One week during my wilderness therapy program, I was given an assignment to write a letter to the “treatment world.” I wrote:
“Dear treatment world, I am a 17-year-old trans guy and I live in you. I have for almost a year now. My story is one of running from you–not because of a lack of self-awareness or lack of desire to get better, but because of your implications for kids like me all over the world. There is not one coed wilderness therapy program in America. Coed residential programs and therapeutic boarding schools are in the minority and unbelievably hard to come by. The fact that this is reality, my reality, makes it really hard to be alive right now. I’m telling my story to name this apparent blind spot in the treatment world, one that is so detrimental to the treatment of every gender diverse kid who enters you.”
I’ve read those words in that little, tattered notebook over and over again. I wrote them in a moment of desperation, bravery, or stupidity. I’m not sure which. A few months after these words were written, I would be too beaten into compliance to allow myself to even think like that. Just a few months later, I was a shell of myself, barely clinging onto my name and pronouns, inches away from sacrificing those too. I would have said or done almost anything that they asked me to. Anything to get out. But these words, this assignment, always lived as a mantra in the back of my brain. That assignment is why I’m here, a proud man, writing this article for pride month today.
I was sent to treatment for, in my mother’s words, a triple diagnosis of complex PTSD, substance abuse, and “gender confusion.” I want to make this clear: I needed help. If I hadn’t been sent to treatment, I would almost certainly be dead. However, there has to be a way for children’s lives to be saved without creating additional trauma. And if there isn’t, a way must be created.
By the time I was 16, I was a heroin addict. I had been self-medicating for intense PTSD and gender dysphoria symptoms since fifth-grade. I had no experience facing reality without drugs. So as my access and my perceived need simultaneously increased, I relied on newer, harder, more deadly drugs to survive. I was always successful in school; I was actually expelled for taking the SAT, ACT, and AP tests for other students for drug money. I began to experience a propensity towards violence in seventh grade.
My source of masculinity as a trans boy was causing pain for people I could justify hurting. I used the bullies, racists, and rapists of highschool to make myself feel like more of a man. My facade of self-esteem came from being the “girl” who beat the boys. At the same time, I exploited my femininity through prostitution. I thought if I saw my body as currency, I could distance myself from it being mine. Going through life as high as I was, my sexual activity felt like someone else’s, merely a transaction to get drugs, to stay alive. Eventually, I found myself in what I’m retrospectively able to define as a sex-trafficking ring. I was dependent on heroin to live, and my supplier was my employer. I was in a cycle that I couldn’t stop. I had to work to survive, quite literally, while the substance that kept me alive slowly killed me. I was distant from my family and hardly home. I resisted all support, and being a former foster child, I reverted to relying on only myself. Several suicide attempts, overdoses, and near-death experiences later, I was court-ordered to residential detox and addiction treatment at age 16.
Around that same time, I had recently been outed to my mother as transgender. While the response was traumatic and unhelpful, I also know that none of my parents’ choices were born from transphobia but more from a lack of education. It was clear that I was in a life-or-death situation: a crossroads that would determine if I would live past 18. This put my parents in a position I’ll never be able to comprehend, something I have a huge amount of empathy for. With their child’s life in their hands, and an abundance of love for me, they thought all they could do was to listen to the “experts.” Unfortunately, in this for-profit industry, the experts did not have my or my parents’ best interests at heart.
After my 90-day rehab program in California, my treatment took a turn for the worst. I was sent to a wilderness therapy program in Utah: all girls. This program, though not necessarily advertised as such, was clearly religiously based. This is what modern-day conversion therapy in the states is like. “Sorry, our hands are tied. State regulations prevent us from placing AFAB (assigned female at birth) patients in male groups.” Just living with all girls was incredibly painful, confusing, and damaging to my identity. My whole life I had been obsessed with obtaining masculinity. I needed to see myself reflected in my peer group, my role models, and my therapy. I craved anything that made me feel less “other.” But there I was, in the middle of the Utah desert, in a group of cis teenage girls with a cis female therapist, and nearly all cis female staff.
The isolation of those months is hard to describe. There’s the basic, expected loneliness of being transported by strangers to the middle of nowhere, in a state I had never been to; we were driven out on a turbulent, dirt road in the dark, so we couldn’t track our surroundings enough to escape. There’s the loneliness of being plucked from everything and everyone I knew, handcuffed with large men holding tightly onto each arm. There’s the emptiness of trying to figure out what the time of day is, which direction we were walking, how long I’d slept, how long I’d hiked, how long I had been staring silently at one spot. We weren’t allowed to know the time, let alone look at any sort of map. There are so many aspects of residential treatment, especially wilderness therapy, that are suffocatingly lonely.
But then there’s something deeper. Being the only man, the only queer person, the only gender diverse person, in my radius of contact for nearly five months, affected me. I had always felt wrong, broken, disgusted with myself. And my environment validated that entirely. In my brain, I went from feeling wrong, to being wrong. I believed I was dysfunctional beyond repair. I wanted so badly to change myself. I spent so many days convincing myself to try to be a girl, “just one more time.” Yet there was always some part of me that couldn’t let go of my actual self. I came to believe I needed to die a man, and I didn’t think I would be able to cling onto who I was much longer there. I spent so many hours planning my suicide there in those Utah woods, simply to end the constant dysphoria choking me in that desert. I wanted, so all-consumingly, to be anywhere else, anywhere I could know that I wasn’t the only one. It was so hard to remember that there was a whole world of people like me outside of that program. It was so hard to remind myself that I wasn’t the only trans person in the universe, that what I was feeling wasn’t something that needed to be “treated,” that community was possible for someone like me. I was an island, and I was sinking.
And yet, the isolation was only the tip of the iceberg. Religious, specifically LDS, beliefs were taught by staff consistently and blatantly in regards to my gender identity. In our group, I learned sentiments as obviously transphobic as, “Each human has an immortal soul. That soul is one of two genders. God makes no mistakes. Therefore, you must be mistaken.” I heard these things repeatedly, in front of all of my peers, who simply stole quick glances over their shoulders at me, ranging from sympathetic to disgusted. I never believed these things, perse. I never truly believed that I had an immortal soul, that I would go to hell, or be damned for eternity. But I did believe that I was some sort of mistake. And I did grow to hate myself, and not just my body, in ways deeper than I ever had before treatment. I thought, without question, that the world would be a better place without me in it. I was told by adults in power that if I refused to change, this was true.
I was mostly called by my initials, which I’m lucky are the same for both my deadname and actual name. However, this sort of separation from individuality, from a person I had worked to define and grow into, has created a dissonance in how I see myself, and that still lasts to this day.
There are parts of that program that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to talk about. There are parts of my brainwashing that I have to fight each day to refute, even though I can recognize it as brainwashing. One thing I will touch on is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). If you look up the legality of “conversion therapy” in the state of Utah, the internet will tell you it was outlawed in 2020, and even that the LDS church supported the ban. I will tell you that while an incredibly necessary step in the right direction, this law is largely useless in practice.
Religiously-founded programs are subject to less intervention by the state, which has an already astonishingly low level of supervision and regulation. Religious teachings in treatment programs are entirely legal. ECT for minors in treatment programs is also legal without guidelines. I’ve watched and experienced ECT as targeted specifically to treat gender dysphoria. In many Utah teen treatment facilities, gender dysphoria is still considered a product of childhood sexual abuse, despite a plethora of psychiatric and psychological research to the contrary. My dysphoria was treated as a product of trauma, as opposed to my identity. Therefore, ECT was used with the end objective of producing a cis gender identity. This is the definition of conversion therapy, and it is irrefutably legal. The physical and emotional traumas of this therapy can last lifetimes, and rarely produce the intended results.
Eventually, I was sent to a therapeutic boarding school. Initially placed with the girls, I was moved to the boys dorm not long after. I was surrounded by trans girls, trans boys, cis girls, cis boys, and had queer representation in staff. I was called by my chosen name and my pronouns were respected.
The program remained significantly problematic and corrupt. I spent time in solitary confinement. I spent months trying to gain the privilege of reading a book on a level system ridiculously stacked against us. I watched students get injured by staff in abusive holds. I watched students be illegally locked in empty concrete rooms. I watched students’ broken bones and severe illnesses be neglected, watched them be punished when they “refused” to participate in programming. Representation, community, and acceptance did not equal perfection, or even livable conditions. But I felt less wrong. I was able to remember it wouldn’t last forever. I began to want to be alive so I could live in this world as a man.
Ultimately, my story is a work in progress, like anyone’s. But for now, it’s culminated in success. Somehow I held onto who I am. I was lucky enough to have several staff throughout multiple programs who acted as beacons of hope, small voices assuring me that it wouldn’t be like this forever. Even if just in passing, even if only inferred, even if in hushed tones, they told me I was a man. They told me I wasn’t wrong. That was all I needed.
I got better, though I still don’t understand how. It’s hard for my loved ones to understand how terrible treatment was when I came out so seemingly reformed, so much more stable, so much happier. I guess I learned how to be traumatized without depending on drugs. I guess I found a reason to be alive. Now I have a purpose: to prevent this from happening to the next kid. In the meantime, I’m here to say that it does get better.
I still honestly hate being trans. I would rather be cis in a heartbeat. I’m jealous of trans people who don’t hate it, which I suppose is a step in the right direction. I want to accept myself. But for now, I’m enjoying not hating all of who I am. Other than the trans thing, I think I’m pretty cool. And I do leave room for that caveat to change one day. My medical transition has made it easier. I’m getting treated correctly, in the only way that works for me. My treatment is affirming, not changing me. That’s how it’s supposed to be. I’m in a loving, and aspiringly healthy relationship with a man. And while being gay presents it’s own unique challenges for my concept of masculinity, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m happy, loved, and growing, with so many opportunities and so much potential on my horizon.
My pride month isn’t full of parades and parties, flags and rainbows yet, and that’s okay. It will take time. My pride month for now is this right here: giving back and fulfilling a need I once experienced. My pride month is taking ownership of where I’m at. Pride isn’t a celebration for me yet. But it isn’t a fight for me anymore either. It’s self-tolerance creeping towards self-acceptance. I’m proud of that.
Coming out of treatment with conversion elements is hard, but it does get easier to breathe, one heartbeat at a time. I’ve found community in my 12-step addiction fellowship, my work with Breaking Code Silence, volunteering with the Trevor Project, friends/family who see me as the man I am, and other minority-specific service work. Finding a supportive therapist and psychiatrist who have experience with TTI survivors is imperative. I’ve found peace in empathy for those who have hurt me.
Parents who send their children into the troubled teen industry rarely set out to harm their children. The same goes for parents of children in conversion therapy. My mother supports trans and queer rights; she simply believed professionals who told her that my “psuedo-transness” was a product of abuse. She didn’t believe I was trans. She was told being around girls would help me. She was devastatingly wrong, in ways that will affect me for the rest of my life, but she acted out of love. The industry doesn’t give many options.
I am not the victim of this story. It needs to be recognized that before and during treatment, I hurt an immense amount of people very deeply. I took my pain out on others. I have many amends to make, many debts to pay, and so much love to give. Forgiveness is really important in my process, but it shouldn’t be depended on when choosing how to act.
If you have a gender diverse child and are considering residential treatment, please look at every other option first. There’s so much pain to be avoided, so much damage that can be prevented. If you think it’s a phase, if you think it’s a trend, if you think it’s a symptom of mental illness, it truly doesn’t matter. In every case of gender diversity, whatever reason for it, being placed with the wrong gender is insurmountably detrimental. It isn’t treatment. It’s trauma.
This is the message I scribbled in a notebook to be passed down throughout the generations of my wilderness therapy group. It’s probably been confiscated. I don’t know if it reached anybody. Maybe it can reach someone here. “For the trans guy or nonbinary person after me: it’s not right that you’re here. You’re not meant to be in a girls’ group. Yes, it’s an unfair product of our fucked societal root in a fake binary. And you can still get better, not because of this program, but in spite of it. You can still save your life. And you can still love the mountains, the snow, the red rock, and wake up to make it through each day.
“This is holding two truths at the same time; two truths we shouldn’t have to learn to accept. But this is the world the treatment industry has let slide. Collectively, hundreds of facilities say they are here to help us, but they have discounted our identities as unimportant. Mental health treatment should be here to save lives, not to make a profit. Yet, as it is, a significant part of the transgender population dies by suicide and overdose in adolescence and young adulthood. Many of them, like me, are more scared and hurt by the implications of a treatment stay than the problems needing treatment.
“It’s scary to live a life of confusion, rejection, and uncomfortability, and then finally, as you let yourself want the name, the pronouns, the hair, the clothes, it’s at best ignored, at worst a death sentence. The treatment world is a very scary place. The inevitability of being misgendered, surrounded by, and pushed back into the gender you’ve just escaped, is a real and deadly problem. No trans kid should face the reality that the only option meeting their ‘clinical needs’ means being with the wrong gender.”