I was seventeen when the escorts barged into my bedroom, which is older than most kids are when that happens. It was the second day of February in the year two thousand. Most kids that are greeted by two strangers sporting handcuffs in their bedroom are pretty traumatized by the event, but honestly, in that moment, I was relieved.

My brother had been sent away like this years earlier and graduated from his program. I found him to be a little strange from the experience, but he didn’t make it out to be scary. I was relieved to see the escorts that morning in early February because I was so desperate to be anywhere but in my parent’s home. I felt like a ghost in the final years of my childhood. I was drowning in undiagnosed PTSD from years of abuse and a raging learning disorder. Looking back at my teenage self, I’m shocked I was even walking around. My whole life was either experiencing trauma or trying to forget it. I wasn’t doing drugs, but I was failing school.

So I wasn’t afraid when I arrived at Northwest Academy, a CEDU school in Naples, Idaho but I should have been. It has taken me a long time to realize exactly what happened at CEDU. It was psychological torture.

I know that’s a big accusation. Let me explain. I could have endured more abuse. Physical, emotional, even sexual without much more damage to my psyche. My childhood was rife with abuse and I developed pretty good coping mechanisms but there was no way to cope with what happened at CEDU. Besides an initial strip search when I arrived, the abuse was never physical. No one ever raised a hand to me. I was never locked in solitary confinement or physically restrained in any way. I was never denied access to food or water. But it was the threat of those things that kept me, and other kids, in compliance nonetheless.

There was always the threat of being sent somewhere worse. A place where they did physically restrain you, watch you on the toilet, etc. It was just down the dirt road, and the kids that came back from that place confirmed the rumors. There were also kids that got shipped off to the mental hospital and literally came back drooling. The thought of being locked in a hospital and force-fed medication was more than enough to make me toe the line. In retrospect, I would have been better off in the mental hospital. There, at least I would have been treated by professionals and in accordance with the law.

With the threat of much worse keeping us scared into compliance, I was the perfect victim. The program was centered around a few things. First, they had complete control over every aspect of my life. We literally weren’t ever allowed to be alone. As solitude and quiet were one of my main coping mechanisms and modes of self-care, I was immediately off balance. I slept, showered, changed, and shit together with other girls. I wasn’t allowed to even go for a walk by myself. Second, there were the ‘raps.’ These were hours-long group ‘therapy’ sessions. For sometimes as long as five or more hours with about ten to fifteen other kids and two or three staff, I was subjected to a form of ‘therapy’ called attack therapy. I didn’t know at the time, but it was actually something called ‘the game’ and it was the favorite brainwashing tool of the famous violent cult leader Charles E Dietrich. Basically, it was a verbally abusive take no prisoners attack session. It did not stop until I was literally incapacitated by grief or anger.

When I did finally break down sobbing or ended up literally screaming until the blood vessels popped in my face, I was rewarded. This was the truly sinister part, and the part that has taken me years to just begin to grasp. Once they had gotten the right reaction out of me, once they had deemed that I had been ‘honest enough,’ then they would say all the things that every traumatized kid needs to hear. They would tell me that I was loved, that I was going to be okay. They would tell me that no child deserves to go through what I went through. They would erase every feeling of rejection and self-hate and replace it with all the warmth and love and safety that I had been lacking for my entire life. Looking back on that now it makes my blood run cold.

This didn’t just happen once or twice. It happened to me three times a week for two years. Three times a week for two years. Some sessions were worse than others. They didn’t always get to every kid in every rap. Sometimes watching it being done to another kid was worse than going through it myself. Every three months or so I had to go through what they called a Propheet. It was basically a rap, in combination with other group exercises, that lasted anywhere from 10 hours to five days. In addition to attack therapy, they also used sleep deprivation, loud music (the same song played over and over again for hours), and more intense screaming. They made me repeat lists of the worse things that had ever happened to me and the worse things that I had done. They tried to make me feel shame over the few consensual sexual encounters I had experienced at that tender age. All of this was done in front of other boys my age.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere you probably watched Game Of Thrones. When Ramsey Bolton captured and tortured Theon Grayjoy, the physical torture, though extreme, wasn’t what broke him. It was the psychological torture that broke and brainwashed him. Bolton punctuated the extreme violence with moments of tenderness. He gave Theon hope and then took it away. He became everything to his victim – torturer, but also his only source of comfort, love and kindness.

The staff at CEDU, utilizing the tools of ultimate control over us, psychologically attacked us until we were at our breaking point and then showered us with love and tenderness. The tools they used were pretty blunt instruments. None of them had ANY formal training in psychology or therapy. Many kids were pushed too far. There were suicide attempts. Some kids were sent to the mental hospital and never returned. But those of us who endured without breaking were well and truly brainwashed by the time it was over.

I turned eighteen seven months into my stay. They told me I was free to leave – but it was a cruel joke. They refused to give me back my driver’s license that they had stolen from me when I arrived. I wasn’t allowed to take any food, and they wouldn’t give me any money. Northwest Academy is located high on ruby ridge in North Idaho. As CEDU was the biggest employer in the county at the time, the locals had been instructed not to help any homeless eighteen-year-old kids. I had no one to call, and I was rightfully terrified to hitchhike out of there alone with no money and nowhere to go. (unbeknownst to me, I had actually inherited not a small sum of money from my grandmother when I turned eighteen. But my parents and the school kept that fact from me.)

As an eighteen-year-old, I was a legal adult. I had admitted to being sexually intimate with girls in my recent past. And yet Northwest Academy kept me in a dorm with girls as young as fourteen. There was no modesty in the dorms at CEDU. I had fourteen and fifteen year old girls naked around me constantly. They would crawl into my bed at night sometimes to cuddle. I didn’t know how to tell them to stop without making it weird. I would NEVER have crossed a line with any of those vulnerable girls, but CEDU didn’t know that. And even without me crossing a line, any of those girls could have accused me of impropriety. That kind of thing actually happened all the time. They had us constantly accusing each other, it was part of the control. It was bad enough when I was still legally a kid. But after I turned eighteen- CEDU’s negligence and willful disregard of the law could have made me have to register as a sex offender for the rest of my life.

There is no story of redemption here. I didn’t stand up to them and demand my lawful rights. I bowed and scraped to get by. I was desperate to earn my parent’s love and admiration and desperate for comfort and safety. I did earn a little love there eventually but it came at a cost to my psyche that I am just now beginning to comprehend. On the outside, I am a powerful independent woman. A successful business owner. A loving partner. A loyal friend. I am tough and intimidating as hell. But inside I am still Theon Greyjoy. Inside, I am reek.