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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