It was around 4am and headlights roused me from my desperately deep sleep. I felt something rustle in my hair. Disentangling the struggling mouse from my filthy head, I set it free and sat up. The Suburban stopped near our scattered camp, thankfully with the headlights pointing away from me and the driver hopped out, approaching the staff sleeping pad. After laughing and chatting with the staff, someone approached my sleeping bag. We were in the desert in Idaho, and after just two months, I was so thin I could count each rib. I had just turned 16. This was me shortly after my arrival at the camp:
See those dark little structures in the distance? That’s what I lived under. The blue tarp was reserved for the staff. Where was I THIS TIME?
I was in one of those famous troubled teen wilderness camps, but not one of the good ones. Thankfully they were shut down a few years after a couple of the kids died while I was there. The food was so bad that I hadn’t been able to eat much and after eating a jar of peanut butter every day for two months, I still can’t stand the stuff. The physical stress, emotional battering and illness that I had caught while there had worn away at my body, but don’t get me wrong; I was HAPPY. This was so much better than living with my family. I had gone through graduation and been kicked out (another story for another chapter). They had transferred me back to the Orientation camp and I had sat there for roughly a week, not knowing what was going to happen to me. Orientation was easy because I didn’t have to hike. I just had to teach the new captive kids how to build traps, shade shelters, steal from staff, hide their horrific food and try to make the food they had to eat palatable. They looked up to me and I reveled in my authority.
This picture was taken a couple of weeks before this chapter begins. Can you guess which one I am? Yup; I’m the one in the back right with the very gangster crooked hat.Being the germophobe that I am, I had managed to stay much cleaner than the rest of my group.
I didn’t know the staff members in this camp well. One of them made his way over and kicked my bed roll.
Staff: Get up. You’re leaving.
Me: Huh? Like leaving the camp?
Staff: That’s what I said. Get up.
Me: That’s not right. It’s like 3am.
Staff: It’s 4 actually. Get up.(we weren’t allowed to know the time or have watches)
Me: Where am I going?
Staff: Hell if I know. I’m just supposed to give you to the escort. Now pack your shit and GET UP.
I don’t even remember what this guy’s face looked like in the darkness but I felt like if I didn’t scramble to my feet, he would have kicked me. I leapt up and began packing my stuff.
We didn’t get real packs; we got an old seatbelt strap for shoulder straps and a sheet of plastic and thin cord to make our own packs each morning. I grabbed my food sack and threw it onto my sleeping bag. I dragged the sleepsack over to the plastic, piled a couple more items on and began to fold and roll. Once I’d turned all my stuff into a giant white Tootsie roll, I grabbed my cord and began to tie ribs around the pack. Someone shouted for me to move faster. Screw them, I thought. Once the rolls was securely tied together, I threaded in the seatbelt shoulder straps, added my 1/2″ thick sleep pad to the top and then started adding all the animal skulls I had accumulated. I even had a fully intact horse skull; to me, these were prizes of all the miles I’d traveled. I hefted the pack onto my bony shoulder and headed towards the car.
I threw my sorry-looking pack in the back of the forest green Suburban and the staff escorted me into the backseat. Like I was going to run away when I was finally getting out of this place, I thought. One very long, dust filled drive later we had arrived at base camp. The radio was playing and the song “Dream Weaver” came on. Every time I hear it, I remember this drive into the unknown. Base camp was a small cluster of dirty, small country-style buildings. There was also a falling apart, peeling red farmhouse off to the side that they had once taken me to for testing. We had sat in the intensely hot structure listening to hordes of rodents run from one side of the attic to the other above our heads as they had asked us memorization and math questions. The Suburban idled to a rumbling halt in front of the shower house. As I approached the entrance, letting my arms dangle casually at my sides, I glanced to the right and saw the small cement slab I had stood on as they strip searched me and made me turn in circles, wearing nothing in the cold, with my arms out when I had first arrived here. I was no criminal. I was an incredibly unsocialized runaway. At least now I was leaving; I stepped through the door.
Usually kids would go through their graduation and then they had to quickly file through the showers. After two straight months without bathing or getting to wash or change my clothes (yes, including my bright red undies), I was quite a sight, but I had an advantage; I had been kicked out of my own graduation and a week later I had the showers all to myself. It was just me and the staff. They handed me the clothes I had arrived in. I still remember them: light brown girl’s cargo pants, a light blue 3/4 sleeve length tee-shirt and my underwear. When I think back I have to laugh; I was going from underwear I had worn for two months to undies I had only rocked for a few hours and I still scrunched my nose. Ew. Used undies.
They walked me into the shower room. There were three showers lining the room on each side with only a thin plastic curtain protecting each one’s privacy. I didn’t care; the shower room was heaven to me. I stepped into the far right stall and pulled the curtain shut. I carefully removed each article of crusted, filthy clothing. I almost felt a little sad. These were the clothes that had protected me after some strange woman made me strip outdoors in front of her. These were the clothes I had rocked for two months as I had summited mountains, celebrated the loss of my parents and hidden from girls who told me they wanted to kill me. I had triumphed over sadistic staff members, beaten grave illness and stood up to my father in these clothes, but as I removed them, I saw them for what they were: rags.
There was only a hand soap pump in the shower, but I was happy with it. I worked the froth thoroughly through my filthy, grease saturated hair and vigorously scrubbed off the dirt stained into my skin. I looked down at the drain; mud was rolling through the shower, even after several minutes of scrubbing. I heard the same staff member that had made me strip call into the shower room, asking if I was done. Heck no. I called for more time.
I showered for a full, REAL ten minutes. When I stepped out, I wrinkled my nose yet again as I put the underwear on. I dressed quickly and walked out of the shower room. I didn’t know where I was going or what would happen to me, but for once, I wasn’t afraid. Nothing could be worse than what I had been through and these transfers were starting to feel normal. It wasn’t that I didn’t care; it was that I had some odd confidence that whatever was coming, I could handle after what I had already survived. Things were going to get better; I was convinced of it.
There were two female staff waiting for me. They handed me my pack and for a moment, it took me to the floor. This wilderness program was known for gravely overloading the students with pack weight but I had made it worse with all the skulls I had discovered and kept. One week before my failed graduation, my back had ached so badly and I was so overloaded that when I rolled my pack one morning, I stared mournfully at the skulls as I decided to leave them behind in efforts to survive. As I had shouldered my pack to leave the site, I took one last look at them and realized I had spent months and weeks hefting them, bearing the pain and the exhaustion to keep them. With one week left, I realized I’d be forfeiting all of it for a few easy days. SCREW. THAT. I set my sad pack down and worked the rope and seatbelts through all of them. I wasn’t giving them up after all that. As I crouched just outside the shower room in what looked like a cafeteria, I grabbed the pack and rose to my feet.
There was another car parked out front. It was cleaner; a rental. A woman stepped out, chatting incessantly. Her name was Dora. She exuberantly told me she was going to take me to the airport. Ugh. I was terrified of flying and this lady was way too cheery for me, all things considered. They asked me if I wanted to ship my belongings home or if I wanted to take them with me and advised bones are usually shipped, not flown. Based on this advice, I agreed to have them shipped. Years later when I finally saw them again, I regretted the choice; my perfect horse skull was shattered. I climbed into the clean SUV and Dora got in the driver’s seat.
Dora: You’re so much cleaner than I thought. Usually kids aren’t so clean when they come out.
Me: Yeah, well I know how to shower.
Dora: Sure sure sure. Of course! You’re so cute. I know you won’t like this but I need to put these on you.
She dangled a pair of handcuffs in front of me. I knew that this happened to a lot of kids on their way to wilderness programs, but AFTER? Not fair; I wasn’t violent. I didn’t use drugs; I was a runaway, that’s all. Didn’t these people get that I wasn’t a criminal?! I had been treated from the very beginning like I was an addicted, violent convict. I would find out (in this episode) why. I groaned. Out of all the times I had been arrested, this was the first time I had been cuffed. To save my dignity, I ripped them from her hand and put them on myself.
She started driving. It was around 5am. I knew it was at least a 2 hour drive to the airport so I tried to doze off, but Dora would not for the life of her stop talking. I nodded and gave an unending number of uh-huhs, trying to somehow silence her, but the barrage of words against my exhausted skull was relentless. For over two and a half hours this woman was truly incapable of ceasing to speak. I pressed my face to the window, feeling the cool air blasting against it and reassuring myself that I was sane. I was just mistaken for an insane person. They didn’t know I wasn’t crazy; they were just trying to reference what my ‘sane’ parents had advised. I was sure of it; for several years and for many programs it had been my experience.
After an eternity of listening to this woman talk about nothing, she rolled us into the Boise airport. She checked in her car, telling me she could afford it because the escort service worked off an estimate budget. I realized my father had hired someone so he wouldn’t have to do this cowardly thing himself. My handcuffs made a soft chinking sound as I leaned forward, noting that Dora kept referring to a small printed packet every time I spoke. What had he said about me that had led to this kind of treatment? I had done nothing but run away. I had sworn at my parents, especially in rage when I was struck, but I had done nothing in violence. I had never threatened them. It was clear they had said or done something to make themselves feel better or to somehow look better when they shipped me to yet another prison of sorts. It didn’t bother me; at this point, it was the standard. I was the crazy kid. I would submit if it meant I didn’t ever have to see them.
We walked into the airport and right away after security we arrived at a Sbarro Pizza place. My mouth watered. I had eaten nothing but peanut butter and moldy food for two months. The smell was irresistible. Dora saw my draw towards the junk food and offered to oblige me, reminding me of the estimated budget. My cuffs clinked again, returning me from my dazed walk. I asked her for several items from the menu and she bought them, sparing me the shame of showing my cuffs. I had been humiliated during the security check when she had hastily removed my cuffs right before the metal detector, stuffing them into my bag. I had gotten a few raised eyebrows from the TSA staff. Once we had both gotten through, she had immediately cuffed me again in front of them. They had laughed. Dang it; I deserved that pizza after the humiliation. I ate it ravenously, so much so that some travelers stopped to stare. I could get used to that if it tasted as good as this.
She wouldn’t tell me where we were going, but she sure told me about everything else in her life. My head nodded. Two months of sleep deprivation were catching up to me. She walked me through the terminal to a gate and handed them tickets and then led me down a jetway. She seemed oblivious to the stares my handcuffs were attracting, but in spite of her incessant chatter, she treated me like a fairly normal kid. She led me into the plane and to our row. I was in the aisle and she was in the center seat. I had no way of hiding my clasped, manacled hands from every person that walked past us. No one bothered to hide their stares so I stared right back. I knew what they were wondering: I weighed around 80-90 lbs. Standing at 4’10”, my clothes hung off my frame; what in the world could a bony, deadfaced kid who looked like she was 8 years old possibly have done to be rocking cuffs in an airplane? Once we were all seated, I made eye contact with a little boy across the aisle. He tugged on his mother’s sleeve.
Boy: Mommy look at the girl! She has handcuffs on. Is she in jail? What did she do?
The mom looked me up and down like I was a zoo animal and drew her son closer.
Mom: Don’t pay attention to her. It’s rude. She just took lots of medicine and now she is going to the doctor.
A drug addict. They thought I was a drug addict. I guess I looked the part save for my deeply tanned hands and face in contrast against the rest of my skin. The plane took off. It was just over an hour-long flight, heading for a town called Kalispell in Montana. What a weird name. At one point I needed to use the restroom.
Me: Hey Dora I have to go.
Dora: You’re not going to cause any problems if I let you go right?
Me: We’re on a PLANE! What could I do?
She gave me a wary eye and unlocked my handcuffs. After returning from the bouncy lavatory, she snapped them back on with a new reluctance. She was starting to realize they were a pretty silly measure for someone as meek as me. As the wheels touched down, I started. Turns out Dora didn’t like talking while flying and had been silent enough for me to doze off. We filed off the plane.
It was warm in the tiny airport but not stifling like the desert. It was so strange to have a roof above me and every time I stepped into a blast of air conditioning, I was amazed. Is this what a caveman would feel like if he was transported here? I grinned at the thought. Dora led us out of the airport and to another car rental place, taking a deep cherry-colored Ford Escape. We climbed inside and she started shuffling her papers around, trying to find the driving instructions to get to my next place. She finally told me I was going to a behavioral boarding school. Great. If it was anything like the last ‘home’ I’d been to, I was going to get thrashed. I kept quiet.
As we rolled into the country town, she asked me if I was hungry. After all the pizza I was stuffed, but there was no way I was going to turn down more of that amazing, edible junk food after two months of throwing up. We pulled into an Applebee’s. Now that the initial euphoria of leaving the camp was subsiding, I was becoming self-conscious of the handcuffs. I didn’t want to try to eat in a restaurant with them clearly hindering me. I looked over at Dora.
Dora: Well I’m not really supposed to tell you where we are going till we get there, but I don’t think that’s fair. If I was you it would make it worse not knowing where I was headed. If I tell you, do you swear you won’t run?
Me: Where would I run to? I’ll do whatever as long as I don’t have to go home. When I’m 18, I’m FREE.
Dora: They can’t be that bad! I talked to your dad on the phone and he seemed like a very nice man.
I was silent. This is what everyone said. I was already rocking the crazy teen label my folks had stuck on me, and I was tired of trying to fight it. I knew it was pointless.
Dora: Well I am taking you to a boarding school called Montana School. It’s very nice, actually. They even have a ranch.
Me: How long will I be there?
Dora: I don’t know how long their program is, just that it’s one of the best schools. Ready to eat? Do you feel better?
I glumly stared at the handcuffs again and silently nodded. I wanted the junk food bad enough to go in there with my hands clearly bound, but man was I not looking forward to the stares.
Dora: Well, now that you and I are both breaking rules, I don’t think these are necessary. Overkill, really. They said you were violent but I don’t think you would hurt a fly!
She unlocked my cuffs and my hands broke apart. Rubbing my wrists, I looked at her in appreciation and surprise. People didn’t trust me after speaking with my parents; She was really going out on a limb for me. I felt my gratefulness break across my face in a big smile.
Me: Wow….thanks Dora! Let’s go; I’m starving!
She grinned back and we went into the restaurant. I ordered fries, a massive appetizer sampler and shake, joyfully eating everything in front of me. I was so full I felt sick, but I was too happy to stop. When the waitress came by and asked if we wanted dessert, Dora gave me an encouraging nod and I gleefully ordered the largest sundae they had. I couldn’t finish it but my spirits were so lifted I couldn’t stop smiling. This lady was awesome! In the last two hours, this woman had treated me with more love and had given me more dignity than anyone had in years. She paid the bill and we got back in the car. It was time to go to the school.
It took about an hour and a half of driving out into the mountains, crunching over gravel roads and inhaling dust before she concluded we were lost. There was no such thing as a smartphone, so we were trying to figure out the directions on the map she had printed. As we rolled past a gas station, she whipped the wheel and we parked. She left me in the car while she got directions. Wow. This woman did trust me.
I sat patiently for about a minute when I spotted her information packet poking out from next to her seat. What had my dad told her about me that had led to the handcuffs? I seized it and trying to keep one eye on the gas station, rifled through it as quickly as I could. I was a speed reader but it took me a moment to locate the personality description section written by the parent. Just as I found it, the door to the gas station swung open and Dora started walking back to the Escape. I glanced over the paragraph, capturing every key word I could find. Waving to her with one hand, my other hand stashed the papers back where I had found them. That was a close call. I started processing the words I had seen on the paper: know-it-all, steals often, compulsive liar, nonverbal learning disability, destroys property, master manipulator, pretend victim…. I knew I shouldn’t have looked.
My spirits crashed again. I knew that they said these things about me, but there was something about actually seeing it that crumpled my heart. Dora, on the other hand, was elated. Apparently we were very close and had just missed a turn-off. She looked over at my downcast face. Assuming it was because we were almost to the school, she put her hand on my knee and softly told me I was going to be ok. Even though she didn’t know what sadness she was speaking into, my chin lifted a little. After all, my parents had written all those things about me, but THIS woman treated me kindly. Maybe there were more.
We arrived at a ranch gate and cattle guard. Before entering, we idled in front of it, trying to make sure it was the right place. A column of running kids wearing the school emblem came into sight. It was PE time and they were running across the baking dirt, down the road we had just come from. Reassured, Dora flipped the car into drive and we rolled forward. There were several quaint looking cabins, a pond, two big farmhouses and in front of us loomed a huge lodge. She parked directly in front of the lodge. They were expecting us. I had only a small sack of belongings, and Dora handed them to me after we got out. An athletic looking woman in her thirties approached us. She had tight dark ringlets. She put her hand out.
Woman: Hi. I’m Tammy and I’m going to be your therapist while you’re here.
Me: Wait; like my SHRINK?
Tammy: I don’t appreciate being called that, but I guess so.
I hadn’t realized it was a rude thing to say to a therapist. I blushed. Great. I was off to an awesome start. Dora hugged me goodbye. I was so preoccupied I don’t remember her leaving, but I never saw her again. Another woman came out and introduced herself as Marylou. She explained she would be my team leader/mom while I was there. Oh boy. My last ‘mom’ had been even scarier than my own mother. I didn’t have any choices. I was terribly awkward, skinny and too young to leave. I picked up my bag and walked into the next chapter of my life.
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