, looked disheveled and didn’t look me in the eye when they come over. We could smell the cigarette smoke on them and worried about their “sketchy” personas. Jack was sneaking out at night and refused to answer his phone when I called or texted him. I was contacted twice by the police who wanted to talk to Jack about criminal activity he had witnessed. The spiral had started.

Try as I might, I could not get through to Jack. We knew he needed help but his problems were beyond what we could provide for him. When we scheduled family therapy he would stand us up or lie about a commitment he had. School had started and most days he would walk in the school with Kate and then leave to hang out with his buddies. Everyday something would happen that indicated that the problem was getting worse and if we didn’t do something he would do damage to himself that could not be repaired. It became clear that we needed to get him out of the valley and into a program that would help him turn it around.

We consulted several experts in the field of adolescent psychology looking for possible solutions. The one that kept coming up was a form of treatment called Wilderness Therapy. These are programs where teens and young adults spend weeks and months outdoors learning how to live in primitive conditions. Most are based on a change model called the “Transtheoretical Model” ( in which a person comes to realize there is a problem, plans how to deal with it and then carries out the plan until the “new” way of thinking and acting become second nature. Each child works with a therapist while developing their survival skills and hand-in-hand, the approaches heal the wounds with which the kid is dealing. To us, this sounded like a perfect fit for Jack.

We asked each of the four experts we consulted to give us a list of the programs they would recommend. While the lists weren’t the same, there are dozens of programs in the U.S., each one contained a program called Open Sky Wilderness in Durango, Colorado. With that, we had what we hoped was our solution.

When we contacted Open Sky they assured us that they had space for Jack and that his problems were right in line with their expertise. The paperwork was completed and all the boxes were checked. It was only a matter of when he would go. The typical process is for parents to hire a service that appears in your child’s bedroom at 4am and effectively kidnaps him and delivers him to the program. The kids call that “getting gooned”. I refused to do it that way. I could not bring myself to put Jack through that experience. If he was going to Open Sky I was going to deliver him there myself.

We discussed the idea of a program with Jack and he seemed agreeable to it. His only caveat was that he be included in the decision as to which one. We agreed to that and were looking forward to sitting with him to review the options. One night, a Friday, we invited one of his buddies to join us for dinner. When he arrived at the house it was clear to us, and Jack confirmed, that he was high on LSD.

I took Jack to Open Sky the next day.

Please contribute for the families that can't afford to save their child's life.

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