“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
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
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
“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
“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
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.”
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
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Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch | dakotaranch.org
The mission of Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch is to help at-risk youth and their families succeed in the name of Christ.