Our family is about to have an anniversary. This is not your average celebration, in fact it’s more of a milestone involving a series of acts of courage, bravery and change. In just a matter of days, on June 29th, it will be exactly one year since we sent our son (then 15 1/2 years old) to a Wilderness Therapy Program in Idaho. He did not know about it in advance. We hired a transport service to take him there. The boys in wilderness call it “being gooned.” We called it surreal and unthinkable. How could we send our son away?
As we look back, we can honestly say, without hesitation, we did it to SAVE his life! It took all the courage we could muster and then some. We have met many other brave parents who have done the same. Like us, many of them also faced scrutiny and criticism from family and friends.
“I couldn’t do that”, was one of many comments we heard. My reply is that until you walk in someone’s shoes, how do you know? We tried everything first before finally making one of the most difficult decisions we have ever faced. Yet, we did it.
One year later, what have we learned? What has changed? How do we feel?
1) We told people about our situation. We didn’t hide what happened and became vulnerable in accepting the help from professionals. And as we opened up, the people around us began to understand. Some even said they now realize they should have sent their own teenagers to wilderness and beyond.
2) We found that we were not alone! We are part of a “club” of parents/families that we never thought we would be a part of! We met those parents/families at our wilderness retreat. We met them at the RTC (residential treatment center) after wilderness. We met them in our own community. They are out there and the numbers are increasing in our society. Anxiety, depression, digital addition, drugs and alcohol are just some of the many reasons why some of our kids are in trouble.
Here is a conversation we’ve had multiple times.
“Is your son at the local high school?” they would ask.
“No, he’s in Utah.”
“Oh, Utah…..hmmm” (BTW, it’s sort of a code word – because so many of the programs are located there)
“My kid was in a program in Utah.”
“Did they go to wilderness first?”
“Yes, they went to ______________”. (fill in the blank: Hawaii, Vermont, Utah, Oregon, Montana).
“How long were they away?”
This one is a multiple choice answer: A) One year B) 16 months C) 2 years D) My kid is still in treatment and we don’t know when he/she is coming home.
“How did you pay for it?”
This answer is also a multiple choice: A) Used the college fund B) Re-financed the house
C) “I can’t say.” (Another code for a school district paying for placement but with a NDA – non disclosure agreement in place, sort of like HUSH MONEY). D) I have no idea!
Once the info was spilled, we found out how common our situation has become. If you don’t know a family experiencing these tough times, then you don’t get out much! We have talked to many folks in various stages of this experience. All I can say is that help is out there. Get an Education Consultant! Get a therapist! Get to a support group! Don’t be ashamed, you can do it! Help your kid, help your self and your family NOW!
3) We slowly built our family relationships back. We have visited our son practically every month since last June, strike July, January and March. We have participated in weekly Skype calls with our son and his therapist. We have all written letters and by now that total is close to fifty or so (from each side). How many of you reading have received fifty handwritten letters from your kids? (A nice advantage of treatment). We would like to think letter writing would continue without it being a mandatory assignment, but we are realistic that it probably won’t. I know that I will not stop writing. It’s very therapeutic. This blog is so important in my process!
4) We got our son back. No, he’s not “fixed”. He is still a 16 year old. He’s still a boy. He still doesn’t always see eye to eye with his parents. Sure that’s “normal” stuff, but in our case, the good news is that for now, our son is free from electronics, free from drugs and alcohol. He exercises every day. He wakes up at seven am on weekdays. He participates in all kinds of therapy: equine, ropes, adoption group, intervention and social skills group. There are so many ways for him to work on himself. Opening up is not easy for him, but he knows that’s what he has to do to move forward. He is happy and that counts for a lot! One step at a time. It’s not a race.
5) We feel empowered. We are not perfect parents. We still make mistakes in some of the interactions with our son. But, the biggest difference is that we have re-established that we are the parents and he is the child. We have more boundaries in place. And not the kind that you may remember from a tough disciplinarian parent who said, “My way or the highway!” We try to be kind. We are trying to be better listeners. We pick better words in our comments and conversations. The result is that we are no longer afraid. We have our strength back. We have learned some valuable lessons in the past year. Yes, we have cried our share of tears. We have talked and talked about what we could have done differently. We also know that beating ourselves up isn’t the answer either. We are patient and take a lot of deep breaths. We are present and continue to work on ourselves in a parallel process.
6) We have put our focus on our own self care. It’s just like they say when you are on an airplane. When the oxygen mask drops down, put yours on first, then take care of others around you. What kind of things have we done? Swimming, walking, blogging, pickle ball, tennis, baking, going to movies and watching silly TV shows. We have called friends and family and shared with others. We have gardened and fixed things in our house. We have struggled some, too. We take a step forward, maybe a couple backwards, then forward again. This road is not a straight path. We call it a journey and it’s not predictable. It’s real life. And we keep breathing.
7) We try to take one day at a time. We try to live in the present. We try not to worry about cost and expenses (and believe you me, it’s not cheap, but we are trying to make it work). We have acceptance. We practice positive thinking and positive self talk. We rely on the positive people around us and discard the negative. There is little room for that. We are grateful for our lives. We are so very lucky. We have come so far. We know the best is yet to come. Yes, we will stumble. But we will pick ourselves up and keep going. Because we CAN!
Here’s to making it through ONE YEAR in our new “skins”! The reality is that we terribly miss our son not being at home. We still need time to get to that next step right. We will not give up!