As I walked into the garage I was greeted by three people. My mother, my stepdad and an off duty police officer. “Today we are taking you to your new school” My mother said. What the actual fuck. Then, the police officer handcuffed my right hand to his left hand and we got in the backseat of my stepdad’s car. It was 7 hours to Donalds, South Carolina. The only word I said for 7 hours was “yeah” when my stepdad asked if I wanted a sandwich from Subway.
We arrived to what looked like an old plantation mansion but it was all complete bullshit. Behind the mansion, into the woods, were double wide trailers. Girls were outside dressed in yellow sweatpants and yellow shirts with small emblems on them but I couldn’t make out what they said. I got out of the car, it was time for my mom to say bye to me. She reached out and said “give me a hug, I love you”. I looked her straight in the eyes and said “fuck you”. She cried and then quickly drove away.
After my parents left, I walked into the dorm which was lined with old wood paneling and metal bunkbeds. Everything was old as fuck and rusty but painted over to make it look clean. There were posters with annoying positivity quotes on the walls and family pictures above each girl’s bed. As we walked through the dorm and into this back laundry room nobody spoke. I looked around and made eye contact with several girls and staff but still, nobody spoke. Complete silence.
I found out shortly that the only person permitted to speak to me was a more veteran girl who would be checking my items in. 7 pairs of white underwear, 7 pairs of white socks, 2 white bras. The girl wrote my last name in sharpie on the back of each of my items. I received my yellow sweats and my school uniform which was the typical schoolgirl attire. I’d shortly learn that if you wanted a boyfriend, you should roll your skirt up a few times. I found this tactic to work a few months later.
“So I will be here for 8 weeks right?” I asked. The girl laughed, she had been there for almost 2 years. I stared blankly at the wood paneled walls.
The first night was rough. I was in the middle of nowhere, in a trailer, surrounded by wilderness in all directions. If you ran, every police officer and emergency personnel would be dispatched within minutes. We thought about running often, hell, I thought about it the first night, but it seemed impossible to get away with. I was awoke by the brightness of fluorescent overhead lights, the type that bugs usually make into their permanent homes and the sound of an old country lady yelling “TIME TO GET UP”. Me, 14, troubled, confused, scared and mostly just pissed off, sat in my bunk while the other girls got ready for breakfast. All the other girls immediately jumped out of bed, completed head count and then started making their beds, military style.
I sat on the top bunk. Girls whispered as they walked by my bunk “Get up. Don’t refuse, you’ll end up in worksheets.”, “You don’t want to do this, trust me. Nobody is coming to get you, get up and get dressed.”
Everyone was ready now and in line waiting to go to breakfast. I remained on my bed. Two staff members walked over to my bed, told me to get up. When I refused to get up, they pulled my mattress from underneath me and left me sitting on the metal bedframe. I quickly realized that refusing wasn’t going to get me out. My parents were not coming to get me. I was stuck.
The first few weeks I’d learning about the program. Everything is based on earning points to achieve higher levels. The program levels are 0-6. You earn points daily for good behaviors and lose points for breaking the rules. You vote up for each level in front of your peers and “family group leader”. You come in at level 0 and you don’t have any privileges. At level 1 you can have salt on your food and juice with meals. At level 3 you can shave your legs on Sundays and talk to your parents once a week on the phone. At level 4 you can go on passes to the mall with your family and wear makeup. At level 5 and 6 you are preparing to go home and spend weeks at home and then come back to the program.
We did “group therapy” three times a day. Instead of a therapist running the group it was our family group leader, who was basically just a strict Mormon lady who needed a job. My first experience with “group therapy” was after being in the program for a few days. Each girl was directed to stand, state their personal purpose statement and then tell us why they are here. Lots of girls shared stories about sexual trauma, drug addiction and being a part of gangs.
It was my turn to stand. So said my personal purpose statement and it goes like this:
“Hi, my name is Erica. I am a beautiful, bold and strong young woman” and then the whole group would chant “YES YOU ARE”. One of the reasons why I am here is because I took a 3 foot rot iron candlestick to my mother’s red powder room and destroyed every inch of it, my mother found me sitting in pieces of broken glass and part of the vanity. I am here because I smoked weed and snuck out of the basement to hang out with men much older than me. I am here because I am angry as fuck. I am here because I don’t want to go to school and hear things like “I’d fuck her if she’d put a paper bag over her head”. I am here because after trying therapy, it didn’t work. I am here because I will likely fail the 8th grade.
Silence. The silence will start to get to you. Every day, we are on silence. At meals, we sit in silence while listening to taped copies of Zig Ziglar. In school, we stare at torn books and write notes in silence. We walk in straight lines, on silence. If someone smiles at you and you smile back, this would be considered nonverbal communication. You would get a rule violation. When the boys program walks by, we turn the other way, with our backs to them so they can’t see our faces or bodies. When you need something from staff or an upper level girl, you used hand motions. When you need to sit, you motioned downwards with your hand. If you needed to stand up, you made a motion with your pointed finger. If you needed to do your hair, you patted your head and got the attention of staff to give you the okay.
Despite the silence, somehow I managed to make a few lifelong friends. Human connection was something I craved and unfortunately, it was very difficult to get. If you were lucky to get a bunk buddy, this would be the person you would have the most opportunity to interact with. You could quietly talk between the bunks while getting ready, or pass notes up and down the bunks when staff weren’t looking. One time, I even made out with one of my bunk buddies in the bathroom. We are still friends today, you know who you are. The funniest memory is when one of my bunk buddies tied all of my stuffed animals to the ceiling fan with dental floss and then turned the fan on. All the stuffed animals twirled around hanging by their necks. It looked like some horrific and hilarious murder scene.
After 6 months of only writing letters to my parents, I had finally earned the privilege to make a phone call. I wanted to scream and ask to come home, but I knew the phone would have been hung up if I had said anything. I don’t remember anything that my mom and I talked about, I was too angry to listen anyway.
I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was earning points and following the rules. At the same time, I was writing home almost every day, begging to go home. “Mom, please come get me. This place is not what you think. Why are you doing this to me? Please, PLEASE come get me.”
On Sundays, we had hot breakfast which consisted of southern favorites like grits and eggs, except these southern goods came from Sysco cans that may or may not have been expired. Still, it was better than cold cereal and water like the other 6 days a week. We also got to have devotional on Sundays. This is when the local Mennonites came to our school and boys and girls were allowed to be in the same room, facing each other. This is where you got a boyfriend, if you wanted one. If a boy looked at you for long enough, congratulations! That’s your boyfriend. This is where I mine, lets call him Mithcell. Mitchell was a little bit older and from a gang in Florida. Obviously, I was intrigued and very into Mitchell. Mitchell would leave me love notes in the pockets of my jeans at the horse barn. This was one of the only areas where both boys and girls went at different times and could pass notes. Of course, after you read your note, you would need to shred it and immediately flush it so you didn’t get caught. Most days, looking forward to getting a note from Mitchell was the only thing keeping me sane. One time, he brought me a tiny red heart pillow. It said “M loves E” in sharpie. I cut a hole in my pillow and shoved it in the center for safe keeping.
After I had been there for a year, I was pulled into the front mansion to discuss a situation. The situation went like this “We heard you and Mitchell made out in front of the boys dorm a few weeks ago.” I lied and said that it did not happen. “Well, Mitchell told the truth already. He is losing one level. You are dropping back to 0”. I had just made level 4, I could go on passes in the outside world with my parents, I could shave my legs anytime, I could use makeup and hair products and even stay up a little later.
Fuckkkkk. Everything I had worked for was gone. My letters home were more heated at this point. I begged my parents. “MOM, PLEASE COME GET ME. I WILL DO ANYTHING TO GET OUT OF HERE. THIS MAKES NO SENSE.”
5 months later, I watched all my shit being politely packed into black trash bags and hauled up to the front house. I hand hugged my friends, because physical touch was against the rules. I said my goodbyes and made sure that my friends knew how to contact me.
The intention of the program was to take a wild, aggressive and out of control teenager and turn them into a polite, well behaved productive member of society. But this didn’t happen for me.
I have nightmares about this place. Sometimes I am 14 or 18 and back in the program and can’t leave and I would wake up not knowing if I was in my own bed or back at the school.
I’m not sure I deserved to be there in the first place. Sure, I was wild and I still am. My behavior at 14 was a cry for help. Now, close to 12 years later, I am a parent to a 4 year old girl. My job as a parent to guide her, support her and nurture her mental health. I want to make sure she feels my love for her. If she ever shows me a wild side, I will be there for her. I will never give up on making sure she feels loved and supported and always accepted for who she is, wild or not.
Curious about this place?