Booze, drugs, whitetails

                Booze, Drugs & Tracking Big Woods Whitetails  By BWB Team Member Mark Scheeren

Whitetail deer saved my life.

It was the 80’s and my life was a train wreck. I was a teenager who was struggling with a serious alcohol and drug problem, and if not for whitetail hunting and the outdoor experience, I might not be here today to speak of it. I realize this might seem to be a strange topic, especially on a hunting website. But to those who have tracked, stalked, hunted and admired these amazing animals, the effect of the hunting lifestyle can be dramatic and in some cases like mine, even life saving. There is something deep inside, primordial even, that gets stirred if you spend enough time hunting and becoming connected to the woods. And that connection can become a foundation that you learn to rely on when the rest of your life turns inside out. It certainly was for me.

As a young child, long before I ever took a drink or a drug, my life was a horribly confused and intensely lonely experience. On many occasions I thought of committing suicide. In those horrendous times I would leave my home and wander the woods aimlessly searching for answers about why I was so unhappy, neglected and picked on. And, as was usually the case, in the quietness of the trees, I would find a small piece of comfort and belonging that many times saved me. I cannot explain in words how the woods gave me this gift, but there was a liveliness about it all; there was an undeniable presence of life that fascinated me and made me feel less alone. It gave me a focus that was outside me, outside my misery and my self-hatred. Nowhere else did I feel safe, un-judged and…happy.

The feeling of finding your place in the world, of knowing that you belong to the forest is something that is powerful; it never leaves you once it beds itself in your memories and in your soul. Some say they find God in the woods. Some say the forest gives them peace. Others simply enjoy it for what it is. For me, the woods molded me into what I am today. It allowed me the time and quietness to sort out the difficult process of growing up; a process I stumbled through painfully. It gave me a place to become Mark Scheeren when the cards were stacked against me.

Like many who drink or drug at a young age, I fell for the idea that an “addiction” can overcome you and destroy you. And with that belief intact, it nearly did. There were many days of intense anxiety and depression, and feeling like I didn’t belong on this planet at all. I felt this way for a million little reasons and finding a way out of my misery seemed so remote at the time. But then, in those despairing times, I’d go hunting, and for a little while I would be ok; I’d find myself again. This cycle repeated itself for many years throughout adolescence. They were dark years for me, only made brighter by my pursuit of the whitetail.

I’ve always been attracted to the forest and its hills, valleys, creek bottoms and swamps. From my first memories at 4 years old of throwing sawdust shavings in the Poestenkill Creek with my best childhood friend Billy, to this past year’s tracking of a beautiful Adirondack buck with my favorite Marlin cradled in hand; the fever to be immersed in the wild has never been too far away. It has been, and continues to be the one constant in my life. No matter the degree of hardship or challenges I have faced, the woods have always provided hope; a light at the end of the tunnel. People have come and gone, times have changed, my career has had its up and downs, but the woods remain. They just are. The animals don’t know of my struggles, the trees don’t care, the mountains aren’t judging me for my thoughts or my choices, whether they be good or bad. None of that matters to nature. I get to accept nature as it is, and it accepts me back equally.

When tracking the whitetail in the big woods of the Adirondacks I get to make simple decisions based on the track that is in front of me; pulling me through the moments, one snowy footprint at a time, and I relearn to live. Each step forward brings me and the deer closer together, a story unfolding as it does. That account will get told that night in camp with my best friend and hunting partner of more than three decades, Bob, and anyone else that wants to hear the tale. I will listen to Bob’s day unfold in his words as he too describes every detail of which mountain, swamp, or ridge was climbed in his pursuit. Each feature will be strung out in words and phrases and I will feel as if I was there with him. We will laugh, learn, and feel the hunt together. These travels have collected in our memories as an annual basket of happenings, and I reemerge from the woods the better for it; my soul cleansed for another year of civilized life. Trackers will get this.

Today I have many wonderful things in my life, and these things just add to my love for whitetails and their secretive home. I have a beautiful loving wife, three incredible kids, and a career helping people overcome addictions that I absolutely am passionate about. All these things bring a whole new dimension to my travels in the mountains; a wonderful and exhilarating dimension! But as I said, it wasn’t always this way.  

When I was a young boy, everything besides the outdoors felt horribly disconnected from me. I felt like there was some class or some universal orientation meeting I was supposed to attend where everyone learned the rules of life, and somehow I unfortunately missed the invitation to it. It seemed like everyone else got the message, but I was left out somehow. I was a horribly insecure kid and being physically small for my age wasn’t helpful. In addition to my small frame, I also stuck out because of my sensitive and volatile nature. I was lonely, I felt lost, and I couldn’t seem to make myself fit in, and in those instances where I tried really hard to do so, it just made my awkwardness more obvious.

When I was preparing to write this article I was drifting through my memories of the many difficult times of my youth and how the forest kept me from losing hope. But one memory stuck out, because it tells the story of the importance of the woods in stark clarity.

It was May 1977; I was 7 years old. My mother and father gathered me and my siblings together for a “family meeting” and announced their impending divorce. It was a shock and a tearful, gut wrenching event. Unlike the forest and all its unmovable stability, I quickly learned that people are not so made; that they can’t always be relied upon, and my emotional foundation could be rocked – and it was. It was an early awakening to the loss of innocence. Seeing my family break apart in an instant was totally devastating. The next day my mom was gone to live somewhere else, and I never felt so alone as that moment.

What struck me as I relived that day in my mind, was not the meeting or even the sadness of it all, but rather the memory of what I did the moment after my mom left. Unlike most kids in similar circumstances, I didn’t solicit comforting hugs from my siblings as I cried, I didn’t go ask my mother for more clarity about why she was leaving, I didn’t call a friend, I did what would bring me the most comfort – I took a walk in the woods by myself and I talked to God. I didn’t know if God heard me, I didn’t care. I just needed to get away. I walked out to my fort that was a plywood shack in an old white pine a few hundred yards in the bush, and listened to the trees as I prayed to be happy someday; to be ok; to be loved. I found solace there. I was safe. Eventually, my older sister Lydia found me and took me to her camp on the Great Sacandaga Lake to get away for a few days. There I fished for bass, wandered around the lake in the pine forests of the southern Adirondacks, got bit up by mosquitoes and forgot for a little while that my life had just changed forever. Once again the whitetail woods saved me and gave me hope for better times.

I don’t come from an average family. I have 11 biological siblings of German immigrant parents, of which I am the twelfth, the youngest. Our home and our family businesses that my father founded (corn and tree farms) were in the rural township of Schaghticoke in Upstate New York; named after the Schaghticoke Indians that once lived there. Our house was set in off the road on a long drive in a patch of prime whitetail country (for the Northeast). There were cornfields, oak groves; plenty of standing timber, as well as the Mill Hollow Brook, a natural trout stream that coursed its way through the collective properties of my father and all our neighbors. In all, there were thousands of acres of field and forest to explore, hunt and fish, and I spent a tremendous amount of time as a little boy discovering that land and all it had to teach me. I would follow the Mill Hollow from its beginnings in drainages that flowed in cow pastures a few miles east of Wiley’s Hardware Store all the way to where it dumped into the infamous Hudson River some 12 miles downstream. By the time I was 11, I knew all the land within a half mile on each side of that creek. It was my sanctuary, the place I could hide from the chaos and loneliness of my home life, and find peace inside myself. In a strange but very important way, I felt accomplished and unafraid in those whitetail woods. It was where I felt confident. I kept all these experiences and feelings private, deep inside so no one could take them away from me. It was my world, one that I didn’t want tarnished by the neighborhood kids that picked on me, or even my brothers who didn’t seem to understand me either. The whitetail woods saved me, and gave me hope of better things.

Then on my twelfth birthday, I discovered booze and drugs. I got drunk for the first time; very drunk. The buzz let me put my guard down and feel at ease and I had a sense of confidence without trying. I felt that warm sensation, and I was off to the races after that. Every weekend was a party, and then drugs came into the picture. I learned to hide a lot of these new habits, both from family and even my close friends. As the years went by, the sensations from these substances nearly squeezed out my love for the outdoors. Partying became the priority in my life along with all the initial fun and the eventual chaos and pain that comes with it. As more and more substance use filled my days, the less of that natural connection to stability existed. I drifted in and out of this lifestyle for the next six years. Yet, even with the craziness of partying and the social stresses of that hectic existence I couldn’t stay away from the woods completely. It was like an old friend that called to me. It got to the point where I would drink and take drugs all night and my best friend Bob would force me to get up to hunt with him and the guys that next morning. I would stagger out in the woods and pass out under a tree while waiting for that elusive buck to come ambling along. Those were some fruitless hunts! But all levity aside, somehow I knew I needed to keep going, to keep that connection to the forest alive. It was as if I knew that if I stopped hunting altogether I would have shriveled up and be blown away.

To be honest, a lot of the initial partying was fun at the time…but I remember feeling guilty for liking it so much. I was full of guilt in general. I felt like an unlovable person already, and now I felt like I was turning into an alcoholic. This of course is a strange thought for an adolescent who just liked getting drunk and high. I realize that now. But at that time, I had been told by my mom and siblings who were immersed in the cult of Alcoholics Anonymous, that should I ever drink – even just one drink – that I would be an alcoholic. So I believed this myth, and my drinking accelerated. I was simply fulfilling the prophecy I was sold. I started drinking more often as the years passed by. Looking back, had I never been warned of the dangers of “addiction,” I never would have drank or drugged as heavily as I did. By 18 years old I was drinking every day, and getting shaky in the morning from withdrawal. I had been hiding my constant drinking from those close to me, and I truly felt like an “alcoholic” now (whatever that is). I had fulfilled what I had been told I would become. I felt even more lost, lonely, and empty, and physically I was shot. But, regardless, every fall throughout those troubled years I continued my search for a big whitetail. No matter how hung over, embarrassed, or guilt ridden, my desire to kill a big buck stayed alive within me.

Looking back it is easy to see how my connection to nature has always been the force that grounded me and kept me going. Through these difficult teen years, I lost myself to the exact degree that my connection to the whitetail woods was diminishing. The substance use had gained momentum and I lived in my guilt and shame about it which just fueled more drinking and drugging. Even with all this, I still had learned the fundamentals of tracking whitetails on my own through this time period, but the woods were becoming harder and harder to endure as the substances, especially drinking, took its toll on me. I shot quite a few deer during this time, but it was all meaning less and less to me as I sank deeper into becoming a bitter and detached young man. Each year my life felt more and more disjointed and chaotic. My relationships became sparse and filled with distrust and tension. I was a poor worker at any job I worked at. I was a mediocre student, and I was really depressed and embarrassed by the low standards I had come to accept about myself. Of course there were the typical highlights of a teen life too. I had fun with girls, raised hell in cars, threw some pretty great parties and generally went crazy. I had no shortage of black eyes from fistfights and the violent craziness from the drugging lifestyle and the company you keep in it. But when it was all said and done, I descended into a depression that was black in its darkness. It was always the loneliness for me that drove home my emotional pain – and this was a desperately lonely time in my life.

Then something happened that changed the trajectory of my life.

At eighteen, I got into a pretty serious DUI car accident. I was the driver. I was arrested and immediately made the decision to change my life. I stopped drinking and drugging on my own and detoxed myself. A few months later the courts mandated me to alcohol and drug treatment, which I reluctantly attended. There I learned that I was an “alcoholic with an incurable disease.” I rejected this nonsense, and decided that I would build a better, more sensible program for moving past addictions.

A few years later, and after a tremendous amount of research, I founded the St. Jude Retreats ( and created the only completely non-12 step method for helping people overcome drug and alcohol problems. I was so busy building my life and the retreat programs that I had very little time to hunt. But every opening day I would run out between business projects and home obligations and find a place to hunt and get my buck. I would get a taste of the fire for tracking a big woods buck, but the time just wasn’t there to actually figure out how to do it effectively. Instead I would still-hunt areas I knew held a buck or two and I would fill the freezer. This would get enough outdoors back into my heart and soul to keep me going for another year – but just barely. But unlike the years of sadness of my youth, my adult obligations and business passions to help people with addictions brought me great joy. This made the desperate need for the outdoor experience I had experienced as a child morph into it becoming a positive addition to an already expanding and fulfilling life. The whitetail woods became the icing on the very wonderful cake of life I was now living.

As the years passed, I built my life from the ground up, got married, had children, created a life-changing business, the St. Jude Retreats, and helped people to save their own lives. Myself and my business partner and friend Jerry Brown, changed the world of addiction treatment forever by offering the only non-12 step program in the world. One retreat turned into two and then three retreats, and then a day class office in NYC was added, and then a home program, and so on. Thousands of people’s lives changed as a result of our work at St. Jude’s and continue to be changed to this day. As all of it came together I found I had my dream life; a life much better than I could have imagined in those early childhood days of wandering and hunting.

In my mid-thirties I finally had some time to relax, reflect, and ask myself what was next. Excitedly I made the decision to chase my dream of learning to track big woods whitetails in a very real and determined and focused way. I had already read everything I could find on the subject and searched out the best teacher I could find to give me a crash course to get me started. I called the best of the best in the whitetail tracking world; Hal Blood of Jackman, Maine. I was 36 years old at the time – a late bloomer in the tracking world, but I was determined to become a force in the big woods. I made arrangements to hunt for a week with Hal and my quest for a big woods buck began. The rest as they say, is history. Since my trip to Jackman in ’06 I have killed 5 bucks in their beds, two of which were with a bow, and have had countless experiences with big bucks (and bear) in the Adirondack Mountains.

Today the whitetail woods are not a place for me to desperately find solace as they once were. I don’t need to hide in the deep woods to find peace – because I am not a wounded child in need of such things. Peace is inside of me wherever I go. In the final analysis, it’s that revelation that means so much to me. I am a free man, with a free mind, to think and confidently do whatever I want. And the beginning of that discovery began many years ago as a frightened little boy who watched the great whitetail live its life moment to moment, not planning or hurrying or worrying. Just living. And it was in this way that the whitetail saved my life and I too learned to live unafraid.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction or an alcohol problem you can call Mark Scheeren directly at (888) 424-2626. All conversations are completely private and confidential. Or you can get more information about the St. Jude Retreats and/or the St. Jude Program by clicking here.

Copyright © Mark Scheeren, 2017, all rights reserved


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