This is our story of sending our oldest son off to a wilderness program because we felt his addictive behavior would eventually threaten his life and at minimum, derail whatever future he could have planned. As he recently told us, he thinks we saved his life.
Our undiagnosed ADHD first born son of three first started smoking pot in 8th grade. We only suspected that after he was pulled into the school office because an on-campus police dog sniffed his backpack. Of course, he denied it was his, and we trusted him. Know this, your kids will lie to you and do it very convincingly. And sometimes, others will protect them too. We are still getting stories about parties they had at our house when we were gone. The stained glass window in our front door, we find out years later, was broken from a police officers nightstick knocking on the door to tell them to quiet down or he will have to come back. Neighbors liked these guys so much they protected them.
Anyway, flash forward to high school. Unfortunately the one-size-fits-all of public school was not working for our son. I tried to help by finding out what engaged him. He thought he might like to study agriculture. I thought, great! (I know, it’s coming, wait for it.) We went out and bought grow lights, indoor planter boxes… whatever he thought we needed we got. Well he was growing stuff. I thought, wow, cool, he has found his passion. One day I lifted the cloth over a planter box and there was a 2-ft pot plant that obviously had been treated with tender loving care. I called my wife and asked her if she had seen what was growing in our son’s room. She said, “Oh, you mean that beautiful pepper plant?” I told her that is not a pepper plant as our son had told her. I printed out a picture of a pot plant and put it on the kitchen counter for her to find to compare to the alleged “pepper plant”. Anyway, the pepper plant was yanked out and destroyed.
Our son developed a lifestyle of smoking pot and perhaps other drugs. He began failing his HS classes by the end of his frosh and beginning sophomore years. Rather than push through this adversity he just threw up his hands and said the heck with it and probably smoked a joint to forget about it. By the way, he always came home at night when we said to be home. He was never one of those guys who disappeared. He did fire hot when we would confront him. We began drug testing him. Wow, they have so many ways of beating that test. I mean you literally have to watch them go to the bathroom.
We sent him to a daily rehab after school program recommended by the school counselors. By this time he was going to a different HS for under performing, at-risk kids. Well, of course this HS had a zero tolerance policy regarding pot. Once again, he was caught smoking and he was out of that school.
We finally had him tested for ADHD. He passed with flying colors with full-blown ADHD. They put him on a prescription drug. He did not like it and stopped taking. He preferred to self medicate with what I call, if it becomes your primary focus, “the great unmotivator”, pot.
So, our newly diagnosed ADHD son will not take his prescription drug. The short-term rehab did not work. No formal school setting worked for him. He’s sleeping until noon every day. Tough love did not work. We were at the end of our rope. We began to talk with parents who had gone through this stuff and we spoke to a therapist regularly. This is when we heard about the wilderness program.
Bottom line, we had to remove him from this environment of friends, enablers, etc. And we had to do it fast because he was turning 17 and when a kid turns 18 you lose control. Whatever group working this kind of expensive therapy needs to figure out how much time it will take to heal your offspring and if a kid is too close to 18 then they say can’t do it. So we quickly pulled the trigger and he was surprised at 6:00am when two guys joined me in waking him so I could tell him he was going away with them. His mom was in tears at the top of the stairs. He took it like a champ. The toughest moment for me was looking out the window as they put him in the car and drove away. Tough, tough, tough moment. We told his brothers later that evening. They handled it pretty well. I mean, after all, they had seen this stuff up close and personal. These two guys took him to a car and then a plane and then a warehouse to get his pack put together and then the wilderness.
Nine weeks of sleeping outside, cooking your meals over a fire that you made yourself by literally rubbing two sticks together, no matches allowed. It was “Lord of the Flies” with adult supervision. My son has stories of guys wanting to make a run for it, talking about overpowering the staff, waking up with snow around your sleeping area, no toilets and the kid who did not wash his hands after going to the bathroom getting dysentery. They journaled, had campfire discussions, were able to earn the privilege of writing to us while there. They had trials where you were sent off on your own for three days. My son has lots of crazy wilderness stories with too many to tell in even a long-winded article from yours truly. My son definitely has a book in him if he chooses to put it all down.
After nine weeks in the wilderness his body is cleansed and his eyes are wide open and clear. From here his mission (ours actually because he was still in our control) was to get his high school diploma via a therapeutic rehab HS program in Utah where the school was themed around extreme sports. Our son enjoyed the activities and worked hard to complete his HS exams.
Flash forward to present day: our son has happily surprised us by maturing a little bit every year. He no longer smokes pot, but will have the occasional beer or wine and is the first to tell you that he still is not satisfied that he is free of this addictive personality. He says this because he smokes cigarettes and is not scared enough to quit that nasty habit. In his current business, auto shop sales and marketing, there are many people who smoke so its tough crowd to go cold turkey.
My wife feels if we had been more aware of the signs of ADHD and had him diagnosed earlier we may have avoided this mess. We were only guided by the fact that his teachers liked him, neighbors liked him, grades were ok and we just thought he was a hyper active normal puppy. Plus we were not big into over medicating or quick to diagnose ADHD, which was a very popular thing to do back then.
So I guess what I want to close with is hang in there with your kid. Look for signs, red flags like declining grades and changes in behavior. Keep trying things to engage him or educate him. And keep in mind you are the parent, not a friend. They have to follow your rules. Look beyond the symptoms at what may be the root of this issue. Most of all, STAY INVOLVED AND NEVER GIVE UP. LOVE UNCONDITIONALLY.
And always remember, those of us that have been down this road are here for you. We will talk by phone, meet with you, and give you whatever support you need. If you reach out to this website for our contact info with (not a curiosity of who we are but) a genuine interest in talking about your kid then it would be our pleasure to have that conversation.
South Bay Dad