When I Was Seventeen, My Parents Sent Me Away to a Christian Boarding School for "Troubled Teens"

I was told that the program could usually be completed in a year or two. I lost it — I had assumed I’d been sent to a two-week boot camp or something similar, and even that idea had me freaking out.
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Publish date:
July 7, 2015
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parents, family, teenagers, boarding school

My parents had threatened to send me away for years, but I’d never taken them seriously. We've always had a tenuous relationship; while I was growing up we fought constantly, I had a habit of either lying about my whereabouts or running away, and I’d been 5150ed twice after threatening to hurt myself. I was depressed and felt generally out of control.

Then, when I was sixteen, a psychiatrist met with me during one of my 72-hour holds and misdiagnosed me as bipolar. I was prescribed medication that added 35 pounds to my already changing body, which increased my depression and amplified the feeling that I was not in control of what happened to me. It was around that time that I began drinking heavily and experimenting with drugs, and when my mom heard about this from a friend’s parents, I suppose it was the last straw.

My mom and dad quietly made plans for me to attend Julian Youth Academy, while I was none the wiser. That is, until I woke up at 6 o’clock in the morning on the first day of summer to the startling jolt of a tall man kicking my twin daybed. Steve was the first in a long line of strangers who would have more control over my actions than I did. He told me to put on sweatpants as my mom and brother watched from the doorframe.

My brother looked as scared as I felt; my parents hadn't told him about their plans for me, either. I kicked and screamed a bit before resigning in shock. I put on my sweatpants and hoodie, followed Steve outside, and sat in the back of the van, unable to speak. He drove me down to Julian Youth Academy for the foreseeable future.

Julian Youth Academy is a Christian program, though we aren’t a Christian family. My parents made the choice based on a recommendation and a few comparisons, and that was that. During my initial intake (a process during which I was strip-searched, prohibited from making a phone call, and denied the opportunity to ask questions or express my anxiety) I was told that the program could usually be completed in a year and a half to two years. I lost it, then—my face got hot and red, and tears poured from my eyes as I sat, silently shaking. I had assumed I’d been sent to a two-week boot camp or something similar, and even that idea had me freaking out.

I was also told the program worked on a points system—the system is kind of hard to explain, but let’s just say that points can basically be earned by doing what you’re told and can be lost by acting out. Once a certain number of points is earned, you jump a level, and different levels come with different privileges. These “privileges” are what we in the real world would usually just call rights, like talking to the people you live with or the option to call your mother. These "privileges" are a way of feeling a little more in control in nearly untenable circumstances.

At the end of my intake, I was given some ridiculous Tweety-Bird pajamas to wear and a pair of tattered slippers. It was explained that such clothing was meant to deter new students from running away, and that I’d only have to wear them for a few days. I was also told I wouldn’t be allowed to talk for three days, except to communicate basic needs—this was something called “no-talk,” and was supposedly for my own benefit. They told me that the initial no-talk period would allow me to observe, learn the rules, and stay out of trouble.

The first few weeks were a blur, but because our daily routine was highly regimented, I learned quickly how to go through the motions. We slept in cramped portable classrooms that had been converted into dorm rooms (the original school buildings had burnt down in a fire the year before), with ten to twelve bunk beds in each. Our mornings started early, and we each got ten minutes in the bathroom to shower and put on our polo shirts and khakis before heading to the dining hall for 30 minute devotionals.

It was suggested that we read the Bible or other Christian texts, but we were also allowed to journal or sit quietly (I always sat quietly). After that, it was breakfast and school, which was done individually on computers. We all entered the program at different levels and none of the staff were qualified teachers, anyway. Then lunch, more school, P.E., chores, and dinner. Everything was timed down to the minute, and we weren’t allowed to talk to each other except for during meals, a ten minute break during the school day, and an hour or so in the dorms at night.

It had turned out that even after my first three days of no-talk, I still didn’t want to talk to anyone. This turned out to be fine, because those on the lower levels can only talk to upper level students, anyway, so my selection of friends to choose from was limited.

At JYA, there were many “no-talk subjects.” We weren’t allowed to talk about secular music, our friends back home, movies above a rating of PG, or about our “issues”—the reasons we were there. Basically, we couldn’t connect over any of the things teenagers normally do in the real world, and if it was found out that we’d had a conversation about such topics, we’d be docked points and separated permanently from whoever we’d made friends with.

Fear was a major motivator at JYA. We were encouraged to tell on each other in the name of accountability; it was a way to control our behavior by causing us to be scared of each other. In retrospect, I believe it was a low-effort way for the staff to "manage" us troubled girls. If we saw one of our peers doing something wrong (from looking at each other during a no-talk time and giggling, to passing notes, to sneaking extra food in the kitchen while on lunch-duty) we were supposed to write the student's name and offense on a notecard for staff. It was like a suggestion box from hell.

This accountability system coupled with the restrictions on our conversation topics made all connections feel like surface level friendships; or worse, like alliances made to show the staff we were functioning properly, that we had the emotional capacity to connect to other human beings. It was a weird feeling, being both encouraged to make friends and also to turn on them if they did so much as giggle at the wrong time. I was always looking over my shoulder, scared that I had done something wrong and would be told on, even if I knew I hadn’t.

If you ever did something wrong (including failure to notify staff about a violation you were aware of, even if you didn't participate), you’d be punished. Punishments always came with docking of points—that was a given. We were also sometimes made to write Bible verses hundreds of times, or to run laps around the dirt track. Even worse, some girls were put on “no-talk” for days at a time, during which they were only allowed to communicate basic needs.

It's worth mentioning that I've blacked out a lot of this time period. I don't have many memories of my experiences there, of conversations I had or the friendships I made, though I do remember nearly every single rule. I think this is a survival tactic. I think I remember only the information that I needed to make it through and discarded that which hurts to recall. I do, however, remember the one time I really got in trouble.

While I was there, I became extremely close with another student named Emilie. We somehow managed to connect, even with all the restrictions placed on our conversations; we "wrote" poetry out loud together (we weren't allowed to put anything on paper while we were in groups, because that was considered passing notes, and staff was concerned we would make plans to escape), we talked about our goals for the future, and we got as close to talking about our issues as we could without actually breaking any rules.

Our friendship helped me feel as normal as I possibly could in those circumstances; then, staff pulled us both aside one day after chores and told us we couldn't be friends any longer. We were also informed we'd be put on level hold the next time points were counted.

The reason we were given was that staff was concerned we were focusing on our friendship too much, and that it might be interfering with our progress. I think it was just another way to keep us afraid and under their control. We handed over our name tags and they wrote "No-talk to Emilie" on mine, "No-talk to Rosemary" on hers. It was salt on the wound, a signal to let other students know to inform staff if we so much as looked at each other.

Because I got sent away when I was seventeen, I turned eighteen nine months into my stay. When you turn eighteen in the program, you technically have a choice to leave; however, the staff advises your parents to tell you they won’t let you back home if you do.

I desperately wanted to leave,especially because my birthday was right after the unwelcome dissolution of my relationship with Emilie, but I was too scared to lose everything. I think I knew in my heart that my parents would never really kick me out (and they never threatened to—this was just a rumor I heard about what staff tells parents from other girls), but I was already so indoctrinated into the culture of fear and control that residential treatment programs count on that I was too scared to make such a decision for myself. I decided to put my head down, work hard, and stick it out. I stayed out of trouble for the most part and graduated the program in a total of fifteen months.

I am considered a "success story" because I didn't get sent back (I couldn't; I was too old) and I mostly stayed out of trouble after graduation. From what I've heard, however, success stories are the minority. Some of the girls I lived with graduated and then got sent right back to JYA, and others turned to harder drugs than they were into before, abusive partners, or worse. The program was incredibly isolating, and I am resentful that the staff members were not held to a higher standard. Some of the girls I lived with needed more help than I did and didn’t receive adequate counseling or care—in fact, none of the staff were required to go through any counseling training.

Now that I think of it, it seems like the YMCA and residential summer camps require more stringent qualifications than JYA does for their staff. I know of a few students who’d experienced sexual assault or other traumatic experiences before getting sent away, and the staff told them (and often, their parents) they were lying and being manipulative to try and get out of the program. Many of the issues these girls dealt with (including some of the things I disclosed to staff while I was there) were not addressed responsibly. It makes my blood boil, just thinking about it.

I don’t fault my parents for sending me there, and I don’t blame myself for the actions that led to their decision. We were all doing our best with the cards we were given; them with a child like me, and me with all the emotions and hormones swirling in my brain during my teenage years.

I do, however, fault the program. Even though I made it through relatively unscathed, I still deal with some residual effects from such a rigid structure; I'm incredibly nervous to break even the most arbitrary of rules in the name of fun. I am a bit of a control freak because I had no control over my own life for so long (on my resume, I phrase this quality as "detail oriented") and I get flustered and anxious easily when plans change. I am scared to get in trouble or speak out of turn, even ten years later.

However, some pieces of the experience were helpful; it provided a safe distance for my family and me to work on things, and a clean slate once I returned. In fact, when I tell stories from my days pre-JYA and my parents shake their heads, I like to joke that I've done my time.

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AUTHOR NOTE: Thanks for reading, everyone. I want to respond to some of the negative comments about my parents—while I understand the reaction and appreciate commenters "siding" with me, I want to speak to this a little because I am realizing I didn't truly represent how many OTHER options they'd tried before this. They were truly at the end of their rope—they didn't just send me there as the first option, we tried other things for years (therapy, individual and as a family, and more) and I was not cooperative. That being said, I don't fault myself, either.

The program presented itself in such a way that they had no idea what was going on. They talked to other parents, and they did a tour of the campus, during which they talked to students about their experiences (supposedly candidly). However, I participated in these tours while I was on campus, and I know the truth. The students were either unable to be honest or pretty brainwashed at that point. I know I said positive things to prospective parents because I was scared to get in trouble. Staff also monitored all of our letters home and made us rewrite things that were "too manipulative" or, let's face it, too honest. SO, while we have talked openly about the experience (we are very close today) and they now have a full picture of what went on and how I felt, they couldn't know that going in, and were truly out of options for me. I had threatened to hurt/kill myself multiple times, lied constantly, and would shut down completely in therapy. I don't like what happened to me, but I understand why it happened.