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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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