This story was featured in our 2022 Community Impact Report. Read more stories and see our impact here.
“Okay, listen. Listen. You need to fix yourself because you’re going down a path you don’t want to go down. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth it.”
That’s what Tyler says he would have told himself a year ago, when he thought friends were just people that smoked together. When he thought his probation officer was bluffing about drug testing. When he thought no one cared about him.
Today, Tyler says he feels “like my life is going super, super well right now.” He’s 15, loves riding his longboard, and just started his first job at a fast-food restaurant.
He’s “planning ahead for the future instead of focusing on the past.” After high school he wants to study Psychology and support the LGBTQ+ community as a mental health clinician.
But a year ago, after multiple arrests and probation, Tyler was coming to VOA Alaska in one of the first cohorts of the then brand-new Day Treatment program. He didn’t want to be there, but at least, he thought, “it was better than jail.”
Day Treatment was created to fill an identified gap in the existing continuum of care for Anchorage youth, offering a level of care between outpatient and residential programs.
“It allows youth an opportunity to succeed in an outpatient setting before removing them from their home into residential treatment, which in itself can be traumatic,” says Jamie Elkhill, Program Director of Integrated Services.
Tyler admits to not being ready to believe in himself or the program, even with our team surrounding him with support. “I was a mess,” he says about his first weeks with VOA Alaska.
His plan was to “fake it till I make it,” which he tried to do by studying how to get weed out of his system to pass a drug test. But he soon began trying other drugs, including opiates.
The team was concerned about his continuing substance use and high-risk behaviors, and he was moved into ARCH, VOA’s residential treatment center and highest level of care. As Tyler understands it now, “they were scared I was going to overdose.”
“A Place of Love and Compassion”
Connection is a key factor for success in treatment. “The fact that we are able to connect with our kids,” says Jamie, “and remain connected when they go to ARCH, or begin that connection while they are in ARCH, provides an overall better treatment experience for the youth and their family.”
This is what makes VOA Alaska’s continuum of care so vital for the youth we serve. As Jamie describes, it’s about providing them “comfort in the process as they find the level of care that is best for them.”
It was that connection and comfort which encouraged Tyler to try to change his mindset. At first, he told everyone and himself that he didn’t care about going to ARCH. “But deep down inside,” he says now, “I definitely did care.”
Glimpsing his future if he didn’t change his behavior, he told himself, “Just get through it, finish your stuff, be respectful, do what you need to do and get out and then go to Day Treatment. Repeat, do the same thing, do what you need to do and get out.”
Doing what he needed to do became easier when he made a connection with Milt Wallin, his substance use counselor at ARCH. Tyler describes Milt as “the wisest person to give me feedback.”
It took time, but as Milt shared more about himself, Tyler says they “got to an understanding and ever since, we got closer to each other, and I started to open up to him.”
Milt says he makes these connections with youth at ARCH by demonstrating unconditional positive regard and by approaching them from “a place of love and compassion that is consistent and unwavering.”
As Milt grows rapport with the youth residents he says, “I just love, and even that isn’t a strong enough word, when the light bulb goes off and they just all of a sudden ‘get it.’ When they have allowed themselves to see life from a new perspective. Literally, it can make me cry.”
Connections Create Connections Which Create Connections
After graduating from ARCH, Tyler returned to Day Treatment with renewed motivation, and he proudly completed the program. Now, after graduating, he says it “feels amazing,” that it “just feels good to be successful. It feels like I have accomplished something massive.”
Like many youth who graduate Day Treatment, Tyler will continue counseling sessions with VOA, beginning with Intensive Outpatient, which includes 9 hours per week of individual and group sessions, before dropping down to the lowest level of Outpatient, with 1 to 2 hours a week.
Through it all, the same team, from clinicians to peer support specialists, will stay on the journey with him.
While that journey does continue, Tyler knows he’s on the right path. And the connections he’s made at VOA have empowered him to build connections in his personal life.
While Tyler was at ARCH, he and his mother started weekly family sessions. Before, Tyler didn’t trust telling her how he felt and what he was struggling with because he thought she “wouldn’t have cared or listened to me.”
Today, he says “I’m more open with her when I’m having triggers or when I am feeling that I want to do something that I probably shouldn’t be doing.”
Tyler says he’s lost a lot of what he thought were his best friends, but he’s gained better ones. “I have a greater understanding of what a true friend is. I feel like this place helped me figure that out a lot. And that’s one of the things that really clicked, without this place who knows what I would be surrounded by? Who knows what people I’d be surrounded by?”
Now Tyler is sharing his experiences with others. He’s already spoken with peers, reminding them that there are people out there that are “actually trying to help you.”
“I know you may not want the help,” he tells them, “and you may not care now, but I bet when you’re in the back of that cop car or your PO’s car, you’re going to care. Because I did. Sitting in detention isn’t going to be fun. If you need help, just don’t be afraid to ask.”
“Look at me now!”
Today, Tyler uses what he’s learned in treatment to reflect on what he believed about himself and the world only a year ago: “It was a bunch of thinking errors.”
As Jamie describes it, thinking errors are “related to the core beliefs that we hold based on our experiences of the world that may make it harder for us to make sustainable or significant changes to meet our goals.”
Tyler has now experienced a world in which people care about him and will do whatever they can to help him succeed. Through those connections, he’s found new strength and discovered his resiliency.
He’s learned to use that same determination, that brought him to the point of studying how to get drugs out of his system, to now carry him through a new journey of making a positive impact in the lives of others.
In the beginning, Tyler had his doubts. “I didn’t think I was ever going to graduate this program,” he says. “But seeing myself now, it’s just like ‘Look at me now!’”