By the age of 15, I had already experienced my fair share of trauma. My parents had tried everything: therapy, medications, and outpatient rehabs. Eventually, they went to a consultant specializing in institutions for troubled teens. My parents explained to me that I would be going to a boarding school in Dahlonega, Georgia called Hidden Lake Academy. I remember not being too happy about it but my mom made it seem like a nice and therapeutic environment. So in March of 2002, I willingly boarded a plane with her to Atlanta.
After we arrived in Dahlonega, we spent a night in a bed and breakfast before heading into the mountains. At intake, a staff member went through the pictures I had packed and quickly handed almost all of them back to my mother. At that moment, I knew something was very off. Another staff member escorted me to the gymnasium to go through my luggage. I don’t remember saying goodbye to my mom – I was thinking that I would see her for a tour of the campus. That was the last time I saw my mom for months.
After going through all my things, the staff put all of my clothes to the side and explained that they weren’t appropriate. They conducted the first of many strip searches. I stripped down to my underwear, The staff member looked all over my body while taking notes. I was given khaki shorts, pants, and collared polo shirts. In the end, I never got an official tour. Instead, I was just a packet of rules that I was to read. I was then escorted to the girl’s dorm – dorm Charlie. My roommate was a girl from Kentucky. We introduced ourselves quickly. She seemed like a nice girl. However, that’s the moment I should have realized to be cautious of friendly people in these environments.
Very quickly I learned that this was NOT the warm, inviting boarding school my parents made it out to be. Only 2 days went by and I was being screamed at by young male staff members as if it were the active military. They treated us as if this was a boot camp. Cursing would get you push ups. Talking back would get you push ups. Refusing to take meds, refusing to eat, refusing to do anything at all would result in tasks like running around the lake carrying what I believe was a railroad tie. If you refused to do the push-ups, they would make everyone else do them so everyone would absolutely loathe you.
About a week in, the student body was in the mess hall. We were given paper and pencils and told to do “fall out.” This meant that you had to write down everything you knew that was going on amongst your peers. I didn’t know anything. I had just arrived. I was punished for not writing anything. I had to sit on the floor until i wrote something. I wouldn’t write anything since I did know anything so instead, I sat there for hours.
I could go into every detail of every situation. It’s still very clear. I try not to think about it though. I feel sick sometimes. I had to change roommates. The first girl was an awful racist and I ended up attacking her after weeks of nasty racist comments. After that, I slept in the hallway in a sleeping bag. They called it “clean air.” My new roommate hated me since that meant she could not sleep with her door closed and the hall lights never went off. There were big spiders and once or twice I saw a scorpion run down the hall. I was often put on bans where I wasn’t allowed to look or speak to anyone. First, it was just the boys. Then, it was everyone.
There was a male staff who took an interest in me. I remember the first time he touched me. There were cameras throughout the campus but they had some blind spots. He pushed me against the wall and shoved his hands up my shirt. I remember thinking that this can’t be happening. I remember how sweaty I was, – spring in Georgia is pretty humid – but this sweat was cold. It was clammy. Like the kind of sweats you get before you vomit. This wasn’t the last time it would happen.
Everyone was placed into different peer groups depending on their arrivals. Once we had enough new students, we would then form our new group and that’s when your time would actually start. We would have therapy together. An older student tried to be helpful by advising me to be open and honest during these groups. I was apprehensive at first but eventually, I gave in. I opened up by telling the story of my freshman year of high school and the fateful party I attended. I remember being a bit disconnected while telling the group because I still hadn’t come to terms with my rape. This was the first time I had really spoke about it. I finished my part and the female group leader looked at me and said “why are you lying?” I can’t remember what I said after that.
It just got worse from there. I was put in isolation. I wouldn’t get food. I wouldn’t get feminine hygiene products. I wouldn’t be allowed to speak to my parents. I tried to run away 3 times. All the while I was being sexually assaulted by this male staff. I finally said something to a therapist, and I was quickly called a liar and dismissed. I became aggressive and violent. I was being bullied by other girls. They would call me an “attention whore” for acting out. I was just trying to get out of there. I knew they’d send me to a wilderness program. I had hoped for it. When the night finally arrived where the escorts came to get me, I looked up at them and said, “Finally. Where are we going?”
I tried to run away the second we entered Atlanta airport. I was swiftly pounced on, handcuffed, and led to the gate. It was a long flight and I can’t remember much of it. I was forced to swallow some medication before getting on the plane. The escorts were with me as far as the entrance to the campsite. I was at CEDU Ascent in Idaho. I know many kids were abused in these kinds of programs but for the first time in months, I was actually ok. No one tried to touch me. No one talked down to me. But the damage had been done. I had built a wall. I wouldn’t let anyone in. Because I would trust no one for a very long time.
I spent an extra month in Idaho because I didn’t exactly adhere to all the rules at first. I eventually got to go out on a course which meant they drove us to Montana and we hiked back. I was happy with the fresh air and the nature. I also got to see my parents at the end of my time at Ascent. My heart sank when I was informed I would be going back to Hidden Lake Academy. I couldn’t understand why. I thought I had proved myself in the 2 months of chopping wood, eating rice and beans, living with structure.
I was only back at Hidden Lake Academy for a month before I was arrested for assaulting a staff member. I was put on isolation when it happened and a male staff had tried to grab at me (for what intention, I do not know) but with past experiences, I didn’t give him the chance. I grabbed the closest object to me and started swinging a heavy flashlight at him.
I was driven to Peachford in Atlanta and was sedated. I was put on new meds. Everything from my stay there is still fuzzy. I just remember my dad coming to get me and that I was off to another school. This time, I’d be closer to home. I would endure new trauma at this new school but nothing compared to Hidden Lake Academy.
In less than a year, I had been changed drastically in ways that would affect my future. Even now as an adult, I can recognize some behaviors that are always with me. I have to live with that but I do not live with shame anymore. They never broke me. I am a survivor.