Late last week, as we pulled up to an event center at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, I flashed back to the moment we arrived at a hospital more than seventeen years ago. I felt the same kind of excitement and fear now as I did back then, minus the Lamaze breathing.
“I have no idea what’s about to happen.” I told Mike.
We’d been looking forward to seeing our son, but for most of the past six weeks, knowing he was safe and also not under our roof, what I’d been feeling mostly was relief. After a difficult year and excruciating last three months, we’d needed the respite.
That’s a hard feeling to have about your child.
Although things seemed to have improved, at least from a distance, I was wary. His words, full of apology and remorse could be sincere, or could be his going through the motions needed to finish the program. Our trepidation was normal, they told us.
Hard feelings to have about your child.
A couple dozen people gathered with us in a large room there; couples mostly, a single mom, and some older folks who may have been grandparents. We’d come from all over: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Kansas, New Jersey, California, Texas, Connecticut, Oregon, Idaho. The kids were being shuttled in from the mountains to meet us. It had been raining softly and the morning air was chilly. Low clouds obscured the snow-capped peaks.
The program director had given us a heads-up earlier about “wilderness” smell. The kids showered when they’d come into base camp that week, but would still smell a little wild. I told him I was sure wilderness smelled better than pot. He laughed and said they’d have something like that printed on t-shirts for us.
We sat through a brief group conversation, and then another educational session, all of us tense and excited (save the woman from Oregon who hadn’t done her homework and was pissed to learn she wouldn’t see her son right away) before they filed our kids in to see us.
I thought I’d be a blubbery mess when we saw him, but I bit the inside of my cheek and held it together. He looked so good! Confident and strong. He met our eyes and smiled, then folded himself around me. I’d forgotten how tall he is now.
We had some time to chat. He’s been enjoying wilderness as much as we thought he would, although he’s as tired of the simple meals he has to cook for himself over a propane stove as he is of the constant supervision. His sleeping bag was soaked by rain last night, but that didn’t bother him. He told us it’s rated for -20 degrees and really comfortable. We were reminded how rarely he’d ever complained, growing up.
He’s enjoyed mountain climbing and biking but loves backpacking the most. Sometimes the other boys are slow and complain about toting all their gear and food plus about 40 pounds of water each. He says they don’t make as much progress as he’d like most days, but he’s happy on the trail. He’d like something to read besides the books on cognitive behavioral therapy and addiction recovery he’s assigned.
He’s journaling daily, and the words in his letters are straight forward and often so strikingly eloquent they make my eyes sting.
This morning I woke to the sound of bees buzzing around the flowers I slept near last night.
At lunch he had four sandwiches and several bags of chips. He said he’d never felt so full, but a couple hours later he had another four bags of chips, two bananas, two apples, two cookies and a bag of nuts.
In a family session, we talked about where each of us had been, emotionally, the morning Colin was taken away. Mike worked through his guilt over having him “gooned.” Colin said he was angry at us at first about it, but got over it once sober.
He said his anxiety has abated, although his depression is still strong. He said he wants to live clean and thinks he could tell his friends not to use in front of him, that he could cut them out of his life if they couldn’t comply. He wants to change schools and build a bigger network of healthy friends. He wants to join a gym, and thinks we’d enjoy rock-climbing as a family. He says he still craves nicotine and isn’t sure he’ll be able to be strong when it comes to staying away from vaping or smoking. It’s inescapable, these days: in the hallways at school and the bathrooms. Even in class.
This week, just before we’d arrived to meet Colin, I read about the death of a woman back home, someone well loved, twenty years Colin’s senior. I’d never met her, but her story is familiar: a slide into mental illness and coping through substance abuse that had begun to alarm her friends this summer, but which had likely been simmering for much longer.
As Colin’s behavior was becoming increasingly alarming some months ago, Jessica’s friends were becoming desperate to find a solution for her. She’d been arrested and lost her job within weeks of Colin walking away from his. As we’d been schlepping our son to therapy sessions that seemed to do nothing, Jessica’s friends were calling the mobile crisis unit repeatedly and staking out her house. We were two disparate groups of people concurrently casting about for any solution, no matter how extreme, neither finding any.
Each of us wondering “why is this so hard?”
After the past two days with our kid, I’m starting to figure that out.
Yesterday we read letters of gratitude to each other. We told Colin we loved his initiative and courage, and we’re proud of the work he’s done. He told us he’s grateful to be young enough we could send him to a program even against his will. He’d told us he’d believed, in the throes of his illness, that everyone was against him and acting irrationally.
He believed he could get better if we would all just leave him alone.
Later, I thought about that and then about Jessica, whose mom pleaded with her to seek treatment, whose friends staged an intervention. I thought about the lies Colin’s own brain had told him, about how much he’d been able to hide right under our noses, and for how long. I thought about our confrontations with him this summer, around same time Jessica’s friends were trying to help her. I thought about how, when the scope of our son’s problem began to reveal itself to us, it was already much, much worse than we realized.
Colin is deeply sorry for what he put us through, and committed to his recovery, and these last two days with him helps me trust that now. It feels very much like we’ll have our kid back someday. He’ll be weary and worn, but authentically him, and for that we’re very, very grateful.
Later, we had to leave him again. He needs more time in the program, and then a longer term stint elsewhere. We don’t have all the answers yet, and we know there’ll be more difficult days, but the trend is on the upswing. It was hard to let him go, but not nearly as much as wondering if every day would be his last. I feel excitement and hope today that I haven’t felt in months, and he does as well.
I think about Jessica’s friends and family, who are right at this moment gathering to honor a life taken from them too soon, even as we breathe a sigh of relief at our second chance.
Why was this so hard? Sure, there’s stigma. That’s enough of a given to be almost cliche these days, but it persists. Mental illness isn’t any prettier than any other disease, and the fact that it’s likely to co-exist with substance abuse makes it that much uglier. That the expense of effective treatment is questioned by an insurance industry whose business model is built on obfuscation and self-preservation, that cares less about data-driven recovery methods than it does about its own bottom-line, compounds the problem.
Beyond that, there’s the illness itself. It has its own personality. A strong one. An appendicitis doesn’t whisper in your ear “you probably deserve this,” a broken leg doesn’t say “you can get through this on your own.” Depression tells you you’re worthless, anxiety screams at you to hide, addiction teaches you to lie.
It isn’t just hard because the insurance industry and our health care system are broken. It’s not just the shame and stigma and blame and guilt. It isn’t just that the very nature of the disease causes its victim to hide and lie and chase the thing that’s killing him.
It’s all of these things.
Two months ago, I didn’t know anything about wilderness therapy. Six weeks ago, I was grasping for answers, looking for any kind of program that would take adolescents, and didn’t appear sketchy. We hadn’t found the bottom of this spiral yet, but the funnel was lengthening out, the spin growing more rapid. I didn’t care about insurance. I’d cash out our retirement, sell the house, hell, I’d sell whatever major organ anyone wanted to buy in order to get our son the help he needed.
Six weeks ago I made the call. Then there were 36 hours more before we invited two big, burly guys into our home at four am, calmly woke our son and told him these strangers were going to take him with them to the program we’d told him about. The one we thought he’d love but was in no shape to hear about then. He was going.
And then he was gone.
Today I’m sharing this with you, with his permission, and in the interest of helping others who have a Jessica or a Colin, and with the hope we can find answers. This problem is here and it’s growing, and the answers are as elusive as they’ve ever been.
This should not be so hard.
Resources for those within the Treasure Valley area:
Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Mobile Crisis Unit – 208-334-0808 – If you feel someone you love is at a medium or high risk for suicide, a mobile crisis worker can help determine the needs of the individual in distress, develop a safety plan, and make referrals for immediate or future services.
Speedy Foundation – Suicide prevention and mental health advocacy organization, with mental health first aid and other community trainings.
Saint Luke’s Children’s Day Treatment Center – Serving adolescents and their families seeking a high level of mental health care while being able to return home in the evening.
The Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline – text or call (you do not have to be suicidal) – 208-398-4357
Crisis intervention and the Boise Police – If you need to call the police on a loved one in a mental health crisis situation, you can ask for a member of the Crisis Intervention Team, or someone who has been trained in crisis intervention.
Beyond the Treasure Valley area:
The Partnership for Drug Free Kids + Center on Addiction – A free resource for families, providing support like weekly webinars, group sessions, a text/email hotline, specialists, and one-on-one parent coaches for parents struggling with their son or daughter’s substance use. I’ve used this resource multiple times.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 800-273-8255
NAMI – National Association of Mental Illness.
The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs – A database of information about member therapeutic schools, residential treatment programs, wilderness programs, outdoor therapeutic programs, young adult programs and home-based residential programs working with troubled teens and troubled adolescents.
Why Wilderness Therapy Works – by Patrick M. Burns
The Outdoor Behavior Health Council – Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare is a relatively new field in the treatment of adolescents struggling with behavioral, substance abuse, and mental health issues and the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council has been instrumental in facilitating research to study the efficacy of this treatment modality. This site compiles helpful research and information for families looking for a program.
If you know of other resources for families and loved ones of those struggling with mental illness, I welcome your comments.