At the end of her rope, Pauline Gaines sent her troubled son to a wilderness camp, hoping that he would find his way out of his downward spiral.
Last week I traveled to a fly-over state, a place where men still wear cowboy hats, where non-smoking hotel rooms reek of cigarette fumes, and people have three tow-headed children by the time they’re twenty-five.
I sat in a conference room with several other parents whose teenagers were spending their summers in the same wilderness camp as Luca. We were all Regular Joes, middle-aged, middle to upper-middle-class parents with startlingly similar stories. We each had a child who had spent years pushing us beyond our limits. Our kids broke curfew, got expelled from school, refused to comply with any rule, terrorized siblings, cursed us out, did drugs, sold drugs, tore up the house, argued incessantly, got arrested.
You know those parents who cluster together at cocktail parties, one-upping each other with tales of their uber-children’s MVP awards, multiple AP classes, and fat acceptance letters from Ivy League colleges?
We were the sardonic, hard-knock, George Booth cartoon version of those parents, one-downing each other with troubled teen anecdotes over coffee and muffins: “My kid didn’t go to school for six months straight!”; “My kid overdosed on his antidepressant!”; “My kid snuck out so much we padlocked his bedroom door and put bars on his windows!”
The instructors talked to us about how the wilderness provides therapy and natural consequences in the hope of fostering self-reliance and self-agency. Life slows down. There are no computers, cell phones, or TVs to distract yourself with. If you refuse to put up your shelter and it rains, you get wet. If you didn’t pay attention when you got the lesson on building a cooking fire, you go hungry. If you hold up your group because you refuse to hike, you piss people off and maybe you get clobbered. If you run, you recede into a mountain-ridged expanse of juniper trees, dirt, and rocks. The Staff will find you sobbing in the dust. You will have to hike all the way back to your camp site, bone-tired, stomach growling, only to have your shoes confiscated so you won’t run again.
Several times during the seminar, when the instructors wanted to give an example of how the Field Staff handle scenarios involving particularly resistant kids, they asked me politely if they could reference Luca. After awhile, I began to feel kind of a perverse kick: Look at me! I’ve spawned the most stubborn, most attention-seeking kid here!
“You’re Luca’s mother?” a dreadlocked, tattooed, face-pierced female Staff asked me. I started to sink in my chair until I got a hit off the calm, higher-plane aura emanating from her. “I’m so glad to meet you. I have had the honor of working with your son.”
She, like the other staff members, were truly superior human beings. Spiritual beings willing to forego showers and recognizable food for a week’s stretch, willing to get down in the dirt with raging, non-compliant teenagers, deflecting insults and curses via some sort of Tai Chi psychic energy.
They were a sharp contrast to us frazzled parents, who began admitting the things our wits-end existence had driven us to. The things no “good parent” would do to their kids. Some of us screamed. Some of us cursed. Some of us took every possession out of our kid’s room except for his bed as a punishment. Two dads confessed they had pushed, shaken, and hit their kids.
The instructors leading the Parent Seminar nodded. They’d heard it all. They were here not to tell us how to “fix” our kids, but how to fix ourselves. The best way parents can help their kids, they said, was to get along with their co-parents. I eyed a divorced couple in the room, a formerly contentious couple who said they had resolved to be on the same page for the sake of their son. I sighed, wistful, and envious.
I had forgotten about a cockamamie clause in our custody agreement that required me to notify Prince 7 days in advance of any meeting I scheduled at Luca’s school or residential placement. When Prince found out I was flying out for the Parent Visit, he fired off e-mails to Luca’s therapist and me stating that I was “breaking the law!” and “in violation of the court order!” This, after Prince had sat in this very room, listening to the same directives about getting along with co-parents, married or divorced. Clearly, there was no page big enough for the two of us.
So I would have to focus on the only thing I could control, the thing the instructors asked us to write about in a “Collusion Letter” that we sent to our children a few weeks earlier. In this letter, we came clean to our kids about the things we do to invite them to behave badly. We have inconsistent boundaries. We rescue. We ignore. We act like martyrs. We lecture them endlessly about their faults. All of these things I have done to varying degrees, and I told Luca so in my Collusion Letter.
At the end of the Seminar, we got strict instructions on what to do and not to do during the next day’s visit to our kids’ camp site. Don’t bring gifts. Do create space for your kid to open up in the family therapy session. Don’t let your kid bully you into taking him home early. Do let him be your guide, as he is now a wilderness expert. Whatever you do, don’t give him your car keys!
And most important: if your kid argues with you, don’t argue back. Walk away. The instructor told a story about a mother who flew all the way from Ireland only to have her stone-cold kid refuse to talk to her. When she left, the kid bawled harder than any kid the instructor had ever seen.
Suddenly, I was crying. I looked up and saw the couple across from me, sobbing. They were the ones who said they were afraid their kid would die if he kept traveling down the same path.
“Sam might die,” acknowledged the instructor. “This is his journey. You can’t save him.”
He likened the wilderness camp experience to a walkabout, the 2000-mile long trek aboriginal teenage boys embarked on hundreds of years ago, to mark their rite of passage into manhood.
“Imagine, the tribal elders come take your kid, telling you it’s his time to go. He’s got to walk 200o miles through the outback. Maybe he comes back, maybe he doesn’t. You, as the parent, have no control over whether your kid lives or dies. You watch your kid walk away and wonder if that’s the last time you’re going to see him.”
A silence came over the room, a silence that united parents who had flown from Florida, Texas, California, and Mexico, to meet up with their kids on their modern-day walkabout. We all knew what it was like to hand over our children to tribal elders–in the form of wilderness program staff–who escorted them onto a journey they had to take without us. We all knew what it was like to feel we were booted out of our parenting jobs, to have our parent-child relationship severed too soon. We had spent years trying and failing to reign in our children. They were lost boys and girls, propelled away from us by unseen, unknowable forces into a realm of chaos we couldn’t reach.
None of us had been able to save our children. So we handed them over to strangers who had some success in turning around treatment-resistant kids. But there were no guarantees.
The next day I slathered myself with sunscreen and pulled on cargo pants and a white t-shirt. I hopped in a rented 4-wheel drive and followed Jim, Luca’s therapist, through 150 miles of sun-scorched earth.
We parked along a thicket of sage and juniper. The arid morning air burned my lungs. I scanned the seemingly endless vista of rocks and brambles. I fought back tears. Nothing had happened, yet suddenly, I felt as significant as the specks of dust at my feet.
“Do you think Luca wants to see me?” I asked, more like a child than a mother.
“I don’t know,” Jim shrugged. “When I told him you were coming yesterday, he bawled like a baby. But anything could happen. Remember–if he starts to argue with you, walk away.”
Jim forged ahead into the thicket as a 20-something bearded Staff emerged, holding a 2×4 attached to a long rope.
“This is a bullroar,” said Knox, the laid-back, affable Staff who had been sent to lead me to Luca. Knox explained that Luca had written a list of his self-betrayals–the ways he sabotages himself–on his bullroar, then carved them off one by one to symbolize his transformation.
“You wave it over your head like this.”
He catapulted the bullroar, swinging it over his head in broad loops. The 2×4 sliced through the air like a propeller, finally producing a low roaring hum.
He handed me the bullroar.
“You’re going to do just what I showed you,” said Knox. “Luca is in the field, waiting with his bullroar. You’ll both take turns, following the sounds, until you find each other.”
I slackened the rope, hoisting it over my head and through the air. After 10 seconds, I started to gasp. My shoulders ached. The fibers of the rope dug into my fingers. I wasn’t sure I could keep going. One thought ran through my head:
“I’d make a lousy aborigine.”
Check back next week for part two.
This post originally appeared on Perils of Divorced Pauline.