I was 13 years old when sent to a program for problem children. I had never tried drugs, alcohol, partied, or has sex. I was young and sheltered. My problem? Mental health. I was taken out to the mountain area of my home state. After being strip-searched, my belongings were searched and I headed towards the general population. The first weeks were a blur in my mind. I met with the “psychiatrist” contracted to come in by the facility. I was taken off all my psychiatric medication. For my entire stay, I would not have the medicine that I desperately needed. I have often wondered that if I had it, would my time have gone smoother. I waited as more students came. After enough did, we formed a peer group.
I had no idea the horrors that would await. If we were to disobey a rule, we were put under “restrictions.” When on restrictions, if we were not in class or “therapy,” then we were in a group of others on restriction doing PT, manual labor, and eating horrible food. For breakfast, we were given cereal. For lunch and dinner, we were given cold cheese or ham and cheese sandwiches with soup that had a layer of grease on the top. When it was time for bed, we were taken back to our dorms for sleep. I always dreaded weekday mornings when a short man with what seemed like anger problems would scream at you and make you want to die from the PT. We had a hill known as cardiac hill. Extremely steep. We would have to run it, do lunges on it, and do push-ups while facing down the hill. A member of my peer group was pushed to exhaustion and overheated. He collapsed and began hyperventilating. I was once told to hold a quarter up against the wall with my nose. Each hand has to hold a heavy textbook against the wall. Anytime they would drop due to muscle fatigue, I was punished and then had to start over holding things against the wall. There was so much more.
I was teased relentlessly from my time there. Due to having been sheltered, there was so much I didn’t know and the other students made fun of it. There was also much I learned there which were things my parents didn’t want me to know. In my first weeks, I got emotional and was scratching myself with anything I could find. I was placed on restrictions. No psychiatrist, no medication, no true therapy. Just physical punishment.
I began acting out more and more. Praying my parents would realize that this was not a good place. I was placed in isolation. I had a 1:1 staff member and was allowed nothing. I was given a sleeping bag to sleep outside with. My peer group counselor asked if I needed anything. I told him a shower and to brush my teeth. He replied that he said “need.” I was given physical punishment. Moving large amounts of heavy rocks from one place to another. Digging ditches. Why pay for your work to be done to outside contractors when your students can do it? One morning I was woken up insanely early and people were towering over me. I was told that I was being sent to a wilderness program. I was flown to Idaho with my two escorts. While I struggled getting acclimated, eventually I fell into a routine and finally felt peace. I begged my parents to let me stay there or the program next to the wilderness program. Not to send me back. I got sent back anyways.
For our first visit with family, we couldn’t go home but had to stay in the area. My peers and I decided to wear uniform shirts with horizontal stripes. The stereotypical jail-looking outfit. A message that this was not a treatment program, but a jail-type place. It went unnoticed.
Peers were pitted against peers. We would have to write “fall out.” Others who had broken the rules. Often time, people would make things up just so they had a list. I was once punished for not abiding by group confidentiality. My peer group was furious and shunned me. I had never broken it. During our “therapy” time, we would sit in a circle while the counselors would call on a person and start a confrontation, at which point the other peers would hammer in. Students verbally attacking other students. More often than not, I would break down sobbing.
Eventually, I would find a kindred spirit there. Someone I had briefly met beforehand at another place as we struggled through eating disorders. One day we decided to run away. I had run away multiple times before. Never for long. Once was overnight but that was the longest. This time we were gone less than an hour as we were followed. At one point, we were tackled and restrained until the police got there. Charges were filed. While my friend got sent to a psychiatric facility, I was sent to juvenile detention. One morning I was told to change as I was going home. I was taken out where I was then put on another plane and sent to another wilderness program. While there, I was told when I returned that I would be in a different peer group with a later graduation date.
Phone calls were monitored at our school. If you said certain things, the phone call was ended and you were punished. Parents didn’t believe their kid’s reports. The school had warned them that any stories would be manipulation techniques. It was false and remain steadfast. After all, these were troubled kids. I was one of the lucky ones. Eventually, I was kicked out. Unlike others who got kicked out, I went home. But I went home with PTSD. I went home without the ability to trust. With constant fear. But I am a lucky one. And I am alive today. Many of my peers aren’t. They lost their battle with drug addiction and mental health. I think of them as I try to break code silence.