In the spring of 1998, I was 12 years old when I was sent to be evaluated by a therapist with supposed expertise in substance use after my mom found something written in my diary about drug use and was concerned. I was never told the reason for the “evaluation”, but rather was barraged with questions about my drug use and after answering honestly, she continued to question me as if she thought I was lying. Despite there being nothing in the “evaluation” that should’ve warranted it, I was told a short while later that I was being sent to inpatient rehab at Caron Foundation Adolescent Treatment Center (Wernersville, PA) immediately by my regular therapist.
At that time in my life, I only ever drank alcohol a couple of times and had never even tried any illicit drugs including marijuana. I only had taken some of my dad’s prescribed pain pills for a short time after an accident which was what I had written about in my journal, but I had stopped using them months prior. I couldn’t understand what was happening or why but I felt completely powerless. I was admitted despite having a negative drug test and, by their own admission, not meeting the criteria for any “substance dependency.” I ended up spending a total of 6 weeks there.
To my knowledge, I was the youngest person ever admitted to Caron at that time. I found out after being admitted that the therapist who referred me had a daughter who was currently an inpatient at that facility too. Neither she nor Caron seemed to recognize how this might have clouded her judgment or could represent a conflict of interest. I still don’t know how Caron justified the need for inpatient to my insurance company – which paid for the first 4 weeks.
I felt continually pressured by staff into admitting to drug use that never happened. To appease them and fit in with my older “cooler” peers, I did. When I did try to tell the truth, I was not believed or was told that I was “minimizing” or “in denial.” While there, my parents and I were “educated” about my “chronic, progressive, incurable, fatal disease” and told that I was “a liar and a manipulator.” They were told that anything I said that contradicted Caron was evidence of my “disease.” I was forced to attend 12 Step meetings and to identify with the label of “addict” which I proceeded to do for the next 20 years.
I did not use any drugs after discharge until a little over a year later when I accidentally overdosed with a friend I’d met at Caron. I ended up being in a house fire and being in the hospital in critical condition on a ventilator for several days due to carbon monoxide poisoning and anoxia. I was sent back to Caron directly from the hospital for a couple of weeks. While there, I was severely bullied, ostracized from the community, and told by my peers that I was lying about the fire. Staff didn’t intervene or correct them. I didn’t feel I could tell my parents what was going on because I could never talk to them unsupervised or out of earshot of the other patients.
One day after being left behind on the unit, I ran away from Caron out of desperation. I was ultimately convinced to return to the facility and discharged shortly thereafter. Upon discharge, I started high school. Based on Caron’s recommendations for aftercare and a “family contract” (which I had agreed to again in order to get out), I was forced to attend IOP at High Focus in Sparta, NJ almost every day after school, forced to go to additional meetings on a weekly basis, and not allowed contact outside of school with my friends – even though they had nothing to do with the drug use that preceded my return to treatment.
Feeling overwhelmed, trapped, like I wasn’t allowed to have a life outside of school or treatment, and not having the time or space for my brain to heal, I became more and more angry and emotional. At that point, I was 14 years old and sent to Four Winds Hospital (Katonah, NY) to be evaluated and treated. I was placed on a cocktail of heavy psychiatric drugs. Despite the evaluation determining that I did not meet clinical criteria for ANY psychiatric diagnosis at that time, I was sent home on all these medications and continued to be medicated on a constantly changing cocktail. I remained on the cocktail until almost 10 years later when I would finally get off of them as an adult.
Throughout the following decade, I experienced numerous side effects from the medications including having tremors so bad I could hardly write, feeling sedated, emotionally numbed, increased anxiety, difficulty with impulse control, and having huge gaps in my memory. I also eventually began to develop the early signs of tardive dyskinesia although, thankfully, that was reversible, and had other as-yet-unexplained neurological side effects which disappeared after I stopped the medication. Despite the evaluation stating otherwise, I was told that I had a “mental illness” and would likely need medication for the rest of my life.
Over time, everyone involved in my “treatment,” including my own parents, seemed to see all of my thoughts, emotions, and behavior through the lens of “mental illness” rather than within the context of what I was going through. I felt like I ceased to be a person and became instead a collection of symptoms. I was subsequently treated about a year and a half later at Stony Lodge Hospital (Ossining, NY – now closed) and then KidsPeace Hospital (Orefield, PA) following multiple suicide attempts.
At Stony Lodge, I was restrained for the first of many times. I had everything taken from me including my own dignity. I was forced to eat with my hands because I couldn’t have plastic tableware. I couldn’t shower or use the bathroom in private. I wasn’t allowed to leave the unit when all the other patients left for physical activities, meals, or school because of my “history” of running away from Caron and the IOP program.
At KidsPeace, my treating psychiatrist took me off the antipsychotic drug overnight which threw me into a psychotic episode that I didn’t come out of for another month and a half. I was an adult before I learned that that episode was not proof of my “illness” but the result of antipsychotic withdrawal.
After being rejected by my best friend at the time that following fall and subsequently thrown out of school for throwing water on a teacher, I felt my life falling apart and my emotions and behavior got more out of control as a result. I was subsequently treated at numerous inpatient and outpatient facilities in NY and PA (including Stony Lodge, Lourdesmont School, KidsPeace, Caron, Horsham Clinic, and others). I continued to be overmedicated and was repeatedly physically, mechanically, and chemically restrained.
As things continued to get worse despite and because of the multiple treatments, I was eventually sent to an RTC, Rancho Valmora (Valmora, NM – now closed) and was a resident there from 06/2002-08/2003 (ages 16-17). While there were some helpful and positive things about it, I also experienced verbal, psychological, and physical abuse and medical neglect. I was completely isolated from everyone outside the facility. Phone calls (even with my family) had to be approved, were very limited, and were monitored by staff and all mail was screened. I did not see my parents without supervision for 6 months and, by that time, they had been instructed to disregard anything negative I had to say about the facility.
I was put in “5-point” prone physical restraints almost every day for months on end, which were primarily used for control rather than safety. In the vast majority of those times, I was not a danger to myself or others; I simply had the audacity to think that I should retain some bodily autonomy and control of my own life. This “noncompliance” was used to convince me and those around me that I deserved this “treatment” and that I brought it on myself. I graduated high school there and was discharged a month before I turned 18 directly to Caron’s Adolescent Extended Care program for another 3 months. I returned to Caron once more voluntarily on my 19th birthday and was admitted into their Adult Relapse unit.
Since then, I have not returned to any inpatient facility in over 16+ years. I subsequently completed my bachelor’s degree and now direct a small mental health peer advocacy department. I am a wife, mom, stepmom, and dog owner. However, as a result of all the treatment in my adolescence, I spent a decade in my adulthood in a high fundamentalist, cult-like sect of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve spent decades blaming myself for everything that happened, believing I deserved it all, that I was “ill” and couldn’t trust my own thoughts, emotions, or experiences. In each case, the treatment itself became a self-fulfilling (and arguably self-serving) prophecy. I was “treated” until I developed whatever condition they were “treating” me for, and then that was used as evidence of the appropriateness of their treatment. I was gaslighted by the treatment industry and I now have C-PTSD, anxiety, nightmares, abandonment issues, and trust issues.
I am no longer letting anyone else give me my identity or tell me my story. For the first time, I am speaking my truth. I will not continue to stay silent for anyone else’s comfort anymore.