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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