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Down and out in purgatory
A 16-year-old enters the strange, disturbing world of unconventional Therapeutic Communities
The downward spiral.
The downward spiral. (Courtesy Shutterstock)

In 1982 I was 16 and destroying my life. Or my life was falling apart, depending on how you portion out the responsibility. Me and my dysfunction didn't just hang out at home fighting with my parents. I propelled myself and I got yanked. I was placed in treatment, the system, institutions. You get a new life, a subculture, an enemy. You get war stories. You get to hear people all day say, "I'd be dead or in jail if not for this place."

I came of age in the TC, the Therapeutic Community. A TC is where I had to wear a diaper at seventeen, as what they call a "Learning Experience." It's where you call your fellow residents "Family." Where residents wear crocodile masks (to correct phony tears); where boys were dressed in women's clothing, in clown outfits, as hobos, superheroes, and donkeys (required to say "hee-haw" before and after each time they spoke). It's where residents had to sit in a playpen all day wearing a pig nose.

The goal of the TC, as I experienced it, was to re-socialize you, to make you excessively normal through a highly structured, Puritanical penitence system where labor was both salvation and punishment. Discipline was public, grossly exaggerated, and intended to shame and ridicule, and it came from both staff and peers. TCs were 18- to 24-month programs characterized by isolation from the world, unrelenting surveillance, and intensive confrontation. It's where you had to dig your own grave outside, scrub the parking lot with a toothbrush, wear a cardboard penis around your neck for sexual acting out, wear tape on your mouth for breaking a speaking ban.

It's where you're made to eat baby food, where they shave heads for breaking rules (although this was toned down to a low crew cut about the time I got there, and stocking caps for the girls; there's a TC legend about how some girl committed suicide after they shaved her head).

TC is where the entire Family sits silently in chairs (called a Closed House) for a week, writing down our infractions ("copping to our guilt") while being periodically screamed at by staff — "Cop to it. Cop to your guilt. Clean your belly. Do you have guilt? Guilt kills! It all comes out in the wash — tell on yourself. Tell on everyone else!" This while Billy Joel's Honesty plays over and over.

It started with Synanon, the original Therapeutic Community founded in 1958.Synanon would take the TC philosophy to an extreme (the outside world is a dangerous and contaminated place, no reason to return to it) and in the mid-1980s descended into violence, bizarre behavior, and illegality. The sociologist Barry Sugarman, on another early TC called Daytop in 1974, wrote that "the function of Daytop is to give residents a second chance to grow up…they are required to live under a regime of restrictions more appropriate to children or infants than to adults." In the 1983 book, The Untherapeutic Community, researcher Robert Weppner cautioned that the mechanisms of therapeutic communities can be "…considered by the naive observer inhumane treatment." I was, perhaps, naïve.

When I was 16, I spent most "school nights" lying in bed smoking weed out of a pipe carved from an apple, staying up to watch The Life of Riley at 4:30 a.m. In the daytime, I'd wander around outside my high school wearing my sister's bell bottoms and a form-fitting androgynous shirt (pretending it was 1969), getting high and trying with limited success to join the counterculture (that is to say, the boys who made bongs in shop class). Among a certain crowd back then, being a burnout was an attractive position to aspire to: Leif Garrett hair in front of vacant, stoned eyes, hunched over in remedial classes wearing an army field jacket. I thought being a loser was a beautiful thing.

I was failing most classes. I'd skip school and hitch back and forth on service roads and expressways just to pass the day. I was drinking peppermint extract (high alcohol) in between periods. I intentionally fasted for days at a time — to the extent that I would almost salivate when I saw food in the kitchen. I was heavily in debt, betting on everything from handball games to the ability to toss crumpled pieces of paper into wastebaskets.

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Some images from those years: about to lose my mind on an acid trip alone in my room; puking into a Coin Prices magazine in the school library, after consuming gin and Thai stick; climbing head first into my window late at night, a ski coat filled with seeds, stems, tinfoil, and EZ-Widers, while my mother pounded her fists on my back. (In our family my father, though he was at home, didn't exist.)

I wanted adventure: run off and join the circus, run off and become a burnout, run off and join a rehab. That was part of it. I also had no sense of a future, of going to college, driving a car, living a life. All this seemed inconceivable and no one told me otherwise.

Add in some anxiety, depression, self-hatred, anger — all very ordinary. But I was going to get out or kill myself trying. I started saying the hell with it, more and more, and at each incremental stage, chastising myself for not having the courage to really say the hell with it and then go a little further. After meetings with guidance counselors, school officials, psychologists, doctors — somebody recommended putting me in a program called CDC.


***


CDC was the Community Day Center, an intensive behavioral modification program for troubled adolescents of the mostly white middle and working class suburbs. It was loosely affiliated with Long Island Jewish Medical Center (I think my mom liked the Jewish part). But really, we were in our own world.

Most of the staff members were ex-addicts who had come through similar programs, and who would scream in your face and tell you war stories about their drug use that were part cautionary and part bravado, as those don't-be-like-me stories usually are. Most of the boys in the program were the type who wore beat up work boots, army jackets, denim jackets with Blue Oyster Cultpainted on the back, maybe a hooded sweatshirt underneath — hippie hobo, listening to classic rock. A few were doing tough — hair combed, thin leather jackets — and their work boots were new and sturdy. The girls mostly modeled themselves on Stevie Nicks. They made jokes about wanting to blow Charles Manson. They wore feather or roach-clip earrings. Or they wouldn't pick their heads up, or take the hair out of their face.

We all pretended at serious drug habits that we wouldn't really have for another five or ten years, and the staff treated us accordingly. I was playing at being a drunk before I could even handle alcohol. Weed, alcohol, acid, mescaline, PINS petitions (Person in Need of Supervision, as designated by Family Court); cutting classes, cutting arms, breaking into houses, dealing — that's who we were.

Upon entering CDC you relinquished all contact with the outside world. Your room at home was "ripped" by a resident with status (an older resident who had earned rank) who confiscated anything considered "negative" (your No One Here Gets Out Alive Jim Morrison bio, your black lights, posters, concert T-shirts). You stayed indoors at the center until 5 p.m. each day — cleaning, going to groups, going to tutors, reciting slogans, screaming and being screamed at, cleaning some more.

The atmosphere was highly structured and the punishments and the rules excessive. At 5 p.m., your parents picked you up, brought you home. You stayed in the house. If, for example, you were to see someone you knew en route from the car to your front door and they said "Hi," you were to respond, "I'm in a drug rehab, I can't talk to you." If you said anything other than this, you had acquired "guilt" and you would have to "cop to it," tell on yourself, or run the risk that someone else would, including your parents, who were trained to respect the rules of the program. You were required to make daily lists of your own and other peoples' guilt to hand in each week.

You couldn't use the phone at home, couldn't carry money, couldn't walk to the mailbox to get the mail. Absolutely no contact with "old friends." In the facility you weren't allowed to walk alone, curse, flirt with a girl. Various residents were on bans with each other (even eye contact was prohibited). Unless you had the privilege to talk to another resident, you had to ask an older member to monitor your conversation.

You were disciplined for talking negatively, criticizing the program, "goofing on house lingo," criticizing staff, reacting to criticism, leaning on a wall, putting your foot up, conspiring to have "negative contracts" with other members, telling war stories, touching a member of the opposite sex, breaking confidentiality, or "getting inappropriate."

If, for example, a resident cursed, another resident with status (an Expeditor, for example, a resident who wore a tie when he achieved that status) would announce, "Hold it up," and all movement and talking in the room would cease. All the windows would be closed (lest the people outside think we were crazy). The Expeditor would then stand the resident across the room and, at the top of his lungs, scream institutional slogans at him related to the particular program rule he broke. The rule-breaker was careful not to react verbally or even facially under threat of further punishment. This was called a Blowaway, and they went on all day. Residents with newly acquired status would practice their Blowaway techniques in empty rooms.

Once a week you'd knock on a door.

(scream) Who is it?

Kevin.

(scream) Wait.

You wait for a long while.

(scream) Get in here.

Inside two residents are sitting down holding the list of your guilt that you handed in for that week. At the top of their lungs they scream admonitions at you for each of your infractions, always ending it with the harsh, Now get out of here. These were called Haircuts.

You were punished even if you did nothing wrong, because it wasn't punishment, it was therapy. If staff felt you were "hiding in the woodwork, not fully participating, your Object Lesson (OL) could be to stand in a shower stall all day holding weights because you were "dead weight" in the program.

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And the staff believed in the program with a pedantic, fervent zeal. They spent their days going up to residents reciting this script: "Can I confront you? Do you have any guilt?" Or "Can I pull you up? You shouldn't talk negative. You should cop to it."

Some of us would subtly, tentatively, wink at each other, but it was dangerous to explicitly criticize the program or break any rule with someone — you never knew who would turn you in (to save your life). You had to memorize the House Philosophy and recite it each morning in unison with the Family. You were never to criticize or mock The Philosophy. That would be considered serious guilt, and you'd be severely punished.

Break a Cardinal Rule in the program — fighting, getting high, splitting, physical intimacy — and things get serious. You would be made to sit on the Prospect Chair (a wooden chair with the back cut off) for weeks. The Chair is placed inches away from a wall that has a photocopy of Our Philosophy taped to it. You sit on this chair, back straight, feet flat on the floor, arms at your side, staring at Our Philosophy — all day, in complete isolation. You talk to no one and you made eye contact with no one. You were watched constantly.

After two or three weeks on the Chair, you get stood up in a Family Meeting, your knees a bit weak from the change in posture, facing your peers who are sitting out in the audience in rows of chairs. The staff then attacks you, screaming in your face, creeping up behind you and exploding, trying to making you jump, trying to make you cry. Then they order the Family to "take care of feelings." One at a time family members start to scream at you, curse you, insult you. With two hands they hold onto the seat of their chair while rocking and seizing back and forth, the chair jumping spastically, as resident after resident is pushed toward catharsis.

Then you are "shot down," "put on contract," given an "Object Lesson" or "Learning Experience." You scrub floors with toothbrushes, wear large oaktag signs around your neck that say PITY ME or I NEED ATTENTION, sing self-deprecating ditties on the hour. You are then placed on a ban with the entire Family for approximately a month. Then you're taken out to get a crew cut, or, for girls, the stocking cap. At home you are allowed no television or music.

I was on the Chair eleven times. The monotony of the posture you had to maintain felt unbearable sometimes (especially for a hyperactive teenager) — keeping silent all day, day after day, staring at a piece of paper with three paragraphs of Hallmark self-help blather on it. The tremendous boredom and loneliness, the aching in your back, the sickening thought that there was nothing to look forward to except more monotony. And you never knew what day you would finally be taken off. To distract myself I'd change the pain. I'd place my finger — the soft skin where the finger meets the nail — on the bottom rung of the Chair and carefully grind it as hard as I could until the warmness of a new injury flowed through my body. I'd forget about my spine and it gave me something to do.

I spent most of my time in CDC in trouble — on my knees scrubbing hallways, gagging on the baby food I had to eat as punishment for not bringing my lunch, wearing a body-length sign around my neck that said, "You can run, but you can't hide." I was dressed as a hobo (until they concluded that that was "feeding into me).

I split several times: slept outside, crawled through windows into pitch black boiler rooms of apartment buildings looking for shelter, then came back for another Family Meeting, another crew cut, another stint on the Chair.

Late in the program I had a "negative contract" with three or four boys in my weekend group. We were drinking, cutting up whatever was in the medicine cabinet to snort, breaking all the rules. Toward the end I was lying in bed using a lighter to heat up a razor blade and carving the word HELL into my arm. I knew I was gone soon.

After eleven months I was "terminated" from the program, ushered out without being able to speak to anybody. I was on Bad Standings and so were my parents. We were not allowed to ever associate with anyone connected to CDC (at one TC they would have a funeral for people who split). I was referred to a residential TC, Phoenix House.

At Phoenix House, in 1983, my parents signed the paperwork to make me an emancipated minor, a ward of the state, and I was put on welfare. "We gave the kids over to them. You were their kids now," my mother says today, remembering the "low class shit" in the waiting room of Phoenix House.

In Phoenix House, teenagers were mixed with adults who were serious drug users or who were coming out of prison. A majority of the teenagers had been arrested, done time on Rikers Island, the main city jail, or in state prisons. Most of the residents were in the program as an alternative to incarceration; if they split or were kicked out they'd go behind bars.

I was first placed in a tenement in Manhattan for a few weeks for what was called Induction, in a room with about eight residents. Green, an older black man who used to peddle Sam Cooke songs on 125th Street, sweated out his dope habit night and day on an army cot in my room. Eager to play nurse, I brought him my juice from breakfast and gave him some of my allotted no-frills cigarettes. He later took me under his wing, along with cool-ass-criminal-ladies-man Kevin (so cool he wore his leather pants in the dish room to scrub pots), who called me by the affectionate Kevi-kev. Kevin was a twenty-something with numerous arrests for dope and coke sales.

The population was predominantly black and Latino, and the two of them adopted me as a crazy white boy mascot. I fronted for their doo-wop group in morning meeting in my polyester pants and silk shirt (I had only the clothes on my back when I entered, and the institution had given me a wardrobe from what was mockingly called the Phoenix House Boutique — out-of-fashion charity clothes). There was an ex-con in the room who directed very odd, persistent rape jokes, mostly toward the white teenager in the bed next to mine.

I was out of my league. I once stepped on someone's foot on the basketball court, and he started yelling, jailhouse style, Yo, you better watch your back, you better sleep with one eye open. I watched a teenage girl dish it right back in therapy group to men who were telling her to suck their dick. Her screaming comeback — surprisingly just as violent as theirs — was that she'd sit on their face and grind her pussy into their mouths. I went into Phoenix House more a troubled adolescent than a criminal or a hardened substance abuser, but I learned the part. I used my junior high school Spanish on the handball court, embellished my autobiography, learned the slang, and gave up any hope of ever getting back on track. I reasoned that I had gone too far and my life was pretty much over. There was very little to be afraid of. This led me to do things like talk back to kingpin adult residents who were running things — people who a little bugged-out 125-pound white boy had no business even addressing, according to the social code of the facility.

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At an Encounter therapy group I was casually ripped for not dressing properly and not combing my hair (scrawny white kid looking like a derelict — the group members saw me as a pathetic creature and they were going to score points with staff and release a little venom). I told them to go to hell. That's when Jim stood up. Jim was a white, middle aged, powerfully built junkie from the Midwest who wore plaid shirts and was melodramatically serious. He had wrist-to-elbow razor-blade scars on the inside of each of his arms from a suicide attempt. He once told the story of how he got drunk when he was twelve years old and chainsawed the heads off his father's pigs. Jim walked across the circle toward me; I assumed he was going to attack. Reflexively I stood up to accept whatever was coming. He reached out and grabbed me in a tight hug. Later he'd smile at me psychotically and insist that I was just like he was as a boy.

After a few weeks I got transferred to another facility in the Bronx, another tenement in the ghetto. This was a world of speedballing, of staying away from white dust patients from Queens who were drinking cranberry juice to detox. Residents talked about getting high on boiled nutmeg, filtering Aqua Velvacologne through slices of bread for drinkable alcohol, coating menthol cigarettes with toothpaste to catch a buzz.

We played hyper-aggressive basketball with a milk crate nailed to the wall for a basket. We slap boxed, played the corner (a jail fight game), played spades, did push-ups for card values. I was one among the junkies with collapsed veins and abscesses where the coke had missed. Residents gleefully yelled out drug dealing and prison phrases: Pass me by you don't get high; on the juggle no struggle; on the lock in.

There were also the penitentiary Muslims, threatening to put crushed glass in pork dishes:

I don't eat no swine.

Yo, swine is divine.

There were irks from orphanages, the odd intellectual, old timers who told stories about zip guns and shooting LSD and what a trip it was, or of shooting coke to speed up their production as piece workers. Prostitutes, hustlers, regular Joes and Janes who didn't seem to belong there, the bugged out, the earnest strivers carrying around briefcases, the veteran convicts, the flaming gay I'll-whip-your-ass kid with the long nails.

I split one time from the facility in the Bronx and tried to hold out until I turned 18 and could join the military. With the help of some friends I stole wood from houses under construction and built a chest-high shack in the woods of the Long Island high-tension fields to live in. I'd fall asleep each night with alcohol or marijuana. I'd wake up in the middle of the night in complete darkness and await morning by burning leaf after leaf of the Suffolk County Yellow Pages in a metal garbage can for warmth, light, and activity. I'd masturbate as many times a day as I could to interrupt the monotony. I'd wander the roads, hitch-hiking back and forth, making up songs, breaking into houses, breaking into school cafeterias, briefly working as a caddie. My friends thought my place in the woods was an adventure at first and visited for a while, but soon they stopped coming (SATs, finals, dates) and I was alone. I held out for about a month and then went back, and was eventually transferred to a facility in upper Westchester (Yorktown) specifically for adolescents.

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