12-Step
Horror Stories
True Tales of Misery, Betrayal and Abuse in NA, AA and 12-Step Treatment

Rebecca Fransway
Compiler/Editor
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This book is here courtesy of See Sharp Press and Rebecca Fransway, Ed.

15. Jessie
I Learned Dysfunction in 12-Step School

My name is Jesse. I'm an 18 year old from Nashville, TN. On December 4th, 1998 I was sent to a therapeutic boarding school by my mother for reasons including drugs, violence, family difficulties, and failing in school. While I was there, I was forcibly subjected to almost all aspects of the 12 steps. The school was based on intense, year-round use of 12-step and Gestalt therapy. People were rewarded for following the 12 steps with privileges, better housing, more freedom, more respect, and, best of all, more power to control their peers. I could go on forever about their policy, but it would take too long to type. Let's just say I truly understand the pain of a condescending, It's OK, you're right were you should be; it's all part of your process.

The day before I was to leave for the 12-step boarding school, I broke my hand. The lady from admissions told me that I would be able to see a doctor later that day for it. My mother offered to take me to the doctor and bring me back if necessary, but they assured her that everything would be all right and I would be taken care of. After she left, they told me that the nurse was out and I would be able to see her after the weekend was over. I was taken into a bathroom and strip searched. All my possessions were searched, my money was taken from me, and I was taken back to the group.

I asked another kid if it would be possible if I could go to the doctor that day. If it wasn't possible for the school to take me that day, my mom could come back and take me. My hand was swollen, twisted, and it hurt horribly. He responded with a laugh, as if I had just asked to borrow a thousand dollars.

That night I slept in a very small room with six other kids, two in bunk beds, one on a single, and me and three others crammed on the floor. I slept shoved under the single bed with only a single cotton sheet in the mountain chill. The small mattress had a vinyl coating that made it absolutely frigid to sleep on. It was three days and three cold nights before I got my comforters and a change of clothes.

After two weeks of repeated run-around, I was finally allowed to see the nurse. The nurse scheduled me for an appointment at the hospital a week later. So a full three weeks after my arrival at the school with a broken hand, I was finally taken to the doctor. The doctor said I had a fracture in my hand and gave me a cast and a prescription for pain. The prescription was supposed to be for two weeks, but was halved after two days, and the school staff refused me any additional pain pills after the fourth day. No doctor was ever consulted on this change.

The lack of medical care of the students was probably the worst thing that went on at that school. Once I was on a work crew (physical labor punishment) to destroy the inside of a barn with sledge hammers and crowbars. Two other students and I were in a very small room in the barn. We had to knock down walls and beams, and tear out the fiberglass insulation with our only protection being the work suits we wore every day. Fiberglass was everywhere, on the floor in piles, being ripped out, in everyone's suits, and in the air in a thick pink cloud. After we finished and went back to the dorm, all of us complained of itching on our skin. I had once heard from my father, a health and safety inspector, that if you got fiberglass embedded in your skin that you should take a hot shower immediately to get it out or infection might occur. We were not allowed to take showers and had to endure constant itching. A few days later all three of us complained of stabbing pains in our chests and asked if we could see a doctor. We were not even allowed to see the nurse. But later on, when I got very sick and started throwing up pink vomit, the nurse was called. She said I would be fine. Two days later, because the vomiting persisted, I was allowed to go to bed.

Once a student got a horrible bloody nose. He was filling up garbage pails with blood from his nose over the course of about a week. He grew pale and weak, so much so that he could not even sit up in a chair, which was his punishment at the time. He would frequently have to take breaks to lie down. No doctor was ever called, nor was the nurse ever informed.

That school is currently being sued by parents who had a daughter who went there. The daughter was taking lithium, a salt. She developed a bladder infection and had to go to the bathroom quite frequently during the day and in the middle of the night. When one person has to go to the bathroom, they have to take the whole group, so it soon became a problem. The staff came to the conclusion that this behavior must have been some way of getting attention, and her water intake was limited to two glasses a meal. This caused dehydration and the lithium levels rose in her brain. This quickly resulted in several physical symptoms, such as energy loss. She was so tired that she fell asleep in class all the time. It got so bad that she couldn't even feed herself. My girlfriend had to change her tampon for her. This was all attributed to her wanting attention, and no nurse or doctor was informed. This continued on until she started vomiting bile for several days. She was finally taken to a doctor, who quickly identified it as lithium overdose. She was put on kidney dialysis, but by then she had suffered irreparable brain damage.

The story doesn't end there. When the state decided to press charges, the 12-step school got the kids to plead the fifth. They told the students that the state might want to send them to jail and the school was going to do everything necessary to protect them. Most of the students had already been involved with the law and were scared, so they agreed to be quiet.

The group therapy sessions were horrible. An actual therapist was present at group therapy only once a week. Our only therapy was a session involving no one but other troubled teenagers, each with their own agendas, problems, and manipulations. People were forced to tell their innermost secrets in front of everybody, or else be chastised by the group for being dishonest. If someone didn't agree with another's opinion, they were confronted for not taking it in. Teenagers with severe emotional problems were given as much authority as licensed therapists.

If a student ran away from school, the dorm that they ran from was punished. I saw a student forced by staff to stand with his face in a doorway corner and not turn around for an hour. I have been silenced -- not allowed to talk -- for two days, or else face other punishment. One time the whole dorm was forced to hold hands for two days straight in the same room while an angered student held us hostage by refusing to cooperate.

One of the worst things done at that school is the prevention of legal adults from leaving. This is kidnapping, plain and simple. A 22 year old who enrolled himself, but later wanted to leave, was forced to sit in a room for a week until he "decided" to stay. An 18 year old who went to the main office to withdraw was instead sent to the punishment unit.

After I turned 18, I saw what I had never seen before -- the school for what it really was. It was a system of lies to make the headmaster money. So, I decided to leave with my girlfriend. We had to sneak away at two in the morning and leave all of our possessions behind. Later, the school gave our stuff to Goodwill.

The first night we had to hitchhike along the interstate, but were not picked up and had to sleep during the day in the woods. We got a ride to a garage in town, where they gave us water and some cookies. They were worried that the sheriff would drive by and see us. They told us that he wouldn't care that we were 18 and would take us back regardless. A man there gave us a ride to a truck stop, and from there we made it to friends in Pennsylvania. From then on, we were safe.

Four months later, the school is still not out of our lives. There is a policy at the school to convince parents that if their child runs away, they are not to talk to their child at all. My mother would not help me at all for weeks, but I moved in with my father, who had nothing to do with the school, and with whom I had not been allowed to have contact while there. My girlfriend was not so lucky. Her parents still do not speak to her, so she must live with a friend's mother. She called her father to let him know she was alright and with friends, and he hung up on her. Just getting her identification was hard. The school has refused to send her transcripts to her, although she's following all legal procedures. My mother, although she will speak to me, still refuses to support me. I fear that she has been brainwashed.

Even now, as I am living with my father, the school still haunts me. I am free of the drug problems, emotional problems, and violence problems that used to control my life. But the school refuses to let go. My mother recently paid for another year of enrollment. So, the school refuses, with no reason, to give my transcripts to my new high school. I fear that I will never be allowed to leave the school, and they will prevent me from graduating from high school.

All I want to do is live and move on with my life. But I am not allowed to put this period behind me. Every day, certain words or images bring up memories of my school programming. I constantly fight the absurd things taught to me, forcibly shoved into my thought processes by the school's therapy sessions. I am glad, at least, to have the support of my girlfriend, whom I love dearly, and who shares my experiences at the school. She can relate to me. Without her support I know I would not have made it through this ordeal.