Four days after New Year 2014 which was the winter of my freshman year of high school, my parents made the difficult and desperate decision to send me to a wilderness therapy program in Utah. I’d been struggling for years with trauma, behavioral and relationship difficulties – both internally and interpersonally – and over time I found myself in several situations that had put my life at risk.
When I first arrived at Second Nature, it was nighttime and freezing cold outside. I’d never been to Utah or anywhere that far west or seen mountains before (which later came to be a source of serenity for me). After the squat-and-cough strip search and the removal of all personal items, I was driven two hours into the desert by strangers. When I arrived at my first site, I had to use the bathroom and was told to go behind a tarp less than three feet from one of these faceless strangers (it was dark out). Before being allowed to speak to any of the ten or so other people at the site with me, we walked a few minutes through the snow in the dark to where I would sleep within inches of them. (This happened on several occasions, and the staff was co-ed). The next morning when I struggled through our hike through the snowy mountains due to my asthma, I was ridiculed by the staff and had to stop several times before I was allowed my inhaler.
Throughout my time at Second Nature, I witnessed and experienced neglect and abuse. I had experienced sexual abuse from a boyfriend before I’d been sent to second nature but was otherwise not sexually active. Despite this, at 14 years old I was forced to undergo my first internal pelvic exam in front of Second Nature staff at the local clinic. They watched as I cried and tried telling them over and over that it hurt and they just kept going with the huge metal speculum. There was a time when I became so severely dehydrated and constipated that I lost feeling in my hands and feet and had to beg to be taken to the clinic several hours away. I was sent back out to the field the same day with prune juice. Occasionally, a group member would refuse to continue hiking due to exhaustion, and we were forced to carry them and their 50 lb pack the rest of the way. In group therapy sessions, we would be berated and teased by staff with little to no mental health training. I watched a group member run off into the night after dinnertime out of fear. There was also abuse from other group members – one night, a group member snuck off and found some of our toothbrushes, urinated on them, and put them back without saying a word. After 3 months of close to zero contact with my family, I was denied the traditional graduation ceremony – where your family is allowed to join from home – because I hadn’t “earned it”.
On April 3rd 2014, two days before my 15th birthday, my parents transported me from Duschesne to Salt Lake City. I didn’t know yet but I’d spend the next 16 months at Eva Carlston Academy. Here, I experienced and witnessed attack therapy, gaslighting, and verbal abuse including insults and belittling. All contact with the outside world was controlled and monitored at all times, including the weekly/bi-weekly 15-minute home phone calls and weekly mandatory, monitored letters. Our physical appearance was controlled down to the length of our fingernails and hair. We were denied proper medical care – I had a 21-day long period before a visit to the doctor was even considered. Medication and medical issues were severely mishandled – I can recall two or three times I saw a psychiatrist. Group therapy included things like the “hot seat,” which included everyone humiliating and berating/” ganging up” on one person. Our days were measured on a point-card, determining if we earned our “privileges” for the next day, and if you didn’t earn them, you were forced to isolate and do worksheets all day. Sometimes we’d even be forced to rate one another. Sometimes, it would be weeks before we’d speak to one another, aside from “good morning.” Our food quantity was strictly enforced, and we’d be punished for not completing a meal or taking too much. If they believed we were a threat to ourselves, we’d be forced to sleep in the hallway with the lights on. We were forced to do manual labor like weeding, sweeping the streets, washing the driveway, deep cleaning our therapist’s offices, and deep cleaning the cars used to transport us. We were threatened if we tried to tell our parents anything, or if we “complained” in any way. You had to perform every day to survive. One of my worst memories is of my friend being restrained by a much larger staff member – I remember hearing her screaming and knowing that something wasn’t right. I found out she took her life this past summer. I’m using my voice while I have it because I know there are people like my friend who so desperately deserve to be heard.