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OpenSky and The Horrors of Wilderness Therapy

Picture the following — you are a child going to bed on a normal night. At midnight, buff men in black suits burst into your bedroom. They take you away from home with no time to even say goodbye to your parents, put you in a black Ford Explorer, and tell you that you’re going to the airport. You get off the plane in Durango, Colorado, a place you’ve never heard of before, and they draw your blood, give you one last meal, give you a massive backpack almost the same size that you are and take you to the middle of nowhere to a group of unfamiliar faces in tents in the middle of nowhere. They call it “Wilderness Therapy,” and these other kids got here the same way you did. Welcome to OpenSky.

The bear area of an OpenSky camp

I myself endured this experience, and have long-term PTSD following it. Luckily, I was an adult, and they don’t raid your bedroom at night if you’re an adult. I will be doing my best to recount this tale. I hope that I can reach the hearts of parents (as well as any other adults) and sway them not to send their children to wilderness therapy programs (or other in-residence therapy). OpenSky is one of the best wilderness therapy programs in the world, and is also one of the most expensive. I feel fairly positive other programs would be worse than OpenSky, so keep that in mind.

OpenSky’s Website

Breaking Code Silence, an Organization Against Wilderness and Residential Therapy — their page on OpenSky

The Prestory

After the man I will call Mr. J convinced me that it was worth repairing broken relations with my family to simply go “6-8 weeks at this camp called OpenSky”, it was a rush of a day. I had to get photos developed of my wife that I wanted to take with me. They needed to be laminated because being out in wilderness therapy meant things could get wet. I had to ensure my wife was set up and ready to live independently and had to kiss the place I lived goodbye for Durango, Colorado.

The night before, my wife recounts that she witnessed me tremble in my sleep. I had to take heavy medicine to get to sleep in the first place. I didn’t want to leave, I never wanted to leave. But I had to. Then, out of the deafening silence came a sound. The alarm rang. Time to wake up.

Day 0

Mr. J took us in his rental car to the airport. My wife and I parted at security. After we got past security, I looked and saw her. Then, I put my shoes on, I looked back up and she was gone. It would be the last time I would see her for three months. We boarded a plane to Denver, then a plane to Durango. This process of how I got to this point is outlined in: Stratas Consulting Group and the Troubled Teen Industry.

The flight to wilderness therapy

I got off, and Mr. J left me in the hands of OpenSky’s intake personnel. They took me around in a black Ford Explorer, seemingly all over town. They took me to the office, where they had me sign a mountain of paperwork, including handing them full Power of Attorney. Then, I had blood drawn, and then a burrito. Then they took all my personal items and phone. They had me pick out a new set of clothes and I wore my massive backpack, with everything I would be allowed to have for the next 12 weeks inside. It was night-time when we left the location where we prepared my gear.

Then, there was an hour or two long drive. I couldn’t see anything; it was so dark. Then, they showed up at the site where we camped at, an “undisclosed location” located at 34752 Hay Camp Mesa, or 37.4609114 N, 108.4071891 W. It was dark and the first thing I saw was a strange lady with glitter on her face. I was put into bed in a tent with 4 others. It was extremely dark and I couldn’t see a single thing. The only thing I knew was it was the wilderness. There was no electric lighting anywhere.

Day 1

That morning, I woke up and wondered if this was a dream. Could I really be at OpenSky? I was not allowed to talk to anyone until I had proper “training.” Their training was basically nothing. They talked. There was no showing me how to do something. They just told me to “check it off” if I knew how. It didn’t include things like wilderness skills; it just included personal hygiene and other basic stuff to survive. For the wilder skills, I was thrown into those without training. I had to figure them out as I went along.

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I had a good first day. We packed our bags and went out on expedition. We didn’t hike that day. That night, we camped near the van because of circumstances.

Day 2 at OpenSky

I woke up again and wondered if it was all just a dream. No, I was really here. We got in our van and rode down the mountain we drove up. Once on the road, we had to hike five miles practically straight up the same mountain we just drove down.

I was pretty ecstatic at first. I climbed up probably about 4.5 miles, and then the elevation was so strong I couldn’t continue. My body couldn’t take it. Also, about a quarter mile back I fell down a cliff, but caught myself and was able to get up. I was having an adrenaline low. I couldn’t continue. The elevation sickness was too strong.

The same glittery face I talked about earlier started screaming at me. I wanted to go home. Then, they told me I had to talk to the the therapist on Tuesday (this was a Thursday) and that we only got to see the therapist once a week, sometimes twice if there was a guide shift change.

The Rest of Week 1

For the remainder of the expedition, because I didn’t have the strength to go any further, we stayed at this campsite that was filled with flies and cow poop. There was about a fly for every single square inch. I fell down a cliff, and I was afraid I would not survive the program.

Then, I got to meet the therapist, Mr. C. He told me that I couldn’t leave now and that I would have to go through a “two to three week process.”

letter from opensky

I had no communication with the outside world. There was no ability to call anyone. I could write letters to my parents, and at the grace of Mr. C could write letters to my wife. All the letters would be read even though Mr. C denied it to me, he made it very clear to my wife that letters are read, as he commented on the letters in emails. I also could write letters through the U.S. postage, but those were probably read too even though marked as “confidential.”

Sometime during this week, back home, my wife reported hearing a disembodied crying at night before bed and recognized it as my own. We also have some pieces of art that hang from the ceiling in our bedroom and which look like biblically accurate angels. Later, in the early weeks, while I was still struggling at Open Sky, she would report that light suddenly began shining in her eyes one night while in the bedroom. She looked up to find that one of the angels was spinning and as it did so, it was bouncing a light to her off of one of its wings. It would do this a few times while I was away.

Week 2-3

The next few weeks, I began the two-three week leaving process and continued to want to go.

At the end of my first week, a new member arrived at OpenSky. It would be the last new member for the next 5 or so weeks. His name was N. N had come here for serious problems, including anger issues and meth addiction. He was unlike anyone else in the team at the time. He was big, huge, muscular, and had a long black beard. N had been homeless, at one point robbing people at gunpoint.

However, for the first week or two of knowing N, he was very kind to everyone. It definitely felt like he wanted to change, and I was welcoming him into the team.

Colorado after getting out of wilderness therapy

Then, things changed. The team started this pattern of triangulation because I was new and spent a lot of alone time depressed, thinking about my wife and home. I became the one who didn’t do a lot of work, being stuck between a really muscular guy and people who have been here for 5+ weeks longer than me.

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This triangulation pattern became hostile, and I started receiving threats from other members of the team. Then, N punched me to the ground. The guides who were supposed to supervise did nothing until this very moment to pull him away from me. The hostility had not been prevented, it was allowed to seethe inside of everyone until it hit the breaking point.

Week 4 at OpenSky

Yes. You read the letter right. I agreed to stay at OpenSky because otherwise, I would be taken to a homeless shelter in Farmington, NM, hours away from Durango. Farmington is “one of the poorest places in the country,” and “nobody there speaks English, only Navajo,” and “at the homeless shelter, they’re all drunk.” Not only that, but they will refuse to give back your phone if you attempt to leave the program. There’s no leaving, you’re trapped. The fact that a legitimate wilderness therapy place would have a policy like that is horrifying.

Some Mixed Messages

Mr. C emailed a couple of my highly panicked letters, including the example above, to my wife with the caption, “Frank has settled into the program and has agreed to stay through graduation. He is doing well and taking positive steps.” Mr. C had also told my family I was doing well and settling in, so my wife’s initial letters reflected this, only to receive an email from Mr. C which said: “I wanted to let you know that Frank is struggling to settle in, would you be comfortable amending your letter this week to encourage him to stay a little more?”

My wife became alarmed and spoke to a friend of ours, who began doing some research on OpenSky, and found and shared two review threads with my wife written by those calling themselves “Survivors of Open Sky,” detailing some of their experiences and trauma related to the program. My wife began to feel concerned that we had made a horrible mistake in being talked into this program. One of the two things I was allowed to bring with me was a Bible, so she sent me a letter that looked normal on the surface but was actually laced with messages via Bible verses assuring me of her support if I chose to leave, even if it meant us both losing everything but each other.

Cleaning Stuff with Dirt

Also, you have to clean cups with dirt. I asked the medic about this, and she said “there is no situation in which you should be asked to clean a cup with dirt.” But I was asked to do that constantly, but I started telling people that the medic told me that, and they would suddenly back off. That was the only way to be allowed to clean my cup with materials other than dirt. It turns out this is a policy that many other wilderness therapy programs have.

The pots are always cleaned with dirt, and in the morning there’s always lingerings of last night’s dirt in your oatmeal from the hot water pot.

In addition, OpenSky uses water from whatever source they can find. One week, there was a pond full of cow poop that smelled like sulfur. When I refused to drink it before a hike, I got yelled at. There was poop everywhere. We only get one “shower” per week, which is more like a sponge bath. One time I went in, it was full of human feces. We only get 1-2 rolls of toilet paper per week. Since the leaves in the area were small, if you run out, there’s nothing you can do.

Week 8 of OpenSky

At this point, I haven’t been home in two months. I was still carrying around a super heavy bag half my size. But something was different this week. The last person who arrived in the program before me was graduating. I will become senior student. This means I get to pick music when we are in the van and assign the daily chores. Then, a massive wrench gets thrown into that. N is graduating the same week as me. Mr. C starts to think that the only thing that is keeping me going is that I’m about to inherit the role of seniority.

N convinces Mr. C that because he’s graduating the same week as me he deserves time as Senior Student, so Mr. C decides that N and I will be sharing weeks. N is power-hungry, and I am upset about my music getting taken away. With a new group of students coming in, this decision would destroy the team and ruin what they call “emotional safety” with N being violent, and knowing myself, me being very strategically provoking at times and tending to manipulate people to do things so I could get an advantage.

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Things are never the same again between me and N. There is now a constant power struggle within the team that results in violent threats and emotional manipulation. Emotional safety is important because, without it, people don’t feel like they can share, which destroys the ability for proper therapy to be given to the students. Emotional safety is one of the most important and valuable things in group-based therapy, especially wilderness therapy.

Week 9-10 at OpenSky

I received death threats from N. He would say, “You better be scared of me,” often, as he would walk up to me and try to overpower me in his rage physically. When I was allowed to have a phone call with my parents and wife, it felt like I was being forced to minimize the threats. This resulted in a near-suicide attempt. It felt hopeless, and I felt like I would die anyway. I was terrified.

My family and wife were terrified. They emailed and emailed Open Sky staff but couldn’t get an answer. After four days of receiving no answer, beyond a paragraph-long email explaining why they could get no answer to their concerns right away, my wife then threatened to call the police and have them do a check-up on me to make sure I was O.K. Only then did the interim therapist begin responding. Then she became my wife’s “best friend,” calling and emailing her regularly in the two weeks Mr. C was out.

Reunion with Wife and Family

Finally, it was the day. 11 weeks since I had seen my wife for the last time to go to wilderness therapy, and I put my shoes on and looked up, and she was gone. We reunited but still had three days before we were out of OpenSky.

That was when I found out about things like having to threaten to call the police to get an answer as to whether or not I was ok, and about the review threads from survivors of Open Sky whose testament reflected my own experiences perfectly and which I wrote in my letters to my wife. However, I would not have known about them before then because I was not allowed contact with the outside world. This was also when I was told about things like my wife being forced to rewrite letters to keep me at OpenSky and how she even advocated for me not to go to another residential place afterward.

Kissing by the Durango river after getting out of OpenSky
A kiss by the Durango River

Moreover, my parents had become well against OpenSky when they discovered some of the stuff they were doing. I was finally out.

Return to Normal

While I’ve been told that many others have a lot of issues returning to normal life, I had issues but not in the same way. I think this is because I fought and fought and never lost hope. I lost 18 pounds on the slim diet that they have there, and I was already extremely skinny. Food and beverage in the outside world tasted very strong coming out of OpenSky. The amount of lights everywhere was jarring. But, there was a darker thing going on that we wouldn’t fully realize for a week or two. Leaving wilderness therapy is extremely jarring.

My wife noticed when she’d try to kiss, comfort, or hug me, I would automatically get jumpy or flinch, which never happened before Open Sky. I flinched at other things unrelated to her. For example, I would jump when going through sliding glass doors that I knew were open. I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This idea was confirmed by a therapist a couple of days later. My nervous system thinks it is being attacked and doesn’t always realize I’m back in the loving embrace of my wife and family.

For more wilderness therapy stories, please visit: Loving Them to Death by John Krakauer

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