They entered as I slept. They called me by name, asking me to get up, get dressed. They were on a schedule. I was still hungover and had hoped to sleep, something I rarely did. I tasted stale cigarettes and rolled over to check the time on my cellphone. Along with the wallet, cigarettes and lighter I kept on a Rubbermaid container by my bed, my phone was missing. Its charger hung from the outlet. I wearily asked if one of the two men now standing in my room knew where it was. They did. But they were on a schedule and we couldn’t be late. This is it, I remember thinking. Time’s up.
It was about two a.m. and the men grew agitated when I turned away. Nuzzling my pillow, I remember thinking this couldn’t be happening, not to me. I fell asleep for a moment and awoke again when one of them pulled off my covers. Grabbing one of the corners, I pulled hard and tried to bring the covers over my head to keep the lights in my room, now turned on, from waking me.
A knee pressed into the small of my back and I briefly convulsed. It did not hurt, but the helplessness was suffocating. The man seemed like he was twice my height and ten times my weight. I could feel everything, all of him, as he restrained me. “I did not want to do this the hard way,” he said. I didn’t really know what this was. When he let go of my arms and stood up, the meeker man stepped closer to the bed and placed next to me a pair of my oversized jeans and a tattered T-shirt. The men reminded me of Lenny and George from “Of Mice and Men,” both in appearance and demeanor. The boss and his stalwart companion.
I sat up, rubbed my eyes and looked around to see the endless disarray in my room. My mother called it a pigsty. Computer parts, soldering irons and solder, Plexiglass, nuts and bolts and screws, cardboard boxes, notebooks and notated looseleaf pages strewn about the floor. What color was the carpet? On the walls were medals, certificates, designs, diagrams, floor plans, autographed memorabilia. A diploma from Valley Forge Military Academy. Pink tardy slips, truancy reports. The windowsills were lined with beer cans and bottles. Inside were cigarette butts and ash. With the exception of the two men, everything seemed as it should. Until that night, I’d been comfortable in the chaos.
They couldn’t say where we were going or why. Given the chance I wanted to talk my way out of it, whatever it was.
“How long will we be traveling for?” I asked.
“Can’t tell you.”
“How long will I be gone for?”
“Is it out of state?”
“We’re on a schedule.” You said that already.
My mother and father peeked through a crack between the two bedroom doors. I had not seen them together since the divorce.
“Go with the men, please. Don’t fight.”
“Don’t,” Lenny said, pointing out of the room to suggest they leave. And so they did.
My youth was spent on deadline. For years I believed it was impossible for me to live past eighteen. I was never sober. I blew Ketamine in the backseats of Mercedes C-Classes speeding down Route 9 in New Jersey. Nights were spent at strip clubs, pool halls, backyard ragers. I was rarely home. And I had a bad heart. For months after I was born, I was stuck inside an incubator with a cautionary heart murmur. Each year I’d go for a cardiogram and each year I asked if I would live until my next test. My parents and cardiologist said I would. As the years went by I started to believe them. But I never shook the notion that I was living on borrowed time.
Those feelings came to a crest in 2005, just before I started public school in New Jersey, after two years at a military academy. Around the time I wrote in my journal a list of traits I wanted but lacked. It was a particular set of ideas — a person I wanted to become. Being hazed at Valley Forge — because my balls hadn’t dropped, because I was young, because I was Jewish, because my ears were too large, because everyone needed to prove how tough they were — and having kept Kosher all the while, away from drugs and alcohol and fighting and pork, a decent student who studied the Talmud from a hidden drawer in his desk, I decided it was time to change.
Desperate to be cool and accepted but unsure of how to become the man I wanted to be, I spent the summer before freshman year in a makeshift workshop in the basement of my mother’s new home. We moved to the large house in a Jersey suburb after my parents split. My sister and I chose to live with our mother in the hushed community. Everything about it — the tidy lawns, early-morning dog walkers — seemingly plucked from fiction. Even the birds sounded chipper. Whatever it was, it was a chance to start over.
To a degree, that’s what I did. In the basement of that house, removed from whatever happened on our cul-de-sac, I spent hours huddled over computers that I built from scratch, fashioning cases and cooling components out of aluminum, Plexiglass and other materials I ordered from a catalog the size of a phonebook. When the machines were built I began coding; at first, a simple script called “Hello World.” Then I tinkered with hacking BIOS and wireless networks. Working with computers back then was a lonesome endeavor, but it gave me a sense of confidence and the control I longed for. My mother later said she didn’t mind the reclusive lifestyle. In that way, she could keep an eye on me. She never worried about my making new friends ― I had always been charismatic and the break from the Forge, she would later say, was what I needed. She knew I needed to recharge after spending two years under the presence of commanding officers.
This nerdy persona would not work in high school, though. This much I knew at the start of freshman year when I stood next to my sister by some trash cans in a common area, waiting for the first bell to ring. A group of giddy girls with braces asked if I was new in town. We were, I said, motioning to my sister. They asked if I wanted to hang out with them before the bell. I went with them, not knowing anyone there, leaving my sister standing alone.
When word quickly traveled to classmates that I came from a military academy, everyone had questions. How many pushups can you do? Have you ever been in a fight? What’s it like to shoot a gun? Are you joining the military? The barrage of positive attention was something I had never experienced. Yeah, we smoked pot in the barracks all the time. Did a lot of pushups when we got in trouble. Just like my grandfather, I want to be a Marine. Fights? All the time, daily and late into the night. I’ve done coke. Of course I smoke. How many girls? Too many.
Lying is only that for so long.
A year and a half later, midway through my sophomore year, I had built a reputation as defiant, a rebel who was at all times high or drunk or both. In that year and a half the school created a manila file with my transcripts and pink reprimand slips that illustrates my rapid downward spiral. Years later I came across the file, its multi-colored papers gathering dust and fraying at the edges. In one semester, I had 200 absences and a litany of out-of-school suspensions. It began, “Kenneth is in violation of the school disciplinary policy,” and continued with:
Endangerment of others, Saturday suspension;
Using profanity in class directed toward members of the faculty, Saturday suspension; Truancy, two Saturday suspensions;
Cutting period 7, Saturday suspension;
Cutting period 2, Saturday suspension;
Profanity during study hall, Saturday suspension;
Continued and willful disobedience, which is a repeated pattern of failing to abide by school rules, three days out-of-school suspension;
Defiance of authority by refusing to follow direction of school security personnel, Saturday suspension;
Leaving the building without permission, Saturday suspension.
No one seemed to figure out why I went to class some days (for the girls) and then simply walked out (mere boredom), or why I was combative and argumentative (because I was high). How I met the people who gave me Ketamine, who showed me what whip-its were, I cannot remember. I’d always been a quick study.
What precipitated my final weeklong suspension and eventual expulsion is a blur.
In no particular order, I remember: being caught smoking pot on the baseball field, throwing a teacher against a locker, choking another, multiple run-ins with Officer Garrity. The last time I saw him was just after midnight in 2007 on New Year’s Day, when he threw me into an ambulance and escorted me to rehab. Unlocking the handcuffs, red rings pressed into my wrist, Garrity made it a point to tell me I was bright, very intelligent, had so much potential. Much like the town in which we lived, I took his and everyone’s words as insincere, fraudulent. You say that to every kid. You don’t know me. This all made me feel more powerful, more in control, cunning and guileful — what I’d always wanted.
Our family’s insurance would not cover my stay at Carrier Clinic. After I was labeled chemically dependent and diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, after I attended the AA meetings and secretly smoked cigarettes, exhaling into a toilet paper roll filled with dryer sheets to keep the staff from noticing, my mother picked me up and we drove me home in silence.
Lenny and George sped north. Except those were not their names. Jonbarry and Fred were mediators, or escorts, hired by my parents through a company called Right Direction, a crisis intervention group. They specialized in interventions, transportations and runaway services. I still did not know where we were going. Sun eventually shone through leafless birch and we stopped once along Interstate 95. They asked if I wanted McDonald’s. “Fuck yourself,” I said and demanded a cigarette. One went to get food while the other waited with me in the backseat of the white Chevy Suburban.
I noted mile markers on the drive, trying to read road signs that I hoped would help me when I made a run for it. But looking out across the service station parking lot, I realized there was nowhere to turn. I had no money, no identification. I didn’t even know what state I was in. McGriddles stank up the car. I stared off, my forehead against the child-locked window.
We eventually turned off onto progressively smaller roads and suburbia became wilderness – spruce and pine and hemlock everywhere, dusted with snow that seemed to rise higher against the bark the farther into the woods we went. The final gravel road crossed a squat single-lane timber trestle footbridge over a creek, nearly frozen. I was overcome by adrenaline and sobriety when we stopped in front of an olive-green three-story building. Antenna and wires stuck out of the pointy rundown roof. Two figures, a man and woman bundled up to their necks, trudged toward the SUV and stopped beside a doorway. Lenny and George stepped out of the truck. They reported to the figures that I had been quiet the entire ride, then opened the door and let me out. I sat for a moment, stunned by the chill, my heart lodged in my throat.
When Lenny and George drove off, we entered the basement of the green building. The man and woman seemed chipper and excited. For them it was just another day. The room was warm but drab, with a concrete slab floor. Washers and dryers lined a far wall. Cubbyholes with Rubbermaid containers lined another. It was musty like a laundry room, the smell of lint and pubescent body odor. There were shower stalls without curtains in an attached room. They asked if I needed to use the bathroom. I said no.
“Let’s get you situated,” the man said. “It’s gonna be a cold one.” He had a gnarly beard and wore a wool cap. The woman grabbed an empty cubby container and put it at my feet. The man pulled aside a large, hefty Lowe Alpine internal frame backpack. They asked me to put my clothes in the container and handed me cotton briefs, a polyester shirt and pants, a skintight fleece shirt and matching pants, thick heavyweight wool socks, leather hiking boots, down-filled booties, shell snow pants, an orange fleece hooded sweatshirt and a hooded down jacket. The woman faced away as I changed in front of them. Before I slid on my briefs, the man stopped me.
“Before you put those on we need to have you get into a catcher’s stance.”
“Ever play baseball? Outstretch both your arms, crouch and then cough. We need to make sure you’re not carrying anything up there.”
The man and the woman carried the pack and a pair of snowshoes out to another Chevy Suburban. We drove to a small town where I was taken to see a physician. The two counselors sat on either side of me while we waited for the doctor. There were a few people in the waiting area and I wondered if they could help me. Maybe they’d call the police. When I caught the eye of a woman filling out paperwork across the room, she quickly turned away. A haunting feeling dawned on me: Everyone was in on it.
It was a routine check-up. Are you sexually active? Yes (a lie). Have any allergies? No (true). Drug or alcohol use? Yes. How much? Lots, but where am I? Take off your pants. Again?
We drove a short while, never returning to the green building. There was a strange beauty in the mountains. From pamphlets in the waiting room at the physician’s office, I had gathered that we were in the Adirondacks. Small brown signs with yellow lettering marked hiking and biking trails. Trail markers and maps attached to wooden kiosks offered tourists directions. I refused to admit feeling refreshed.
The sun was coming down. White noise crackled intermittently on a handheld radio. After we parked along a set of railroad tracks the bearded man got out to use the handheld. The woman sat next to me and reached into the back. She stretched her tiny meerkat frame and pulled a plastic bag from the top loader of my pack. She smiled and I felt her warmth everywhere.
In the bag was a marbled notebook, one blue pen, and a flimsy green booklet that felt handmade.
“This is your handbook,” she said. “It’s your key to graduating.”
She handed me the green booklet and told me to read it once I reached camp in a few hours. Look it over, she said, and ask your counselors if you have any questions. I thumbed through the sparse pages quickly like it was a flipbook. When the man returned to the car he told me that we were getting ready for the handoff. But before stuffing everything back into the plastic bag, I glanced at the booklet once more. Across the front, framed by hand-drawn silhouettes of ridged mountains, it read: “Adirondack Leadership Expeditions.”
By then I was resigned to a simple fact: I was not returning home anytime soon. Fighting it now seemed pointless. I had heard stories, read things about programs for troubled teenagers, what they called “at-risk youth.” There were reality television shows.
“How long is my stay?” I asked.
“Twenty-eight days is the minimum stay.”
My heart sank. One month. All I needed to do was last a month and I could be back with my friends in the shed behind school, a splif passing between us.
I wasn’t the first one. Around the time I entered middle and high school, friends began disappearing when tough-love and rehabilitation programs became more mainstream, part of an industry that catered to widespread parental desperation.
Within a year of its founding in 1997, Aspen Education Group, which operated Adirondack Leadership Expeditions and many similar programs, reported revenues of nearly $30 million. A decade later, Bain Capital acquired Aspen and its subsidiaries for a reported $300 million. The company’s impressive profits came from private families who turned their pockets out under duress, posthaste. Government sponsorship and subsidies were not needed because families approached the residential treatment centers, therapeutic boarding and “emotional growth” schools, boot camps and lockdown facilities as a means of saving their child. It was a no-brainer. All parents had to do was sign for someone to take their child away. Integral to this booming multi-billion dollar industry were the educational consultants, the gatekeepers with whom my parents first spoke, their hands clutching the manila file of my academic and disciplinary transgressions.
Throughout my stays in three Aspen institutions, my parents would spend upward of $84,000 toward what they believed was life-saving treatment. Compared to others I met in my year away, the cost was small. Some families took out third and fourth mortgages on their homes, borrowed money from friends and family, cobbling together $200,000 or more to keep their children in these programs with the hope they’d recover before they reentered society newly sober. To show for all of it, maybe they’d even receive a high school diploma while away.
The money went toward housing, food, therapy, medication, education and assessments. While in the wilderness, a holding cell of sorts, counselors decided if the World of Warcraft addict would receive the treatment he needed at a ranch in Montana, or perhaps a therapeutic oasis in Florida. Did the sixteen-year-old bulimic need medication and an all-female environment, or would she be okay in a co-ed program? Would the drug addict succumb to painkiller withdrawal as he hiked the forest?
At Adirondack Leadership Expeditions we were given the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2), used to assess major symptoms of social and personal maladjustment, as well as the Millon Adolescent Clinical Inventory (MACI) and IQ testing. All the tests were designed to answer one question: Was I, at sixteen, destined to be a lifelong addict?
By March 2011, Aspen would shutter twenty-two of its programs in light of reports of rape, assault and wrongful death. Lawsuits piled up. Families sued. Among those closed were the three programs I attended. Aspen justified the closures by citing a reduced demand in their services after the recession hit. (At the time of publication, representatives from Aspen Education Group and its parent company, CRC Health Group, had not returned messages requesting comment.)
Before I knew what I was part of, and for the next two and a half months at ALE, I was in a group of about ten that fluctuated as boys came and went, and were carted to and from different programs across the country. Each of us hailed from divergent backgrounds: Alex, the Manhattanite who threw raging parties at his family’s vacation home on Long Island; Dylan, a Midwesterner with acne and uncontrollable bowels; Zachary, a Trentonian who said he dealt drugs; and a nameless boy who often sat away from the group, rocking softly, refusing to engage with anyone while drawing cryptic signs on his arm in pen. Few of us knew what would come of our stays, while others did. The few who were back for a second or third stint often remained silent.
A chill nipped between the railroad tracks and the spot where we stood outside the white Suburban. I shifted my weight impatiently, anxiously, eager for something or someone.
The tall lanky figure bounded from the treeline on the far side of the tracks, pushing his way through the brush like it was a mere inconvenience. He hopped over the tracks in his snowshoes, kicking up a trail behind him. He wore the same Mountain Hardware cap as the man beside me. Their beards were nearly identical.
Within a second I was slinging the pack over my shoulder. The woman fastened me in, strapped my buckles, double-checked my snowshoes. They were clunky and hard to walk in. I hoped we wouldn’t be traveling far. She smiled. Like before, her warmth surged through me.
“He looks ready,” the tall man said. “You look ready. Are you ready? Is he ready?”
He asked no one in particular and had already trailed off back toward the woods, the radio in his pocket crackling. The man and woman told me to follow him, and I did, looking both ways for a train, an open railcar to steal me away.
There was no sign of stopping or slowing down. The brush he pushed through with ease snagged my every step. The snow was at least four feet deep in some places, but the special shoes kept us on top, distributing our weight across the mounds. We were bushwhacking for a while, me grunting, him huffing. I was taking too long. I thought I wasn’t doing too bad. I kept from complaining and only coughed because I had no choice. My lungs were weighed with tar. Sweat came the moment we started and wicked away nearly as fast.
We stopped for a brief moment, standing at the edge of an expansive white plain, a blanket of snow atop splintered ice. I took the time to catch my breath, inhaling the fog. I wasn’t allowed to sit down, so I leaned against a tree and sighed heavily. The man approached the edge of the plain and stepped onto it with caution. A crunch sounded underfoot, then a crack. He looked up across the mass, then took another step, prodding the sheet below him with the end of a walking stick he fashioned along our trek. Then he took off.
“Are you scared?” he called back. “Don’t be scared. It’s thick enough. I think.” He spoke rhetorically, and it occurred to me that we were standing on a lake. We didn’t follow the shoreline, what I thought would be the best idea. We headed straight across, into the fog, and the world disappeared around us. It was majestic, the only sound coming from the padding of our shoes over snow and ice. I stepped energetically, figuring if I were swallowed up by some godforsaken lake in who-knew-where-the-fuck-New-York, there were less cool ways to have died.
My physical aching brought indifference, though the pain in my heart softened. It replaced any hatred and contempt I felt for my escorts, parents or whatever else had caused this — whatever this was. If I hadn’t been sober when Lenny and George came for me, if I hadn’t been awake, I was now.
When the fog shrouded us from all sides and the rain began to fall harder, the man’s pace quickened. We headed for a flinching light in the distance. I tripped on the far shoreline and ate a bunch of snow. When I regained balance against the pack that had loosened itself since first heading out, the light of a fire cast flickering shadows in an otherwise dark forest. Through the brush we hiked a bit farther before we came to a campfire under a large blue tarpaulin. Miniature traps were barely visible in the distance, scattered at equal length from one another in the dark thicket of woods. Heads turned to see who had come. I followed the man further still to a place near two tarps in the darkness.
I threw my pack down and crashed against a tree.
“Storm’s coming. I’ll only do this for you tonight. Watch me. Then you’ll have to learn yourself. Are you watching?”
The man reached into my bag, beginning at the top loader, like he already knew where everything was. First he unspooled what looked like thin string, green drab parachute cord that was taut and mildly flexible. He made a series of knots and tied an end to one tree, and tied it off to another. This was my ridgeline. Then came the tarp, unrolled from my pack. It ruffled like the sound of a potato chip bag as he slung it across the ridgeline. He took my snowshoes and staked them into the ground and planted two other sticks at opposite ends, forming a rectangular perimeter. The man tied off the four edges of the tarp to the two stakes and two snowshoes, fastening them taut so that now, in the middle of the woods under a heavy rain, covered in darkness except for the headlamp he wore and the fire behind us, I had a shelter. This was my A frame.
Twenty-eight days came and went. I’d spend fifty-odd days in wilderness before being shipped elsewhere. In total I’d spend a collective 299 days away from the world as I knew it, bouncing between Aspen programs before returning home. But even then my reentry was not smooth.
Recidivism was not a word we ever heard in treatment. But relapse was. Many of the programs’ former students would not last a year back home and are no longer around to share their stories. Kevin killed himself before his twenty-first birthday. Jake was stabbed outside of a nightclub in Fort Lauderdale and later died. Both were my former roommates.
Others found solid ground and a path toward college or gainful employment. And some carried on as they had been until naturally shedding the adolescent nonsense, outgrowing the defiance and drugs. On its face, the experience did not change my core being. I’m still blunt, crass and inquisitive. I question authority. I’m skeptical of everything and everyone’s intentions. Then again, I made a career of that. But it took countless failures and many mistakes before I succeeded.
At times I do my best to understand what my parents had felt, the pain I brought them. I am not mad at my parents for what they did. They were helpless and needed to find a way to pull me through. We turned out alright. Other families did not.
Even now, nearly nine years since my release and well into my early twenties, I remember those nights when the darkness felt impenetrable, my emotions insurmountable. There was nowhere to turn except to look deep inside myself, a maddening and forcefully cold way for a boy to learn who he was. I remember the friends I made along the way, the girls I fell in and out of love with and those who are still in touch with me today. They say things like, Can you believe we went through that? Did you hear about what happened to Kevin? Jake? Honestly, man, I’m still fucked. Can’t sleep right.
They call it PTSD.
Falling against the tarps that first night, the rain grew louder. I huddled under the low tarp on top of a bedroll that looked used and scared, burn marks and tears everywhere. After setting up the tarp, the man took the plastic liner from inside my pack and told me to put everything in it. The only things I could keep were a Nalgene filled with water, my bedroll and sleeping bag, my long johns and socks, and one of the fleece sweaters — my choice — for use as a pillow. He crammed everything into the large plastic liner, including my boots, and took it with him.
Lightning illuminated the area around my tent after the fire turned to ash. Peeking out from under the tarp, I looked around and surveyed what I could during the quick flashes. There was nothing but stillness from the other tarps around me, no sound other than the howling wind. At first I thought I would not sleep, that I would be overcome by worry and anxiety and racing thoughts, but I was too exhausted. The longest day of my young life was over and I was beaten. Before I closed my eyes a loud clap of thunder jolted me upright. I slammed my head into the ridgeline. I peeked out from under the tarp and squinted into the darkness. It was miserably difficult to see anything farther than a foot away. It was surreal how thick the blackness was. Then a quick flash of lightning outlined the silhouette of the man, his lanky figure crawling out from a nice tent – not a tarp – several yards away.
A loud crack rang out in the distance, like that of a tree splintering. Somewhere the tree began yawning, creaking as it fell through lower branches fanned out below it. I knew he heard it because I heard it. He turned on his headlamp, a tiny lighthouse through the fog, and bounded in the direction of the sound. I imagined he was checking to see where it fell, if the sound was true. Then he disappeared into the woods, taking with him the last of the light.
* * *
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