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My Trip Through the Wilderness

After trying everything else to help my son, we tried "wilderness therapy." The results were mixed, at best.

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Not the solution. Shutterstock

By Katie Bernard

04/14/14

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Wilderness “goons” usually roust teens from their beds in the middle of the night, when high-schoolers are too groggy and disoriented to fight their transport to an outdoor therapy program. 

But I told the transport company that Jake doesn’t turn in until 3 and wouldn’t sink deep into REM sleep until 7. So as Good Morning America awoke the country, Chris and Corey—the transport team—quietly rolled their rented Camry into our driveway. 

The two 20-something men looked more like a couple of camp counselors than the muscle I expected. Standing in the driveway with these guys from the J. Crew catalog, my husband and I—a couple of 60-somethings—signed paperwork, rehearsed the wake-up drill, then led them to Jake’s room before he suddenly awoke and ran.

Stepping over the chaos of clothes and dirty dishes on his bedroom floor, I touched Jake’s shoulder, told him we love him and that this transport team would take him him to a wilderness therapy program outside Ashevlle, N.C. 

As I recited my lines, Cory grabbed Jake’s cell phone lying by the bed, and Chris scouted the room for weapons—standard procedure. There were no weapons, just a loaded weed grinder and bong. 

Jake smiled slightly when he realized he wasn’t dreaming: He knew kids who went to wilderness and presumed he’d someday land there, too. 

“Guys, give me 10 more minutes,” he said, pulling the blanket over his head and rolling over for a little more sleep. 

My husband and I waited in the kitchen as the goons—that’s what wilderness kids call escorts—helped our only child throw on a pair of shorts and a knitted poncho that reeked of pot. Flanked by his escorts, Jake walked past us without a word, and slid into the back seat of the silver sedan, where he napped throughout the 10-hour ride between Northern Virginia and the North Carolina rain forest.

For most wilderness moms, watching their kid leave with God knows who, for God knows what, is the worst moment of their life.

For me—not so much. 

Why We Tried Wilderness

Wilderness therapy uses the non-negotiable nature of Nature to rehabilitate addicted and defiant teens. It was the only therapy we hadn’t tried to help Jake manage his ADHD, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Adoption Attachment Disorder, and his relatively recent dive into recreational drugs. By the time Jake was 16, he had been treated by:

  • A childhood analyst specializing in adoption issues, who helped 4-year-old Jakey correct the notion that we had stolen him from his birth mother. 
  • A behavioral consultant, who said the analyst was a waste of money, and that 8-year-old Jake needed charts and chits to help modify his out-of-control behavior.
  • An NIH-worthy drug trial to discover which cocktail of stimulants, mood stabilizers and anti-depressants would help 11-year-old Jake pull through grade school. 
  • A therapeutic boarding school that killed us emotionally and financially but was the only way to turn down the heat that was consuming our home as Jake crashed into adolescence at 13.

The result of all the “help”?

Jake was cordially invited not to return to the mainstream boarding school, which followed the therapeutic boarding school. He finished his junior year hell bent on breaking every rule we set. He refused to get a summer job, take a class, or do anything productive with his summer. He smoked weed in his room all day; rendezvoused with his pot dealer in our driveway at midnight; called me a cunt, and told his father he’d dance on his grave. 

So when the escorts took our son away, I felt relief. I doubted that Jake would return the “confident and empowered” child the brochure promised. But I figured, at the very least, he’d be better off hiking, camping, and making fire with a bow and stick than inhaling drugs in his bedroom all summer.

Almost a year and $35,000 later, I can’t swear I was right.

The Ways of Wilderness

The world of wilderness programs, which serves over 10,000 U.S. kids a year, is varied and vast. Programs mostly are located in rugged areas – Utah, Idaho, parts of North Carolina that see 90 inches of rain per year. And they fall into two basic categories. 

  • Expedition Programs: Teens live in the wilderness for about two months and don’t see civilization again until they graduate.
  • Base Camp Programs: Teens alternate two-week wilderness treks with a week of classes and, often, a week of equine therapy; rinse and repeat the monthly routine until the teen is ready to transition back home or to a boarding school.

Both types of programs include individual and group therapy. 

My best friend sent her 15-year-old daughter, who was trading sex for drugs, to an expedition program in the Utah mountains. There, Victoria filled plastic bottles with boiling water to warm her sleeping bag during winter nights. Today, she’s 20, works a fulltime job, takes college classes, and smokes pot nightly with her steady boyfriend. For Victoria, wilderness therapy had mixed results.

We sent Jake to a “wilderness lite” program in western North Carolina during the rainy season. He camped and hiked during downpours, then dried out at base camp where he studied snakes in an environmental science class, and tended a horse named Hal; evidently, the emotional lives of horses and teens are similar. 

Each week, my husband and I talked with Jake’s primary therapist, Will. At first, Will’s goal was to help Jake reconnect with us, and heal our family. Halfway through Jake’s 10-week stay, Will gave up that ghost—Jake (like his horse) wouldn’t budge. So, the therapist focused sessions on helping Jake launch himself into adulthood.

Great for Jake; too bad for us.

Jake’s goal, of course, was to move through the program and get out. We were told he got along with everybody—counselors, kids, horses. He worked hard to “bust his coal,” the first step toward starting a fire without matches—the holy grail of wilderness training. 

And he wrote terse, weekly letters to us, where he shared his feelings: “I don’t hate you for sending me to wilderness,” he wrote. “I hate you for other reasons.”

As the summer wore on, my husband and I sunk deeper into hopelessness. We hit bottom when Jake’s “Letter of Accountability” arrived during the homestretch of his wilderness stay. The LOA, as the kids call it, is their mea culpa, where they own the reasons they landed in the woods.

Jake confessed so much in that seven-page letter, we figured he lifted some capers from stories he heard around the campfire. Here’s a sample.

  • “I smoked weed 3-6 times a day, whether I was away at school or home."
  • “I abused cough syrup, painkillers, Ecstasy, cocaine.”
  • “I stole money and credit cards from you.”
  • “I had sex with trashy girls.” (That’s the part we’re pretty sure he made up.)

There was a lot of accountability; absolutely no remorse or apology. We half-way expected him to end the LOA with: “And I’d do it all again.” 

In the beginning of August, when Jake was a few sparks away from starting his matchless fire, we began making a post-wilderness plan for him. Most wilderness teens don’t return home right away. They go on to other drug rehabilitation programs, therapeutic boarding schools, or alternative schools that contain them until they can contain themselves, or they turn 18—whichever comes first.

We picked an Idaho program that taught a healthy lifestyle and a “zest for life.” But as we drove Jake to his fourth home in five years, he delivered a parting shot.

“I did drugs in wilderness.”

According to Jake, a student injured in wilderness returned to the program with a leg cast and percocet prescription. Jake said he traded his fruit rations for the painkiller.

When I could breathe again, I shot an email to Will. He interviewed the boy with the cast, who denied the allegation, then ticked off the field protocols employed to make sure pills are swallowed, not traded. Counselors make the kids stick out their tongues, swish water around their mouths, and pull out their cheeks. Will’s conclusion: Jake despised the other “gentleman” and was trying to get him in trouble. Case closed.

Perhaps that’s what happened; honesty is not Jake’s strong suit. But the wilderness program never interviewed my son, nor asked for a drug test—steps I would have taken if someone claimed drugs were exchanged in my wilderness program. 

Was Wilderness Worth It?

Today, Jake is watching howler monkeys and finishing high school online in Central America, where his school maintains a branch. He lives in a small village where life is simple, and family is everything. 

We Skype with him weekly, and things are a lot better than they were. He tries to be pleasant, and we try to be happy with the effort. He’s scheduled to come home in late May with a high school diploma and five college acceptances under his belt. 

Happy ending? Jake told us recently that he plans to smoke pot when he comes home, but not in the house, and only now and then.

“I don’t want to be a stoner,” he said. “I want to be a business major.”

Hey—it’s a start. 

Katie Bernard is a pseudonym.

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