Just five days before his 18th birthday, Chad Hepler had a rude awakening from the comfort of his bed in his parent’s house in Georgia.
“It was 4 a.m. and I was still hazy from drinking,” Hepler recalled in a telephone interview.
A 6-foot, 6-inch, 300-pound man and a strapping woman stood by his bed. They informed him that they were escorting him to a substance abuse treatment center and he had no choice in the matter.
“They said, ‘You can come the nice way or the hard way,’” Hepler said.
His book, “Intervention: Anything But My Own Skin,” opens with this scenario. In his fog, Hepler had no idea that he was headed for the Wilderness Treatment Center in Marion for the two transforming months that inspired this book.
“I learned so much about myself,” he said.
Hepler wrote it to share his life lessons with those in recovery as well as to give hope to parents who, like his own, had tapped every local resource trying to get their son off drugs and alcohol but had no success. He said parents who read the book feel a lot of relief.
“They find out, No. 1, that they’re not alone,” Hepler said. “No. 2, they shouldn’t be ashamed to be dealing with drug addiction and things can turn out OK.”
As the child of an upper-middle-class, caring, two-parent family, Hepler had all the advantages, including attending a private school. But money didn’t diminish the lure of alcohol and drugs for a socially awkward adolescent with low self-esteem.
Now a sober college graduate, author, speaker and addiction counselor, Hepler looks back to his Wilderness Treatment Center experience as a crucial milepost at the beginning of his journey to recovery. At 17, he had no motivation to seek treatment.
“I would never have gone on my own,” he said.
Hepler’s downward spiral started subtly in an environment that his parents never suspected was dangerous.
“I was 14 when I started experimenting with alcohol and marijuana,” he said. “It was the summer before the ninth grade with neighbors and friends. It gave me a feeling of comfort and peace.”
After this initiation, Hepler used drugs and alcohol on and off. When he turned 16 and started to drive, he got away from his parents’ scrutiny and gained increased access.
“I used cocaine and ecstasy — I tried meth once,” he said. “I tried hallucinogens, LSD and mushrooms. I was going to school high.”
A few days before his 17th birthday, Hepler got pulled over by the police, who found him with five bags of marijuana. He had become a dealer to support his habits.
“They took me to the police station just two days before my birthday,” he said. “If I had been 17, I would have been in the main jail in Atlanta.”
His parents got him a lawyer, and he received just community service and was required to submit to random drug screenings. Hepler said the judge could see that his parents were committed to helping him stop, yet he found a way to keep using.
After he turned 17, Hepler began to suffer from depression and received antidepressants but didn’t stop using illegal drugs. It pushed his behavior over the edge.
“I was off-roading on people’s lawns,” he said.
His parents tried all the tools to cut him off drugs. They tested him at home and had him sign forms saying they would sell his car if he was caught using illegal drugs.
Hepler spoke with counselors and psychiatrists and former addicts. He went to meetings with people in recovery.
“Nothing took that desire away from me, to make me stop using,” he said.
To please his parents, Hepler, now a senior in high school, met with the son of a friend who had gone through the Wilderness Treatment Center in Marion. Hepler had no idea he was talking to an investigator.
After the meeting, he told Hepler’s parents that their son would never get sober without intervention. But the time for action was slipping away as he was nearly 18, the cutoff for forcing him into treatment.
“Five days before my 18th birthday, they made a snap decision to hire the escort service,” he said. “Their job was to get me to the treatment center. That’s where my book starts.”
When the hulking man and large woman encountered him on that memorable morning, Hepler pretended to cooperate, getting up and getting dressed. As they walked him outside holding on to his arms, he bolted, but didn’t get far.
“I got tackled and handcuffed,” he said.
As they drove away, his escorts told him that, if he ran at the airport, he would fall under federal jurisdiction and he wouldn’t like the outcome. Hepler accepted his fate and flew to Montana for two months instead of finishing his last semester of high school.
Located on a 4,000-acre working cattle ranch near Marion, the Wilderness Treatment Center serves adolescent and young adult men ages 14 to 24. It was established in 1983 by John and Nancy Brekke.
Ben Dorrington, director of referral relations, said the Wilderness Treatment Center combines two models of treatment.
“We really are the only program that combines inpatient and wilderness therapy,” he said. “It’s been successful for 27 years. It’s changed a lot of lives.”
Hepler counts his as one. At the time, he was anything but receptive to the helping hand that jerked him out of his destructive lifestyle in Georgia and dropped him in the remote center in Montana.
He vividly recalls the four-and-a-half days of therapy with his family that began two weeks after he arrived.
“I had a lot of resentment when I first got there,” he said. “By the time they got there, I had simmered down and the drugs had left my body. We all just broke down and started bawling.”
Hepler said the therapy included becoming totally honest. He had to tell his parents what he had done, including the parts he didn’t think his parents knew about — like the car he had wrecked.
To his shock, he found out that they had figured out most of his darkest secrets on their own.
“For me to tell them was nerve-wracking,” he said. “It was really refreshing to get it all off my chest.”
After 30 days of inpatient therapy, Hepler began the 16-day wilderness survival portion of his therapy. For a Southern boy, the outdoor excursion in the middle of a Montana winter presented a daunting challenge.
“Coming from Georgia, I had never cross-country skied,” he said. “We went three to five miles a day. We lived in a snow hut and spent time completely by ourselves.”
According to Dorrington, Hepler’s book accurately portrays the program at the Wilderness Treatment Center. Depending on the time of year, the trip is 16 to 18 days long.
“After a month, the guys start to be motivated to change but they haven’t been tested,” Dorrington said. “The wilderness induces a naturally stressful environment. It brings out the best and worst in clients, and we counsel them accordingly.”
Dorrington said they return for more inpatient treatment, where they bring all the parts together. He said their successes in overcoming obstacles plays a crucial role in their rehabilitation.
“We really believe that if you increase a young man’s self-worth, he’ll feel empowered to make changes.”
Hepler went from the center to a halfway house, where he completed his core studies to earn his high school diploma. From there he returned home, and then went directly to college where he had an addiction setback, but overcame it and set a goal of earning his degree and publishing “Intervention.”
He said he came to the center with low self-esteem and anxiety with “that desperate feeling of wanting to be anything but me.”
He left with a new closeness to his family and himself.
“I worked on who I was as a person,” he said. “I learned so much about myself.”
Dorrington was so impressed with the vividly detailed account that he recommends Hepler’s book to prospective patients and their parents. He said he and others at Wilderness Treatment Center learned from the book as well.
“It really helped our staff to understand better what these guys go through,” he said.
That’s music to Hepler’s ears. Through his book and career, he transformed the devastation of his addiction into a positive.
“I’ve been able to touch people’s lives,” he said. “That brings me a high that drugs and alcohol can’t.”
People interested in purchasing “Intervention: Anything But My Own Skin” can order the paperback from any bookstore or through Amazon.com or in digital format via Amazon Kindle.
Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.