Part of being a teenager is being rebellious, obnoxious, and a giant pain in the ass to your parents. But when they’ve had enough of your bad behavior and are just plan sick of dealing with you, they always have the option to exile you to the woods for a few months to become somebody else’s problem.
Somebody else’s very expensive problem.
Wilderness programs for “troubled teens” aren’t a new phenomenon, and they’re often recommended by therapists like mine who believe in the power of removing kids from their maladaptive behaviors and teaching them ‘useful life skills’ for thousands of dollars. They attempt to reform kids going down a bad path, but other than the conscious choice to drop out of high school, my path at the time was littered with things mostly out of my control.
The problems that sent me there began around age 12 when my major depression first hit. Suicidal from that point on, it wasn’t until age 16 that I found myself inpatient in two psychiatric wards.
Maybe that’s because after completing my second stay, my parents flew me out to the mountains of Montana, beginning a two month period of living like a nomad in the woods sans showers or hair brushes.
Before I boarded a plane with my dad, who would only tell me we were flying “out west,” I was told in the hospital that I’d be going to a wilderness program and my immediate response was a very stern “Nope!”
“We’ll fly you out but if you try to refuse there are people that will escort you there,” my dad replied, and my two month sentence began.
When we arrived by rental car to Bumfuck Nowhere, Montana, I was left with counselors who drove me to the heart of a national forest. The first night I slept in a teepee with a fire inside, but it quickly went out and the December mountain weather left me shivering the entire night, thinking “I would kill to be back in the lockdown loony bin because at least it had heat.”
By the second day we were denied teepee access, instead being given a tarp to hang overhead between trees and a mat for our sleeping bags that we put on top of the snow.
I started to meet other kids in the program, finally joining the whole group as I hiked in to meet them. Everyone was friendly and as I explained what had sent me there, I learned that most people were sent away for a drug problem ranging from popping the occasional pill to using cocaine every day.
At that time I had only tried weed, hadn’t yet done anything too stupid and saw no reason for me to be there.
I rebelled against the counselors, even cursing at them at points, but in my defense that nastiness came out of desperation to have a fire for warmth after being denied one for three days.
One survival skill we were instructed to learn was how to use a wooden bow to make our own fire, drilling it against more wood pieces as we hoped for the best.
But after the skilled pyro students had “graduated” the program, my friend and I did not have such luck and the counselors refused to help because this step was oh so important in learning how to not be a teenage f-up.
Well, after three days in the snow without any sort of warmth (one counselor named “Wolf” would wake up with icicles in his beard), I lost my shit completely and started screaming. Hearing me from far away, the resident therapist thought it was a wild animal and my friend Vicki* corrected her, saying “I’m pretty sure that’s just Julia.”
To keep these teenage animals from fleeing the coop, our boots were collected at night, but that didn’t stop kids from running away. In fact, just a few weeks after I completed the program two boys went missing for three days. I don’t know how the “We lost your kid in the mountains of Montana” conversation went, but I know a helicopter surveyed the area and eventually they were found safe. I never tried to flee, but I did stick my thumb out at a logging truck passing by and was told that was “not funny.”
What angered me about the program weren’t the lessons they tried to teach us, but rather the indifference certain counselors felt when we were at the end of our ropes. I guess they saw feelings of discomfort as part of the growth process or something, but during this fire-free hell, my friend’s toe turned a little purple and she was simply told to “hike it off.”
That was another thing -- the hiking up and down mountains -- that was supposed to strengthen our character. But disgruntled, freezing teenagers aren’t going to feel as proud after hiking four miles up a mountain, as much as really, really pissed off. And speaking of piss, trees and bushes became our toilets and we dug a new latrine every time we moved campsites, using leaves for toilet paper.
Grosser still, one of those times someone pooped in a bush instead of the latrine and the counselors made us transplant it on a stick. I was scolded for my refusal to do so and snapped back “You realize you’re asking me to carry someone else’s poop on a stick?!” to which there was no reply.
So what good came of all these two months? For me, not a whole lot. I harbored anger at my parents for a good while after I got home, but have since realized their desperation at wanting to change my life for the better was because they just plain didn’t know what to do with me.
I was put back in high school, dropped out again (I was a brat, after all), and months later found the right cocktail of antidepressants to get me back on track. In all fairness, the wilderness did give me more of an appreciation of nature and more self-confidence, but I believe the latter came from being around awesome kids who helped my social anxiety by being supportive and really kind. They were what got me through some of the hardest days there, including Christmas and New Years.
Some of those kids did go home with a positive attitude and continued to do well, but I would say more than half of them did not. Becky* who was sent in for running away and doing drugs, came home to an overwhelmingly restrictive environment that the program decided she needed. Not allowed to leave her house for a few weeks, she went stir crazy and developed a meth habit when she finally broke free. Vicki* also found herself in trouble immediately after, getting arrested a week later and sent right back to Montana for an additional two weeks.
The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council claims 80% of wilderness program graduates are doing “much better” in their follow up reports two to three years later, but I think there are few people who would not be considered better than who they were at 16, 17.
The program I attended has since closed due to the strain of the economy, but countless others are still in existence. There was even a reality show a few years back called “Brat Camp” that chronicled a program in Oregon, and every so often I meet someone who was in a program themselves. It’s fun to compare camps, share our appreciation for indoor plumbing, and swear we won’t send our kids to the woods. But then again, I have never been the parent of a 16-year-old.
*names have been changed