"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 fourth grade. "Before that he was basically a normal boy," said Cameron's mom. "He loved animals and being outside. He always made us smile."
In fourth grade, Cameron started having attention issues. By fifth 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," Mom said.
Then he started having wild and out-of-control behaviors.
Cameron's mother 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 Cameron's parents he just needed more discipline. Then, his mom said, a few other people started seeing his episodes and someone suggested residential treatment at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch.
"We were almost offended," she 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 hospital for mental health issues several times. Eventually they 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 telling a little easier. Cameron and his private tutor were in town 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 hospital stay, Cameron's parents told him he was going to live at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch.
His mom 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. His parents were very grateful for the support of the Ranch staff during these times.
"We visited 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," his mother 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. His parents 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," Cameron's mother 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's 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.
Cameron's parents knew the Ranch was a safe place for their son. "He could no longer run away from himself and his emotions," his mother said. "He had to face them, but it wasn't easy."
"We learned a lot too," she said. "We learned to make decisions together and then take them to Cameron. 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," Cameron's mother 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, his mother 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," Cameron's mother 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, 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."
Erasing the Stigma
Early on in their journey with Cameron, his parents committed to helping erase the stigma about mental illness.
"We told Cameron we were going to tell people the truth because we have nothing to be ashamed of," his mother said. "We told him, 'If you had stomach cancer, we'd tell everyone and have a benefit.' But when it's the brain, people don't want to talk about it. By telling the truth and talking about it, Cameron has learned how many people are really struggling."
"We want kids and parents and families to know THERE IS HOPE. By telling our story, we are bringing hope to other people."
*Name changed to protect the confidentiality of our kids.