When I was 15 years old, I was snatched out of my bed at 5 AM in the morning by two strangers, put in the back of a car, and driven to the Academy at Ivy Ridge (AIR) in Ogdensburg, NY.
For the next two years, I experienced and was exposed to physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse. I have been diagnosed with C-PTSD as a result, and many – if not all – of my relationships have been impacted to one degree or another by my experiences.
For two years, I was brainwashed into believing that my Dad had physically abused me (which had never happened in my life), that I had been addicted to drugs, that I was the reason my Mom got M.S., that my family would be better off without me, that I was going to wind up dead and that the program “saved” me.
On my first day I was forced to be strip-searched, do jumping jacks, squat, bend over & cough & pee into a cup – all in front of a male staff member. My first night I watched in complete silence (as we were not allowed to talk without permission for any reason, ever) as a girl started having a panic attack. She was screaming, saying she couldn’t breathe and began hyperventilating and sobbing. A female staff member grabbed her by the hair, pulled her to the ground, and then dragged her down the hallway and threw her into a cold shower. The rest of the girls sobbed in silence, powerless and unable to do anything.
I witnessed a girl lock herself in a closet and drink a bottle of bleach, desperately trying to escape the conditions in which we lived. I remember a girl throwing herself off the top of a staircase trying to end her life. I remember a girl undergoing a miscarriage and staff members denying her pain until she began bleeding so severely they had no choice but to take her to a hospital. I remember a girl being forced to urinate herself because staff members refused to let her use the bathroom. I remember the girl who was slut-shamed in front of a room full of people for “allowing” a family member to rape her when she was 5 years old and was told to “take accountability” for her actions. I remember forced stress positions for hours on end, only to be “restrained” by eager grown adults when the slightest movement occurred without permission. I remember alarms going off at odd hours in the morning to wake us up in a panic, to keep us sleep-deprived, keep us compliant. I remember falling asleep every night trapped in hopelessness, just to wake up trapped in fear.
I also remember the names, the faces, the smells, the laughs, the bodies of the staff members who physically, psychologically, sexually, and emotionally abused and tortured me for two years. Some stories I am not ready to tell. Most stories I have been unwilling to accept and have done my best to disassociate from. But the smell, the touch, and the presence of one staff member are particularly painful.
Through all of this – my parents didn’t know a thing. Staff members were coached into telling my parents – and everyone’s parents – that we were lying, deceitful, dishonest, and manipulative. Any attempt that we made to communicate that we were being abused or mistreated was quickly discounted by staff members, and parents had no choice but to believe them. After all, we had all “deserved” to be sent away in one way or another and we had all proven ourselves to be untrustworthy when we were home, why would they believe us now?
To go home, I had to tell my peers that they deserved to die, that they deserved any and all trauma they had experienced before the program. I had to believe and regurgitate stories about myself that were not true. I had to witness other students being abused and believe it was for their own good. I had to participate in the degradation of other girls – mocking their pain, betraying their trust, preventing their ability to go home sooner. I had to lie to my parents and convince them I was “cured”, that I recognized how horrible I was, that – if for any reason I betrayed their trust ever again – they could send me back to the program.
For over 2 years I was beaten down, picked apart, destroyed, and became a shell of who I was.
And then I had to pretend it didn’t happen. I had to pretend I deserved it. I had to pretend that other people who finally came forward about their experiences were lying. I had to pretend that the program “saved” me when in reality it gave me so many more problems, effects, and traumas than I could ever dream of. Many of my friends from the program ended up being addicted to drugs, alcoholics, in prison, estranged from loved ones. And some didn’t make it at all.
I do not blame my parents. They never could have known. The people they entrusted to take care of and help me lied to them too. Stole their money, abused their child. My parents firmly believed they were helping me. I cannot blame them or be angry with them for what happened as a result of my going to AIR.
This is only a brief synopsis of the horrors that occurred at the program. But the true horror is that places like this have existed for decades and still do exist. Stealing money, hurting kids, ruining families, and destroying lives.
As much as I am still ashamed to tell my story, it must be told. I am one of 50,000 children a year who go to these types of schools all across the country. I am not unique. I am a statistic.