Memoir Excerpt – C. Kapela ©
We had another half-hour on the field before group therapy. As we walked our laps silently, I thought about what treatment had meant to me before Tranquility Bay. My father used to work in the juvenile justice system and my mother suffered from severe mood disorders and anxiety. They believed fervently in psychiatry and had me in therapy by the time I reached middle school. I had seen so many doctors, taken so many medications, and seen the inside of the psychiatric ward more than once that now I wasn’t even sure what diagnosis I still carried.
I had always felt that my parents wanted me to be crazy. When my mom stopped working because of her depression, it was my fault. When my parents almost split up, that was my fault too. As long as everyone could keep their focus on me – the problem child – no one had to take responsibility for the emotional abuse that ran rampant in our home. For years, I had stuffed my anger and hatred down, accepting my role as pliantly as I could. With my eighteenth birthday looming on the horizon, I was suddenly unable to accept it any longer. I wanted nothing more than to break free of my home and find a better life. Instead, I found myself on the other side of the world, more confined and isolated than I had ever felt before.
The foreboding in the air was almost tangible as we finished our laps. No one spoke or broke out of line. The staff were even silent. The lack of consequences was almost more ominous than the fear that surrounded me. I was shaking so bad as I struggled to change out of my sneakers and back into my flip-flops that I could barely keep up with the other girls. The line seemed to move so slowly as we crossed the courtyard and headed upstairs to our room. Everyone sat in a circle on the cold hard floor, legs crossed awkwardly. “Indian sitting” wasn’t allowed. It was immodest.
My mind was racing, feverishly trying to figure out what was coming. I honestly thought that if I explained why I was there and what had happened to me that they would understand and let me leave. It didn’t seem feasible to me that there was no way out. I remembered M’s words, telling me that my parents knew everything and that I couldn’t leave until I graduated but I refused to accept it. How could my parents choose this for me? I didn’t belong here, this I knew. Even if my parents believed I did, surely the counselor would see the abuse I had experienced and help me.
It felt like the air was drawn out of the room as an older woman entered, her hair in a tight bun. She was dressed in a cheap business suit that hardly fit her thin frame. Her face was covered in dark freckles, her brown eyes a little too far apart. I could sense that the girls were afraid of her. No one made eye contact, each seeming to shrink back into the wall in an effort to become invisible. She had cold eyes that made me want to do the same. I watched her as she surveyed the room, her mouth making tiny frowns as she caught the glances of some of my fellow family members.
Her gaze stopped suddenly as she reached me. She gestured for me to come over to her. I stood quickly and did as I was told. “I’m Ms. S,” she stated calmy, “I’m your case manager. Welcome to Tranquility Bay. Your parents are fully committed to you being here until you graduate, Chelsea, and I hope you are too.” She reached into the pocket of her blazer and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. “They wanted to be sure you got this e-mail right away so there was no confusion. Go ahead and sit down with the group to read it. We can talk about it when group starts.” She shoved the paper into my hand and watched me as I returned to the group.
My hands were still trembling as I unfolded it, unsure what to expect. I desperately wanted the letter to tell me that my parents felt horrible for what they had done, that they knew I didn’t belong here, that they were coming to save me. Somehow, I knew it wouldn’t.
All e-mail addresses had been blackened out from the header of the message. In red, all-capital text, there was a short message from my parents. “We are committed to you graduating the program, Chelsea. We understand it may be difficult for you but this is your only option. If you choose not to graduate, you will not be welcome home. We love you. Mom & Dad”
The words stung me like a knife. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, my cheeks growing hot. I was as angry as I was sad, enraged at their callous indifference to my plight, incredibly saddened and scared that I would be forced to remain here or become homeless. I folded the paper back up and shoved it under my leg, not wanting to look at it. If the eyes of the staff weren’t all fixed upon me, I probably would have crumpled it up or ripped it into a thousand pieces, screaming my hatred as I did it. Instead, I took a deep breath and tried to recompose myself. It obviously didn’t work.
Ms. S pulled a chair in from the veranda and sat at the edge of the circle. “We have a new member of the Integrity family.” She said, calmly. “Her name is Chelsea.” Everyone looked at me. I could feel a sense of anticipation, almost an electric charge, run through the room. “Chelsea,” She asked sweetly, “Why don’t you share with the group why you are here? Go ahead, it’s okay. Just stand in the center of the circle and tell us what brought you to Tranquility Bay.”
I stood slowly and walked to the center of the circle. I felt naked, every one’s eyes boring into me. The eyes weren’t friendly. They looked at me with judgement and hatred, ready to pounce on me at any moment. I started crying without even meaning to. I didn’t want to speak. I didn’t even know what to say.
“Go on.” Ms. S commanded, her voice less friendly. “Tell them why you’re here.”
I tried to explain, everything coming out in jumbled bursts between sobs. “I…my parents, they hate me. I hate them. My dad…he was a counselor for a long time, and my mom…she’s crazy now. They blame me for everything. They don’t understand….I…”
Ms. S cut me off in mid-sentence. “Now, Chelsea. Are you trying to say that you’re here because your parents just decided to send you here, through no actions of your own? “ She looked at me, waiting for an answer.
“I…I guess so, yeah.” I stammered. “I mean, I’ve done some things but I was angry and scared. I just want them to leave me alone. I don’t belong here. I’ve never been in trouble with the law, I’ve never been arrested. I can’t stay here.” I was sobbing uncontrollably. “I just want to go home, not even to my parents, but just back to my friends. I want to get out of here. My dad has told me about the places he used to work…how he tried to help the kids, but it was so hard…I know how this stuff works. I can’t do this. I’m not a bad kid.”
Ms. S started to laugh. It was a cold, sadistic laugh that sent a chill through my body. “Ladies,” she started, “Do you want to give Chelsea any feedback on her story?”
Nearly every hand shot up in the room. There was a ferocity brewing around me, every one desperately wanting a chance to speak. I didn’t know what feedback was. I looked around frantically trying to find a set of sympathetic eyes but was met with nothing but coldness.
Martha was called first. She stood and joined me in the center of the circle, her face only a few inches from my own. “I think you’re manipulating.” She said angrily, a tiny blast of spit hitting my face as she screamed. “You think you’re better than everyone else, that you’re going to get to go home. Well, you’re not. You belong here just as much as the rest of us do. If you keep pulling your crap, you’re going to end up dead or in jail.”
The girls came up one by one, some more angry than others.
One girl was nearly shaking she was so upset, shoving her finger into my chest. “Look at you!” She screamed, “You look like you could break if someone touched you. You’re anorexic! Admit it!! And I bet you’ve slept with a lot of guys, too. You look like the type. Did you? Are you a slut too?”
Another was quieter, but equally as harsh. “Do you think that because your daddy was part of the system that you think you can figure out a way to get through this without doing the work? We’re going to know. We won’t let you do that. You’ve got problems or you wouldn’t be here. Stop whining and crying and manipulating and try to work the program so you can make it in the real world.”
Ms. S nodded with approval after each burst of feedback. For over ten minutes I stood there, berated by each member of my family. When it was finished, I had become an anorexic, manipulative, drug-addicted slut who blamed my parents for all of my problems and would never make it “in the real world” if I didn’t graduate. Now, it was Ms. S’ turn to speak. She stood up slowly and joined me in the center of the circle.
“Today, Chelsea got an e-mail from her parents telling her that they are committed to her graduating the program. Some of you might not know this, but she will be turning 18 in only three months.” She looked me up and down. “I think we can all agree that she is manipulating. I think we can all recognize her problems. Look at the way she stands.” She gestured to my body. “Her hands covering up her stomach, barely making eye contact. What do you weigh, Chelsea?”
It was a difficult subject for me. When I was in early high school, I worked at a fast food restaurant near our small town. My mother had started constantly criticizing me for gaining weight and eating too many fries. “You better stop,” She’d remind me, “Or you’re going to end up getting fat.” Whenever she heard my actual weight, the comments were always the same. “Oh Chelsea,” She’d exclaim, shocked. “You don’t look like you weight that much. But if you do, you should probably start to diet.” I did start to diet, only I never really stopped. It was the first time in years that I had felt control over something in my life and I liked the attention that it brought me.
“I…weigh..103.” I pushed the words out, dreading the onslaught of comments that were heading my way.
Ms. S smiled at my admission. “See,” She explained to the other girls. “She may think that there is nothing wrong, but her parents sent a letter explaining why they sent her. Do you want to hear it?”
Everyone nodded except for me. I just stared at the ground, trying to block out the words.
“According to Chelsea’s parents,” Ms. S continued, “She has been using drugs and lost so much weight that they’re afraid she’ll die. She runs away from home. She’s been dating a boy who went to jail. She doesn’t listen to them or respect them, and she’s even tried to kill herself more than once.”
“Chelsea,” She turned to me calmly. “What do you think your parents have felt like this whole time? You say that you’re scared and don’t belong here, but don’t you think that they’ve been scared? Don’t you think that they deserve some peace and quiet without you disrupting their lives? Don’t you think that they deserve for you to be here? I think you are both selfish and manipulative. For that, you’ll be spending the afternoon in study hall. You can leave right now. Hopefully it will help you to understand that we won’t tolerate lies and manipulation here. We’re not like your parents.”
I didn’t know what study hall was, but I was glad to be leaving the group. I felt like I had just been beaten down by twenty girls and didn’t have it in me to fight any harder.