By: Alumni Parent
I have stood in your shoes. I still wear them, although I am further up the path. My child was struggling to the point that sending him to Pacific Quest became our best choice. I had been scared, frustrated, sleepless and worried and deciding to send him so far away added a new, and unwelcome, level of fear to me. If this sounds familiar, then I bet it will also ring true that you are also afraid to hope that this will work. Our hope for our children is fragile, and though surprisingly tenacious, we have learned to hide it for fear that one more failure will finally crush it. I sent my child and my hope to Hawaii. Here’s how it turned out.
Before PQ: Our son had struggles on and off during high school. He was uneven in his academics, but passionate about his extracurriculars. During college however, he spiraled down into a serious depression. He had reached out to the mental health services at school at the urging of friends who saw him changing. He was going to therapy and was on medication. Then I had to drive to his school after he stopped responding to calls and texts. I found him in his room with the curtains drawn, piles of dirty clothes and garbage around him as he slept in his bed. He had barely gotten up, showered, eaten, etc. for the past few weeks. Take a picture and put it in a text book – this is full blown depression. We packed him up and took him home.
The next steps: therapy, medication, a day program that seemed to help him get some traction, then working during the summer full time but still exhausted from that effort. He insists that all the work he did over the past 5 months has given him enough knowledge and preparation to return to school for the Fall semester. By Thanksgiving he was struggling. He failed many classes due to absences and didn’t return for the Spring semester. Now what? He stayed home. More intensive therapy and changes in medication as he worked as a laborer. He was growing hopeless that his situation would change. He was embarrassed to fail and it was hard for him to watch his friends move on without him.
We started with a new therapist who said: weekly therapy and medication will help, but what your son really could benefit from is a more intensive experience to really do the hard work and process what is at the root.
What program could be right? Our choices were traditional wilderness programs or Pacific Quest. Traditional wilderness programs focused on physical challenge and isolation to lead to mental strength. Pacific Quest focused on horticultural work, exercise, diet, whole-being wellness and community along with therapy and processing to build the idea that people, like nature, are imperfect, but by adaptation, experience, and using resources we learn to thrive.
We had so many questions about programs: Can a program get someone mentally healthy in 10 weeks? Can a program modify his behaviors in 10 weeks? For us, the goal was wellness – inside and out – and to start to understand what it takes to maintain wellness. Everyone has overarching issues that will be broken into smaller pieces. He will struggle with practical and emotional obstacles with support of peers and professionals. He will begin to identify ways to grow and support the changes he experiences at PQ.
During the time at Pacific Quest: My son set the following goals for himself: accept the past and the future, love himself, think about the future as opposed to worrying about the future and look in the mirror to see — not to criticize.
Your child is not the only one doing work during this time. You and your family will work too. Weekly calls with your child’s therapist and working through the parent manual is an opportunity for growth for all of us. Confession: I wanted to avoid this component. Isn’t this program for him? The reality dawns on me that I want him to work at this hard stuff and I don’t want to work on this hard stuff. My child has to accept and do the work and I have the same choice. I chose to walk with him. I made the time and put forth my best effort.
What did my child learn at Pacific Quest? Increased ability to handle stress because he experienced stress in a healthy, safe place where the focus is learning these skills. Also, how to make healthy choices when stressed, how to reach out to process stress and discomfort and finding a way to move forward in a way that is healthy and sustainable. Another focus was the power of opening up and being vulnerable and how better relationships lead to self-acceptance.
How was this accomplished? There’s a lot to that answer, but here is some of it. First, individual therapy happens twice a week minimum. Therapy groups are also a part and they are staff-led and peer-led at times. Working with staff one-on-one to develop goals and impromptu peer one-on-ones where they reach out to one and other for support. Finally, there is exercise, in depth wellness with nutrition, curriculum and a lot of horticultural therapy and work.
An interesting example for me was that my child struggled with quiet. Therefore, something like meditation was very difficult. A therapist discussed this with him and suggested that he learn about it by teaching it. So, my child was assigned to learn about meditation, practice it, journal about it, refine it and then he taught a class on it to his peers. The thinking was: Learn what you don’t know.
This is a lot of work for your child. It may be located in Hawaii, but it’s no vacation. There were many ups and downs that would be too long to chronicle. Again, it is by design that there is discomfort in this supportive environment so that the person actively learns the skills to handle obstacles in the real world.
Post Pacific Quest: During transition from PQ, our therapist took time to prepare us thoroughly for the road ahead. PQ is a start. It can be a foundation, but life isn’t easy and there will be setbacks and pitfalls ahead. A wise man that we know said: “Success isn’t measured in the day-to-day stuff. Success is measured by what happens when he falls into the same old hole. What is he doing to get out of the hole?” He is saying that by identifying what works and using what works, then the holes gets shallower. You build on those skills and build resiliency. Next, can you see the hole coming and avoid it?
When my son left PQ, he was excited to go back into the world. It took about five weeks for the first hole to appear. Somehow, he hadn’t embraced the idea that the “hole” or that a challenge would happen. It was very hard. He felt like a failure, but the foundation held. He got out of the hole and began again. There have been other holes. He is disappointed when they happen, but from the long view, some have been shallower and, more importantly, he does go back to the skills he learned and practiced at PQ.
Parting thoughts to those who are walking the path
If I could take away this struggle from you and your child, then I would. Just like you would like to spare your child what he or she is facing. However, there is no way around it. The only way is through it. I hope that you find the best fit for your family. The key thing to remember is that there is no magic. Neither Pacific Quest, nor any other program will take away the challenges of life. The real goal is to develop skills and form a foundation in a safe, therapeutic place so that our children are well prepared when their challenges occur.