Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Friend in Need...

This morning my friend's son woke up to his second day in wilderness. For another bright young man the journey has begun to make his way back to the high potential future everyone expected for him.

I was sitting at my desk preparing for the lifts to open when I received a text. "Have time for a call?" It sounded benign enough. "Sure", I replied. My friend and former co-worker wanted to call to tell his story of pain and disappointment surrounding the behaviors of his 17 year old. The young man had been smoking weed and doing other drugs (probably), seemed depressed, was spending excessive time playing video games and had been involved in some petty theft. His grades were well below his potential and he appeared to be in a downward spiral. The family had employed the services of an Educational Consultant and the recommendation was a stint in Wilderness Therapy.

The graphic detail of my friend's story caused me to flash back to the trauma and angst I felt five months ago when we were planning to place Jack at Open Sky. I knew we had to do something. It was clear that I couldn't provide Jack with what he needed. I could not believe that my son was in such a situation. It couldn't be happening to my family. This rendition of "this is gonna hurt me a lot more that it's gonna you" could not have been more true.

My friend first learned about Open Sky from me. I revealed my family's situation to him and others at a party we held for Lindsay's 50th birthday. He sat listening intently as I told of the circumstances and emotion that preceded Jack's leaving. He offered support and kindness going forward.

The second time my friend found himself talking about Open Sky was when an expert was suggesting his son go there. He called me to ask my impressions of the "results" of Jack's time there. I have nothing but great things to say about the organization and personnel there. Knowing it would be a gut-wrenching experience it was my advice that he follow through and commit his son to the ten or so weeks that he would be.

I don't think someone can hide the kind of pain that comes with this decision. That said, I have another coworker that has tried to do just that. She has a daughter that has been "sent off" a couple of times. The details of the young woman's location and condition have been a closely guarded secret. My daughter, who is a friend and classmate of the girl doesn't know what's happening. All she hears are the rumors as to her condition and circumstance. I can only guess that it's shame that prevents the family from sharing their story.

I guess the point of this post is that, while it was painful, Lindsay and I were able to provide a small amount of comfort to another family that is going through a horrible experience because we share Jack's story. When Jack came back from wilderness his motto was "vulnerability is power". He has learned that by exposing our weaknesses we can address and overcome them. I have learned that we can also join with others to provide support and make it acceptable to experience problems.

There are thousands of teenagers out there that need help getting back on track. Shame and embarrassment sometimes get in the way. There is nothing to hide. All of us have a path and in some cases that path involves corrective actions. Nobody's perfect. It's time to lift the veil off of behavioral and mental health issues.

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

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Friday, January 15, 2016

Unintended Consequence

Any parent with more than one child will understand the balancing act that is dividing your attention between your children in a way that doesn't leave anyone feeling ignored. In the last few months, obviously, considerable time time has been spent on Jack, his issues, the arrangements for wilderness and school, family and individual therapy and visits. The list goes on.

One of the costs of all that time spent on Jack has been the attention that could have been paid to Jack's sister, our oldest, Katie. She is a senior in high school now and is not only a model student but she has also been an absolute rock through all of Jack's tribulations.

Katie was born in 1998. For parts of her life she also struggled with anxiety and a self-imposed pressure to perform. Excellent guidance from her elementary school led us to find an occupational therapist that designed a program that helped soothe her tension and develop an approach to living a more relaxed existence. In her early teens she, like a lot of teenage girls, again showed some angst as she navigated the social pressures associated with early high school. She and Lindsay banged heads on some issues but the conflicts didn't last long. By the time Katie's junior year rolled around she was a well-rounded, level headed young woman.

Along the way Katie was always involved in dance. I remember taking her to ballet class at an age that her teddy bear "Spike" would sit against the mirror watching class. More than participate, she thrived in the dance community. Her disciplined approach to life served her well as she rose through the ranks at her school. By the time she was in high school there was talk of dance as a major in college and even ballet as a profession. She auditioned for and was accepted to several summer dance intensives, attending programs with Boston Ballet and Miami City Ballet. In addition to her school work she was spending 20 hours a week at the dance studio.

The time spent in the studio would take it's toll on her young body. She suffered from chronic inflammation in her spine and ultimately tore the labra (plural of labrum, look it up) in both of her hips. One of those has been surgically repaired. The wear and tear and associated pain led her to "retire" from dancing in her junior year. She has since gone back to ballet class for fun and mental health sake but no longer dances with the "company".

Katie's weighted grade point (taking into account her advanced placement courses) is in the 4.3 range. She earned a 31 on her ACT and is now leveraging her success in the classroom as she applies to colleges. She has been accepted to the University of Colorado and Montana State University. She is still waiting to hear from USC, Berkley, University of Washington and Stanford. She will, no doubt, be accepted by some, if not all, of those schools.

The point of all this is that the senior year of a student's (child's, my daughter's) should be spent celebrating the success born of hard work and dedication. Katie has always been an excellent student, an accomplished dancer, amazing artist and photographer. She doesn't go in for the hard partying that other kids her age do. When she does indulge in a drink or two she usually tells us about it. Those qualities are to be recognized as exceptional in today's world. Instead, Katie spent the early part of the school year trying to keep Jack straight, looking for him when he went AWOL or worrying about what would become of her little brother. She misses Jack.

I could not be more proud of the wonderful young woman Katie has become. I will mourn the loss of the time that we could all have been celebrating her accomplishments. At the same time, I will eagerly await her future successes as she pursues her next academic challenges and future career.

I love you Katiebug.

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

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Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Hug for Christmas

We took a trip to Montana to be with Jack over Christmas. Like most schools, Montana Academy has a break between "blocks" during the holidays. Because the school is year-round, the academics are presented in 12-week sections. During the break most kids go home or on a winter vacation with family. Because Jack had been there only a month he could only leave campus on day trips. That was fine with me. To be able to see and talk with him was the greatest gift I could have received for Christmas.

We traveled so that we could hang out with him on Christmas Eve, Christmas and the day after. Katie had flight issues, delays, which prevented her from coming in on the 23rd. Though it was unplanned, the school allowed Jack to go with us, back to Kalispell, to surprise Kate when she got off the plane. Remembering the two of them hugging still gives me chills. This was not going to be our typical family Christmas but we all knew it would be amazing.

The combination of 80 days in wilderness and a month at Montana Academy has already changed Jack. He is becoming a mature, grounded and patient young man. He handles set-backs and unforeseen circumstances like a Monk. We fully expected that he would be allowed to have an iPod at school and that his long hair would be OK. Though both of those things seem small to most of us, to him they represent a part of who he is. When both were denied, the news rolled off of him. He would remind me later that if you can't control something there's no reason to get upset by it. That was a good reminder for me, a person that becomes frustrated easily by life's little curveballs.

School is a source of tremendous stress for Jack as it is for many of the kids at Montana Academy. The school's strategy is to ease kids into the academics, looking for the symptoms of stress as the workload becomes more demanding. Each day is structured to allow the kids time to apply themselves to their school work but still, for kids like Jack, the anxiety emerges. Jack's classes in his first full block reflect his interests well. He has a music class, an art class and American Literature. The music and art will include some work outside of playing piano, guitar and sculpture projects. "Lit" requires a bit more concentration and effort and the symptoms of his stress are already surfacing.

While I hate the idea of Jack being stressed out, he is in the right place for facing it head-on. The teachers and his therapist are experts on how to help him discover the source(s) and develop strategies and processes for dealing with it. I'm confident that in a few months he will have made significant headway towards learning to handle his school stress in such a way that he will become a good student. He is after all, a very bright kid.

Therein lies the conflict with this whole process. If left to satisfy my own needs, I would pull him out of MA and bring him home tomorrow. It's only my confidence that he needs the help he's getting that allows me to keep him in Montana. The sacrifice the family is making by not being together is going to allow Jack to pursue his life in a happy and fulfilling way. He misses us, we miss him. That's confirmed every week in the phone call we have with him. That will have to do until we see him again in March.

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

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