In the summer of 2010, I disappeared without a trace. Peers speculated about my month-long absence. Their theories included: suicide, spiritual voyages, and internment at a mental institution. None of these were far from the truth. I was forced against my will to attend the Aspiro "wilderness therapy" program Vantage Point, a camp in the state of Utah that specialized in the treatment of "adolescent boys and girls ages 13–17 and young adult males and females 18 – 28 who are struggling with a variety of social, cognitive, learning and processing issues such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, Verbal Learning Disabilities and more significant executive function, impulse control and attention deficit disorders. Vantage Point camps are co-educational groups for adolescents whose cognitive and learning issues are a primary contributor to their emotional, behavioral, academic, social and family difficulties". My purposes in creating a brief transparent account of these experiences are as self-therapeutic as they are expository of largely unregulated institutions that operate on the fringes of the mental health industry in ways quite complementary to "pharmaco-capitalism". Camps of this sort are usually last-ditch efforts pushed by mental health professionals on desperate parents after conventional therapies and medications do not produce desired results in their children (namely the normalization and repression of behaviors and identities deemed inappropriate). The following images are sourced from the documentation(carefully selected by Aspiro personnel) provided to parents of patients. These images where shared on an online stream throughout the internment period for parents to check their children's statuses and progress as constructed by Aspiro specialists. A month after my return, I was given a collection of these images on a disc.
When I arrived at the Salt Lake City airport I was met by two muscular young men deemed "transporters". The transporters promptly took to me to a medical center for examinations and followed up with a trip to "base camp" in Mt. Pleasant, where I was issued the standard clothing, equipment, and rations; they also confiscated any items I traveled with until deemed appropriate. They ran short on male shirts so I was given a few female tops after which I was mocked by these men due to my appearance (this was only within a few months of re-discovering my gender dysphoria). Outside the sun began to set over the pastoral setting, the silence was beginning to torment me. That evening I was taken to a temporary group, a group of "misbehaved" who did not suffer from mental illnesses, since the Vantage Point crew was in another part of the state at the time.
After a few days I finally grouped with the Vantage Point group and headed toward the planned destination of the week. Each week groups were taken to different locations in cramped vans throughout the state of Utah and returned to base camp once a week for food rations and medical examinations. Though parents were sold a "immersive" and "constant" therapeutic treatment, I only saw a therapist for less than an hour once a week. The "counselors" who presided over the groups the rest of the time were actually young, underpaid(they complained about this quite a few times), predominantly Mormon babysitters without any credentials in mental health professions(with some of them working at Aspiro straight out of high school). My assigned therapist had credentials in Wilderness Therapy from an anonymous Buddhist university and Art Therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a barely clinical background considering the range of conditions the program promises to treat. I was barred from two-way communications with anyone including my parents, and was only allowed to send letters to them read and approved by the therapist herself(I later found out that one of these was intercepted because it communicated the deleterious conditions I was in). These letters were scanned and included in the edited live-stream along with the rest of the images, depicting as idyllic and adventurous an experience as possible. I didn't smile much, but you can bet when I did it was caught on camera.
Everything we did was highly regimented and surveilled. Language was regulated, conversation topics carefully handled. I was constantly photographed, even while sleeping. We had to brush our teeth collectively in a circle. In order to prevent drug trading, counselors would carefully administer the medications of those who needed them, inspecting the mouths of those lucky enough to have the undersides of their tongues and sides of their gums assessed. I was "tarped" a few times, meaning two counselors slept on my sides over a tarp placed over me, that way if I seemed unstable or tried to escape it would firstly be very difficult and secondly, if I succeeded, would be noticed and subsequently restrained. Every morning we would wake up and be encouraged to write in our journals and have group discussions, noting our progress along the way. I felt like a celebrity, I was special.
Utah is a beautiful state. I was miserable against the stark backdrop of magnificent landscapes. The uncanny mixture of teetering madness and majestic vistas harkened to Romantic depictions of sublime. Dissociation kills the experience however, flattening everything before you into dull postcards that say "I was here"... but not quite there. I thought Utah would be a giant red-rock desert, but it was more of a melange of biomes. Depending on the location of the week, I would be exposed to a range humid mosquito-filled forests, desktop-background flower fields, and jagged mountain-range Native Reservations. I wanted to see Utah's famous rock arches, but I didn't have a chance to since Moab never landed as one of my scheduled locations. I still got my fair share of red-rock desert, one with an oasis-like stream the counselors dubbed "the Indiana Jones river". I still wanted my arches. Maybe I should have stayed longer...
No. It felt long enough. The days were slow, my body heavy. My large backpack didn't help much either...I remember having dreams about leaving within the second day. In various desperate frenzies I would beg, kick, and scream. I did not belong there, I filled myself with false hopes of leaving early. This was impossible, as any plea toward my parents would be censored regardless. Escapes were very common, but never successful, even that one time (according to legend) that a patient/client turned 18 during his treatment. Of course one could walk away, but where would one go looking and smelling like a vagabond without any cash, cell-phone, and sense of direction in an unfamiliar topography? There was no way out but death, and surely enough I attempted suicide various times. Hanging from fastening cords, cutting wrists with sharp shale-like desert rocks. One hikes precipices seemed very enticing. One time in the shit-van during our voyage to the week's target destination we were very close the edge of a cliff, the dirt path swaying us in unexpected directions. I prayed that we would veer off into the depths of that picturesque ravine. "Let's end this cinematically" I thought, envisioning a charred, crumpled van with the remains of adolescent boys. We actually came close to being swept by a landslide in another instance, missing it by a few minutes. By the time we arrived at the destroyed road it was too late, the lovely aftermath of fellow motorists salvaging their partially submerged SUV.
I was asked by various other patients if I was "gooned". I learned that this meant abducted by hired escorts and taken to the airport. It became clear to me why the transporters appeared so Herculean. Many patients would be woken up by visitors in the middle of the night and instructed to pack, without any warning whatsoever. Some were coerced in different ways. One boy recounted about how his father told him they were going "camping". They both went to the airport with their individual luggages in hand when his father suddenly pauses while nearing the security checkpoint. Two escorts appear and his father notified him that he isn't going with him. Many of us were notified a few days prior. I myself was told by my parents a week before. I adamantly refused to go, I even threatened with running away. When I told my parents they could not force me to go, and that there was nothing they could do about it, they responded with silent nods, seemingly assured that this was not the case. I knew that this treatment meant trouble and would worsen my condition rather than improve it(which turned out to be more than true). Eventually I caved and agreed against my will, with a doubtful sliver of hope that this treatment might improve me. When I learned about the escorts at the camp, I realized that any continued resistance would have meant getting "gooned" and going anyways, albeit in a more traumatic fashion.
Nights always brought a certain level of calm to my tattered soul. Maybe it was a sense of defeat or exhaustion. Maybe it was the stars I could see in the dark state of Utah. One night in one of the darkest territories in the country, a petrified forest in the desert, I got to experience a significant meteor shower. Some of the meteors would explode and fragment, lighting up the sky and rocky landscape like storm-less lightning. It was beautiful, it calmed me. I thought about the abyss these alien showers came from, my inconsequentiality outside of my immediate experience. I felt depersonalized, but in an improved way. My nights were filled with dreams. One of the hippy counselors gave me a New Age explanation to this phenomena. He spoke of electromagnetic circuits forming between the earth and my body as I slept close it, separated only by a thin mat and sleeping bag. He took my aside after one of my psychotic breakdowns in which I violently threw my pregnant therapist's water bottle and dented it (She feared I would hurt her and her baby, I was insane but not a barbarian. What the hell was she doing out there anyway?). He was very soft spoken, a real flower child. He talked about energy flows and the spirit of nature. He told me I had power, but didn't know how to control it, like an untamed stampede of horses. He told me if I worked on it, that I could achieve clairvoyance. Unfortunately, no amount of hocus-pocus and wishful thinking relieved me of my trauma.
The other kids in the group came from varying backgrounds. We all had our own stories to tell, some of us shared some of us didn't. With some of them, I couldn't even tell why they were there, with others it was obvious. Many had a lot to prove, fabricating their pasts in the process. One kid told us he drove a Mustang GT back home and even lied about his age. He told us about all the hardcore things he did, the fights he won, the things he stole. He was outed eventually, and forced to apologize in a group talk session. I made good friends with a very amiable programmer from the Bay Area. He spoke very formally, and appeared to be a genius, intimate friends with notorious hackers from all over the country. We agreed that the program was worsening our conditions and that our parents acted out of desperation. Another boy described being institutionalized at a prior time for being defiant to his parents. He was released after being evaluated by psychiatrists that concluded he didn't have any problems. He seemed quite bright and healthy to me. Wealthy parents can afford to relocate their children against their will as they please, under the banner of ameliorating treatments and outdoor adventures, sometimes indefinitely. I knew of one very young autistic child in the younger Vantage Point age-group who's stay kept being extended. He was there for over 17 weeks and counting. I left before he did, wondering when he would finally go home.
Not all of us went home. According to my peers, about 75% of Aspiro attendees end up at one of the many special boarding schools connected to the organization. When I found this out I almost lost my mind. My parents told me I would be back once my month was up, but considering the deceit and coerciveness that colored this entire process, I had my doubts. After all, it wouldn't be the first time in my life there was an attempt to place me in a special school. Goodbyes were always bittersweet, with some people happy to leave to their previous homes, and other to their new "homes". This would only be a relief for those who had violent or treacherous home lives previous to their abductions. One guy, who knew he needed to be away from drugs back in his Boston home, complied with his fate. He still took his pharmacologically sanctioned drugs of course, and his mood stabilizers gave him a lazy eye and vacant gaze. His last words to me were "Bro, it was really nice meeting you. At first I thought you were gay but you're cool. I don't know, you just looked really clean and pretty". Oh the irony. He left me with that and I pondered my own fate, wondering what life in boarding school would be like. I expected the worst.
Conflict would often break out. Each group its own special kind of pressure cooker. Some kids were particularly violent, rowdy, and offensive. Some of us were quite the opposite: hypersensitive, easily hurt, and vulnerable. I vacillated between the two, vacillating between a teary catatonia and explosive rage. Many of us victims of bullying back at home merely transplanted oppressors while others became the bullies themselves, finding that they were dominant in a group of broken, debilitated people. Some were notorious for their brutality, as in one kid with Oppositional Defiant Disorder(ODD, imagine that!) who compulsively(and at times to his own dismay) picked a fight at any moment possible. Some of us couldn't direct our violent energy toward each other, and would explode in the middle of the night after being bitten by one too many mosquitos. Racism, homophobia, sexism were out and abound. A musical chairs game: Who will blow their fuse today?
Did I mention Utah is a freak state? Weird geography, weird wildlife, weird people. A red state. One time we crossed through Provo, a medium size city home to the Latter-day Saint run Brigham Young University and a burgeoning high-tech industry. It had a bizarre modern single-spire temple, perfectly fusing its seemingly disparate famed sectors. In a smaller town we passed through, a counselor asked for directions from an elderly man in overalls (who too closely resembled Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2). He replied with an "over yonder" and pointed toward the horizon. For whatever reasons, this dowdy character seemed impressionable. Residents dressed conservatively, some Mormon pilgrims and students from all over the world (I bet you haven't seen a Korean Mormon before). We weren't allowed to interact with town and city dwellers, to do so would be a serious infraction against the treatment program. Of course, we wouldn't want to raise suspicions in the local residents.
Sexuality was the insidious undercurrent to the experience. There were talks about masturbation and ensuing disavowals of homoeroticism. No homo. The boys worshipped the few women(primarily counselors or those from the girls groups we saw at base camp) they came in contact with. One time, the ODD guy made a disgusting comment about our counselor's "fire-crotch" and had to apologize to everyone in the group about the comment. How embarrassing... Sexuality was to be toned down, all our hormones were presumably raging at the time. Any hints at intimacy between group members (I would eventually be moved into a co-gendered group during the final week) was to be closely monitored and suppressed. I kept to myself and retired to my dreams and fantasies, but how could I have kept my eyes off of that lovely boy from North Carolina who looked like a superior rendition of Shia LaBeouf(he was in the first temporary group and unfortunately not in any of my photos)?
Image really was everything. As aforementioned, an online stream of photos, scanned letters, and therapist commentary maintained parents at ease back at home. All photos taken of my treatment resemble the branding and presentation schemes of the company website. Images harkened to the spirit of nature, promising the reinvigoration of your troubled child; therapy and a countryside. You would be fed wholesome organic food which patients prepared for themselves. You would burn sage bundles, undergo an alchemical resurrection. Humorously enough, the pastoral character of the landscapes in these images appears as if it could come straight out of an anti-depressant ad. The program fuses the new-age spirituality, health-craze, and nostalgia rife in our milieu with the mental institution. A truly neoliberal upgrade from the aging vestiges of the Great Confinement.
As it was all occurring, it was too overwhelmed to understand the implications of what I was experiencing. One of the overly cheerful and apparently veteran counselors commented one night in the something along the lines of "wow guys, isn't this surreal? Like all of a sudden you are in another state on this adventure? You're experiencing all these changes and this isn't an experience a lot of get to have". Yes it was surreal. I couldn't comprehend how it was legal or even possible to non-consensually exercise control over a minor. How a therapeutic institution, that was supposed to "help me" controlled every facet of my life for an extended period of time. I wondered how they got away with the things they did. Why would my parents relegate this much control over their children to strangers in another state, strangers working for profit?
This experience revealed a complex meshwork of institutions, health practitioners, and other agents. Parents of patients would often be referred to "educational advisors" or "counselors" by psychologists and psychiatrists. These individuals would then present options for inpatient treatments, specialized schools, camps, and the like. The distinction between mental health programs and disciplinary programs(boot camps) is somewhat unclear. Many years before this all happened, the threat of boot camp was used against me often, in spite of the clinical knowledge of the professionals who assessed me with "Asperger syndrome-like" symptoms, a diagnosis that does not warrant the similar treatment as those deemed simply as "delinquent" or "aggressive". Interestingly enough, one boy in Vantage Point was there by judicial mandate. He was exempt from a sentence in a juvenile detention center if he was willing to be attend a therapeutic program. Thus these therapeutic programs are not entirely prescribed by mental health professionals, but also by the law as bailouts for those can afford such a program(the costs are beyond reach for most). It is juvenile hall for those who "plead insanity", so to speak. In my case, I was sent not because my behaviors were dangerous or illegal, but because I was suffering from a mental illness. I was effectively locked up in a wall-less, picturesque, mental institution. Though that was the extent of my experience, one must not forget how these programs are pipelined to boarding schools, the final destination for most patients.
I was fortunate. I was not shuttled off to a boarding school. By the time I was ready to leave, I was manic. I was excited, I could not sleep those last two nights. I stayed up, in the total silence of a mountainous forest, consumed in by the prospect of finally leaving; my delirium intermittently broken by the howls of coyotes. Morning came, the transporters arrived, heralded by "pick up your shit, you're going home". I picked up my shit, said my goodbyes and began the hour long hike towards the van. They had my belongings, I changed into my clothes in the dangerously speeding van (we were a bit late). I turned on my cellphone and received a month's worth of messages. The mania was still there, the trip was fleeting but not enough. I felt paranoia about missing the flight. An endless desert sped by me for over an hour, until finally I arrived at Salt Lake City. The longest and most arduous month of my life was coming to a close.
Screens looked strange, air conditioning felt even stranger. I was that smelly over-tanned kid on the airplane. I had huge scabbed gash across my left forearm. I must have looked quite suspicious. None of that mattered, what mattered was my survival, I made it out. The aftershocks persisted for months: flashbacks, existential dread, and more. I felt like I lost a part of me over there (I know, its cliche, but trauma really does that to some). I promptly began my senior year of high school as if nothing happened, though those close to me sensed something was different. I became hollow, even losing friends in the process. I do believe this experience contributed in my deferral of exploring my gender identity, as the experience overshadowed my discoveries of the previous months. I do believe that these programs benefitted a fraction of patients, but at the expense of those who don't. Even those who did benefit to some extent expressed hurt, including the employees of the program. Many were success stories who came back for more, this time as counselors. A good patient always comes back for more. Some would have breakdowns, at times their emotional states were indistinguishable from those of patients. In this sense, it really seemed that no matter the outcome, individuals were marked by this treatment for better or worse. I knew better, and wouldn't even consider going back to perpetuate this form of therapy. It took me years to arrive at a point where I could consider my memories with some understanding, able to process them, analyze the processes that led to this. My initial reaction was indignation at my parents for making the decision to send me there and I developed a bit of resentment that I am still working through. With time I have come to realize that the decision came from desperation, and the options provided by a pathological system of care to address that desperation. When pharmaceuticals and therapies fail to conform children to an education system that is itself broken and unable to accommodate difference, professionals and frantic parents turn to the practice of exile. Indeed the term "pharmacology" is itself derived from the Greek "pharmakos", the ritualistic sacrifice or exile by a sorcerers of a human scapegoat or victim (usually a cripple). Pharmaco-capitalism has returned to its origins, complementing biochemical strait-jackets with institutions of exile that surpass the traditional psychiatric ward in its modes of repression and control. Hospitals still exist, and they are as horrific as they have historically been, but these new privatized options present themselves as "softer" and even safer improvements of the asylum. Based on my experience, this is misleading. I believe that biopower has mutated toward less outwardly insidious yet increasingly profitable means of subjugating the mental ill. The clinic has merely torn down its walls and sublimated itself into personalized, branded forms. I survived this inhuman, monstrous new-age clinic. I almost lost my life in the process, even attempting suicide within months of my return, but I am here alive and healing. I carry my scars, within and without, and possibly will for the rest of my life. I'll be okay though, really.
- The original testimony (Author webpage)
- Datasheet about the program (Fornits Wiki)
- Comments about the testimony (Reddit Troubled Teens)