A Mother’s Take on Gray Wolf Ranch
My son’s primary care program did a wonderful job, but I give Gray Wolf Ranch credit for making him solid, confident and most of all, content in long-term sobriety. I truly believe my son, who has been sober for almost eight years, would not have remained sober had he received only six weeks of treatment. Through Gray Wolf’s additional months of intense counseling, the program’s guidance in re-entering and living in the “real world,” and especially from the Ranch’s wilderness treks, my son learned how to maintain good emotional health even during the most stressful times.
I have come to see it this way: during his first six weeks of rehab my son got sober; at Gray Wolf Ranch he learned how to live sober.
When my son was about to exit his primary care program on the east coast, his counselors recommended Gray Wolf Ranch’s aftercare program. My husband and I questioned that pretty hard. The additional expense was significant, and other residents in the program were simply moving on to inexpensive sober houses. We also could not imagine our son being interested in the wilderness treks; in fact, I really thought he would probably reject that very concept. But finally I realized: his father and I really knew nothing about our son at that point. He had been a drug addict for years and in recent years, he had rarely been home. As he had sunk into the wretched depths of his addiction, he had become a person we didn’t know and he didn’t want us to know.
Yet in rehab he had poured his heart out to his counselors, and they had worked hard together every day for more than a month. They had helped our son work through some of the trauma he experienced as an addict and his shame and guilt. They addressed some of the emotional reasons he turned to drugs, and they had helped him start developing a trusting relationship with God. After years of debilitating drug use, in six short weeks of rehab our son had transformed into a healthy, fresh-faced young man who was enthusiastic about being sober. It all seemed good to us, and we weren’t sure the counselors’ suggestion to send him to Gray Wolf Ranch was all that necessary.
Thankfully, the counselors kept pressing, and my husband and I finally got it: at that moment, the people at that treatment center knew our son better than anyone else in the world. Everything we had tried, all the people we had dragged in to influence him, all the pronouncements, wheedling, crying, yelling, guilt trips, threats, judgments and bribes we had made in our attempts to get our son straight over the years, not to mention an enormous amount of expense, had failed. Yet this place and these people had reached him. He was actually reaching out to them. Were we really going to be stupid enough to disregard their advice?
The first time I visited Gray Wolf Ranch, I was struck by the place’s atmosphere — distinctly and comfortingly calm, yet rugged and challenging at the same time. I feel like nothing’s “faux” at Gray Wolf, from the yurts that serve as offices, to the giant trees dappling the sunshine, to its staff members. Without fail, I have found the Gray Wolf staff to be gracious ladies and gentlemen who are simultaneously down-to-earth, honest and fearlessly forthright. Every staff member I have talked to has been intensely dedicated to producing a young man confident in his ability to tackle the world sober. The compassion extended to their charges is authentic, since many of the staff members have been in their residents’ shoes; yet Gray Wolf employees also know the strength that lifelong sobriety requires, so they’re tough on their residents as well.
During my visits to Port Townsend, I have also been impressed by the surrounding community’s support of the Ranch’s program and its residents and at the size and diversity of the area’s sober community itself. During my first trip there, I immediately felt this was a very good place for my son to be. As the Gray Wolf staff firmly entrenches AA as a way of life for its boys, the Peninsula’s large, high-quality, active sober community shows them that they can have an entertaining and rewarding social life with other people who have chosen sobriety.
When my son arrived at Gray Wolf Ranch he was 22 years old, sober and happy to be sober, but terrified of exiting the “pink cloud” of rehab and trying to make it in the real world. Just the trip from the east coast to Washington, the prospect of knowing no one and possibly not being accepted by the residents who were already there, had him so upset that he called, voice shaking and close to tears, saying he didn’t want to be there, he wasn’t going to fit in, he wanted to come “home.” The memory of this makes me smile because today at age 30, my son is the ultimate leader and the epitome of self-confidence: as a professional, as a husband and parent, and as an AA sponsor who has helped countless people get and remain sober.
So that was the first thing going to Gray Wolf did for him: he didn’t go back to his old stomping grounds, where his fears (which were a total surprise to his dad and me) probably would have prevented him from taking the risk of trying to make new sober friends. Rather, I am positive he would have turned back to the world of drugs, where he perceived himself to fit in.
During his time at Gray Wolf my son was first assigned chores around the ranch. Then he was assigned to a volunteer job outside the ranch and finally, having succeeded at that, a real job at a little business owned by a wonderful couple who remain his friends today. During his time at the Ranch he was taught how to manage his finances, how to productively deal with fear, how to handle stressful situations, how to face his demons down. He was taught to turn things over to his Higher Power and to ask Him for help, and it was drilled into him that sobriety relies on self-honesty. He went to AA meetings several times a week and by way of those meetings, he got a sponsor and made many new sober friends.
Now: about the wilderness trek program. That was the part I thought wouldn’t fit my son, and I thought it was kind of a publicity “come-on.” I could not have been more wrong. Being fortunate to have redeveloped a close relationship with my son, I got blow-by-blow phone reports describing his experience on each 10-day trek, each ropes course and every other challenge he met in the wilderness.
They are bona fide endurance treks during which residents must face and deal with real physical dangers. The treks are led by well-seasoned professionals, and the residents are fully trained and prepped for each type of trek. How seriously they take that instruction will play a part in determining their success during the trek (“life lessons”). When I realized they weren’t just “camping” trips, I couldn’t imagine the interminable walking, day after day through the mountainous forests of the Washington Peninsula. Then after an exhausting day of hiking miles and miles, camp has to be set up, dinner has to be made, and upon exit each day, everything has to be cleaned up leaving absolutely no trace of human interference to upset the ecology.
My son admitted to me that he was absolutely terrified to kayak out to the extremes of Puget Sound and live on islands every night, and I was terrified for him! In fact I was so frightened, I thought about insisting that he not go–until I realized how silly that was. He was only weeks out of a sinister, treacherous world in which every single day, he could have easily been killed or died of an overdose.
So it appears that the first lessons the wilderness treks teach are to persevere (continuing to walk or paddle in spite of being sore and completely worn out); face extreme stress without drugs or alcohol, the stress relief staples of the past; and live with the consequences of one’s actions. But as I have learned from my son, the treks contribute a lot more than that to the enrichment of a Gray Wolf resident’s future.
As I listened to my son describe his trek experiences, including some of his tougher times, I learned more about my son the addict. I realized that since he had spent his formative young adult years addicted to drugs, he had never learned to function as part of a team. Real synergy doesn’t exist in the world of addiction. But on these survival treks, if he didn’t cooperate and function as part of a team, take care of his own assignments, follow the safety rules and become educated in the tasks he was involved in, he could put himself, someone else, or even a whole group of people in real danger.
During more post-trek conversations with my son, I saw how the wilderness treks contributed to his maturity in forming and caring for friendships. It dawned on me that there are no real “friends” in the addict’s world. Far from worrying about committing to friends, my son had spent his teen years worrying about how he could get more money, as had his so-called friends. But the ranch’s series of grueling 10-day treks produced a close-knit group of young men who had spent many evenings around the fire confiding in each other, giving each other support, cheering each other on and forming intense, trusting friendships. Nearly eight years later, some of my son’s dearest friends are people he met at Gray Wolf Ranch.
The Gray Wolf Ranch program’s approach is complex and multi-layered and, although I am a child of an alcoholic, it took my son’s experience at Gray Wolf to help me better understand the complex and multi-layered illnesses of alcoholism and addiction. Gray Wolf’s program focuses on overcoming fear at all levels, and fear seems to be what really drives alcoholism and addiction. Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of non-acceptance.
I will be forever grateful to Gray Wolf Ranch for the priceless guidance it gave my son, and for the many tools he acquired while in the program, which he still uses today to maintain excellent emotional health, and which our entire family has also learned to use.