Cassandra was in a relationship for many years with a man who was extremely volatile. She thought he directed the physical abuse only at her and that her kids were safe.
"I always deflected everything, so if he was angry I would hop in the way. I thought I was protecting the kids, but they could still hear the arguments that lasted for hours," Cassandra said.
"At the end of that relationship, my kids were traumatized, and I was a battered woman," Cassandra said. "It took a long time to realize that's what we were coming out of. I brought a lot of my own issues out of that relationship."
At the same time, Cassandra was worried about her daughter, Samantha.
Samantha was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and put on medication at a young age. Cassandra did everything she could to get her daughter the help she needed—including outpatient counseling and inpatient treatment. For a while, Samantha did OK.
"She went almost a full year without needing any inpatient services," Cassandra said. "I was afraid her journey was going to be a life in and out of institutions and in and out of prison—because of impulsive thoughts. She lied. She told me she hated me. She punched holes in the walls."
One day, Cassandra found messages on her daughter's phone from someone pretending to be a young man.
"She was being groomed," Cassandra said. "He was telling her things like, 'Oh, good girl. We just need to make sure that you'll do what you're told. My uncle is nervous.'"
Cassandra did everything she could to deter Samantha from communicating with strangers online. She shut down accounts, but Samantha reopened them. She took away her phone, and Samantha found other ways to access the internet. She took her to therapists who told her about the dangers, but nothing worked.
"I was terrified my daughter was going to be a victim of human trafficking," Cassandra said.
Finally, after an incident that resulted in Cassandra taking her daughter to the emergency room, someone told her about Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch. Cassandra said it was only a matter of weeks until she was driving Samantha to the Ranch.
When Cassandra dropped her daughter off at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, their relationship was so strained they weren't speaking. Even then, leaving her young daughter at the Ranch was not a decision Cassandra took lightly. She spent the first month Samantha was gone crying all the time, thinking, "Oh my God, what have I done?"
"But she needed it," Cassandra said. "The Ranch is fabulous. She made more progress and gained more insight in her four months at the Ranch than she had in years of therapy. The day I picked her up to come home, she gave me these huge hugs and we were both crying. I know this is a lifelong journey, but she needs to know that she's got me no matter what happens. I don't think she would have known that without the Ranch. I told her that and every therapist told her that. But, I didn't feel it until she came home from the Ranch."
"The Ranch gave me my daughter back."
Samantha couldn't figure out why everything felt so awful—both inside and outside. The 13-year-old said her behavior was out of control.
"I was lashing out a lot," she said. "I tried to run away twice. I was screaming, yelling, throwing things, and breaking things. I felt so out of control and couldn't make it stop."
Samantha's struggles were the result of mental illness that started at an early age. She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and put on medication. After six months, Samantha was no better, so her mother took her to another doctor. This doctor doubled the dose of her anti-depressant, which in retrospect, was the wrong thing to do. Samantha was later diagnosed with bipolar depression; and according to some experts, treating bipolar depression with anti-depressants alone can increase the number and severity of manic episodes.
As Samantha's behaviors grew more extreme, she saw several different outpatient counselors and psychiatrists, and spent time at Red River Behavioral Health System, St. Sophie's, and Prarie St. John's—all psychiatric hospitals in eastern North Dakota.
Through all of this, Samantha was sad and lonely, so she started looking for attention. She found "boys" online who told her she was beautiful and gave her the attention she craved. Her mom and many counselors told her she was being misled, and that these people were older men trying to earn her trust before taking advantage of her. But to Samantha, these online friends were the only people who made her feel understood and loved.
Samantha came to the Ranch after a difficult night that led to a trip to the emergency room. Someone told her Mom about the Ranch, and just a few weeks later, Samantha was living on the Minot campus and undergoing treatment.
"It was a little bit boring because I didn't have my phone," Samantha said. But she doesn't look at her four months at the Ranch as a negative experience.
"Everyone was so understanding, patient, and caring. People at the Ranch really want to help children and teens. They want them to know they are cared for. The most important thing I learned was how to treat others and how to keep a balanced and good relationship with people."
It was at the Ranch where Samantha finally understood the potential consequences of her online behaviors. She started to realize how much danger she was putting herself in by talking to these men and giving them her real name and location.
She worked with a therapist who helped her discover ways to cope with her irrational thoughts. She also discovered that music is a very effective coping skill for her and has been able to bring that skill home with her.
"When I got home, I got rejected by this guy I liked," Samantha said. "Before the Ranch, this would have probably led to a full-blown depression. Instead, I was in my room listening to music and crying. I got over it pretty quickly."
Samantha wants Ranch donors to know how grateful she is for the help she received at the Ranch. "Not everyone comes out successfully, but most do, and they're very grateful for the help they get," she said. "People who donate [to the Ranch] really want to help these children and teens. They want them to know they are cared for and they want them to get better."
Moving forward together
Cassandra says the Ranch saved her daughter's life. "I really believe that without the Ranch, Samatha's journey was going to be a life in and out of institutions and in and out of prison."
Instead, Samantha is making plans for her future. She wants to have a good family and to work at the CDC [Center for Disease Control].
Cassandra had no idea the Ranch could change the entire dynamic of her daughter's life.
"It not only gave my daughter coping skills, but it's given the whole family insight and understanding. Samantha knows that she's got me no matter what happens. She wouldn't have known that without the Ranch. I'd been telling her that, other therapists told her that, yet I just didn't feel it until she came home. The day I picked her up she gave me these huge hugs and we were both crying."
Cassandra and Samantha's shared message for parents and kids in similar situations is to never give up.
"If you know your child needs help, insist," Cassandra said. "If someone tells you there's nothing wrong, find someone else. Samantha got the help she needed. I will forever be grateful to the Ranch for giving me my daughter back."
This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Summer 2019.
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