I attended Open Sky Wilderness Therapy for about 2 and a half months (or 10 and a half weeks) earlier this year. It has been a few months since I “graduated”. I did not go to an aftercare (or follow up program) and I am home now.
Before going, I had depression problems, drugs, being suicidal, all that good stuff. I was given the choice by my (new-ish) therapist after a serious drug incident to be hospitalized or to go to Open Sky. Going to a hospital did not seem great and I knew that he and my parents would get me over to Open Sky anyways. I reluctantly agreed to go with a sliver of faith that the program would help.
I arrived in the Durango airport, CO, and my father handed me to the program’s transporters (3 people in their mid-late 20s at most). I was driven to urgent care for a checkup, blood drawn, and a drug test. We went to a mexican place for lunch which was kinda nice. Then we went to “the ranch”: a dumpy shack they used for storage. There I handed over all my belongings and was handed my new set of belongings. It was standard stuff like rope, tarp, footwear, clothes, my weekly ration of unappetizing hippie food (the block of cheese was nice though), etc. We drove a long way over to the Utah desert in the middle of almost nowhere.
When I first arrived at the campsite and saw my group, I immediately knew I had made a mistake. Six boys, three guides, everyone covered in dust. Everything was dirty. The guides were young like the transporters, whereas I was hoping they’d be older and more experienced. I was on “gateway”, as all new patients are, where I sit separate from everyone with a guide and get a student mentor. I was placed on “high safety watch” because of being suicidal, which meant a guide was within arm’s reach at all times, and a bunch of other annoying safety precautions. At night, I had to sleep in the guides tent with a tarp over me and a guide at each side.
The next day we did a 6 mile day hike (no pack, just a small satchel of stuff) through the desert valley. The day went pretty standard, which I’ll outline in a bit. What was important about the second day was that I fully understood the program that day. One of the largest themes of the program was copious consequences and trivial rewards. Consequences were things like 20 minutes of silence for cursing, having the entire group walk to someone's shelter if they forgot something, or “drills” where if you didn’t do something in a slotted amount of time you’d have to do it over again until you made the time. Drills applied to things like washing cups, making shelters, putting on backpack, packing up, and other things. There wasn’t much reward other than you get to make a quesadilla (called cheesy torts. There was a weird vocabulary here) if you bow drill a fire (bust a fire), or bs like “sense of accomplishment” for things. This system is designed to basically shrink your world. I pledged myself that I would not become a dog to the consequence-reward system that day. It actually worked out that fire busting and hard skills came natural to me and I basically never got in trouble. That basically made it so I was immune to this part of the program.
There are essentially four steps to the program: the four “directions”. South>West>North>East. The South is learning hard skills like pointless knots and building construction packs (c-packs, a backpack from tarp and string). In the south you get your impact letter, usually a week or so into the program. That letter is your parents listing all the reasons for being sent to the program. You must read it out loud, in full, to the entire group. You then respond to the letter by mostly repeating it to your parents so they feel heard. The south lasted 5 weeks for me, which was within normal range.
The West you get a backpack. In the west you’re supposed to do deep self discovery. This is where most of your work gets done and it generally takes a similar or longer time than the south. One of the important things you do in the west is a letter of responsibility, or the impact letter response with more “i'm a screw up and I regret the past”. I spent the remainder up till the last few days in the west.
The north you get a headlamp, and it's all about leadership. Leadership, leadership, leadership. The east basically you are a master at the program and you are perfect woohoo. There's a book “the student pathway” where guides sign off various things like makes a fire or weekly things like was a positive influence. You’re supposed to get everything signed off to move. In practice, your guides or therapist just move you whenever and most people graduate in the north. I had about half the things signed before I moved to each direction. You graduate whenever your therapist and parents decide. 10-12 weeks is normal (weighted towards long stays).
The program actually moved to Colorado on my 3rd day, so I’m speaking from that point of view (setting only changes a few things anyways). The week looked as such: Wednesday is guide changes and food (and other needed items) distribution as well as “group meditation” (everyone comes together to do yoga and meditation and see the graduates leaving), thursday you leave for expedition, you get back to base camp monday, tuesday is chores, shower (pouring water from a watersack over you with pisspoor shampoo and conditioner), and meet with therapist. Tuesday you also send a letter in response to the letter you received from your parents the week before, and then you get a new letter from them. Therapist reads all letters (but not censors) by the way. About the food. Weekly personal food was 2 bags of peanuts with raisins (“gorp”), one bag of oats and raisins (“muesli”), one bag of straight oats for oatmeal (no sugar ever), a 1 lb block of cheese, and four pieces of any mix of oranges and apples. You get 1 hot meal per day, which is dinner. Dinner often came out to be a crappy tasting quinoa mush with vegetables or whatever. Students cooked the meals and sometimes the ingredients were good to make something like cheesy steak fries. My group had some good cooks but if you don’t have real creative people you’re out of luck for a not disgusting meal.
One week, I snuck a meal plan past a new guide which meant we had a meal of just mashed potatoes and other cooked tomatoes. On expedition you hike to a different random campsite each day. Usually there's a “layover day” where you stay at a campsite for 2 consecutive days which is actually really helpful. You hike carrying all your stuff you need for the expedition and some group items. The shortest day of hiking I’ve had was around an hour, and the longest was eight. It’s pretty variable, and also the longer hikes were used as a tool to draw out difficult emotions. It was nothing excessive, but there was one time during an 8 hour day where the last hour and a half a guy had run out of water, and since Open Sky has a strict no sharing of consumables policy for “health reasons” (you wear the same clothes a week straight so I’m calling bs), he just had to go on until we reached camp (I give this example not because I think of it as abusive, but to highlight another one of the stupid program rules).
The one of the main goals of the program is dealing with hard emotions and being vulnerable. You’re expected to be willing to share basically everything with everyone. They treat it like everyone in the group (and program, parents, therapist) has the right to know everything about you. Because you’re not willing to share past trauma or deep things you are ingenuine. For me personally, I am selective of who I share things with. It does not mean I can’t open up; I just choose not to. I also do not wear my emotions on my sleeve.
At Open Sky, god forbid you’re an introvert. They try to funnel you into this narrow definition of a good, functioning person: extroverted, super vulnerable, positive, and open. There’s this thing called “busting and ‘I feel’” where you call the entire group to stop everything and listen to you say “I feel ____ when __. I believe I feel this way because _. My request [goal] for myself is _. My request for the group is __.” You can do this for any emotion, and you can imagine the really trivial ones that are called sometimes. I hated doing it. Didn’t do anything for me and I hate being the center of attention. Basically my therapist’s entire treatment plan for me was around “busting I feels”. It held me back a great deal the fact that I hated doing it. I’d tell my therapist that it was pointless and not helping (because I actually did give it some effort). To this she’d only have my weekly goals to do more of them.
Another main goal of the program was relationship building with parents. It was evident a few weeks in that you’re not there for you; you’re there for your parents. Your parentals decide how long you stay. They decide where you go next. This power dynamic of non-adult patients basically having their legal rights in the hands of their parents ends up being the child conforms to the parents’ demands. Now to talk about the guides as a whole. I actually really liked the guides. They can be characterized generally as young, not wealthy hippies, who truly believe that they are making a positive change in the world through working for this program. They were of really strong character, which also meant they enforced the stupidly strict rules of the program. Their only qualifications really are that they are good people and can hike.
By each kid’s end of Open Sky journey, they generally appear to be very much improved and have high hopes going out, which affirms the guides work. The guides generally don’t contact people after they leave. I don’t hold anything against the guides, because I built some decent relationships with them and they are just trying to make ends meet and do meaningful work. Bonus: they mostly live out of their cars.
My therapist is another story however. As outlined earlier, she was mostly ineffective in helping me. In regards to the aforementioned safety watch, she moved me to medium safety watch (guide gotta be within 10 feet, but no other restrictions really) after a week and a half and kept me there for another 2 weeks. She used it less as a safety precaution and more of leverage to get people to be vulnerable. The only thing she knew of how each week went was what the guides told her. I’d get 1 hour long session with her a week. That's it. So essentially I only got one hour of actual professional therapy per week. In session we’d talk about how my week was, I’d say some emotions I felt about things that might aswell be drawn from hat, and I’d get my weekly goals (the sharing I feels goals).
After I left the program, my parents told me that she had been pressing my parents to keep me in longer and to send me to “aftercare”. The therapists relentlessly pressure parents to do this to milk as much money as possible. I never got to like her throughout the program, just hate her slightly less. My therapist was probably like other therapists: second rate therapists who went to low tier colleges for their degrees (one I knew of didn’t even have one). I also got 2 phone calls during my time there, one in the middle and one at the end. The one at the end was just about going home logistics so it hardly counted. You sit with your therapist during those calls, which is how they keep you from asking to be taken home.
Few people ever get to go home after the program. I actually went home (after a trip to China hehe) because I was a) turning 18 a week after I left and I sure as hell not going to aftercare and b) because my parents wanted me home and I had very little history with any sort of therapy. I only knew 2 other people who went home, and that was because their families simply did not have the money. Towards the end of the stay you meet an educational consultant, and they tell your parents where to send you based on probably an hour long meeting. Everyone thinks they’re going home right up until it’s decided where they’re going. Everyone thinks they’re special and their parents are not like the other ones who send their kids away. I was the only one for whom that belief was true.
A few months later, I find myself worse off than before. I have to maintain a fake relationship with mother. My therapist (who sent me to open sky) is a proxy therapist just to keep school happy. I have no support, no friends, nothing. If you’re a parent thinking of sending your child there, don’t. You’ll end up paying $50k to make your kid fit your ideals. It won’t make them better. If you’re someone who’s parents want to send you to somewhere like Open Sky or even any therapeutic institution, your parents can have you snatched from your room whenever they want. I can’t give any other advice than to do everything you can in order to stay out of this system. I was really lucky to only spend 2 and a half months in the troubled teen industry. I can almost guarantee you won’t be as lucky as me.