“Brightway: The Wrongway for Youth”
Very early one morning, shortly before Halloween 1997, several large men burst into my room, put in handcuffs, and dragged me away right in front of my parents, and they did nothing. They did nothing because they had hired the men and paid them to take me. It was a legal kidnapping, and there was nothing I could do.
The men took almost all the way across the country, from airport to airport, Orlando to Atlanta to Houston to Dallas to Las Vegas…and then we drove. I couldn’t see anything in the night as we drove through the desert that night. The men told me nothing except that we were headed to Utah. And then, in the early morning hours again, almost 24 hours after I had left, I finally arrived.
As they dragged me towards the building, it didn’t look special in any particular way. Just a one-story, nondescript building. The sign out front said “Brightway Adolescent Hospital”. My first idea of what life here was really going to be like was when we paused at the front door. The “escorts” pushed a button and waited til the door buzzed and swung ponderously open.
They dragged me in and I began the process of intake. First they asked me a seemingly endless series of questions about my drug use )none), my sexual experiences (sadly, again none) and so on and so forth ad naseum. Then I was weighed and measured, and after that, I was stripped, then searched.
All my clothes were taken from me, and I was given a cup of foul-smelling liquid. I was told to go take a shower and wash my whole body with it. I asked what it was, and I was told it was flea and lice shampoo. I went into the shower and turned it on. Have I mentioned I’m from FLORIDA? And apparently Utah is freezing cold in October? Well, there was no hot water in that shower. I tried and tried every which way on the handle, I waited and waited.. Eventually I gave up and bit the bullet. I still remember how cold that water was. I shook so hard I could barely lather up with that nasty shampoo. But eventually I got it done. I emerged from the shower and I was given, not my clothes, but a thin hospital gown to wear. Here’s the thing: I’m a big guy, 6’4” or thereabouts, and even at 14 I was around 6’1”. And yet, this was a hospital for kids. The problem quickly became clear: their gowns were sized for kids, and, as one of my friends put it to me, it was like a shirt on me. The thing barely covered my “areas”, and quite frankly they still hung out, if you catch my drift. But all my clothes had been taken, and I was enforced to wear it the way it was. There didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it, so I shrugged and accepted my fate. The tech informed me there wasn’t a bed for me that night, not until someone shipped off to another program in the morning. So he improvised. I was led to a room marked “Seclusion”. The door had a window in it. When he opened that door, and I got a glimpse of the room inside, I was horrified. The room was tiny, so tiny in fact that a small cot had to wedged diagonally to even fit inside. But even worse than that, the cot had seatbelt-like straps across it, clearly intended to tie the bed’s occupant down. (It reminded me of the bed Sarah Connor is strapped down on in the beginning of Terminator 2.) I began to panic thinking of spending the night tied down in those straps. The tech seemed to sense my panic, and informed me as long as I behaved myself I would be spared from that, at least. He told me to lie down and go to sleep, but it was hard, since they didn’t turn the lights off, and I spent the night staring at the very prominent video camera recording my every move.
Early the next morning they came and woke me up. Strangely enough, waking up was when the nightmare truly began. I was led out into a small room and that’s when I realized that Brightway was a co-ed facility. The girls were pretty, and they were around my age, and they were staring at me…and that’s when I remembered my current state of dress. Quite embarrassing. For a socially awkward 14-year old boy, it was devastating. I don’t even think people can imagine. A lot of bad things happened to me in my time in the program: isolation, torture, electrocution, tetanus. I rate this by far the worst. I’m sure I turned red as a beet. I wanted to crawl into a hole, preferably one very far away, and die, but I wouldn’t be let off the hook that easily. My appeals to the staff went on deaf ears, and I began to learn the very first lesson every new child must learn when entering a WWASP school: What must be endured, can be endured. And what cannot be changed (basically everything in the WWASP system), must be endured. That morning I also began my indoctrination into the WWASP rules system. The rules at Brightway were many in number and often complicated in application. Rules included asking for permission for literally everything, such as standing, sitting, talking, going to the bathroom, even burping. Talking to other students was not allowed, and looking out the window, any window, was a rule violation of the most serious kind. That got you put into the straps on that awful little bed that still haunts my memory. The most curious rule involved a restriction of travel. You had to be under the supervision of a staff member at all times, either in person or via the series of security cameras everywhere. The facility was broken into blocks of monitoring, delineated by the placement of pairs of small, round, brightly colored stickers near the floor at every doorway and at various places along halls and in corners. When you got to one of these stickers, you had to stop, and then yell the word “cross”. That would draw the staff’s attention, and once they were monitoring you, they would reply with “cross” and you could safely walk on to the next pair.
The next order of business was for me to be seen and evaluated by some sort of mental health type. I think he was a psychiatrist but I’m not sure and I never caught his name. I think it was Dr. Goates, but I can’t really remember. I mostly remember that we talked, and at the end of it, right in front me he pulled out this tape recorder and started dictating. What he said wasn’t very complimentary, things like that I was clearly in denial about my drug use (I wasn’t) and that I exhibited signs of defiance, and so on. I felt like what he was doing was extremely condescending and rude. I mean, to talk about someone like they aren’t even there, and to say rude and untrue things about them while you’re doing it isn’t exactly the height of good manners. I said something to him, and he blew me off and told me not to interrupt him. That’s when I got pissed. I admit, I blew up a little bit as all the anger, frustration, humiliation, and fear of the last day and a nalf came to a head. I started yelling and got in his face, and frankly, I was bigger than he was. I wasn’t going to hurt him, I just wanted him to stop, and that’s what I told him, but all the blood drained out of his face and he started yelling for help. The tech on duty ran in, quickly took in the situation, grabbed me, and dragged me out. That was the first time I was ever restrained in a WWASP program (it only happened one other time, I mostly kept my head down and toed the line.) I quickly found myself back in the little room marked “Seclusion” with the scary little bed that had the scary little straps and the big brother security camera watching everything.
I begged shamelessly not be strapped down, and they agreed, with the caveat that if I acted up at all not only were they going to come in and beat my ass and strap me down, they would also shoot me full of thorazine, and they told me the thorazine would make me “shit my pants” and then I would have to “lie in it all day.” I don’t know how long they left me in there. It probably wasn’t that long but it felt like years. I had nothing to do, the room was tiny and getting smaller fast, and I was scared out of my mind that any second they would come barging in to make good on their earlier threats.
However long it was, eventually they let me out, and they gave me my real clothes back. I could have kissed the guy. I went back and it was time to finish my indoctrination and training to be a good little WWASP student. I was told to write a letter to my parents, and so I did. It began, “Dear Mom and Dad,
Fuck you for doing this to me…” WWASP heals families….right, sure. I have no idea if that letter made it or not, since they read all our mail. I’m not even sure which I would prefer.
After the letter writing, it was time for school. Of course, in a short-term, transient type program like Brightway, school had little meaning since any work completed didn’t follow the student to their permanent facility. I believe the only point was to start getting kids used to WWASP-style school arrangements, namely working at your own pace, teaching yourself, and having no support from a teacher. So instead of actual schoolwork, we did book reports. I remember both reading The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway and writing the book report in under a day and the “teacher” being amazed. I did a ton of book reports while I was there out of sheer boredom. It was that or just pretend to be doing book reports, and I abhor having nothing to do.
The days gradually began to pass and blur together. They were giving me pills, lots of pills, even waking me up at night to give me more. I have no idea what they were, even to this day. I was never told. I never gave informed consent. They told me to take the pills, and in a WWASP school it is always advisable to do as you’re told, as I was quickly learning, so I took the pills. Besides, all the other kids were on tons of pills, too, so it didn’t seem so weird at the time. I think the pills were sedatives administered in order to keep us in line. I was so out of it the whole time I was there I don’t even know how long I was there.
I do remember Halloween passing, though. It went largely unremarked and uncelebrated except that I think we had to do some dumb arts and craft project that would have bored a 10-year old. Other than that, nothing as far as I remember. No costumes and no candy, no trick or treating. Almost no acknowledgment of the holiday at all. It was a pattern I was going to grow all too used to.
Finally my last day came, and I was to be shipped off to Samoa. There were 6 of us headed there, apparently quite a large group. The last night, they put us all in a room with a TV, which none of us had watched since our arrivals, and threw us a sort-of little party. They showed us movies all night. I remember watching “Stand By Me” and “Red Dawn.” We had to watch. No one was allowed to sleep. If anyone drifted off he was awakened, roughly if necessary. The gaiety began to leak out of the party. The next morning, still very early, they dressed us in our travel clothes: short blue shorts, white t-shirts, and flip-flops with white socks. We all knew the score. Those clothes were designed to make it hard to run, both by making us stand out and by, in the case of the socks and flip-flops, literally making it physically hard to run. They took us all outside, my first time since arriving, and put us in a van to take us to the airport in Las Vegas.
The drive back to the airport, just like the drive in, seemed to take forever, but at least the second time I could see the scenery. Being from Florida, I had never seen a desert before and had rarely seen mountains, cliffs, and hills like the ones I could see. All too soon, though, the drive was over and we were in Las Vegas. There was one more stop, however, and little did I know but involved one of the last acts of kindness I was to experience from the WWASP staff for years.
The van pulled into a gas station with a large convenience store. The staff members with us asked us what we wanted for our “last meals.” I don’t know what anyone else asked for, but I asked for Twizzlers and a Mountain Dew. I got Red Vines and a Dr. Pepper, but it was close enough. That was the last thing I hate in America for almost 2 years. Sometimes I still buy that combo as a snack and reminisce.
After that they got us out the van and into the airport, got our tickets, and took us to the gates, where armed guards awaited to both keep us from running or causing trouble and to thoroughly embarrass us since ever person who walked past just had to stop and gawk at us. Even worse awaited us at LAX, but that’s part of another story, not part of this one.
To sum up, Brightway was nothing more than a stopping-over point, a resting place for WWASP-bound travelers. It was designed to begin the pacification and breaking process while indoctrinating those in its care to WWASP rules, points, and level systems. It had no valid treatment, no teacher, and untrained staff. The rules were strange and harsh. It was not a hospital in any sense of the word. I gained nothing from my time there except a good idea of how to act in WWASP programs: keep your head down and always look busy. Brightway was closed in March 1998, the first WWASP program to be shut down, and in some way that’s fitting to me, since it was also the first WWASP program for so many students.