November 26, 2014

“There’s nothing to do but think about making yourself a better person.”

By Kelly Burch

Jake Giffin was familiar with addiction.

His parents were alcoholics and he swore he would never emulate their behavior. But after his dad died when Jake was 13 years old, he found himself engaging in the very behavior he despised.

“I was acting out in any way I could,” Giffin said.

Drinking led to smoking pot, and soon Giffin was snorting prescription pills. After he overdosed at school, his family knew that it was time for drastic measures.

“There was a full-on intervention at my house,” Giffin said. “They told me I was going to the program.”

Giffin told the intervention group – led by his mother – that he needed a moment to take it all in. He walked out of the room and didn’t come back, instead running away.

“It ended with me being handcuffed on the side of the road,” he recalled.

Still, he wasn’t able to admit that he had a problem. Even when he arrived at WinGate Wilderness Therapy in Kanab, Utah, he felt that it was all just a big overreaction.

“I got there and really put up a face, like my mom caught me and that’s why I was here,” he said. “I wanted to get out ASAP.”

But going home wasn’t an option. For the next 63 days, Giffin participated in WinGate’s wilderness therapy program. For the 15-year-old from Newport Beach, Calif., being dumped into Utah’s backcountry was shocking.

“It was intense,” he said. “I thought there was a main building, but we just pulled up to the side of the street, walked into this desert area and there were six other kids with backpacks.”

Giffin and the other teens were responsible for cooking their food, erecting a shelter and hiking about 6 miles a day. Once a week, a therapist visited the teens for individual and group sessions, but most of Giffin’s healing came from just being in the wild.

“Rehab is one thing, but there are still phones, television and all that stuff that just distracts you. The wilderness is very quiet,” he said. “It is so isolated that there’s nothing to do but think about yourself and making yourself a better person.”

After WinGate, most teens enroll at therapeutic boarding school, but Giffin and his mother knew that that was not the right choice for them.

“Our family had already be separated and torn enough,” he said.

Instead, Giffin enrolled at Newport Academy, a teen treatment center near his home. There, he did online courses while also attending group therapy and meetings. Being in school with other sober teens was the change Giffin needed.

“I was around people I understood, and it was a much safer environment,” said Giffin, who recently started his senior year at Newport. “That’s what I needed. Originally I wanted to do school from home, but [therapists] said, ‘You’d get bored, and boredom is a trigger.’ I needed that structured environment.”

Giffin says Newport is “totally different” from a typical high school, the support is invaluable, and the students become very tight-knit.

“Everyone is really close and wants what’s best for each other,” he said. “There’s a lot of love and support. I’ve got a ton of people in my phone that I can call, and I’ve been utilizing that lately with some things that have been going on. It’s an awesome community.”

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