Do I send my troubled teen to a wilderness program?

By Jeannette Sanderson

We’d tried to help our teenage son in every way possible, from therapy to medication to a modified schedule at school. Nothing was working. Undiagnosed ADHD combined with anxiety and adolescent hormones had wreaked havoc in the psyche of our once happy son. Ryan wouldn’t go to school, and he was becoming more and more depressed.

Most mornings he simply refused to get out of bed. My husband would do everything he could think of to cajole him—from bribing him with a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich to threatening to take away video games for life—and then call me. I was always on the same busy highway when my husband would needlessly tell me why he was calling, and then put the phone to Ryan’s ear so that I could try to talk my son up and out of bed. Sometimes I was successful, more often I was not.

While I didn’t want to send our son to a boarding school, I was so afraid of losing Ryan at this point that I might have considered sending him to the moon if I knew he could get the help he needed there.

Instead, I pulled out my notebook and called one of the therapeutic boarding schools I had come across during the hours I had spent searching for help on the internet. I still have my list of questions. How many students are there? What are their issues? Can they visit home? What are the academics? Are there sports? What kind of therapy do they get?  I smile ruefully when I realize that cost wasn’t on the list. It didn’t occur to me to put a price on helping Ryan.

I spoke with a woman named Amy. I explained our situation, though I never got to my list of questions. Amy told me right away that students had to be willing to go to the school. My heart sank. She said this was the case for most therapeutic boarding schools. (I checked: it was also true for the other schools on my list.)

“But Ryan says he likes our local high school and won’t get up and go there in the morning. How are we going to get him to go to a boarding school?”

“Most of our students go to a wilderness program first,” she said.

The idea of sending Ryan to a therapeutic boarding school was painful enough, but somehow having the word “school” in the title kept me from feeling that we were throwing him to the wolves. Wouldn’t sending him to a wilderness program be doing just that?

Sensing my reluctance, Amy kept talking. “The whole idea is to get Ryan away so that he really looks at himself.” She added that a wilderness program would be a place where Ryan could learn to practice coping skills as well as place where counselors could help distinguish between hormone changes and mood disorders. She said that the company that ran this particular school had a wilderness program in the Adirondacks.

I thought of Ryan as he once was, swinging a bat, wrestling with our old yellow Lab, watching a silly TV show. And smiling. He had a smile that stopped my heart. Then I thought of him as he was now, hiding under his covers. He didn’t smile anymore.

“What do I do next?” I asked.

“I’m going to give you the name and number of the person you should speak with at the wilderness program,” she said.

I talked it over with my husband. We felt out of our depth. A wilderness program was a foreign idea to us, we didn’t even know what questions to ask. So I went back to Google and did some research. I read stories about children being helped, but I also read about abusive counselors who would punish children by withholding food and water or pushing them beyond their physical limits. Although none of these stories were about the program in the Adirondacks, I was still scared. I made another list of questions.

Trying to appear the competent interviewer rather than the incompetent parent, I called Brendan, the rep Amy had referred me to.

“How does the program work?” I asked.

“There are six to eight kids in a group with two to three adults per group. Each student meets with an individual therapist twice a week. There’s also a great deal of group work.”

“Do they spend all of their time outdoors? I mean, it’s winter, and they’re in the Adirondacks.”

“They dress so warmly that the cold isn’t a problem,” Brendan said. “They set up ground cloths and tarps to keep dry. In really cold weather—I believe the cutoff is anything below 15 degrees—they sleep in cabins.”

“OK,” I said, thinking this information was anything but ok. I had spent the last sixteen years trying to keep my child safe and warm. Was I going to do just the opposite in trying to help him?

I continued my questioning, “Does your program have any outstanding lawsuits? Have there been problems with children who’ve gone there?”

“We’ve had no formal complaints,” Brendan told me. “No deaths.”

Those last two words made me shiver. I hadn’t even imagined that possibility.

Then Brendan told me the cost: $465 a day plus a $2,000 enrollment fee.

“Each student is different,” Brendon said, “but the average length of stay is 50 days. If you choose not to do psychological testing, which is extra, the cost will be about $25,000.”

I had no idea how much it would cost, but this amount frightened me. Our savings were paltry. Though we had a decent income since I started teaching a few years earlier, most of it went to pay our daughter’s college tuition. Where would $25,000 come from? I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to say anything. When you’re considering putting your child in someone else’s care, when you feel desperate for help and don’t know where else to turn for it, you don’t want to argue dollars and cents. At least I didn’t at the time.

While I might have been uncomfortable discussing money, I had no problem asking for references. I wanted to talk to other parents who’d sent their children to this wilderness program. I needed to be sure we were sending Ryan to a place where other children had come back unharmed and, I hoped, helped.

There are only two things I remember from those phone calls. The first and most important was that these mothers felt that their children had indeed benefited from their time at this wilderness program. The second was that I was increasingly starting to feel like a member of a club that I had only been peripherally aware of until now: the club of mothers with troubled children or the club of mothers who’d felt sure they had failed their children. The jury was still out on which it was, but I knew that it was a club to which I’d never imagined I would belong.

Once the references checked out, I went online and filled out a short application. It was quickly approved which I believe said as much about Ryan’s condition as it did about what a moneymaking business this whole thing was.

“I’m going to email you a packet to complete before sending Ryan to our program,” Brendan said. “I’ll also send a list of possible escort services.”

Escort services. Those two words have a totally different meaning when talking about troubled adolescents as opposed to politicians. When Brendan and I discussed sending Ryan to the wilderness program, I asked how we would get him there.

“I don’t think he’ll just get in the car and go,” I said. There was no irony in my voice; irony was an indulgence at that point.

“Most of our clients use escort services,” he’d told me. He didn’t have to explain that this was a service where strangers came and took your child from your home. I had a friend who’d used an escort service for her child years before to take him from his home in New York to a wilderness program in Utah.

At the time, I couldn’t imagine how horrible things would have to be even to consider resorting to such a means of transportation.  

Now I knew.

Jeannette Sanderson is a proud member of the club—or legion—of mothers who have struggled to help their children grow into healthy adults. She lives and writes in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley.

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