Wednesday, August 10, 2011

John O at Peninsula Village

This testimony was given by John O and published on the homepage of Troubled Teens Survivor Network. All rights belongs to the author.

After the first time I attempted suicide, in 1998, I ended up in a long-term “treatment” facility called Peninsula Village, which is located outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. Yes, I was a troubled teenager -- like most, I suppose -- but the only difference between some others and me was that I had untreated depression and anxiety disorders. These factors made it very hard for my family to deal with me at times, and my parents eventually fell under the spell of Peninsula Village’s staff and their lies. However, my parents did not inform me about the extent to which I would be staying at the Village -- at least 11 months until I turned 18 and could sign myself out. My parents also did not inform me about the extent to which the staff will go in order to “discipline” the children, but in fairness, the Village staff lied to my parents and omitted key facts. The issues this caused me during my stay eventually led to my escape -- the second, fully successful one in 13 years at the time -- but the memories of that place haunt me to this day.

The staff at Peninsula Village view discipline as treatment, but not “time-out” discipline, I’m talking about “slamming.” Slamming is a word we used to describe what was done to us (the children) if we “acted-up.” It involved the staff pressing a siren button that hung around their necks. Then, at least 6 burly staff members would come flying into the room through every entrance, and basically, they would tackle the child, slam his (I only witnessed the males) face into the ground, and dig their elbows and knees into his back and limbs, making it hard for him to breathe. This would last a relatively long time, and would always lead to the removal of the child’s clothing in exchange for bloodstained hospital gowns. The child would also get a one-way ticket to the “quiet room” -- a slightly padded, tiny, cold room with a cement floor covered by linoleum -- for an indefinite amount of time. On occasion, the child would also receive a hefty IM (intra-muscular) dose of a sedative, like Thorazine, that would leave him drooling for hours. Even more disturbing, there were many occurrences of bloodshed during these slammings. The emotional and physical pain I heard in the cries, screams, groans, and sobs during the slammings, coupled with the sight of blood pooling around a child’s head, and 8 adults kneeling on him, is truly haunting. Most of the slammings occur in the STU (Special Treatment Unit), but the staff will not hesitate to slam someone outside in the gravel, mud, manure, or whatever else one might be standing in.

STU is where they put all the new admits, and a stay there can last anywhere from 2 months to more than a year. While in STU, the staff forced me to strip naked, bend over and expose my anus, and expose and lift my scrotum. They also put me on an anti-depressant medication called Paxil, but immediately at a very high dose that left me buzzing and tingling. I had them decrease the dose soon after. In addition, they forced me to sit, Indian-style, on a small, cubicle-like bed all day under fluorescent lights -- lights that they never fully turned off. One day, a staff member caught me slouching very slightly, and made me stand and watch the clock for ten minutes, then forced me to sit back down on the hard, wooden bed box, but without the mattress for the remainder of the day. That’s not the half of it because the entire time one is in STU, one has to remain silent and non-communicative with other peers; however, the staff will sit and chat all night long while we try to sleep under the dimmed lights, then, they wake us up at 6 A.M. by yelling, and slapping the cubicle tops. I didn’t dare speak though, aside from the occasional group “therapy” session where the staff tells everyone how much he sucks, and that he’s a worthless piece of crap. The Village’s lead psych. doctor was very good at this. They also force everyone to “admit” he has a drug and alcohol problem, join AA/NA, and become spiritual, even if he doesn’t have a problem or have spiritual beliefs. Aside from groups, bathroom breaks were the only other time we could get up from our beds. We only got 3 minutes to defecate, 1 minute to urinate, and 4 minutes to shower. If we went over our allotted time by even 1 second, we would loose minutes from our next shower time. I never lost shower time, but I frequently had to let soap dry in my hair or on my body, and it would sometimes become itchy. The other bad thing about STU was we were allowed no time with our parents, on the phone or in person. I spent 2 ½ months in STU, living as a monk, and the only communication I had with my parents was my outgoing letters that were read, and censored, by staff. I could not write anything slanderous about the goings-on there, or my letter would not be mailed. The staff does not show STU to parents on their tour of the facilities because I doubt any parent would allow their child to stay at the Village if they witnessed what went on in there.

All of the slammings I witnessed were during my stay in STU. The first time I developed a fear of the alarm buttons was after I saw one guy’s scabbed face early in my stay. The entire right side of his face was covered in scabs, and he was wearing the hospital gowns. I managed to ask him about it before the start of a group session one day, and he said it was from the staff slamming him, and then dragging his face across the carpet. The next time I saw a slamming, the boy ended up getting a large dose of Thorazine in the butt because, if I remember correctly, he was in the quiet room afterward, and couldn’t stop sobbing. I remember during his slamming he was in a lot of distress from all the force being applied to his small body. He was having difficulty breathing, and he was in a lot of pain, and he was voicing these complaints to the best of his ability, but the staff wouldn’t let up. I think they enjoy restraining children just to feel powerful or something. They could have easily restrained him with half as many staff members, and quickly put him in the quiet room, but no, they decided to prolong the enjoyment. Eventually, once he was good and high, they let him come out to join us in group therapy. I don’t see any reason, other than to scare the rest of us, for them letting him join us because he was droopy-faced and drooling on himself. Another slamming I witnessed was even worse. The boy was smaller, and the slamming was more forceful, so much in fact, that he might have had his nose broken. All he did to be slammed was shrug his shoulder when a staff member grabbed his arm to lead him back to his bed box after he wouldn’t go by command. I saw him lying in a large pool of his own blood, where they held his face for quite some time, and then they swapped his clothes for the gowns, and stuck him in the quiet room as well. I heard a number of other slammings happen on the other boys’ side of STU, although I didn’t witness them. I did see the aftermath of at least one of those though. One boy was crying, and sitting in a padded room with a straight jacket on. This boy couldn’t have been older than 12 or 13.

Once I “graduated” to the outdoor cabin program, I was able to speak again, but there were a completely new set of rules, and I was forced to do even worse things. I was also constantly condescended, laughed at by staff, and made to feel stupid and worthless. The staff all acted as if they were gods or something. As far as strange rules go, one was that I was never allowed to look at another female. One guy in my group did, and we were forced, as a group, to do a “pyramid 15.” That’s where we had to do 15 pushups, 14 pushups, 13 pushups, etc. After that same guy was caught looking at girls three times, our group had to eat our meals in our cabin for a week. That meant hiking a half-mile to pick up the food, hiking a half-mile back to eat it on a wooden cabin floor, hiking a half-mile to bring the food tub back, and then hiking a half-mile back to our side of the grounds to continue with our daily activities. Two miles of hiking for each meal, and every meal ended up being cold for a week. Then, one time, a staff member (notice I don’t call them counselors -- I don’t think they were qualified) forced us to clear a path that was overgrown with poison ivy, but he forced us to do it with our bare hands! We complained, but he said not to be babies and that if we washed our hands, we’d be fine. It took us over an hour to clear the path, and we all ended up with poison ivy. That wasn’t even the worse day I can remember though. I think the worse day I had, physically, was on a day the temperature reached the upper 90’s, and the humidity was probably in the same range. We were working in the garden, breaking up dirt clumps, and had very little water available to us, relative to the conditions. There were at least eight of us, only 5 gallons of water on site, and we were working there all day. I got so hot and red, and had so much sweat dripping from my face, that I started to have blurred vision and lose my balance. I was very near heat stroke. We worked in that garden 3 or 4 times per week during the summer. If we weren’t working in the garden, we were building a brick barbeque pit -- hardly things that were conducive to the therapy for which we were there. We only had school two days per week, and even that was a half-ass, teach-yourself kind of thing. After working, we would run around the cabin trails. They would force us to train for occasional 5k races. This training was mandatory. After working outside most of the day, I had to run in the Tennessee heat and humidity for over an hour, 3 times per week. In the beginning, it was too much for me, and I was so tired that I wouldn’t swallow to conserve energy. I was barely jogging to avoid being reprimanded, I was dizzy and had blurred sight, and I was drooling, but I could not stop. We were reprimanded for any number of things, even leaving hairs in the shower. For every hair left in the showers, we would have to do a pyramid 15 as a group. We usually had to do pushups after shower time, so I’d get clean, do some pushups, and then go to bed sweaty. We never cleaned our sleeping bags either. Once per month we would find a spot of sun peaking through the trees in the woods, and try to drape the bags over foliage to catch the sun in an attempt to “sterilize” the bags. Sometimes kids would wet their beds -- probably due to stress -- but they didn’t dare say anything to staff for fear of the consequences. They would just sleep in it. This is how much psychological stress and fear the staff impose on the children during their stay. The worst consequence I ever had while at the Village was when I had to carry a 40lb. Limestone rock in a milk crate, wherever we went as a group, for a week, while still carrying all of my other responsibilities (water gott, backpack, notebook, etc…it changed daily). During that same week, on July 4, 1998, I had to do 2,600 pushups, and 12 one-minute-leg-lifts. This punishment was a plea bargain I made, for the original punishment would have required 3 months of the rock and crate, and about 15,000 pushups. How ridiculous is that? It makes no sense. The staff also has no sense of safety, for one time we were made to dig out a large stump with shovels and an axe. The stump could easily have weighed as much as a small car, it was just as big, and we were forced to climb around it in a 4-foot deep trench to cut at the roots. If the stump had shifted on anyone, he would have been crushed to death. Not only do they have no sense of safety, they have no sense, period. They forced all of us to attend outside AA/NA meetings, and they tried hard to make us spiritual. I never believed I had a problem with drugs or alcohol, but they said I did. I have also never been spiritual, but they forced some Indian Spiritual Wheel belief system upon all of us. That was the whole basis of our level system. Just for the record, I still have no problem with drugs or alcohol 10 years later, and I stopped going to AA/NA after I left the Village.

It would have been nice to voice all my concerns to my parents, but the staff “preps” all the parents by warning them that their children are excellent manipulators, and that they will say anything to leave the Village. During therapy sessions with my parents, the therapist would try to avoid letting me say anything about the Village. If I was able to say something about the conditions, she would quickly respond by making it seem like I was just a whiner and manipulator, and that that is part of my problem, and she would change the subject. Then, for the next week, during group sessions at the cabin, I’d have to talk about how much of a whiner I am. It’s like they brainwash everyone. They brainwash the children into thinking they have issues they do not really have, they brainwash themselves into thinking they are real therapists, and they brainwash the parents into thinking they are doing the right thing by sending their child there. I think this allows them to keep kids there indefinitely in order to gain more and more money. At $500 or more per night, I think they are motivated.

I played their spiritual-level-system game for about 5 months in the outdoor program until I eventually had my high level stripped from me due to someone else’s mistake. Our group was put on shut down, which is essentially the same as STU life, complete with silence, but in a non-air-conditioned cabin, and we cannot sit on our beds, so we sit back-to-back on the hardwood floor all day. We also have to do the two miles of hiking for every meal while holding onto a small length of rope, and trying not to trip over each other’s feet. A shut down can last for months, and I had already worked so hard to gain my privileges. I was not going to be able to sit on a hardwood floor in silence for another 4 months until I turned 18. This event woke me up, and broke me of my brainwashing. I decided to escape the hell of Peninsula Village.

I decided to make my break for it during morning twilight, right after the group used the tubes (PVC tubes buried in the ground near the cabin that are used as urinals). I let my group get ahead of me a few paces, then I ran into the woods behind me, and never looked back. I had to run through the girl’s side of camp, so I was cautious, and fearful that a female staff member would come outside looking for me any moment. Eventually, I made it to the edge of the property, and with the sound of SUV’s roaring in the background, I jumped across the property line, and into more brush, just as a vehicle went by. The staff didn’t see me, but I lost my glasses in the brush, and I couldn’t find them after a few minutes of searching. Therefore, I continued my hike with limited sight, and tried to keep the only road into the peninsula within view as I kept myself hidden in the woods. I followed the winding road for hours, became dehydrated from the exertion, and soaking wet from the morning dew. Eventually, I found a shed near a house where I was able to hide, re-hydrated from a nearby spigot, rest, and change my clothes. Another few hours later, I made it to the end of the road just as one of the nurses drove by, but a couple minutes after that, someone stopped to pick me up since I had my thumb up. The staff missed me by minutes. I hitched many rides over the next 3 days to get to a friend’s house a few states away. One man gave me $20 for food, and drove me 20 miles out of his way. Another man tried to get a room with me so I could take a bubble bath, drink a beer, have a warm bed to sleep in, and sit back so he could “play with it a while.” Needless to say, I stayed in the woods on the side of an off ramp that night. I barely got any sleep, and I nearly got hypothermia, but it was better than the alternative. Remember, during this entire trip, I’m hiking and hitching without my glasses, so it was very hard to tell if a cop was coming down the road or not -- I just had to chance it. The morning after my cold night, I managed to “thumb” a Virginia State Trooper as he drove by, but he never came back, and I got a ride with an eighteen-wheeler about ten minutes later. I spent about 66 hours on the road to get away from Peninsula Village. Once I got to my friend’s house I managed to get a job in food service, but soon quit in order to move out of state again to live with a different friend -- away from bad influences -- and finish high school.

Even though I attained a relatively high-level while at the Village, I don’t think I actually achieved any kind of gains in my emotional recovery, nor was I put on the right medication or dosage. My parents were conned into spending the $50,000 college trust fund, set up by my grandfather, to have me verbally abused, indirectly physically abused, brainwashed, emotionally tortured, and to have me witness, beyond reasonable cause, the direct physical abuse of other children. In the end, my “treatment” was all a farce. I was stripped of all my privileges for something I had no control over and no part in, and I was able to put everything I “learned” behind me and see the truth. I think the events surrounding my escape prove that I was merely brainwashed the entire time, and once I was shocked awake, nothing, or very little, had changed in me. To this day, I am haunted by my memories of the sights and sounds in the STU, and I remain forever begrudged by the tasks, rules, and punishments for which I was forced to comply. I even find myself quickly looking at the ground when my eyes meet a female’s from time to time, because of how taboo the Village made it. Just to affirm how much Peninsula Village affected me, it took me 10 years before I so much as googled it, and once I did, I found numerous “survivor” stories that truly struck a nerve in me, and I began to sob. The stories of others took me right back to the time I was in the Village, and I realized it wasn’t just a dream I had -- it all really happened, it’s happened to others, and it’s happening to others right now. I hope someone else can identify with my story as well, and know that they are not alone in this sort of thing. I am amazed that these “treatment” places exist, and that people allow them to continue to exist for so long without consequence. I hope, through the shared stories of other survivors, and the diligence and courage of advocates like Ms. Stattel, that places like Peninsula Village will soon face their due consequences.


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