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Parents of Struggling Teens: Choose Carefully When Selecting a Therapeutic Boot Camp, Boarding School, or Wilderness Program

teen sitting before mountain lake

June 26th, 2010. I was running on little to no sleep. Suddenly, I was shaken awake, still a little drunk. I was able to focus on my parents. But there was someone else, an older man. My parents were crying. I may have been in shock, but I was not stupid. I had heard of interventions and quickly assumed that one was taking place. I told everyone to get out of my room and thought that was the end of it. I had always been able to finagle my way out of trouble. I even tried to convince myself I was only dreaming and closed my eyes.

When I opened them again, I realized it was no dream. A woman and a powerfully built man were standing by my bedside. They started shouting at me and screaming orders. I resisted at first, kicking the woman in the stomach, which only made her more aggressive. The shock was so incapacitating. Screaming and crying, I pleaded for them to bring me to my parents. But all they did was shout that I needed to pack fast as I had a flight to catch. I thought they enjoyed watching me in pain. I quickly realized there was no way out of this, so I listened and obeyed.

After they physically dragged me out of my apartment building and put me in a car, they told me I was heading to the airport. They did not talk to me. They just handed me letters from my parents. My parents wrote that they loved me and I was going somewhere to get better. I did not know for how long, I did not know where. I did not know if it was a wilderness boot camp or a boarding school. I just knew I was being sent away.

I had friends who were “sent away,” but I never thought my parents would do that to me. Not like this. I felt anger that day, but it went deeper than that. I wanted to die and even tried to make it happen, attempting to open the car door and jump out. I thought about jumping outside of the emergency exit on the plane. I was so disturbed by everything that was unfolding that I did not want to be here anymore. The lack of information did not help. No one was there to offer comfort or tell me I would be okay, which was all I wanted to hear.

The entire flight, I was shaking, sobbing, and begging for answers, but the transporters gave me none. I remember the man asking, “What are they sending you away for? You do PCP?” He laughed, a malevolent laugh. Those were the only words they exchanged with me.

We finally landed, and I realized I was in the desert. Then, as we got closer to the terminal, I realized I was in Tucson, Arizona. It was sweltering, and I was traumatized and exhausted. I was drained in every sense of the word, but I had no choice but to comply. Obeying orders became the norm because if you’re smart, in those places, with those kinds of people, you know it is the only way to make it through. Survival mode kicked in, and even though I did not like the idea of obeying, I learned to do as told.

A town car was waiting for me, and the transporters ushered me into it. A woman was driving. She seemed nice enough. I asked her, “How long am I supposed to be here?” She answered, “Ninety days, minimum.” Even though I was distraught, the fact that she answered gave me comfort.

I arrived at the center, confused by its pleasant appearance. Later, I found out it had once been a dude ranch for the rich and the famous. That explained why the facilities were so nice. I believe that is why it appealed to my family and therapist. It really looked like a beautiful place to help your child.

 Once I arrived, they instructed me to see a nurse. The intake process was fast. I was treated like a prisoner. They had me strip naked, drug tested me, weighed me, and took my vitals. I was in. I was not medically detoxed, which was reckless on their part. The list of their mishaps would grow longer.

I was finally ready to meet my new therapist. When I walked into her office, I demanded to speak to my parents, explaining that they had made a terrible mistake sending me there. The therapist said I could not talk to them. “You will have to earn that. You can usually write approved letters when you get to Phase 2. There is a whole guidebook of rules.”

At that moment, I shut down. From then on, I counted the days to the next phase, They told me there would be a graduation if I got to Phase 3, so I made sure to get myself to Phase 3. I was well-behaved, and when I was corrected, I did not fight it. I am unsure of how much my parents knew because the calls were supervised once I earned the right to speak with them.

We did very intense therapy groups every day and school on weekdays. We could talk to each other, but we would get written up if it was not appropriate or if we were glorifying our lives back home. There was a certain level of conduct we had to abide by, and although we tried to look out for one another, there was an every-person-for-herself mentality. When a girl was disobedient, she went on a “one to one,” and we could not speak or interact with her. We were in an all-girls unit of about ten girls. What I remember most was the idea that we were all supposed to work the program. All I wanted to do was go home, so  I did what I was told and tried to make the best out of it.

The reality of what happens in many programs of this sort has been described in documentaries, memoirs, and podcasts. There are countless heart-wrenching survivor stories that draw attention to the atrocities within this industry. Most of them point out that many survivors no longer speak with their families, have died of overdoses, or are in jail. I felt I was headed that way, and I attempted to end my life a few times after I was discharged from this and other treatment centers. I felt like I was broken. Today, I am in recovery and doing well, but there were many times when my story could have ended differently if I had listened to the voices inside my head stemming from the degrading “attack” therapy I received in those facilities.

Despite my difficulties in various treatment centers, I wanted to write this piece to raise hope and awareness. Facilities that use negative, harmful, and abusive methods still exist. My hope is that struggling teens and their families can use my and countless other survivors’ stories to rewrite narratives for the future.

Parents, other loved ones, and therapists need to do their homework because these extreme facilities have been proven to make matters worse. These children need places that genuinely care. Today, there are many resources available for families of struggling teens to develop a plan that is truly healing and genuinely helps them with their recovery.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialists can help you find expert mental health resources and support in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service.

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About the Author: Emily Zinman is a writer, certified holistic healing professional, and person in recovery. She grew up in Manhattan and lives in Connecticut.

May Is Mental Health Month 2024

Where to Start: Mental health in a changing world

May is Mental Health Month, a time to spread public awareness and education about mental health conditions and reflect on the impact of mental illness on individuals and their families.

The world is constantly changing – for better or for worse – and it can be overwhelming to deal with everything going on. While society is becoming more comfortable discussing mental health, it can still be hard to know "Where to Start" when it comes to taking care of your own well-being.

This month, we will feature blog posts and information to help you or a loved one get started on the path to mental wellbeing.

Mental Health Month is also a time to recognize and commit to changing the racial and economic inequities in our healthcare system, especially in the treatment of mental health conditions.

www.rtor.org and its sponsor Laurel House are committed to advancing racial equity and social justice and making mental health services accessible to all.

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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