I want to preface this story by saying that I recognize that I am not blameless in this and I take responsibility. I have stolen, I have lied, I have hurt my family, and I will carry the guilt of those actions with me for the rest of my life.

When I was 16 years old, I lived alone with a mentally ill parent, and our dynamic was very dysfunctional. On top of that, I was struggling with an eating disorder. My mom and I made the mutual decision that I would enter residential treatment for my eating disorder. I spent time in an RTC, but, unfortunately, my insurance stopped covering it. A friend of my mom’s recommended Northwest Academy; she had sent her nephew there. Within two days, I was at Northwest Academy, despite my mom not having toured the campus or done any real research. When my mom first told me about this, she said it was a way to get more independence, which sounded incredible. I quickly changed my tune when she sent me materials that included a (heavily redacted) list of rules, but she said it was too late.

The first thing that happened when I arrived was my intake. I was taken to the bathroom and into a stall (with the door ajar) and told to take off each article of clothing one by one and hand them to the staffer. Once I was nude, I was given a hospital gown and told to keep the front open while the staffer examined my front side, then told me to switch it to the back while she examined my backside. Coming from a relatively privileged background, this was extremely jarring for me, and it clicked: the place I was in was not what I thought it was.

I struggled immensely over the next few months, fighting against the program ideals, and attempting to maintain my individuality. I was “out of agreement” a lot, which meant I spent time on restriction. Restriction, for me, looked like extended forced silence, manual labor (including forcing me to do things I had told them I was physically unable to do), and pages of handwritten accountability writing assignments. In severe cases, a tent would be set up a hundred yards or so off the main campus where students on restriction would be required to sleep until our therapists decided we were allowed to rejoin our classmates.

When I was finally allowed to go on my first off-campus trip, I saw a woman texting and I asked if I could borrow her phone. We were not allowed any outside contact with the world at first, except for therapy calls and letters to parents, and even those letters were heavily censored. I used the phone to call my best friend from home–just before I was sent away, she was hospitalized, and I wanted to make sure she was okay. My therapist saw me, and she ripped the phone out of my hands and started yelling; I honestly do not remember what happened next. I spent a while after that on restriction, and everyone was telling me how I would never be trusted again.

This was what broke me–from then on out, I decided to keep my head down and just try to survive, but to do so I had to assimilate, even internally. Things started to get better after that. I was not challenging their rules anymore and they slowly began allowing me privileges again.

Two months before I graduated, I went on another off-campus trip. While there, I was sexually assaulted by a patron in front of several of my classmates. I did not want to say anything but one of them told the staff. When we got back, the guy in charge that day called me into the office. I told him I did not want to say anything and he said: “I have to write it in your file, but that’s probably a wise decision. I mean, come on, who would believe you anyway?”

Though I did grow a lot because of my time at Northwest Academy, I have spent my adult life since then dealing with PTSD because of my experiences. I cannot come close to detailing every bad thing that happened, but I either experienced or witnessed egregious things: emotional and physical abuse as well as multiple allegations of sexual abuse by other students as well as staff. The male staffer I discussed in the last paragraph was accused of rape by a student, yet was still allowed to keep his job. I will live with the trauma inflicted on me by Northwest Academy for the rest of my life. I volunteer with Breaking Code Silence in the hope that no child will ever have to again.