Carlbrook: A Journey to Last a Lifetime

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A piece about my stint in therapeutic boarding school.



Ross Sellers December 6, 2013 Carlbrook: A Journey to Last a Lifetime “I could see you – over the course of a year – getting further removed from reality, and losing interest in everything” (Scot Sellers). I was drifting, carelessly, and I wanted to find anyway to feel alive because I felt so robbed of the feeling. “I was concerned for your physical safety, due to drug usage and the risk of getting killed by the people you were involved in dealing drugs with. I thought there was a possibility that if I didn’t do something you could be dead in the next year or two, and I felt like the decision I made was protecting your life. I’ll never know if I did save your life, but there was a significant chance your death could have happened, so it was worth it” (Scot Sellers). My father lost his son and in retrospect, there is nothing he could have done to prevent it from happening. I had become engrained in my lifestyle; I was utterly detached and hopelessly careening toward a future filled with the bent scrap metal remains of my train derailed. So, he did the only thing he knew he could do and he sent me away. “My choice was simple, I wanted to break you away from the influences and connections you had here [Colorado], so that hopefully you would have a chance to see life could be different” (Alanna Sellers). My mother and I had fallen far from each other. There was no way to fix our relationship at that time, but she still cared about making an important decision for me. Both of my parents agreed that I needed to be sent away. Although, my father played a bigger role in determining my eventual landing spot in the wilderness and later in therapeutic boarding school.

June 5, 2008 “Get up, son, we need you to come with us.” Some man came through the fog of my mind. I was passed out in one of my red chairs, crushed and empty beer cans in the other red chair next to me. I had spent the night chugging beers, smoking weed and watching Family Guy, I knew something was up when my dad wouldn’t let me stay out the night; after all, there was no school. He told me to get home by curfew. I remember walking to

my bathroom and seeing my dad still up each time. It was way past midnight. Why is he still up, something not’s right. I never tried to go anywhere, just watched Family Guy and drank myself to sleep. “Ross, get up, you’re coming with us.” This voice was familiar; it was John Davis, my therapist I guess you could say. But, he was more of a friend than anything, although he was hired by my dad. “Where are we going?” “We’ll let you know when we leave the house. You’re going to have to wear these.” The man pulled out handcuffs, and held them open. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen them. I had been arrested twice before. Except, this time the man wasn’t a cop. What the fuck is going on? “Ok, can I go to the bathroom first?” “Yeah, that’s fine.” As I walked to my bathroom down the hall, the men followed me very closely. When I got there, I explained that I’d be right out. “That’s alright son, we’ll just wait right behind you.” Now I knew that they weren’t going to let me go anywhere. “If you promise not to try anything, I’ll let you hold your hands in front of you,” A burly man stood in front of me holding out the cuffs. I let my hands be taken and cuffed. My dad was standing at the bottom of the stairs right next to my bathroom, “I love you, man.” I stared at him, for a long while. I stared at the pain in his eyes and I knew he meant what he said, but I didn’t give a damn. I hated him right then, I wanted him to know that I was not okay with this. I shook my head and walked away from the sight of my father and into whatever world was to be mine from now on. My escorts and I went out the garage where there was a running Suburban waiting. I was helped in the back of the car, John sat on one side of me and the Burly man sat on the other side of me. The car rolled out of my driveway and we turned onto Belleview Ave.

“Where are we going?” “To the airport,” John looked at me and wrapped his arm around me. I began to cry, as the realization set in.

In the next twenty-four hours, 15,006 Teens will use drugs for the first time (Witmer, “What is Happening to Our Children). Every four minutes a youth is arrested for an alcohol related crime and every seven minutes a youth is arrested for a drug related crime (Witmer). I’m a good example of those “youths” listed in the statistics. I got high for the first time on my 15th birthday, but it wasn’t my first time smoking weed. They say weed is a gateway drug and there’s some truth to that. I liked LSD too -- only tried coke once, but it didn’t tickle the fancy. I tried other hallucinogens too and I got drunk for the first time around the age of 14, but I never really struggled with alcohol until right before I got sent away. I got arrested for the first time in December, three months after my 16th birthday, and then I was arrested once more later that month and once more again almost a year after I got out of Therapeutic Boarding School. I spent my entire life before high school in private religious schools. I never got along with anyone. I guess that’s why I went to seven different schools, I was homeschooled for a year and I was kicked out of school in fifth grade. Suffice it to say, I didn’t like being in an educational environment. So, when high school came around, my Dad wanted me to go to another private school and I said I wouldn’t do it. Naturally, an argument was born in the process and we finally compromised with some guidelines if I were to go to public school. I was to join a sports team and attend youth group every week, which is a gathering for religious children. To tell you the truth it wasn’t all that bad. I found most of the kids attended school with me, so it was a good way to get to know people. Throughout my freshman year, my grades only dropped slightly, but my parents also separated and then ultimately got a divorce. I guess I thought it was for the better; they seemed healthier without one another. Anyway, I eventually moved in with my mother because she had just bought a new house and promised to be more lenient with the rules. My sophomore year of high school is where it all began for me. I went to Cherry Creek High School, where 4,000 students attended and one could run into a new face every day. But, I didn’t see new faces often because I was never there. I stopped going to class, and eventually just dropped out in the second semester. I guess I never saw myself as a high school dropout, but I never did graduate high school. It’s funny to think about

now that I’m in college and chasing something. Anyway, I lost my way that year; I suppose there’s no better way of putting it. I wasn’t motivated, I didn’t care about my grades and I cared less what my parents thought. My mom tolerated it for some time, but her and I had a lot between us from the past, so we started to fight regularly and then one of the fights broke the camel’s back. The next day, I was moving in with my Dad, the woman he was currently dating and her three daughters. My paps fell for a woman quickly after the divorce and soon he’d be on his way to marriage. He was in love and is still in love with the same woman. When my dad told me in May of 2008 that if I failed another drug test he was going to send me away, I stopped smoking. I didn’t fail another drug test, but I guess he had always planned on doing it anyway. I’m not sure whether or not my dad thought there was anything else he could do, maybe it’s that way for all the parents that end up making this decision.

I remember standing on the train in D.I.A. and staring back at my reflection in the glass opposite me. I remember a small boy huddled in his mother’s arms, looking up at me terrified. Maybe it was the cuffs around my wrists, or the look on my face. I was angry, yet I was also scared beyond belief. Soon enough we were at the gate and I looked up and saw we were going to Utah. My experience in therapeutic programs would begin here, in a wilderness setting that incorporates therapy. Who’s to say that putting a child through these events is supposed to work? I suppose that the Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs would say that they do, as in study solely focused on therapeutic wilderness programs, researchers found that adolescents with depression issues were less likely to have the issues after going through the program. But, I’m not sure if I would have considered myself depressed, or if after the program, I would not have come home and immediately gone straight back to drugs. So, is the importance of a therapeutic program to ensure that children are less depressed, or that they stop doing the things they are doing because of being depressed? (Norton, JTSP 24-46) Second Nature Entrada was to be my wilderness program and soon enough, John was saying goodbye and leaving me with these people I’d never met. Next thing I knew, they’re telling me to drop my pants, grab my package, bend over and cough. Then, they took my clothes; gave me some crocs, a gigantic backpack and some of their own camp clothes. Finally, I was blindfolded so that I couldn’t see the drive out to the boonies. Wilderness programs vary in their methods (as I would later learn in my next destination). In mine, if you were a new comer to group then you were in reflection phase and many times placed on run-watch. For some reason they didn’t place me on runwatch, although I suppose at this point I had basically come to terms with my circumstances. Anyway, since I was brand spanking new, I wasn’t allowed to talk to the rest of the group members. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to talk much at all. The whole idea of

reflection phase is to reflect I guess, but it was boring as hell. Reflection phase usually only lasted for a few days, but it’s a grueling few days of hikes up to 20 miles. And, I felt like an outcast because I couldn’t talk to anyone, yet other group members could talk about me. I could hear them ask each other: “what do you think he’s like?” and, “why do you think he’s here?” After reflection phase, one moved through the phases until completion: earth, fire, water and air if you were really good. I only wanted to make it to water phase, that way I could have a camp chair and trust me that was a hell of a commodity. I guess those first few weeks went by real slow, but I eventually got into to the groove of things and I realized that “the woods” – as we called them in rehab – were nice. However, soon enough you start hearing fellow group members talk about how they got a letter today from their parents and that they were going to “after care.” You start to realize that everyone goes to after care and the woods are just to sober you up for the next stop on the therapy train. And the next stop was rehab. When I was four weeks into my stay in wilderness, I got a letter from my dad saying I was going to after care. Over the next five weeks, my dad spent time going over the many options until he came to one. I was going to Carlbrook School, a therapeutic program in Southern Virginia. But, first I would be the best man in my dad’s small wedding in California. The time went by quickly those final weeks in wilderness and before long it was my first day at Carlbrook.

August 8, 2008 John and I had been driving the Dodge Charger he rented from the airport for nearly two hours. Halifax, Virginia is about two hours from Raleigh Durham Airport. From Halifax, one must then drive another half or so to South Boston where Carlbrook School is conveniently located. Since we were getting close now, my thoughts began to dart to my destination, to the school, to the students, and to my life for the next 14-16 months. I was scared as hell to think I’d be this far away from home, with no choice about it, in an experimental type school, for that long, was terrifying. As we pulled up the long driveway, I looked over the grounds of the campus. There was a large lake surrounded by a lot of open grass. Several buildings took stand on the landscape at various points, and there was a winding sidewalk, which broke off at certain points to extend a pathway toward the entrance of the various buildings. John and I continued up the driveway toward what seemed like one of the main buildings, however students spent very little time in the Manor House. “You ready?” John looked at me intensely; assuring me that everything was going to be all right. “Yeah, I think so.” I grabbed the door handle and opened to my new home.

Stepping onto the foreign ground, I turned to follow John inside the Manor House. Once inside, two tall students (although, tall is relative because I was 5’6” at best) approached me and shook my hand. “Hey, I’m Isaiah Thomas and this is Mike Hayde. We’ll be showing you around campus today,” they both seemed very enthused. “What’s up, I’m Ross Sellers, as you know and I will be your new student for the day,” I tried my best to seem optimistic, but truly I was very nervous. “See you later, John,” I turned to him and waved, as I was lead out the door. Isaiah and Mike bombarded me with questions while also talking about the campus. They asked me where I went to “the woods”, why I was sent away, and how I felt about being at Carlbrook. I answered as best I could while they showed me around. They took every opportunity possible to teach me the rules. When I went to cut across the grass, they told me it wasn’t allowed because we weren’t allowed shortcuts. Or when I spit, they told me that I was to ask permission to spit if in the presence of company. And, of course cursing was not allowed. The rules seemed to pile up: only media members could touch mp3 devices, no internet access was allowed, all new students were on bans with one another. Which meant talking to, sitting across from, or sitting next to said student/s was not allowed. I encountered other bans throughout my stay as well, but I started with these simple ones. “I know it seems like a lot of rules, but you’ll get used to them,” Mike explained to me as we rounded the corner to where they were setting up graduation for tomorrow. We approached another group of students who all introduced themselves to me. I noticed someone walking down the driveway that John and I had just recently driven up. “Where’s he going?” I asked Gracie, one of the girls that I had just met. “He’s leaving, he just turned 18, and was held back from tomorrow’s graduation, so he’s decided to walk. If you walk down that driveway, you’re not welcomed back, Ross, and you have nowhere to go except hopefully catch a ride. Look at me, no matter how hard it gets for you here, always push through. Trust me, it’ll be worth it in the end.” Gracie looked me down and made sure her message was clear and I never forgot it. I remembered, from day one, to my graduation.

“In the past twenty-five years, adolescent risk factors have dramatically increased…these real and palpable problems have led to a rapid growth of private therapeutic programs” (Gass, JTSP 106). Generally, a prospective student has gone through legal, familial and academic problems, along with many others, before their guardians take this step. I suppose it comes to the point where this is your final choice as a parent or legal guardian and many times it is. Although, it’s not a bad choice to make,

as statistics and various studies show it to be quite successful. Research shows that a stay in one of these types of programs works to reduce mental instability that the adolescent may have, dependency on substances and increased success with family and peer relationships (Gass, JTSP 107-111). Thus, when it comes down to a parent recognizing that they have quite possibly failed their child and that a decision must be made of what to try next, private therapeutic programs are often turned to. Yes, these programs work; the evidence is shown from the studies mentioned above, but what of the students who attended Carlbrook with me?1 I have come out a better man because of my experience, and so have a good majority of the students that attended with me. I am also willing to attribute much of my success to what I learned while attending Carlbrook. But, I will not justify many of the experiences2, the extent of certain aspects of the school, or the loss of “normal” moments. A young man interested in women should not be forced to hide these feelings as if they are a plague, and dangerous to one’s existence. Through something so simple as not allowing relationships between students, those students may lose confidence in who they are. Also, these students may lose confidence toward the opposite sex, or same sex, if the shoe fits.

July 21, 2010 It had been almost seven months since I stepped foot on this campus, and there was only one aspect that had changed – there was now a girl’s dormitory on campus. However, guys still had to sleep in the modular units that I was accustomed to during my stay at Carlbrook. I was coming back to visit during a Veneratio workshop, the last of the five workshops students had to go through before graduating. Graduating classes were set every May, August, and December. Thus, the December class could come and visit Veneratio right before the August graduation; May could visit before December’s graduation, and August before May’s graduation. And, I had always planned on doing so after graduating from the program back in December of 2009. “Ross! How you been brother?” Max, my best friend while attending Carlbrook, ran up to me in the tarmac and gave me a big hug. “I’ve been grand my friend, living life. And yourself?” “I’ve been great, I’m doing the same thing, getting ready for school in the fall.” 66% of the students who took the questionnaire I provided report still struggling with the issues that put them in Carlbrook to begin with. 2 100% of the students agree that many of the tactics used at Carlbrook have hindered them in some way since leaving Carlbrook.

Max was to attend Ithaca in the fall, and he was pretty excited. My plans for college were not as prestigious, although I was still planning on going. Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs was to be my destination. We discussed these topics, although being reunited with all of my graduating class was beyond the simple discussion of college. We were all very excited to be back together and to play a role in the upcoming class’s Veneratio workshop. The most prominent topic discussed was whether or not we had been honest to our commitment of sobriety. So easily, it seemed, many of us had withdrawn our commitment early. We had all signed “contracts,” stating that we committed to refrain from the use of certain substances for a pre-determined amount of time. I had said I would not drink for six months, but that fell through 3 months into the commitment. The use of marijuana had been stopped all together for as long as it seemed necessary. Drug tests were pivotal to ensuring that one could come and visit Carlbrook during this time, so all of us had stopped smoking weed. Our discussions were secluded to our hotel rooms; we did not want any of the staff members to know our pitfalls. And, we did not want them to know we had spent 1620 months of our life learning how to beat our struggles with substances, only to fall victim to them again. I remember wondering if my time spent at Carlbrook had succeeded in allowing me to defeat my struggles with the substances that placed me there in the first place. One question never arose in my head however; I never questioned whether or not I was a better man for my experiences, and I have never questioned this because I am without a doubt a better man for them.

Time has passed since I came back into this world devoid of contact with what originally brought me down. I’ve been arrested once since, and made countless mistakes as a man, but I’ve never lost sight of who I strive to be. Therapeutic Boarding School has changed a lot of lives, not just the students, but parents as well. Regardless, we continue on as humans, encountering mishaps, and putting ourselves in danger, but one thing rings consistent: the commitment to be the best man or woman one can be. Experiences and self-awareness have made this continuous journey possible. Life treads on beneath us, all we have to do is plant our feet and choose a path.

Works Cited Gass, Michael. “The Evidence Base for Private Therapeutic Schools, Residential Programs, and Wilderness Therapy Programs.” Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs Volume IV. NATSAP, web. 29 Oct. 2013 – 27 Nov. 2013. Norton, Christine Lynn. “Exploring the Process of a Therapeutic Wilderness Experience: Key Components in Treatment of Adolescent Depression and Psychosocial Development.” Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs Volume IV. NATSAP, web. 29 Oct. 2013 – 27 Nov. 2013. Sellers, Alanna. Personal Interview. 1 Dec. 2013. Sellers, Ross. “Carlbrook Questionnaire.” Survey. 27 Nov. 2013 Sellers, Scot. Personal Interview. 30 Nov. 2013. Witmer, Denise. “What is Happening to Our Children?”, web. 6 Nov. 2013.

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