As a kid, Hunter Veirs had the “cool” backyard, the one where all the neighborhood kids wanted to hang out.
An avid skateboarder, Hunter lived in an upscale home in Bethesda, Md., that backed to serene Rock Creek Park and boasted a mini-skatepark, built by his dad and older brother.
“It was cool,” remembers Hunter, a soft-spoken 24-year-old with calm, blue eyes and an unassuming demeanor. “My buddies and my brother’s friends would all come and hang out at my house and skate.”
Hunter enjoyed the camaraderie and goodnatured competition of this community. It was also through these friends that Hunter was first introduced to marijuana at age 14.
“I met a guy at a skateboarding camp,” recalls Hunter. “He said, ‘You got to try this stuff. You’re a skateboarder! It’s your culture!’ So I did, and within two weeks, I was pretty much hooked.”
Gradually, Hunter’s craving for marijuana replaced his interest in anything else in his life.
Off the Rails
By high school, Hunter became the friend who was always coaxing his friends to try marijuana, which eventually led to him selling it. Following his freshman year of high school, Hunter had his first run-in with the law at a party.
The incident earned Hunter six weeks in a suburban outpatient clinic, with the goal of helping Hunter step down from his drug use. It didn’t work. Shortly after discharge, Hunter was getting high again. This pattern continued at least three more times: Hunter got arrested, was sent to a rehabilitation program, was released, and was back to using drugs.
“Throughout high school, I was always the kid walking around with my headphones on,” says Hunter. “I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t attend my prom or graduation. I barely even remember any of my sophomore or junior year.”
During this time, Hunter’s home life also started to fracture. His parents had divorced when Hunter was 3 years old, but they had a relatively amicable shared custody situation. But Hunter’s drug use, escalating anger issues, and beginning signs of a mental health condition were causing a lot of tension. It was finally starting to sink in for Hunter that he needed help getting his life back on track.
On the Right Path
In the years following Hunter’s high school graduation, he made attempts to get sober but always failed. Around the same time, he also started to realize that something was not right in his mind.
“I was having trouble making simple decisions or controlling my anger,” he explains. “The worst incident I can remember is when I got so angry about something that I ripped out all of the drawers in a cabinet. Stuff was flying out of the drawers, going everywhere. I was screaming. My mom called the cops. And they sent me to the hospital.”
At the hospital, Hunter was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech and behavior. Hunter was in and out of a series of hospitals and homeless shelters. Over the next few months, he quit marijuana for good. He vividly remembers his sobriety date of April 17, 2017.
In March 2018, he was referred to OnTrack Maryland, a Sheppard Pratt program specially designed for adolescents and young adults who have started experiencing troubling thoughts and behavior changes. It uses an integrated approach to address their educational, employment, physical, and mental health needs, including managing issues with substance use. Hunter also found stable housing through one of Sheppard Pratt’s Psychiatric Rehabilitation Day Programs, which provide a range of support to help clients become more independent.
These programs were a great fit for Hunter. Jennifer Carberry, Division Director of Clinical Services at Sheppard Pratt and Hunter’s therapist, is proud of his progress. “When Hunter came to us in 2018, he displayed signs of new onset psychosis,” recalls Carberry. “He had paranoid thoughts and disordered thinking. There was family trauma for us to work through in therapy. He lacked age-appropriate social skills.”
OnTrack’s multidisciplinary team helped Hunter set goals for his life and make progress to achieve them. The team included a family therapist who worked with Hunter and his parents to help them understand each other and ease the strain that had characterized their relationships for years. A psychiatrist prescribed an effective antipsychotic medication. Another OnTrack team member helped Hunter apply for college and secure financial aid and learning accommodations.
Hunter’s favorite part of OnTrack was social skills therapy, during which a therapist led Hunter and his peers in discussions about topics such as how to advocate for yourself, maintain proper hygiene, and develop conversation skills. It also gave him the chance to build new friendships.
“Hunter really shined in these group settings,” says Carberry. “He was helpful, kind, empathetic, and encouraging. This young man who came to us with a thought disorder became a leader! He is intelligent and driven. I believe that if he sets his mind to it, he will achieve the goals he has laid out for himself.”
These goals include graduating college, getting a job, and moving into fully independent living. He is also passionate about a host of new hobbies, including reading, drawing, and writing in his journal. And, of course, he renewed his love for skateboarding. But, according to this gentle young man, success also includes appreciating life’s more simple joys.
“I had dug a pretty deep rut for myself. But I never gave up,” says Hunter. “Success to me means making time for what’s important. Walking slower. Opening a book to read. Talking to people. And, of course, skating and landing a trick.”