When I was 15 I was in a bad place. My family had been going through rough times, I was in my “rebellious” stage, and I was mentally and emotionally unstable. I tried getting attention in all the wrong ways, having such a low sense of self worth that I eventually tried to kill myself.
On my 3rd attempt, I was met at the inpatient mental health facility ( Charter Glades) in Naples by my father, grand father, and 2 men I didn’t know. I was told that I would be going to a special school that helped teens like me. I thought, “Great! People who get what I’m feeling and know how to fix it” I was excited while I got ready. I got signed out of Charter, met my dad, grandpa, and the 2 strangers in the front waiting room. I quickly found out that I had been mistaken when I was told I wouldn’t be going home to pack, was put in hand cuffs, and put in the back of a van. I was driven to Miami and the next morning I was on a plane to Jamaica, headed to a program called Tranquility Bay.
In handcuffs the entire trip, I finally arrived at what looked more like a prison than a school. small 2 floor facility, ringed by a barbed wire fence, out in the middle of a field, with no doors or windows on the rooms and ( it was at night) guards posted around the grounds. It was pretty obvious I wasn’t in a school.
What followed were 9 and 1/2 months ( A relatively short stay compared to most) of psychological, emotional, and physical torture. And I don’t mean torture in the sense that it really sucked being there, I mean torture. We were trained to follow the most basic and simple of rules. there were dozens of rules that pertained to everything from how you would sit in a chair to protocol for walking past another person to walking in/out of a room. (this is just one example)
I quickly found out why there were no doors, they didn’t need them. In order to walk into a room, you had to stand before the threshold and raid your hand. Once acknowledged, you had to say the words ” Cross in” or “cross out” to be given permission to pass into or out of a room. It didn’t matter the reason, if you needed a book, if you were vomiting, or if you had fallen. If you didn’t have permission to cross, you were punished.
There was a system in place for rule breakers. Categories of rules from category 1 ( least severe ) to category 5 ( most severe) . The system, after a few months, became arbitrary. As you could receive a category 1 violation for crossing your legs incorrectly or a category 5 for looking at a map or scratching a mosquito bite. The consequences for these ranged anywhere from writing on a piece of paper ( sometimes 10-15 times a day) why you are wrong and the staff is right. This method was used to trick you into believing that you were less or a person than the staff members. But, depending on the mood of the staff member they could, and often would, go as far as to “restrain” anyone who they thought deserved it.
Restraint ,if you fully cooperated, entailed a loose mixture of twisting arms behind the students back, sweeping their legs to knock them down, punches or elbows to the head and neck area, and pinning students to the ground or wall via a knees or elbow. If any resistance was wet, there would be anything from slaps, verbal insults, all the way through crushing your skull into the ground and/or beating you with whatever objects (or fists) were near by. And you would be surprised at how liberally ” resistance” can be interpreted.
And these were the normal, rule biding staff members. And then there were the ones who chose not to follow the rules , as loose as those rules may be. The ones who insisted watching you shower, made you show them how you had ” self harmed” when you masturbated, beat you simply because they didn’t feel well or had a bad day, or relished in concocting new and innovative ways to hurt us. Like locking us in an un-ventilated room in 105 degree heat for an entire day, just to see how long you could stay conscious , only to beat you back to consciousness when you slumped out of your chair. Or the ones who would deny permission to use the rest room or cross in to a room, and then proceed to watch you have a panic attack when they told you that you would be getting a rules violation if you wet yourself or if you were in another room. The psychological abuse was usually worse than the physical.
To reinforce the idea that you were not a person, but a broken thing that wasn’t worth fixing, they immersed us in a setting where we were forever apologetic for actions you had little to no control over. Things like passing gas or snoring. We had to write entire essays on why it was our fault we were being treated this way and how we would fix it. But regardless of how we said we would fix it or how sincere we were about wanting to be fixed, we were constantly told that we were wrong. There was no right answer.
When students began to show complete obedience and once they themselves had shown their willingness to impress these actions on other students, they were promoted to junior staff members. Once given the power to be the oppressor instead of the oppressed, we were finally given the validation that we were almost fixed. We were safe. Make no mistake, it was still very clear we were broken, but now we were almost there. While the students were working against each other in a fight to be in this coveted position, the program would run a monthly “seminar” which was an intense 3 days of immersion into these tactics. 72 hours of beratement, beating, and and more mental trauma than we received in a month, we were sent back to the facility either broken or triumphant. The triumphant ones took the next step to becoming Junior Staff.
After 9 months of this, I finally was told that I was going home. I hadn’t made it to the Junior Staff level because I refused to ” work on my crap” or to tear down other students any more than I had to. I had only spoken to my family twice in that time. the rest of my communication was via letters that were heavily screened. Any mention of what happened in the facilities were deemed “manipulation” and met with force. Parents were told that the children were unwilling the change and usually given reports of the valiant efforts by the staff and other students to “help” their child. Parents were also required to attend similar ” seminars” where they were verbally assaulted and told that they were to blame for the state of their children, and that only the program would fix them.
I was finally sent home, still feeling broken because I had never completed the program. All of that time striving, hungry for the seal of approval that I was fixed, and it never came. Instead I was met with positive messages of “wow that place really straightened you out!” or ” You look so healthy now! look at the weight you lost!” or ” We’re so glad you’re all better”. The entire time I could only wonder what they saw that I didn’t. How could I be fixed if I hadn’t been told I was fixed?
Before leaving, I was told very explicitly that there was a guarantee given to parents that they would get 6 months free if they believed that their children were falling ” back into their crap”. So for the next 2 years, I convinced myself I was better. I played the part of someone who was fixed. But on the inside, I was broken. I knew it, but they didn’t have to. I could keep the secret to myself. I would be fine as long as they didn’t hear the cries in the night, see the fear in my eyes when speaking to someone who wasn’t broken, or sense that I was being less than truthful with them.
When I turned 18, I had begun to forget the details of where I had been. I still knew I was broken, but I started to forget why. Slowly, they “why” and “how” were blanketed in subtle layers of apathy, self loathing, and indifference. The fixed person I was pretending to be took over the broken person I really was. And he only broke through when triggered. When I was startled I would become terrified, when I was touched I would cringe, when I slept I had to keep my back to the wall to feel secure, when I had a superior I craved their approval. The remnants of that broken person, the real person I subconsciously still believed myself to be, surfaced in the most mundane ways, yet I had forgotten why.
I told very few people at first. My girlfriend (now wife), a few friends, and my siblings. But i had buried so much of it, that I was unable to paint a full picture of what had happened. I forced myself so strongly to forget, that I didn’t know what I had forced out. So I carried on, only telling my wife when any small bits and pieces bubbled to the surface. And she was loving, supportive, and patient. She didn’t know exactly why I did some of the things I did, but she didn’t care. She was always there for me.
Over a year ago, I came across a group of other people who had been to similar programs in Mexico, Costa Rica, Samoa, Colorado, and more. The more they talked, the more I remembered. The broken man inside of me began to stir. But this time, I was surrounded by other broken people. People who weren’t hiding. People who weren’t’ ashamed. People who weren’t….broken. They’re not broken, but hey should be. How was it possible? Then it began to dawn on me, everyone is broken. All of us. Not just those of us who were sent away. But every normal person out there. All of us hiding, none of us speaking.
I was never broken in the to begin with.But that place, that place had broken me more than the normal person. They had left scars that would take my entire life to heal. And now I’m angry. I’m angry because my parents felt they didn’t have a choice. I’m angry because they were lied to. I’m angry that I was lied to. I’m angry that someone made a profit on my suffering. But most of all, I’m furious that those same people are STILL profiting on my silence. No more. I will no longer remain silent about the abuse. About the torture, About the rape. I will no longer lick my old wounds while fresh ones are being created.
So I chose to break my silence. I chose to tell everyone I can, as publicly as I can, that they can support those who have been abused and stop those that could be abused.
Survivors can speak, tell their stories, and give other survivors of abuse hope and courage to break their silence as well. If you’ve never suffered abuse, you can show your support for stopping institutionalized abuse by doing exactly what I did.