Sarah W. discusses her son’s three years of sobriety
“It seems so appropriate to tell Walter’s story now,” says Sarah W., mother of 19-year-old Walter G., as August 26 marks her son’s three-year anniversary of leaving for White River Academy. It also marks his third year of sobriety. As her account of the last several years unfolds, a dramatic story of tumult, revelation, acceptance and stability takes form.
The nightmare of depression and addiction
Sarah says the nightmare began with an initial struggle with depression, at 13 years old. Sarah says she and her husband Jack got Walter in a very good local program in their Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, community, where her son was prescribed depression medication.
But Walter frequently visited with a family member who encouraged him not to take the medication while they were together. She says the codependent relationship included getting high on marijuana together. This, coupled with on-again, off-again medicating, pushed Walt into a downward spiral.
By the end of junior high, Sarah says Walter was addicted to marijuana. He didn’t smoke cigarettes or try any other drugs, but his marijuana use disorder was ruining his life. “It rotted his teeth, he would hack up black, and his mood was out of control.”
Sarah says her son was always an unbelievably kind person, and acknowledges many teens experiment with cannabis. But for her son, it became full blown marijuana abuse. His marijuana use disorder, mixed with inconsistent depression medication changed him, she says. “Walt was not himself; he was defiant, not motivated academically even though he’s very bright.”
By the summer of ninth grade Walter had begun partying, had lost a significant amount of weight and “his grades were useless.” Sophomore year ended with a suicidal Walt being placed in psychiatric detainment.
Sarah believed it was time for boarding school. Jack W., Walter’s stepfather, thought he needed something more than boarding school and something more far-reaching than stopgap drug rehab.
According to Sarah, Pennsylvania state laws allow a minor 14 and older to check themselves out of rehab, and she says the current laws “left us stuck in a bureaucratic circle.”
But Jack persisted to search for a holistic option that could give his stepson the fresh start that he needed to reset himself. Money was not an obstacle, but the expensive boarding schools didn’t have the real-world touch Sarah and Jack believed would really speak to Walter.
That’s when Jack stumbled upon White River Academy.
“We wanted the whole package. On their website, they mentioned what’s called Positive Peer Culture. We bought the book, read it and wanted that for Walter. They also talked about compliance community, where the boys have a culture of earning their privileges, like in the real world.”
She says the unpretentious ambience of White River Academy coupled with the rural setting removed the enablers, the temptations and the affluence Walter had been caught up in.
One of WRA’s model students
Walter’s mom said she and Jack recently perused the letters Walter sent in his first weeks in the program. “He wrote 30 letters, and I probably wrote 30 back. He would always apologize, accept he was there, then ask us to come pick him up! We had a good laugh at that [recently] because we know once [rehabilitation] clicked for him, his life just bloomed.”
Sarah’s tone begins to brighten as she talks about the change in her son. She and Jack saw the difference in him during their first parent weekend.
“We noticed he had gained back his normal weight, and he was excited.” She says WRA saved him, taught Walt how to love himself again and he seemed to go back to that kind son she remembered who cares about other people. “Some of his friends didn’t receive Christmas gifts, and he wrote home asking if we could bring extra gifts for them. Once he accepted we weren’t going to pull him out of treatment, he truly made the most of it.”
Sarah recalls one time, when Walt went on a compliance outing and was so moved he wrote home about having met a woman who’s recovering from cancer, We wanted to help weed her garden, and marveled that he never would never have met her if he had gone to leisure time instead.”
You can hear a smile in Sarah’s voice as she explains Walter even did a few mini-triathlons through WRA. “He’s 6’2 now, huge, and in his best shape.”
To this day, Sarah says Walter frequently keeps up and checks in on his fellow WRA alumni. She and WRA staff affirm he was definitely a leader while at White River.
“Walt says the success rate for young men like him is something like 1 in 10, but I look at the White River Academy grads and they are all successes. … He finally found a group of people and a system that just gets it. They get him and they understand where he’s been mentally.”
A true, happy ending
For some people therapeutic residential treatment is a wakeup call; for others, an intervention. For Walter, it was a mirror, reflecting his best qualities and showing him who he really is.
“White River Academy gave Walt a space so his mind could rest.”
Interestingly, after Walter moved on from White River Academy he fell in love and married one of the former staff members, office manager Kelsey Porter.
“Walter’s journey is awesome, fabulous. He is working, looking at attending an online art school, has his wife – who’s the sweetest thing on earth – a dog, and he owns a house. He’s sober, happier than I’ve ever seen him and has got a really nice life!”
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