Lifestyle

A therapist helps teens in their darkest hour

Stephen Bogan - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Stephen Bogan
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

Island therapist Stephen Bogan has always liked the song Sugar Mountain by Neil Young. When he attended Washington State University in Pullman, he would listen to it on bar jukeboxes while he got drunk with friends.

Bogan’s carefree drinking, however, soon turned into a dangerous addiction. After several close calls while driving and three DUI arrests, Bogan finally got a wake-up call from an attorney who gave him not only legal help but also insight into his budding addiction.

Now, 34 years sober, Bogan lives on six acres of picturesque forest rising above the southern tip of Vashon, a place he has nicknamed Sugar Mountain. And like the attorney who planted a seed of hope in his life more than three decades ago, Bogan now works daily to help youth and adults confront their own addictions.

On Vashon, Bogan is an impassioned voice for responsibility and recovery in a community where drug and alcohol abuse is often tolerated. In addition to running a successful therapy practice, Bogan volunteers for several community organizations and gives classes and workshops, putting his wealth of knowledge about addiction into action.

Relaxing in his office at Courthouse Square on a recent afternoon, Bogan, a soft-spoken man with a gentle demeanor, reflected on years spent helping others overcome the same challenges he faced when he was young. It’s difficult work, he noted. Relapses are not uncommon. And it’s especially challenging on Vashon — a one-time hippie haven where marijuana use is still rampant and to this day a place that puts a premium on tolerance and personal freedom. Often, he said, simply making youth and adults realize they are harming themselves can be a challenge.

But every breakthrough — whether helping a teen get into treatment or convincing an adult that his marijuana use is hurting his family life — makes his job worth it. Bogan is a modest man, as the name of his practice — Imperfect Healer Counseling — suggests. Even so, he said, he feels encouraged by the difference he knows he sometimes is able to make.

“I think I’ve been a positive voice for recovery,” he said.

In one of his most memorable experiences with Island youth, Bogan teamed up with Vashon Youth & Family Services to offer a drop-in group called “Get A Life” for Island teens struggling with substance abuse. Seven or eight teens showed up at the first meeting — far more than Bogan expected. Even more attended following sessions, and many sought additional help. “Almost every kid in that group ended up going to treatment,” Bogan said.

Ezra Blake, who grew up on the Island and graduated from Vashon High School in 2008, has seen firsthand how Bogan is able to reach people in their darkest hours. Bogan, he said, was a voice of both reason and compassion when he struggled with various addictions — a therapist who stuck with him even when he relapsed.

“Honestly, he probably saved my life — getting me into treatment the first time and the second time,” he said. “He’s made a huge impact on my life.”

Other teens have had similar positive experiences, Blake said. He believes Bogan earns teens’ trust and respect by showing he truly cares about each individual.

“The biggest thing is just not giving up, as sappy as that sounds,” Blake said. “It meant a lot that he didn’t just get frustrated and say, ‘Screw it.’ ... He stuck around the whole time.”

Bogan, 57, has a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from Seattle University. Early in his career, he headed the adolescent recovery program at Seattle’s Ryther Child Center, one of the first of such programs in the state and what Bogan called “one of the most wonderful career opportunities I’ve ever had.”

Bogan made the move to Vashon in 1990, after staying at a friend’s cabin on Vashon and falling in love with the Island. By then, he was working for the state — heading up the adolescent treatment program for the Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. It, too, was a rewarding job: “I got to help people and advocate for children that had chemical dependency,” he said.

But the long commute and the frustrations of working within a bureaucracy wore thin. So three years ago, Bogan returned to his roots in counseling and opened private practices both on Vashon and in West Seattle.

It was a huge transition, he said. He was suddenly working on some of the Island’s toughest issues, seeing not only addicts but also dealers in his small but growing practice — and doing so in a community where everyone, it seems, knows everyone else. “It’s a small-town environment to be doing the confidential work that I do,” he said.

At the same time, Bogan has dived into Island life, and those who work on youth issues say his contributions are significant. As a Vashon Youth Council board member, a member of the Vashon Island Prevention and Intervention Team and a local expert on chemical dependency, Bogan has held workshops, given lectures and talked with classrooms about addiction and recovery.

Amy Ezzo, head of the Vashon Youth Council, said Bogan is highly respected on the Island for his deep commitment to Vashon youth. He routinely pushes for healthy activities for teens, she noted, a critical issue on Vashon, where a lack of things to do can contribute to drug and alcohol use.

“Stephen is a very passionate person, especially when it comes to providing healthy activities for youth on the Island,” she said.

Bogan has developed a special interest in father-son relationships — in part, he said, because of his own need to find healing. His father died 25 years ago of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, when Bogan was 32 and hadn’t yet found a chance to repair what had been a sometimes difficult relationship.

“In my grief, I started reaching out to read books, finding songs and poems and stories about fathers,” he said.

It’s a work that has come full circle. In an unexpected turn of events, Bogan has recently become a parent himself. When a good friend passed away last summer, Bogan took on guardianship of her 14-year-old son.

Meg White, a fellow Vashon counselor who considers Bogan an excellent resource for Island youth, said she deeply respects Bogan’s decision, an act of integrity that says much about the content of his character. “He’s a man who walks his talk,” she said.

As for Bogan, he acknowledges that becoming a parent at age 57 has had its challenges. “It certainly was not my plan,” he said. But it’s also been “awesome and wondrous,” he added, and has made life at Sugar Mountain, his home on the southern edge of Vashon, even more of a haven.

Now, he said, when he considers his life, he marvels at the new chapters that keep opening up — decades after he got off the path of his own potentially destructive addiction.

“I really feel fortunate to have gotten through my drinking without damaging myself or other people too much, and to now have this wonderful life … and a 14-year-old in my home who calls it his house as well,” he said. “I feel very fortunate.”

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