Gabriel in the Wilderness

The decision to send our troubled teen to a therapeutic wilderness camp was heart-wrenching. Were we doing the right thing?

run away from home
Teenage boy with ADHD outside at therapeutic wilderness camp

It’s dark. I lie in bed with my eyes open. The windows are closed, but I can still hear the gentle midnight roar of the New Jersey Turnpike, a mere quarter-mile from the front door of my family’s safe suburban home.

Safe, that’s a joke. Walk through my house, see what my 14-year-old son has done: a pile of broken picture frames, a hole in the wall, a closet without a door, a few shards of glass still beneath a recently repaired window.

At 2 a.m. I go to my son’s room to check on him, and he asks me to rub his back. His skin is cool to the touch as my hand slides across his developing muscles. His thick hair is the color of henna. His eyes are dark and sophisticated. He is lean, with long, elegant hands. He is a striking young man, just as he was a striking young boy.

What he doesn’t know is that these will be the last hours in his bed, in our house, for a long, long time. Yet he must sense something’s up; he can’t sleep. I can’t either. I haven’t even tried.

Our R-rated house

It’s been a relatively good week: no major fights, not much cursing. Our “R-rated house,” as his younger brother describes it, recently has been closer to PG, which makes this even harder. But the irresolvable problem, the breaking point for us, is that he has stopped going to school; he simply refuses. Instead, he stays up late and then sleeps in and hangs around until his friends get out of school, when he leaves to join them.

Our son’s birthmother is a woman he has never known, a woman who answered our ad in the newspaper. My wife and I endured the trials of infertility: three years of shots and tears and bloody toilets, and absolutely not one second of joy. Like so many others, we were desperate, young and naïve.

Then we got him, our boy, and he was a star, a chatterbox, a whiz, the delight of all who were lucky enough to cross his path. A few years later my wife gave birth to a boy, and then to another. Our first son was adored not only by his parents but by his younger brothers, too. We felt blessed; certainly we were blessed.

So it’s hard for us to imagine how this child, surrounded by so much love, could turn out to be so lost. Perhaps it was the attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD ADHD). Or the plethora of medications that never worked for more than a few weeks. Perhaps it was the loss of two people he never knew, his biological parents.

Spiraling out of control

At the age of three, he began to show a temper. At six, he developed an attitude. At 10, he struck a classmate. At 14, he was spiraling out of control. His mother and I grew convinced that our love was not enough to help him, so we looked into having him taken away to people who could. We researched it, examined the costs, talked to everyone we could find. And we’ve put up all of our assets to pay for it: mortgaged our house, spent his college fund. It’s all gone to this. A financial hardship, yes, but how could we not?

Back in our bedroom, my wife says to me, “What’s going to happen?” “I don’t know. I just hope he doesn’t wake up his brothers.”

At 4 a.m., they arrive, right on time. I open the door and hear, much louder now, the sound of cars rushing by on the turnpike. But their car, its engine cooling in my driveway, is quiet.

Two young men step out. One is big but not huge. The other is average size.

“So how do you do this?” I ask. “What if he resists?”

“It’s rare that anyone resists,” says the average-size one. He goes on to explain a process called de-escalation. They are experienced, bright, articulate; they make a living going into strangers’ homes and taking away their unsuspecting children to youth boot camps, private boarding schools, or, in our case, a therapeutic wilderness program. They are paid a lot of money by parents like us who hope that, somehow, our beautiful babies can be fixed.

We enter our son’s room. I press against his shoulder to wake him. He looks up and sees the escorts. “What did I do now?”

I tell him to get up and get dressed. “You shouldn’t be surprised,” I explain. “You knew this is what would happen if you didn’t go back to school.” He curses and punches the wall.

“We love you,” my wife and I say, and then, per the escorts’ instructions, we leave the room.

From our bedroom we hear the muffled sounds of conversation but can’t make out the words. There is no shouting. I think I hear him crying, but maybe that’s wishful thinking. I hope he cares enough to cry.

I hug my wife. We are not crying. We are too nervous to cry. How much time has gone by? Five minutes? Ten? And then footsteps, the door closing, and we look out our bedroom window to see the car making its way back to the New Jersey Turnpike.

Missing my boy

In the morning, I go to work and wait for the call to let me know he has arrived safely. I can’t stay home and think about it. I need to be distracted. I need to call my parents, to explain it all to them, and, in doing so, to accept my failure as a parent. It’s not easy. My mother cries.

And then I get the call; he’s there.

In the wilderness of North Carolina, he will not see or speak to his friends. He will not sneak out in the middle of the night. He will not be brought home by the police. He will not come within 10 miles of a cigarette. He will not curse at us or break anything of ours. He will not see a movie, have sex, or go on the Internet. He will not receive phone calls from strangers. He will not get in trouble for missing school; his school is the wilderness now.

In the wilderness, I will not come into his room when he is sleeping and kiss him on the head. Instead, a counselor will check on him. At bedtime, the counselor will take away my son’s shoes to make it more difficult for him to run away.

Our son’s wilderness experience will last seven weeks. Just before we see him again, he’ll learn that he won’t be coming home but will go straight from camp to boarding school. At that first reunion, he is cold and nasty to us. Yet that evening, before we leave for the boarding school, we spend an emotional night together in a 10-by-12 cabin with no heat, no water, no electricity. We speak about life and family and honesty in a way we never have, and it feels like a breakthrough.

After this visit it will be another seven months before he sets foot again in the house he grew up in. His younger brothers miss him. We miss him. But now he goes to school – imagine! It’s amazing what a person can do when there are no distractions.

Home again

A full nine months after he was taken away on that awful night, he is home again. For two whole days, before he returns to boarding school, he is loved by us and by his brothers. Yet I worry that the troubled boy we had whisked away so long ago is still lurking under the facade of his smile.

Later, I hear him above me in his room. It’s midnight, and he can’t sleep. I hear his footsteps, then the sound of his door opening and closing. It’s hard not to think about what this meant before.

A few days earlier I had visited him at his therapeutic boarding school, where he introduced me to his teachers and friends. He was confident and poised. We hugged and laughed. “How’s school?” I asked. He said it was horrible, but he smiled, and we both knew that’s what all the kids say.

He’s not the same boy, but we don’t tell him that. He has changed, but he doesn’t completely see it, and it’s wonderful that he can’t. In another year he’ll see it even less.

Part of me is confident that we have done the right thing. As painful and difficult and expensive as this process has been, it’s clearly been worthwhile. Maybe it has even saved his life. But now, during the few days he’s home, I sense the re-emergence of frightening patterns: the mess in his room, the piles of dishes in the basement, where he hangs out, the pounding music. Are these signs of trouble or normal teenage behavior?

“Can you bring in the garbage cans?” I ask tentatively, probing him.

He shoots me an unpleasant look and mutters an under-the-breath remark. Still, he brings in the cans and places them against the wall in front of a gaping hole he made one day with the angry swing of a golf club.

I am quietly terrified again, but what scares me, I realize, is not his behavior but my inability to read it. I have no idea what typical teenage angst and opposition look like in him, and I worry I’ll never know.

My wife doesn’t understand why I’m so upset. “He’s been nothing short of great,” she says. And she is right. I have to believe that.

Now it’s late, and he’s asleep. I walk down the stairs toward the kitchen. On the wall of the stairway is his baby portrait. I lean toward it, kiss his beautiful one-year-old face, and pray that the worst is over.

• • •

It’s been just over a year since our son left our home. Early on, the calls and visits were difficult, but now they are wonderfully normal. He still struggles in school, and he recently asked us to consider ADHD medication. We have not made a decision yet; the medication he tried in the past wasn’t very effective. Given his emotional struggles, it’s hard to tease out the difficulties he has in focusing.

One of my biggest concerns about sending our son away was the fear that he would be treated like some screwed-up kid. Actually, he was treated with care and compassion. And our love for him, given time to heal, is as strong as it has ever been.

Copyright © 2005 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.