“I can’t really remember a lot of that time.”
Those are the words of 14-year-old Cameron*–a handsome young man with stylish brown hair, a subtle grin, and a twinkle in his eye.
And, according to his mother, him not remembering is a blessing, because it was a very difficult time.
It all started when Cameron was in 4th grade. “Before that he was basically a normal boy,” said Cameron’s mom, Mary. “He loved animals and being outside. He always made us smile.”
In 4th grade, Cameron started having attention issues. By 5th grade, anything associated with school caused Cameron to experience extreme anxiety. Most days he refused to go.
“He cried and screamed and we couldn’t get him in the car,” said Cameron’s mom, Mary.
Then he started having wild and out-of-control behaviors.
Mary said, “He would do bizarre, uncontrollable things like crawl on the roof of our house at 6 a.m., or chase after me with various objects in his hand and threaten to attack me. It’s like he would get pleasure out of scaring me and threatening to hurt me. Afterwards, he would drop whatever he was holding, and cry. He felt so bad, and had no idea why he had done it.
During those episodes, Cameron’s once-twinkling eyes changed to what his mom called, “weird wild,” and there were times she was terrified of her own child.
“It’s all kind of a blur,” Cameron said. “But, I look back on pictures of me then, and I looked and was totally different.”
When he was fine, he was completely fine. People told Mary and her husband, Ben, he just needed more discipline. Then, Mary said, a few other people started seeing his episodes and someone suggested residential treatment at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch.
“We were almost offended,” Mary said. “How could anyone say that?”
But they had tried everything else they could think of–they had taken him to Mayo Clinic, and he had been in and out of the Bismarck, ND, hospital for mental health issues several times. Eventually Ben and Mary realized someone was going to get hurt, and it was time to consider Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch. They toured the Ranch, completed all the paperwork, and Cameron was accepted for treatment. Now they had to figure out how to tell him.
God and an amazing ER doctor stepped in to make the telling a little easier. Cameron and his private tutor were in Bismarck to go to the library, when he lost control and they had to call 911. The ER doctor looked at Cameron’s history and told his parents there was no way he was sending Cameron home.
He said, “I will do whatever I have to do. Cameron is going to stay in the hospital in a regular room, with one of you accompanying him 24 hours a day, until he can move into the Ranch.”
At the beginning of his seven-day stay, Mary and Ben told Cameron he was going to live at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch.
Mary said, “He was devastated, but he had seven days to process it. Friends, family, the doctor, and the nurses all told Cameron it was a great opportunity. ‘You are going to be a different kid,’ the doctor said.”
When it came time to take him to the Ranch, Cameron was OK and ready to go. Once he got to the Ranch, bedtime was the toughest part of each day for Cameron. Mary was very grateful for the support of Ranch staff during these times.
“We were allowed to visit nearly every day, and Cameron’s caregivers were very reassuring and caring and loving. They allowed him to call home, and because I worked just a few blocks from the Ranch, I was sometimes able to stop by to tuck him in,” Mary said.
For the most part, Cameron was a model child for the first 30 days of his stay. He was determined to do whatever it took to get in and out of the Ranch in two months. Then the episodes of wildness returned and the real work began.
After administering several different tests and getting daily reports from Ranch nurses and youth care workers, Ranch psychiatrist, Dr. Wayne Martinsen, diagnosed Cameron with bipolar disorder; and was able to address it and Cameron’s other mental health issues appropriately.
After much discussion with the family, Martinsen also took Cameron off a medication that could be harmful to his liver. Mary said they were very hesitant, but Martinsen reassured them this was the perfect time to try a medication change. The nurses would observe Cameron carefully, and Martinsen could quickly address any withdrawal symptoms or adverse effects of discontinuing the medication.
“He was right. There were no side effects at all and we were able to get Cameron off this medication I’d been worried about,” Mary said.
In addition, Cameron met regularly with his Ranch therapist, Sara Vetter.
While Cameron preferred to ignore his outbursts, Vetter encouraged him to talk or write about them. “What brought this on?” she’d say. “Let’s talk about what happened.”
Vetter helped Cameron think very specifically about the feelings and thoughts he had before he exploded in anger. She asked him to complete sentences like, “I was really feeling anxious when…..” and “I knew I was going to blow up when….”
Once Cameron could identify the feelings that led to his actions, he and Vetter talked about things he could do instead. She taught him to speak up and advocate for himself. He learned how to ask people for what he needed. For instance, when he started to feel hot or anxious, he’d ask if he could take a break. When he needed to move away from someone who was making him angry or anxious, he learned to ask if he could move to another space in the room.
Mary and Ben knew the Ranch was a safe place for Cameron. “He could no longer run away from himself and his emotions,” Mary said. “He had to face them, but it wasn’t easy.”
“We learned a lot too,” Mary said. “We learned to make decisions together and then take them to Cameron,” Mary said. “To remain calm and keep it simple. To have a routine and more structure, and to always tell Cameron what comes next.”
“We don’t fight the battles that don’t matter,” Mary continued. “For instance, Cameron will tell me he wants chicken alfredo for supper for the next five nights. I used to fight that, but now I just make a big batch and that’s what he eats. We also changed our morning routine so it is quiet and unrushed.”
Eventually, Cameron started spending some weekends at home. These weekends went well, so four months after he arrived at the Ranch, Cameron moved home.
Back at his home school, Cameron reconnected with friends. He has stayed in touch with Zach, his primary Youth Care Worker at the Ranch, who became like a Big Brother to him. When summer came around, Mary quit her job in Bismarck and found work that was more flexible so she could be available for Cameron. At the same time, Cameron got a part-time job where he learned how to operate the till, answer the phone, and work with customers.
“He has so much confidence and gets along with his buddies,” Mary said. “It was the best summer we’ve had in years.”
They are now stronger as a family. “As we walked through this extremely difficult storm,” Mary said, “we realized God was our rock. We clung to him for dear life. All three of us are completely changed. We are much better people now than before. We learned to be really, really grateful. Our eyes were opened to how many kids don’t have family support and how lucky we are to have each other.”
“Everyone who knew Cameron before the Ranch, and during the tough times, see him as a walking miracle.”
We take great care to guard the privacy of our children. Pictures and identifying information are only used with the permission of the kids themselves, and the written permission of their guardians. We also give kids and their guardians the opportunity to read the story before it goes to print–so they can remove or change anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. When Mary and Ben read a draft of this article to Cameron, it brought tears to his eyes.
Mary said, “It was very difficult for him to hear and remember what it was like. He’s not the same person anymore. None of us are. God is good.”
*Names changed to protect the confidentiality of our children. (The young man wanted us to change his name to Cameron because Cam Newton is his favorite football player)!
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The mission of Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch is to help at-risk youth and their families succeed in the name of Christ.