Survivor Story: Into the woods

Today’s guest author is Berna. Berna is a 21 year old survivor of Solstice East RTC. She is an activist who fights for youth and adults victimized by the Troubled Teen Industry. She spends her spare time relaxing with her partner and pet cats.

When I was 14 years old and fresh out of a wilderness camp that I had escaped from, I was captured and sent to Solstice East.

They told me it would be fun, and I would make new friends, go horseback riding, swim in the lake, and feel like a whole person again.

I was uneasy as my family drove me deeper and deeper into the woods. A lady took me and my father into a room where he signed custody of his little girl over to these people we had never met before. For the next 11 months, he paid them $12,000 every month to tear down my entire soul and tape up a flimsy image of a perfectly submissive teen to cover the void that was left inside me.

My stay was kicked off by a humiliating strip search. I had to take off each article of clothing and hand it to the two staff members, sometimes both female, sometimes not. When I got down to my bra and underwear, they lazily held up a sheet. I took off my bra and handed it to them. Then my underwear. Then I had to do jumping jacks, shake out my hair, and squat and cough. Damn near every search, the staff inspecting my underwear would make comments about how much discharge or moisture was in my underwear. They would say it was disgusting, and that I was gross. I was a kid who was just hitting puberty, and I took it very close to heart.

Before I went to treatment, I had an eating disorder. So when I got to Solstice, I wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom without counting loudly and staff watching me through a cracked door. Early in my stay, this led to me once masturbating in my bed because I could not use the bathroom alone. I was as respectful as I could be, but one of my bunkmates reported me, and the therapists held a group about it. For an hour, I had to sit and listen about why I was a dirty pervert and I should feel disgusting about myself. They refused to name me, but they made it very clear who they meant.

This became a routine part of being at Solstice – any time you did something unsavory, they would arrange a group to shame you and make you wish you could just fade into nothing.

Since I was there for running away, I was held in very low regard by the staff. I was also the youngest student in the program at the time of my arrival – 14 and a half. Most of my peers were 16 or 17, so I never really fit in there. The staff members that were reliving their high school mean girl power trips often joined in bullying and humiliating me. I was pinned as a whiny crybaby who would do anything for attention. I was often accused of “war storying”, which is when you discuss bad things you’ve done. For me, running away from the wilderness was a moment of me taking my power back. It was an intense, scary, and powerful experience for me – I was barely 14, hitchhiking through a place I did not understand, running away from a place I did not understand. I had no one to turn to and no idea where I was going. I was not allowed to talk about it, even though it had a huge impact on me as a child. Word got around, however, because my “big sister” (another student assigned to you upon arrival, who was given a position of authority over you, and the big sister was often penalized for the little sister’s non-compliance) had asked me about why I was there in the middle of the night. I told her the whole story. The word got out pretty quickly, and the students started to realize they could do what I did. I would be blamed every time someone ran away or tried to run away for “putting ideas in their heads”. I never attempted to run away from Solstice, nor did I ever entertain the idea with anyone else.

I remember very early in my stay that my entire team of 12 girls was punished for cursing. They forced us to be silent for a couple of days. No one was allowed to talk to us, not even staff.

I was reprimanded for making “suggestive eye contact” with another student. I was put on comblock for gossiping once – a girl accused me and my friend of gossiping about her. She saw us passing a note, and she attacked us. She started screaming at us. Everyone ran out of the room, the staff made everyone leave except us three and a girl who was coloring. The girl who was screaming picked up a table and threw it at us. She was locked away in the basement. I was forced to be silent and do humiliating assignments for ‘provoking her’. To this day, I do not understand why the staff hated me so much. I think it was because I was very young. Around this time, a staff member named Zachary found a pair of underwear on the ground. He picked it up and ran into the kitchen screaming, “Whose MOIST, CRUSTY PANTIES ARE THESE?” They were mine. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. We had a group about it. I never told anyone they were mine because I was so afraid of being harassed for it. They threw them out.

Workouts were a struggle for me, emotionally and physically. I was very frail coming into Solstice. At wilderness, I had gained about 30 pounds in the 47 days I was there. When you recover from anorexia, it is supposed to be a slow process. No heavy exercise for the first year. Slowly build up food intake so your body doesn’t shut down. I went from eating roughly 100 calories a day to 3000 in a week. When I came to wilderness, I weighed only 105 pounds. I am 6’ tall. Coming into Solstice, I weighed about 140 pounds (I am now 165 and still slim, but in excellent health). Upon receiving my records, they insisted my eating disorder was mostly made up for attention and that I had “consistently maintained a low end of a healthy weight”, despite documentation of my medical issues and severely low weight. Due to the mishandling of my eating disorder, I have severe stomach issues that would lead me to have very severe pain to the point where I would collapse and defecate on myself. My joints, tendons, and bones were very frail and constantly sore. Jason, a staff member, would have weekly P90X sessions during our mandated workouts. I was incapable of doing what he wanted and he would often scream at, belittle, and humiliate me for it. He would say “do you want to be fat? Or do you want to be healthy?” He once got angry and kicked my stomach when I was down on the ground from exhaustion. I was too afraid to exercise for 4 years after graduating.

Another note from my records – one of my requirements to graduate was to have a monthly menstrual cycle for six months. I had delayed puberty (not to mention I was only 14) and got my first period at Solstice. It was around this time I started exhibiting symptoms of what I now know to be Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. I would have crying fits, outbursts, cramping and pain, paranoia, and fatigue. I would repeatedly ask to be allowed to stay in bed and do therapy assignments instead of going to group because of how I was feeling. When I finally put my foot down and told them to let me stay in bed when I wasn’t feeling well, they would send other students into my room to berate and harass me until I would be crying and screaming and begging them to stop. I was not put on birth control to help alleviate my symptoms for six months after they began. I asked about it when the symptoms began, and they accused me of wanting to have unprotected sex, even though I was a virgin. They took me to a checkup where I was prescribed a birth control implant, but I did not receive it. In order to be prescribed birth control nine months later, I was forced to have a “sex talk” with my therapist, Katie. During this ‘talk’, she described sex acts in great detail to me while I repeatedly told her I was uncomfortable. She showed me how to use multiple sex-related items via demonstration, including a condom and a dental dam. I left feeling embarrassed and more confused than before.

An assignment that everyone was forced to complete was called “The Theatre of Pain”, where we had to essentially read out a ‘play’ about everything bad we’d done and that had happened to us.

I was molested as a toddler but wasn’t allowed to mention it – my records revealed that the staff did not believe me. My therapist was actively creating this narrative of me as a liar, someone who only did things for attention. Even when I was being forced to tell all my secrets in exchange for my freedom, I still had to conform to this damaging narrative. I cried after I read it. The floor was opened after for my peers to berate, comment, and ask whatever violating questions they wanted. I had to answer them in order for the assignment to be complete.

We constantly had to report on, tell on, and belittle each other to “phase up”, or earn our freedom. I was often a target of this by the older, more outgoing girls, being who I was – quiet, well-meaning, and abused by everyone who’d gotten the chance from the time I could walk. This once manifested in two students coaxing me into their bedroom by saying they were worried about me and wanted to talk. Then, one of them blocked the door while they told me I was lying about being molested. I begged and begged for them to stop. After about 15 minutes, I broke out and immediately ran to a staff who’d been consoling me for being bullied. I remember how sad she looked when she told me she couldn’t do anything, especially since no one believed I was telling the truth about what happened when I was a toddler.

I will also add that I was called fat on multiple occasions, by staff and students. The first time was my first night by another student when I accidentally scooped too much food at our buffet. A staff named Jenna, who loved to torture me, called me a pig during our Zumba class. I was still underweight at the time. I once tried to tell our team leader, Bri, that girls were starving themselves and I was worried – they were eating plain lettuce for every meal, nothing else- she told me if I cared about my health, maybe I wouldn’t end up fat. The chefs were lacing our food with weight gain powder. I found the tubs while snooping in the kitchen.

My records revealed that the therapists allowed their personal opinions of me to significantly affect my punishments. They believed I was unintelligent, inept, and a chronic liar. This framed the way they viewed and treated me for my entire stay. They blamed me for the abuse in my home when they would even give the benefit of the doubt I was telling the truth. I never lied about my life or my story. They always took the word of my mother, who is a severe alcoholic, and has repeatedly been investigated for abusing children, including in the classrooms she taught in and towards my sister and myself. She bought into their bullshit, so they bought into hers.

The use of the safety phase – when they would lock us in a room in the basement for days to months- was horrifying. I watched my friends be dragged down the stairs bleeding, vomiting, crying, and screaming, oftentimes fully restrained.

In my first couple weeks, I was made aware of a girl I’d never seen before being quickly escorted from the basement and out of the building. I was informed she’d been locked in the basement for over 3 months, in that windowless room. The basement became my worst nightmare and biggest dream. I didn’t necessarily WANT to be trapped in a moldy, windowless room where hours melted into days, then weeks… but I couldn’t stop fantasizing about a break from the constant degrading, screaming, the labor, the overexercising, having my every word listened to. There was a part of me that would rather sit alone and motionless for god knows how long than deal with the upstairs world. My day came 3 months in – I was caught making a dirty joke with a friend. I was on upstairs (milieu) safety, still not allowed to speak or attend school – but in full view of everyone, always at the other end of the room as a pariah of what to never be. I slept on a thin mattress in the middle of the facility with the lights on while two staff flanked me through the night. After 5 days, I was given a chance at an appeal. A council of my teenage peers became my jury as I explained why I’d never ever fuck up again. They didn’t hear me, they voted to extend my sentence another day.

On New Years day of 2014, it was announced to us that one of our peers died in a car crash on a home visit after days of her missing- where we were instructed not to ask where she was or even bring her up. We were told that we would have one hour to cry and process the news. Some girls were selected to have additional time to process since they were deemed as being closer to her. We were instructed to be positive and smiling for the New Years’ party later that night.

Several girls ate glow sticks, huffed cleaning chemicals, and self-harmed at that party, including me.

Finally, Solstice deeply affected my sexuality. Now I’m in my 20s, and I’m an out and proud lesbian. At Solstice, it wasn’t explicitly stated you couldn’t be gay, but punishments were much more severe if you were out. There was an incident forever burned in my mind- they found out a girl had made out with a few girls, and when the staff found out, we had a meeting where we were screamed at for hours- then forced to be silent “indefinitely” which ended up being a week. Every hour of waking time for that week, they would make the identified lesbians line up and walk around the building in shame. They isolated them all together. I never dared to tell any of the staff I was a lesbian. It scared and embarrassed me so much that I didn’t come out until very recently. Staff would frequently interrogate and harass the lesbians with homophobic jokes and remarks. “Are you SURE you’re gay?” was a common question, as if they could ask enough times they would say no.

There’s a lot more. A lot more. I still wake up screaming a few times a month. Remembering things I tried to shove away. I got addicted to drugs within two weeks of leaving Solstice, I had never even smoked weed before I was forcibly enrolled. It’s too much to write all in here. I am a shell of a person now. I will probably never get back what was stolen from me, my only hope is that no other children will ever feel the way I feel.


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