Let me begin by attempting to describe my current mental/emotional/spiritual state. It's imperative that everyone who reads this account understands how far and wide the fallout from my 18 month "stay" at Cross Creek reaches. At the risk of sounding a bit melodramatic, this experience has produced a person who has lost her idealism and faith. I carry the weight of unresolved melancholy and anger, and I have become a stranger to myself in the process. I don't mean to portray that all my days are spent holed up in solitude, crying myself to sleep every night, by most accounts I lead a very "normal" and "successful" life. I DO mean to tell you, however, in no uncertain terms that underneath my seemingly "normal" life is a deeply sad, conflicted and resentful person filled with never-ending self-doubt and self-loathing. If you remember nothing else from this story, remember this -the proprietors of WWASPS and other similar Behavior Modification "Schools" are master manipulators. More than five years since my release in May 1999, the brainwashing still works. Aside from the sometimes crippling depression, I regularly suffer from nightmares about being sent back to Cross Creek. I always have the same one - I get "kidnapped" again and sent back to the Manor, only this time I'm over 18 (I was 17 at my intake). I protest, scream and cry that I'm an adult and I don't consent to being there, but my medical records have been forged and my date of birth always reads a year that makes me underage. This is when I usually wake up sweating and shaken -unable to shake the fear that my nightmare may actually come true. By far the most disturbing result of my stay at Cross Creek has been the complete and total severing from myself that I experienced, and continue to experience today. Before the program, I was a passionate, idealistic and driven young woman - I had a clear vision of the type of person I wanted to be, and the type of life I wanted to live. This is not to say that I wasn't without emotional problems and/or bad judgment, because I definitely had more than my fair share of those - but through those problems I never lost sight of who I eventually wanted to be. Post Cross Creek I am chronically insecure, indecisive, neurotic and conflicted - and on top of that, I was trained so incredibly well by the WWASPS, that I am currently unable to make virtually any kind of decision without being riddled with self-doubt.
I'm not going to misrepresent the truth here and tell you that I was a perfect teenager. I was involved in a lot of the typical "troubled teen" behavior - i.e., drinking and drugs, smoking, lying to my parents and hanging out with "the wrong crowd." This is the kind of nebulous statement that most of us at CCM (and other WWASP programs as well, I'm sure) would give to someone "on the outs" (outside the locked gates, that is) when asked about our past. However, I think that if you're going to take the time to read my story, you need to know the truth about what was really happening with me during those two or three tumultuous years. Unlike most of my peers at Cross Creek, I was not a high school drop out, I wasn't failing classes left and right, and I never skipped school. I had always made good grades, and was taking a pretty challenging course load all throughout high school that included mostly AP level classes. I was one of the Editors of the school's newspaper and Literary Magazine and was an active member of the debate team. My dream was to be a writer - a journalist, specifically - and I was on track to attend an out of state, well-respected University like Syracuse or NYU. I was constantly being told how bright I was, that I was capable of anything, and my parents were always very proud of my accomplishments. During my high school years I did begin using drugs. It escalated slowly from smoking pot at 14, to dropping acid and doing ecstasy at 16, and finally trying (I use the word "trying," because I only used it once) crystal meth at 17. I probably smoked pot more than anything else, it was obviously the most available drug there was, and it was pretty common and accepted among teenagers from all different ends of the social spectrum. As for the acid and ecstasy, it was never something that I did on a regular basis - I couldn't have used acid any more than ten times, and ecstasy no more than five. I'm not specifying this to excuse my drug use, but I need people who read this to understand that I was not a hopeless junkie - I never missed school or work because of drugs, I never went to school high, I never skipped school to do drugs, and my grades never slipped because of my drug use. Most importantly, I never lost sight of my where and who I wanted to be in life. I was having a lot of problems at home, however. It's no secret that I grew up in a difficult family; my father had some issues with alcohol and anger, and my mother could be pretty unapproachable when it came to real-life "teenager" stuff. My parents fought a lot, so consequently, I didn't want to be home a lot. I also was certain that I could never ever talk to them reasonably about my drug use. I was somewhat rebellious then - I listened to (gasp!) anti-establishment punk rock, wore fishnets and knee-high black boots, became a vegetarian and read Karl Marx. I laugh about that now, because really, I was just going through a phase with all that, but to my conservative parents, the clothes and the music were highly disturbing. Everything came to a head when my mother found a baggie with ecstasy residue in the pocket of my jeans one day. She took the bag to a lab, and she and my father confronted me with the help of my therapist during one of my weekly sessions. So then they knew, and my life - which I had to struggle to keep together sometimes as it was - completely fell apart. Of course, my parents lost it, and our household went from being tolerable to absolutely unbearable. The screaming, yelling and crying never ended - my mother let me know that I was a huge disappointment and even told me that she hated me for what I had done to the family. Needless to say, I couldn't handle it, so I decided to move out a few months into my senior year. My plan was to move into an apartment with some guy that I knew from a couple of parties I'd been to and finish high school by correspondence. Obviously, this was a ridiculously stupid plan, but all I could think about back then was getting out of my parents' house. Unfortunately for me, there was a girl that lived on our street that had just graduated from Cross Creek. My parents talked to her parents, and the rest is history.
Shortly after my moving announcement (I can't remember exactly how long), I was woken up in the middle of the night by two men and one woman that I had never seen before in my life. I was told to get out of bed and get dressed right away. Some clothes had been laid out for me on the sink, and the strange woman followed me into the bathroom and watched me while I changed. I was extremely disoriented - I'm not even sure if I realized I was awake at that point - so I didn't fight my "kidnappers." I was instructed to follow them and get into a strange car in our driveway. I got in the car without "incident," and I heard the doors lock me in. A few miles away from my house I began to get very scared and I started asking my kidnappers, frantically, where they were taking me. No one would tell me. I guess I was beginning to raise my voice (I was feeling a bit hysterical by that time), and that's when I was informed without a shred of sympathy that if I gave them "any trouble" I would be put in handcuffs or otherwise physically restrained. I couldn't fathom what I was hearing - never in my life had I EVER had any type of experience that remotely resembled what was happening to me then. Then they proceeded to tell me that I was going to a nice school for girls like me, someplace where I could "take some time off," and work through my problems. The woman kidnapper even went so far as to tell me it would be like taking a vacation. This calmed me down a bit, and I even started to be okay with the idea. I knew that that I needed some help with the way things were going in my life, and I was open accepting that help. I believed that I was going to some type of 90 day rehab, I would go back home, be back on track, and my parents would love me again. I NEVER could have imagined how grievously wrong I was.
After driving from Houston to El Paso, then flying to Las Vegas, we made the two hour car trip to LaVerkin, Utah. When we pulled up to the Manor, I didn't think it looked so bad - I was a really big, nice looking house with white columns in the front. My kidnappers escorted me through the doors where I was greeted by 100 or so pairs of eyes all staring at me as if I was some sort of carnival freak show. It was around 7:30 in the evening, and all the girls were gathered out in the central foyer area for the nightly "Manor meeting." Needless to say, I was a little wary of all those girls in sweat pants and slippers who looked like a bunch of robots - but I was there to stay. I was taken into a room with a couple of high-phase girls who did my intake. I remember pleading with them and insisting that I didn't belong in this place, and they just looked at each other and started laughing, then one of the girls told me, patronizingly, "Yeah, none of us belong here either." Shortly afterwards I was strip searched and "nix-ed" (de-loused) by a very scary looking, and very large woman - I was unbelievably mortified.
For the next two weeks or so, I kept insisting that I wasn't supposed to be there. I was petrified by the other girls - when they spoke, it sounded to me like someone was playing a tape recorder, and they had absolutely no sympathy for the shock that I was feeling. My first day in "Group" with Ron (he was the director of Cross Creek at the time), he asked me why I was there. All the girls were sitting around in a circle staring at me like I was a murderer or something, so I said "because my parents sent me here," COMPLETELY without a hint of attitude (I wasn't yet accustomed to the program double-speak). This of course, sent Ron into a tirade - he yelled and screamed at me that I was a drug addict and ruining my family's lives, etc., etc. After a lengthy barrage of aggressive, mean-spirited "feedback" from the other girls in the group, I sat down, shaken and unable to process what had just happened.
After I had spent about two weeks in Orientation (OR) Group with Ron, I had the pleasure of joining my "home" group, the infamous (at Cross Creek, anyway) B Group. B Group was notorious for being the "hardest" group at CCM, with its most intimidating therapist at the helm, Garth. Garth was a very large man physically, which he used to his advantage to create a very aggressive and imposing persona. Even before Cross Creek, I was easily intimidated by men, but being under Garth's "tutelage" merely reinforced that fear and worsened it, instead of combating it. Here is where things began to get really messy. In my 18 months at Cross Creek, there were so many harmful and traumatizing incidences that occurred - it would be impossible for me to recount every one. With that in mind, I will try instead to paint a general picture that will illustrate the kind of experience that I had.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the way a WWASPS program is run, I will give you an abbreviated list of SOME of the rules and regulations we were all subject to during our incarceration:
- We were not allowed contact with anyone from the outside world aside from our parents. If you wanted to write a letter to your aunt, for example, it had to go through your parents first.
- All mail was read by the staff and censored if they felt that the subject matter was negative (towards the program) or inappropriate.
- We were not allowed to use the telephone unsupervised (and even a supervised telephone call to your parents was a privilege that had to be earned - my first phone call came after four months.)
- We were not allowed to close the bathroom doors fully while using the toilet.
- We were not allowed to cross any type of threshold without asking a staff's permission.
- While on Level 1, we were not allowed to speak to other girls on Level 1 (aside from Group).
- We were not allowed to shave or use hair products on Level 1.
- We were not allowed to wear shoes until Level 3.
- We were not allowed to wear any make-up or jewelry until Level 4.
- We were required to show the staff our bras, underwear & socks that we had on each morning to as assure that we only had one pair on.
- We were not allowed to record any phone numbers, or any addresses except for our parents'.
- We were not allowed to watch television or read a newspaper.
- We were not allowed to look out the windows (this would be construed as run plans).
- We were not allowed to speak when a staff called "silence" (a regular occurrence).
- We were not allowed to have any physical contact with other girls, aside from 3 second hugs (except during Group).
- We were never allowed to leave the program grounds - which were enclosed by locked 15 ft. white fences - unless escorted by a staff for some reason (the first time I ever left the program grounds was for a doctor's appointment, after I had been at Cross Creek for seven months.)
While on Staff Buddy (a punishment doled out for "serious" offences, or many times at our therapists' request for whatever reason), we were not allowed to speak to anyone, look at anyone, and had to remain at arm's length from a staff at all times. We also had to sleep on a mattress on the floor right next to the night watch staff. Most of your time on Staff Buddy was spent sitting on the floor facing the wall.
The vast majority of us were coerced into adopting whatever beliefs that the program had decided upon for us - if you had done drugs, you were an addict, no questions asked; if your parents of therapist deemed a friend from the outside world to be "non-working," you had to cut them out of your life (even if you did not agree).
Unlike many of the girls at CCM, I was never "restrained," but I witnessed this incredibly disturbing spectacle too many times to count. To be honest, I was too paralyzed with fear to ever consider doing anything that I thought might cause me to be "taken down" by staff. I remember watching girls being taken down that were simply arguing with a staff not physically endangering themselves or others - and they would be dragged, literally, kicking and screaming downstairs and into ISO (the 12 ft., locked "isolation" rooms). I also remember seeing a girl sitting in ISO who had cut herself and smeared blood all over her face and arms. There were other girls who I saw with broken noses and injured arms/shoulders that were put into make-shift "slings" that consisted only of an Ace bandage. I knew several girls who had sustained physical injuries as a result of being taken down - i.e., broken noses, dislocated shoulders, torn ligaments, etc. There were plenty of girls who I saw sitting in ISO for days, weeks, and even months at a time. Fortunately, I was not one of them.
The trauma that I did sustain was purely mental/emotional. From my first day at CCM, I was told (and screamed at) that I was a worthless person, a disappointment to my family, a hopeless drug addict, a bitch and a slut, a waste of space, a horrible human being and whatever other disparaging remarks the staff and other girls could muster. When I first arrived at CCM, I wasn't sure that I even was addicted to drugs - I knew that I had some problems in my life that I wanted to work out, but I wasn't convinced that I was a junkie - however, I, like many other girls, was coerced into proclaiming/believing that I was hopelessly addicted to drugs. It was made very obvious to me that if I did not affirm the program's assessment of me, that I would never advance past level one, so I played along (at first), and eventually began to internalize and believe everything that they said.
The infamous T.A.S.K.S. seminars & group "processes" were especially hurtful to me. One of my "issues" that I had to deal with at Cross Creek was childhood sexual abuse. It happened when I was 11 years old, and I had never really dealt with the trauma at that point. During one of the Focus "processes," (which I have been sworn to secrecy never to tell about) I was physically held down by four other Cross Creek girls (high phase girls who were seminar staff) while a fifth girl screamed into my face that "HE'S ON TOP OF YOU AGAIN!!! AREN'T YOU GOING TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT?? ARE YOU JUST GOING TO LET HIM DO IT TO YOU AGAIN?? WHAT KIND OF SLUT ARE YOU??" I was crying and screaming so hard that I could barely see - I kicked and thrashed as hard as I could, but the four other girls just kept pinning me down to the floor, and I was unable to get out from under them. There was another "process" that Garth facilitated, during which we had to write our own tombstones (the idea was for us to experience that we had died due to our "behavior"). After we had all written them, Garth and a few high phase girls from our group went around the room and screamed into our faces anything hurtful that they could manage to make us feel like worthless and horrible human beings. When it was my turn, Garth approached me calmly and told me, coldly & without emotion, that my grandfather (my mother's father, whom I loved very much) was dead. My grandfather had emphysema and was repeatedly in and out of the Emergency Room, so this was hardly a stretch. Garth and the other girls shouted inches away from my face that my grandfather died knowing that I was a worthless bitch, a drug addict, and that I had ruined my family. They told me that he died knowing what a horrible person I was. By this point I was sobbing uncontrollably and finding it difficult to remain standing, so one of the high phase girls was holding me up for the continued barrage of abuse. After they finished with me, Garth and the other girls moved on to their next victim - and the scene continued on, as it had with me. The next day, Garth called me into his office and told me that he was "mistaken" about my grandfather, and that he hadn't really died. I sobbed from relief that he was still living, but to this day, I still do not believe that Garth made an innocent "mistake." I believe that he purposefully used my grandfather's illness to traumatize and hurt me during a process. Well, it worked. Congratulations.
Like I said earlier, I was never one of the girls that were routinely taken down, but it still took me several months to really advance in the program. Let me explain - although the program cronies would say like to say otherwise, unless you are crying in group and painting a very melodramatic picture of your "issues," you will not advance to the upper levels, and you will not go home (which is where we ALL wanted to be). I, however, had difficulty with this, because I had a hard time expressing emotion back then -especially when put on the spot in group. Thus, my inability to "be real," (translation: cry) held me back on the low levels for a good seven months or so. As I stated earlier, I had been a good student in school, unlike most of the other girls at CCM, and was always very bright. My intelligence, apparently, was something to be ashamed of. I was routinely punished and chastised in group for being "better than," and being "in my head" all the time. I was specifically reprimanded in group for using "big words" that the other girls didn't understand. This was all brought on because I was trying to help some of the other girls with their school work, which was, apparently, a bad thing. After being "confronted" about my "intelligence issue," (yes, they actually called it that) I remember trying to dumb myself down in order to not incur the group's criticism.
As anyone who has been incarcerated in a WWASPS program knows, their "school" system is, at best, laughable. As I said earlier, I was a very good student, and I was enrolled in a very challenging high school curriculum. At Cross Creek (or "Browning Academy" as WWASP likes to refer to the fictional "school" associated with their programs), I was given a remedial level text book for each respective class, and instructed to complete the chapter exercises and a chapter test. This was the extent of our "education," and it was a mockery of my intellectual ability. I learned absolutely nothing my senior year in high school - if you could even call it that.
Eventually, I got over the hump and advanced to level three. But let me first let you know that I wasn't allowed to speak to my parents on the phone until I had been there for four months, the first time I saw my parents was after seven months, and the first time I saw my two brothers was after nine or ten months. And of course, I was not allowed to communicate with anyone from the outside world besides my parents – not friends, family or anyone besides my parents & brothers. After I began to advance in the program, I became one of its most vocal supporters. I was notorious for giving "hardcore" feedback to new girls, and "not taking any crap," from anyone not subscribing to the program's mantras. Honestly, I became a blood-thirsty pit bull - anxiously awaiting the opportunity to tear another girl down, the way that I had been torn down before. I'm sure that I probably caused a lot of girls pain, and this is something that I feel intensely remorseful for to this day.
After I had been at CCM for 10 months or so, I was on level five and able to take an off-grounds pass with my family. My parents, brothers and I went to Las Vegas and another small town in Utah (I can't remember the name) - and had a lot of fun. I missed my family so much by that point that I thought I might break in two. The pass really broke down a lot of the months of brainwashing, and I eventually reached a point where I felt like I would literally go insane if I had to remain in the program. Basically, I cracked – one night at St. George (the high phase facility of CCM), I spent three hours pacing around my room trying to figure out how I was possibly going to complete the program without losing my mind. You see, by then, I was 18, and I was able to walk out of the program if wanted to - however, my parents had made it very clear to me that they would not let me come home if I left Cross Creek without completing the program. My "exit plan" was pretty similar to other kids that were in WWASPS programs - if I decided to leave after I turned 18, I would get $10 in my pocket and a bus ticket to Denver (not Houston, my native city), and my parents would not accept me back in their house. So, back to that night when I lost it - I eventually decided, after a couple of hours of pacing, that I had to leave the program, despite the fact that I would probably be homeless. So, I went to the head staff at St. George, Bernie, and told her that I wanted to leave. She attempted to change my mind for an hour or so, but I wouldn't be swayed. Then my parents were called. We had an incredibly gut-wrenching phone conversation during which my mother told me "goodbye" for real – at that moment she believed that she was talking to me for the last time. After my parents couldn't get me to change my mind, my 17 year-old brother, Cory, was put on the phone. I remember him sobbing over the receiver and pleading with me not to leave the program, because he "didn't want me to die." I cried my eyes out during all of this, but still, my parents and I held firm in our positions. Finally, after a few hours of this, I spoke to my case manager, and she told me that I could still change my mind about leaving. I was petrified by the thought of being abandoned in a foreign city (not to mention the fact that I had no way of contacting any of my other family members, since it was forbidden to record any phone numbers), so I acquiesced, and remained at Cross Creek.
After this incident, I was immediately ostracized and forced to "regain trust" from my group members. I was lucky, however. If I had been under 18, I'm sure I would have been dropped back down to level one, but due to my age, I was allowed to remain on a probationary status at a level five. After a couple of weeks of groveling and enduring numerous group sessions during which I was the object of ridicule and criticism, I eventually convinced Garth and the rest of the high phase girls that I was "ready to work." And so, I was cemented into the system at that point -I was completely brainwashed into thinking that the program had saved my life and that I would be dead if my parents had never sent me there (the same robotic mantra of all brainwashed WWASPS kids). I became a cruel and ruthless high phase girl - just like the ones who had hurt me when I was new at CCM, and I extolled the virtues of the program that had caused irrevocable damage to my soul. The rest of my incarceration at Cross Creek was fairly smooth, and I graduated in late May, 1999 - two months before my 19th birthday.
After I graduated, I returned to Houston to live with my parents for a couple of months before being admitted to the University of Texas - Arlington in the Fall of 1999. By the time I was living in Arlington, away from parental or program supervision, it had only been about three months since I had left Cross Creek. I entered college a completely conflicted, damaged, neurotic, depressed and anxious person - with the next few years ahead of me to experience levels of depravity that I never came close to prior to my incarceration at CCM.
Kelly, not sure when you were there exactly, but these were all the same people as when I was there. Similar experience, except I was younger and my parents ran out of money, so I left earlier. But same people, same group, same Garth. The older I get, the more disturbing the experiences were. The field I'm working in currently...I've learned so much about ethics and therapy and how professionally disturbing their tactics were at CCM. All of these experiences and all of the girls. Really just awful. There are support groups now for being in these places (I'm in), CAFETY and ASTART, that have been insightful and interesting (maybe you're already involved with them). Though my involvement stirs things up from nearly 20 years ago...those things were there brewing all along. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It lightens the load of my pain, hurt, shame and guilt of all those experiences and feelings while in placement and those feelings that linger long after. reneeReplyDelete