Joined: Dec 2006
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personal story about "behavior modification"
I wrote a personal story about my experience in a behavior modification program in upstate new york - it was a while ago that I wrote it and so the stuff at the end about what I'm doing now isn't really accurate. anyway...
Quote: This story began as a letter I'm writing to a lawyer in Orange County, New York who was interested in what the Family Foundation School (that's where I went) was actually like, since lots of kids from Orange County get sent there. I decided to post it on the website too. This is the story that inspired the Misled Youth Network...
I went to the Family Foundation School between March of 2002 to July 2003. I was sent there because I was cutting school, and was often depressed and antisocial. My mom had sent my sister there a year or so earlier because she was doing a lot of drugs and addicted to heroin. My sister was improving there, and the Family School advertises that it works for any "troubled teen," drug addict or not, so my mom figured it would straighten me out as well. The Family School was like a sadistic Orwellian version of Alcoholics Anonymous. The AA "big book" somewhere states that it is nearly impossible for an alcoholic to get sober without first "hitting bottom," or reaching a state of complete misery and helplessness. So the Family School had the idea that they would force kids to hit bottom, and from there be able to "treat" them. The method by which they forced kids to hit bottom was a system of humiliating punishments called "sanctions".
One of the most important elements of how the Family School functioned was they pitted the students against each other. A student couldn't just follow the rules there to stay out of trouble, he or she had to enforce them as well. Often, a student would get in more trouble for not confronting another student on breaking a rule than the one who actually broke the rule in the first place. This created three classes of students- defiant, compliant and "senior members." Defiant students weren't even allowed to talk, and if they did they would be ignored and later punished. Once they agreed to follow the rules they were labeled as "compliant," which was still bad because it meant that you didn't actually believe in the principles of the school. There were four ways of getting out of the school- running away, being transfered to a psyche-ward or a wilderness program, waiting until you turned 18, because they can't legally hold you once you're considered an "adult", or, finally, "graduating the program." Running away was difficult since students are under constant surveillance and once you were caught they would take your shoes away. Getting yourself sent someplace else was also difficult- no one was ever "kicked-out" of the Family School. The parents had to decide whether or not to keep the kid there, and the school usually manipulated the parents to keep the kid there longer. Many kids left when they turned eighteen, but that's a long wait for most of the kids there. On top of all that, about a quarter of the kids at the School were their as a court mandation, meaning that if they left before they graduated they would go to either Juvenile Detention or, if they were 18, prison. So a lot of students were forced to "graduate the program," meaning the kids would force the rules on you even more than the staff.
I tend to find it's pretty difficult to explain to people what it was like at the Family School, since it was a bit like a cult and difficult for an outsider to comprehend. The best I can do is write a day-in-the-life essay, explaining things as they happen. So here is a day out of the 492 days I spent there-
I wake up at 6:15, have twenty-five minutes to make my bed and get ready for the day, then have 15 minutes to clean the dorm. Then I walk up a hill for forty-five minutes of Catholic, Protestant or Jewish chapel service, in which participation is forced. I go down to the main house. I am on "exile," meaning I have to stand in a broom closet when I'm not working or in class. I have 20 minutes to eat a bowl of cold cream of wheat. Most of the kids are not allowed to make eye contact with me, except for my "shadow," who brings me to every class and is responsible for making sure I don't break any rules or try to run away. I am only allowed to sit ten minutes out of every hour.
After breakfast I have work-sanction, meaning I have been taken out of my classes to work all day long. This consists of washing the dishes from breakfast, folding laundry, and either lifting buckets of rocks back and forth in the summer or shoveling snow back and forth in the winter. It's a cold day in March, but luckily I spend the morning doing laundry. At noon I go back to the main house for lunch. Someone says grace, I get another bowl of cold cream of wheat in the broom closet. The alternative meal sanction is supposed to consist of cream of wheat for breakfast, and dry tuna fish for lunch and dinner. Once, when I was new, I said "that's not so bad, I like Tuna," so they made it so I only got cream of wheat.
At lunch three or four students are chosen to stands up in front of the "Family" (a group of about 30 kids and a bunch of staff members randomly put together who eat all their meals together and basically spend all their time together when they aren't in class) and are scrupulously analyzed and humiliated.
I am on a particular sanction called a "Thought Card," in which I have to write down every major thought I have during the day (particularly the bad ones) on index cards and then I have to stand up and read it in front of forty people. Needless to say, everyone has all kinds of fucked-up thoughts enter their head out of nowhere every day, and teenagers seem to have particularly bad ones (especially by the Family School's standards).
The Family School knows this and therefore expects it. I can't just make up fake thoughts, I'd be standing in front of everyone being called a liar for the next forty-five minutes and given some awful sanction. So I am forced to tell a group of about forty people my most private thoughts.
This is how the Thought Card Sanction works- So I have just finished reading all my thoughts. The students are picking apart every one of them, the staff are cursing at me, calling me some of the worst things I have ever been called. I am completely exposed. Any fear that I've ever had about what people think of me is confirmed. After a couple of weeks on this sanction I will become so worn down, so convinced that I am are a horrible human being, that I won't ever want to talk again. They give me a bible and a rosary to numb my thoughts and I gladly accept them. I am so disgusted with myself and with how judgmental everyone else is that I get tricked into seeing God as the only wholesome thing there is. I have just moved from the First Step (admitting that I am powerless over my own fucked-up thoughts) to the Second Step (I have come to believe that a Power greater than myself can restore me to sanity). In the process I have come to hate myself and humanity so much that I will probably spend many years suicidal and friendless. This is a mild but archetypal example of how the Family School works. It forces you through the steps, brainwashes you into thinking you're a totally hopeless fuck-up, and surrounds you with so many prayers and hymns that you eventually become a mindless, submissive zombie chanting the Serenity Prayer.
So anyway, after I have been completely humiliated by my thought card, I go back to the broom closet and stand there another half hour or so, while other kids are being brought up to the end of the table, yelled at, and more often than not, made to either sit or stand in a corner.
Lunch ends, my shadow takes me back to the work-sanction crew. Today we are picking rocks out of the lawn in front of the school and putting them in buckets. There's freezing rain and sleet, the lawn is slippery, muddy, and has a thin sheet of ice over it. We sit in silence, using our bare hands, scraping them on rocks and ice. This lasts five hours.
It's dinner time. Cold cream of wheat in the broom closet. Aside from being on the Thought Card Sanction for every lunch I am on a Cheerleader sanction at dinner. Apparently, I've been seeming a little bit glum lately (I wonder why), so they give me sanctions like this to force me to act happy. My legs are killing me from standing all day, my hands feel like they've been torn to shreds, I'm starving but I feel like if I smell another bowl of cream of wheat I'll vomit, I want to go home so, so badly. I dance around with tears welling up in my eyes and I choke out a rhyme while a group of forty people laugh hysterically at me. They make me do it a second time. I know that if I do this right I might be able to get regular food tomorrow. The staff tells me it's not sincere, and I have to eat cream of wheat tomorrow. I go back to the broom closet. I spend the rest of the night memorizing sections out of the AA book. Eventually we have chapel, and finally I get to go back to sleep. Tomorrow will be the same exact thing.
I lived like this for months. Everyday was the same, bleak, agonizing experience. I was constantly trying to stay at a level where they would at least feed me regular meals. I spent a month in the broom closet, and about five months all together in the corner. I was on work-sanction for about three and a half months total, which meant I nearly failed an entire semester of school. I was on every sanction they had, many times, and they even created new sanctions for me. Why did I get in so much trouble? I had no drug problems, never got in trouble for lying, never complained, got mostly all A's and B's (except on Work-Sanction) wasn't violent, or a brat. I got in trouble because I was "too quiet." I have always been a quiet person. They didn't know how to deal with this, so they decided to treat it as a behavioral problem, that I was "passively defiant" or "refusing to talk."
I recently discovered that one student jumped off a balcony there, cracked his head open and died shortly after I left. I wasn't there, but I can only imagine why this happened. The school does not take into account the effects of brain chemistry or trauma as a reason for kids having problems. They call things like that lies and excuses. They believe that everything a kid does wrong is due to one of the seven deadly sins. While I was there, not once did they bring up the fact that I have an anxiety disorder. They said I didn't talk to people because I was lazy and defiant.And they would not stop punishing me until I could interact with the rest of the kids there. And obviously, the more they cursed me out and punished me, the less I wanted to talk to them. So they put me in a corner, or in a broom closet, isolating me further. They have some weird fucking logic at that school. Then they were punishing me for being depressed. There were no other reasons to punish me, so they just decided to fuck with me for being quiet and sad, until I became more quiet and more sad than ever, and then my dad took me out.
I was put in a wilderness program in Utah called Second Nature. This program was difficult, it mostly consisted of hiking up huge mountains everyday and survival stuff, mixed with a little therapy once a week. I was so happy to be out of the Family School that I didn't mind a bit. I did so well in my wilderness program that I got to go to a fairly regular boarding school in Arizona.
Then, around Christmas 2003 I was finally allowed to go home for the first time in two years. To make a long story short, I ran away.
Since I got out I reunited with my old girlfriend and we have been working on creating alternatives to institutions like the Family Foundation School. We believe (in very simplified terms) in focusing on the positive aspects of youth culture to inspire kids to educate themselves rather than trying to completely isolate them from their environment because it is a "bad influence." We've got a website (http://www.misled-youth.org) that's partially up and we are compiling a book.
As for myself, the Family School has crippled my social ability, a hundred times worse than I was at the time that I was sent away. It's really difficult for me to talk to other people, so I pretty much stopped trying. For a while I was really depressed about this, but I'm mostly used to it by now. I started studying art pretty intensively, and for the past year or so that's occupied most of my time. I'm not really that good yet, but I'm way better than I used to be and I'm learning a lot about all sorts of things that I would have never imagined myself being interested in.*
*Like I said, I wrote this a while ago and so things have changed. I spent a while learning art, but not so much any more since I started working on tech stuff for the website I mentioned before, which is in it's third manifestation and completely under construction. My social abilities are also getting better, and I honestly don't really think about the Family School very much anymore.