Our 11 year-old son just graduated from a Wilderness Treatment Program in North Carolina.
He spent 8 weeks in the woods with a thirty pound backpack from mid-November until mid-January.
Jack missed Thanksgiving and Christmas at home.
He experienced the devastating forest fires, hiked over 200 miles, and slept in a tent with temperatures in the single digits.
Jack is our “typical” kid. He was doing well in school, a junior black belt, had lots of friends, and loved life. Over the summer he started to withdraw, became addicted to Minecraft, and refused to attend school.
Jack became defiant, manipulative, and lied. His behavior was unsafe and the tantrums were physical. After an unsuccessful hospitalization, we looked at wilderness programs for young boys with similar challenges. We needed an objective set of professional eyes to help us figure out what was going on and how best to support Jack.
Jack’s brother spent over a year at a residential program. I went into this thinking I was prepared. I was NOT!
Once you drop your child off at a wilderness program you do not see him or speak with him until graduation. It became especially brutal over Thanksgiving and Christmas. Our only communication with Jack was through letters facilitated by his therapist. When Jack first got there he would not write. Ouch!
Our therapist was fantastic and my security blanket for sure. We would speak with her each week. I lived for Thursday mornings at 8:00 AM. We appreciated her candid account of Jack’s week. At times it was hard to hear, especially when Jack was being bullied or fighting with other kids.
She would guide us on what to write in our weekly letters. There was a clear progression in the letters starting with the impact letter (what transpired that resulted in a Wilderness Treatment Program and the impact of Jack’s behavior on others) and ending with the what’s next a week before graduation. Jack learned he was going to a therapeutic boarding school in this final letter.
With the support of our therapist, Jack would write a letter in response to ours. Prior to this experience, our ability to effectively communicate was clearly not working. The process of writing letters allowed us to slow down, think about our choice of words, and take space to reflect. Invaluable!
This program included a strong family component. Mid-way through the program we flew down for a two-day parent workshop. To be honest, I dreaded going to the workshop. Finding overnight support for our older son is a challenge. And to make matters worse, we were going to be so close to Jack and would not see him. Torture!
The purpose of the workshop was to learn some of the communication skills our kids were learning. It was also an opportunity to meet other families going through a similar experience. I have no doubt that two of the moms I met during the workshop will be lifelong friends. I was not expecting the friendship and unconditional support to be an outcome. I would not trade it for the world!
Holidays … over Thanksgiving, Jack was in the woods and his brother Ben was at a psychiatric hospital for a medication adjustment. Christmas was the hard one for me. I was very sad and depressed leading up to the holiday. We were able to send Jack cards and a small gift, that was it. We received Jack’s letter a few days after Christmas. He shared that it was his best Christmas ever, it was magical. If I am honest, I was hurt and felt insecure. How could it have been his best Christmas? He wasn’t home with family surrounded by gifts.
The staff decorated the trees in the woods. The kids made gifts for each other out of natural items found on their hikes. The staff prepared a special meal including s’mores for dessert. The kids shared what they appreciated, their hopes, and what they were grateful for around a campfire. It DOES sound magical. Note to self, less gifts and more reflective appreciation.
Earlier this week Jack graduated from the Wilderness Treatment Program. Families participate in the three-day graduation experience complete with family camping. I was nervous and excited to see Jack for the first time in two months. Our reunion was full of hugs, tears, and love.
The boys graduating ranged in age from 11 to 16. They came to the program for a variety of issues – alcohol, drug use, gaming addiction, and bullying. The boys were in age appropriate groups during their time at the program, however, came together as a “grad group” a few days before graduating. What struck me was regardless of the “vice”, many of the underlying feelings and struggles were similar. This challenged me to think about my biases and perceptions.
I witnessed a level of confidence, respect, and leadership that was palatable among the grad group. I watched our son demonstrate starting a fire with a stone and tinder from a poplar tree. Jack moved around the grad site with a quiet and competent ease. Trust me, quiet is not a word I would have used to describe Jack in the past!
What really stood out for me was Jack’s awareness of the world around him and not being self absorbed or needing to be the center of attention all the time. He has gained an understanding of how his behaviors (positive and negative) affect others. Jack has worked through adversity in the field, trusted the staff, and learned what he is capable of.
I have no doubt that this experience was life changing and one Jack will take with him for years to come. Jack’s personal growth, his wilderness skills, and his ability to do the “hard stuff” is impressive. I feel intense pride and deep admiration for the young man he is quickly becoming.
As we were leaving the grad site, Jack asked if he could come back in a year as a mentor. What a testament to the program and Jack’s understanding of the invaluable experience he just had. He still has some work to do and is heading to a therapeutic boarding school. He is excited for the next adventure, as a family we are back on track, and Jack is bringing with him a sense of accomplishment and empowerment.