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Month: May 2016

Do You Experience ‘Anniversary Reactions’?

May 29th

Each year on May 29th, I remember the day that my life took an irreversible turn. I tend to mark that day as the last day of my naiveté and the last day of my childhood. That was the day, I unexpectedly found myself in the Straight, Inc. program.

‘Anniversary Reactions’ is the name that social scientists have given the phenomenon in which many people experience intensified memories, and/or emotions on the anniversary date of a traumatic event.

According to an APA article (http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/anniversary.aspx)

Anniversary dates of traumatic events can reactivate thoughts and feelings from the actual event, and survivors may experience peaks of anxiety and depression, according to psychologist Susan Silk, PhD, of APA’s Disaster Response Network.

Around the anniversary of a traumatic event, people are likely to remember events clearly and many will feel emotions more intensely than usual. Reliving the sadness is a very natural part of the healing process. But there is no one right way to heal. Try not to compare your reactions to those of others. Each person is different, and each individual will find his or her own way of coping with the memories.

Some of the reactions those affected may experience as the anniversary date nears include difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, irritable outbursts, nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep and feelings of detachment from others.

According to the Veterans Administration http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/research-bio/research/anniversary_reactions_pro.asp

Most people will feel better within a week or two after the anniversary. Over time, the stress symptoms will decrease in both frequency and severity. Providers can suggest strategies to help survivors through the anniversary period. For example, survivors may find it helpful to make specific plans for the anniversary day so that they have other things to occupy their time besides memories of the event. Some may choose to participate in a commemorative ceremony such as visiting a grave, making a charitable donation, giving blood, helping others, or dedicating the day to spending time with family.

It is common for people who did not seek help for the original trauma to feel ashamed that they are still suffering months or years later. However, the fact that someone did not seek help may itself be symptomatic of trauma-related avoidant behaviors and can be viewed as a signal that professional help should be sought.

Unanswered questions about the skeleton in the closet

Before I began to research the facts surrounding the ‘skeleton in my closet,’ my anniversary date was filled with questions about the how’s and why’s of the Straight, Inc. program, followed by anger towards my parents for initiating the action, then allowing the ordeal to continue. I was ashamed of the skeleton in my closet even though I knew I it was a ‘fake skeleton,’ placed in my closet by others. I couldn’t reconcile the feelings I had with the events that occurred. Nothing made sense.

The mixed emotions and confusion are (among other things) what propelled me to research the exact nature of the Straight, Inc. program and eventually work to expose the nature of the Straight, Inc. programs and other similar institutional or residential settings.

Acceptance, and planning for peace and gratitude

For me, learning the truth was the first step in my being able to make some sense of the conflict I would experience each year on the anniversary date of entering the program. Each year, May 29th, still makes its presence known in my life, even though it all began thirty-four years ago. I suspect it will always be one of those dates in which I remember each minute detail of everything that I experienced on that particular day in my life, and because I imagine that this date will always stand out above all others, I have made peace with it.

Each year I view the date as a day of gratitude. I make sure I plan activities that take me outside (to represent my freedom from a warehouse) regardless of the weather, though so far the weather has generally been very good on this day. I usually plan at least one solo action (which represents my freedom from being watched and controlled by others 24/7), and if at all possible I plan something that involves water—either going to a beach, swimming in a pool or walking around a lake. (This represents the trip to the beach that never occurred because it was the pretense under which my parents dishonestly lured me into the dreaded warehouse).  I celebrate my survival, my health, my freedom, the love in my life and all of my good fortune.

Was it always like this? No. But it is today and has been for a while and with continued good fortune it will remain this way.

Everyone copes differently

I respect that everyone copes differently, but I also want to put this challenge out there for any willing takers: Each time the anxiety, anger, depression, etc. find their way into your life, go find a way to recognize the good in your life, perhaps help others who are less fortunate, or at the very least, do something nice for yourself.

This year on May 29th, I hope to visit the Korean War Veteran Memorial in homage to my father. I remember my father calling the Korean War, the “Forgotten War.” It was downplayed and considered a ‘conflict’ rather than a war. Because, according to a writer on this site (https://www.quora.com/Why-is-the-Korean-War-called-the-forgotten-war), Even though it was the first “hot” conflict of the Cold War, the Cold War was still young and not wholly appreciated for how it would grip American society. 

I’ve been reading through letters that my father wrote  while he was fighting in the Korean War.  As I read them, I feel a deep empathy for this young man who found himself in a frightening, unwanted situation in a foreign land. I wish I could talk to my father about my own experiences and hear about his, and compare notes. But as you may have read in an earlier post he didn’t survive the program.

He turned 53 years old eleven days before he died on May 11th, just short of my one year anniversary in the program. I believe the excessive stress he experienced in the program put the final nail in his coffin. So to honor a man who gave a lot in the under-recognized (during his lifetime) Korean War and who gave his life believing he was saving mine in another under-recognized war (“the drug war”), I will spend some time contemplating our lives in the presence of the ‘Korean War soldiers.’ After that I hope to visit a nearby park with a beautiful lake and end the day enjoying my home and my neighborhood at the fourth annual neighborhood Memorial Day bash.

What will you do on your next ‘anniversary’?

Add your answers to the comments below, in case your ideas can help out another survivor who is reading this.

For further reading on this topic, search “anniversary reactions.”

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Day 347

Wednesday, May 11, 1983 – Springfield, Virginia

The Persistence of Memory, 1931 (c) Salvador Dali
The Persistence of Memory, 1931 (c) Salvador Dali

1983-May-11.

It was the end of another day in the Straight, Inc. warehouse. Day 347 to be exact. By now things were  somewhat easier than they were initially. Living my days inside a large, windowless, fluorescent lit, and (with the exception of rows of blue plastic chairs for ‘clients’) mostly empty warehouse room had become my new normal.

I had finally assimilated to this tiny alternative society that was within, but separate from, the larger “normal” community outside of the warehouse walls.

What used to seem foreign became familiar. (And the formerly familiar had become foreign.) Each day I was with the same people, doing the same things, for the last 346 days, which is what made this day, Wednesday, May 11, 1983, seem all the more bizarre.

At the end of each day, staff announced host-home changes. Since there was no way of knowing when or why staff would choose to shuffle newcomers in between different host-homes, I listened closely to find out if the same two newcomers who were with me last night would still be coming home with me tonight. I wasn’t too surprised when I heard one of my newcomers’ names called and assigned to a different oldcomer’s home, then I heard my second newcomer’s name called and reassigned. After that, I waited patiently to learn who would be coming home with me in their places, secretly hoping it would not be any of the newest girls who were still trying to come to terms with being placed in this radical program. This was because I had to worry more about brand-new newcomers than those who had been there longer. The people newest to the program were the most likely to run and if they succeeded, I would pay the price the next morning when I returned to the warehouse.

When Staff finished announcing the host-home assignments, they began calling people to line up for dismissal. It seemed they had forgotten to assign replacement newcomers to my house and I panicked. It was not that I didn’t welcome the break from taking care of newcomers and finally having some alone time, but an oldcomer whose newcomers were removed from their house and not replaced with others typically meant the oldcomer was getting set back to newcomer status and everything awful that went along with being new to the program, including the loss of all freedom.

Staff dismissed everyone from group  just as they did every other evening, except they left me sitting in a blue chair and one other girl standing in front of a door.  Angela* had been in the program for a few months longer than I had but we were both on the fourth phase of the five-phase program, which meant we were more than half way towards getting out of that crazy place.

What on earth was going on? I searched for a reason for being left behind. What kind of trouble could I be in? I retraced every movement I made earlier in the day and for the past week but I couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong. I had no idea what was coming my way but I suspected I was about to get ambushed.

Angela remained standing in her position as guard at one of the doors and I remained seated alone in one of many hard plastic chairs, as the other kids lined up heal-to-toe, with their noses in the necks or hair of the person in front of them. Like every other night, Staff made the group stand like that for what seemed like hours (probably ensuring everyone’s rides had arrived, but back then it seemed like just another power play) then finally said, “Group dismissed!” Everyone silently filed out of the building to the vehicles waiting for them in the gravel parking lot behind the building. Each oldcomer held tightly on to two newcomers by their waistbands to ensure they didn’t run away.

When the warehouse became still and most of its fluorescent lights turned off, only Angela and I remained. I was left to wonder if the staff members had forgotten they left us in this room. I looked over at the Angela to try to detect what was going on, but had to turn away when she turned to look at me. We were not allowed to talk to, or look at each other, or communicate in any way in this ‘big group’ room. I didn’t want to do anything to cause myself any more trouble than it appeared I might already be in, and no one ever knew who might turn you in to staff for a rule infraction, real or imagined, in order to save themselves from trouble, or further their own progress in the program. Trust no one was the only rule I had set for myself while in that program.

Finally the young female staff member, Patti,* walked back into the room, and with her best poker face, she motioned to me with her hand to come follow her, and as we walked by Angela she motioned for her to do the same. We followed Patti out of the main warehouse room and up the hall to the front office. This walk, though it lasted less than two minutes, felt like hours, as I searched the deepest corners of my mind to prepare myself for what might be happening, even though I couldn’t come up with anything. We finally followed Patti over to the door of one of the two conference rooms located right off the lobby of the front office.

Because it seemed as though only the three of us were left in the building I was surprised to see that there were rows of chairs set up in this conference room in a horseshoe shape filled with silent people facing me, mostly adults, some I recognized from the program and some I didn’t.

I scanned the horseshoe from left to right and front to back until I spotted my sister and mother in the front row towards the right side of the horseshoe. Patti directed me to sit in the empty seat next to my mother. My eyes widened, and continued to scan the room waiting for an explanation. I half hoped Mom finally came to her senses and decided to withdraw me from this place, yet I was not completely sure I still wanted out of this place, which by now was all that was familiar to me. All of my old friends, and old familiar places and happenings from my pre-program days now seemed as though they had existed only in a dream.

My sister’s face looked stone cold as usual while she stared at the floor, but the expression on my mother’s face was one I had never seen before and it annoyed me. Would someone just say something? I finally heard one of the executive (a.k.a. adult) staff members behind me speak up, “Mom, do you have something to tell Kathy?” It seemed the executive staff were always in charge of communications between the family and the kid in the program. My mother’s face contorted and she weakly spoke, “Dad died today.”

Instantly, it felt like my mind detached from my body and spun around faster and faster doing a reconnaissance of the room and the people in it while trying to make sense of where I was and what I was hearing. The sight of my mother’s face twisting in a way I never saw before infuriated me, was she pretending to cry? Meanwhile, the voice in my head that was previously interrogating me by saying, “What did you do wrong now, Kathy? You do realize you are never going to get out of this place, don’t you? Did you do something? Or did someone falsely report you so they could score points with Staff?” switched to saying more protective things like, “What? What are all of you people looking at? What do you want me to say? What do you want me to do? I’ve never been in this situation before and I don’t know how to react!”

Finally, I heard a voice from within the room, I think it was the same executive staff that had spoken earlier, “Kathy, what are you feeling right now?” I continued to stare forward as my brain functions seemed to operate separately from my body. “How do you think I feel?” I thought silently. I was enraged, but I couldn’t say that. Now was not the time to get in trouble or I wouldn’t be allowed to go to my own father’s funeral.

Oh my god! Would I even be allowed to go to his funeral? I had seen several people prevented from attending family funerals by the program. By now my rage was off the charts and even though I knew I had better answer when spoken to by executive staff I just couldn’t. Thankfully, my mouth would just not cooperate. I heard the talking continue in the room, but I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. Thankfully they let me go to my own home that evening.

The next thing I remember is walking in to my house alone for the first time in a long time without holding on to newcomers. I was vaguely aware that Angela had been sent home with me, not holding on to my pants, but sent home with me nonetheless for whatever reason I didn’t know or care. As I walked through the kitchen, my mind flashed to just twenty-four hours earlier in that same spot when my father tried to quietly say good-night to me without interrupting me, while I was tending to newcomers. But I asked him to please wait just one minute. He did. A minute later I gave him a big hug and kiss good-night and told him, “I love you.”

He was fine just last night! This can’t be real! If this is another one of the program’s sick lies, I might just kill somebody, I thought as I mindlessly walked up to my parents’ room hoping for proof that this was just a completely distasteful hoax (which wasn’t out of the norm for this program). But when I turned on the bedroom light instead of seeing my father, I saw a bed without its usual bedspread and an imprint on my mother’s normally military tight bed sheets. The indentation in the sheets outlined where my father took his last breath.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

This is part of a draft of an excerpt from my forthcoming book about experiences in the Straight, Inc. program. 

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Were Straight, Inc. and The Seed programs all that bad?

A Clinical Psychologist writes about the programs

by Joseph A. Bousquet, PhD.

Dr. Bousquet grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida. He trained in Clinical Social Work and Clinical Psychology, and is now living in Albuquerque,  New Mexico. He is employed as a Supervising Psychologist at The Cognitive Behavioral Institute of Albuquerque. 

During the 1970s and 1980s I heard many stories from graduates of The Seed and Straight, Inc., sometimes in my role as a volunteer counselor at the St. Petersburg Hotline, and sometimes from friends. The stories I heard were completely consistent with a variety of damning reports that have since become available online.

I am writing now from the perspective of an experienced mental health professional, with a Master’s degree in Clinical Social Work, and a PhD in Clinical Psychology.  In my view, the Seed and Straight, Inc. were ethically indefensible programs that likely did far more harm than good.

The public record indicates that these programs depended upon routine practices more commonly associated with cults and/or with torture:

  • Isolation from outside influence
  • Idealization of a leader figure
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Intensive peer pressure to conform
  • Punishment of doubt or any form of questioning
  • Prolonged physical restraint and physical assault
  • Food restriction, water restriction, bathroom restriction
  • Forced sitting for long periods of time in uncomfortable chairs (even leaning against the back of the chair was prohibited)
  • Enforced stereotypical behaviors (sayings, greetings, cheering, etc)
  • Public humiliation & forced complicity in the humiliation of others
  • Lengthy, stereotypical propaganda sessions
  • Practices that promoted distrust among clients, limiting the potential for mutually supported resistance to the program
  • Physical imprisonment
  • Prolonged exposure to over-stimulating social environments with no opportunity for even momentary privacy or quiet

I am aware that there are graduates who laud these programs, claiming that The Seed or Straight, Inc. improved, or even saved their life, and I take them at their word. A few caveats are in order, however.

First, given the many cult-like practices used by these programs, graduate testimonials may be difficult to fully evaluate. When conformity to the party line is reinforced as intensively as it was in these programs, over a significant period of time, program allegiance can become automatic, almost unthinking.

Second, due to the inescapable and high level of control the programs exercised over clients, and reported systematic and idiosyncratic abuses, these were potentially traumatizing environments. Under such conditions, some people will manage high levels of anxiety by adopting a favorable view of the aggressor(s)[1].

Third, the practice of placing more compliant clients in positions of quasi-authority over newer clients created degrees of complicity that could make later renunciation of the programs more psychologically challenging.

Fourth, since most program clients were involuntarily committed by parents, allegiance to one’s parents and allegiance to the programs are automatically confounded.

[pullquote]I have little doubt that The Seed and Straight, Inc. helped some individuals…but there are also people who will tell you, in retrospect, how some terrible personal calamity made them stronger and wiser.[/pullquote]

In any case, in condemning these programs it is not logically necessary to contend that they never helped a single living soul. Again, I have little doubt that The Seed and Straight, Inc. helped some individuals…but there are also people who will tell you, in retrospect, how some terrible personal calamity made them stronger and wiser. Yet I’ve never heard of a professional colleague, or anyone else, prescribe personal calamity as a method self-improvement.

Why is that? Well, of course, because personal calamity would be far too risky, as a means of self-improvement.

While personal calamity might occasionally produce desirable results, the risk of serious, undesirable results (depression, PTSD, suicide, etc.) would simply be too large relative to potential benefits.

We would never suggest throwing the dice, against the odds, in the case of anyone we cared about.

Unfortunately, using a number of deceptive techniques The Seed and Straight, Inc. conned many caring parents into doing just that, committing their children to an unnecessarily risky treatment in the hope of resolving issues that rarely, if ever, warranted such extreme measures.

I knew of instances, for example, in which parents panicked, after finding a single marijuana joint, bypassed every other possible means of intervention, and sent one or more children to The Seed.

The Seed played a siren song to its referral sources, parents and government officials, by over-stating the risk of even minimal drug experimentation, questioning the effectiveness of any other form of treatment, and claiming suspiciously high levels of treatment success without any reliable evidence.

In no way do I mean to minimize the seriousness of drug abuse, especially during the teen years when critical brain development, and social development, can be seriously compromised by reliance upon drugs or alcohol.

Dr. Bousquet’s guidelines for parents with concerns about a child

I would encourage any parent with concerns about a child’s substance use not to panic. Instead, follow these sensible guidelines:

  • Try to assess imminent and medium term risk in a realistic manner.
  • Consult with people whose judgment you trust, including medical and mental health professionals.
  • Become fully informed regarding the range of treatment options and choose an initial intervention that is proportional to realistically assessed risk.
  • Look for interventions with empirically validated efficacy. Don’t rely on hearsay or pure marketing statements.
  • Take into account reports of adverse responses to specific treatments you are considering.
  • Ask who will be directly administering any form of treatment you are considering. Only by insisting on direct treatment by state-licensed professionals can you assure that the ethical codes of the various mental health professions are applicable.

[1] The so-called “Stockholm Syndrome” has not been well researched. Although it probably occurs less frequently than originally believed, many anecdotal accounts do suggest that a substantial minority of people in captive situations achieve greater comfort, and improve their practical adaptation, within the context of the captive situation, by adopting a sympathetic view of the aggressor(s).

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Interview with a female client who entered Straight, Inc. in March, 1977-Part 2 “Foster Homes, Rules and Raps”

Interview with a female client who entered Straight, Inc. in March, 1977, continued (pt. 2).

(continued from part 1 found here)

Q. So you lived in what Straight called “foster homes,” right? 

Yes. When we were new to the program and for as long as we were on first phase, we would go home with various staff members or other families with kids who had been in the program longer and had earned their way up to higher phases with more privileges including being able to live in their own homes.

A. I don’t know what determined which homes we were placed in, but I was in four homes before I was allowed to go to my own home after 60 days. The first two weeks I went home with staff members, Helen Petermann, and then Marci Moore.

Helen also had a court ordered fourth-phaser living with her when I first when to her house. Then she was suddenly no longer there. I don’t know what happened to her but I think she left the program. She was over eighteen.

Next, I went to live with senior staff member Marci Moore. Marci had another newcomer who started the program the same day as me. One night she left us alone in her room after lights out. She shut the bedroom door and instructed us not to speak to each other. Of course we broke that room as soon as she left. Evidently Marci’s younger brother was trained to listen at the door and he snitched on us. The next day we got in trouble in group for ‘cliquing’ (a Straight, Inc. term for a negative friendship) and I was moved out of that house.

The next house I was assigned to was the home of an oldcomer who was about to graduate. She also had a brother in the program who had his own newcomers. Occasionally her brother would drive us all to the Straight, Inc. building. The highlight of being at this home was the day right before he graduated from the program, that he drove us to the building playing the radio. Newcomers weren’t allowed to listen to the radio, it was against the program rules.  “Carry on my Wayward Son” from Kansas was playing and I relished it, replaying it over and over in my mind that day to block out the negative intensity of the rap sessions. When my oldcomer followed her brother and graduated shortly thereafter, I was moved again and lived with two very kind oldcomer sisters and their mom.

Q. You mentioned it was against the rules for newcomers to listen to the radio, what other rules were there?

A. The rules struck me as being designed for prisoners. We were constantly watched. The bathroom door was open as we showered, and we could not talk to the opposite sex or to other peers who were new. We were not allowed to listen to music on the radio or watch TV.

In the building there were seven steps, which were reduced from Alcoholics Anonymous twelve steps, written out on poster board and visible to the group. There were additional rules like “honesty,” or for those who were back at home and school, “no talking to druggies,” and for everyone, “no guy/girl relationships.”

The rules reinforced Straight’s confrontational style and peer-driven behavior modification techniques, “creative” interpretations were not allowed. The goal was to reproduce Straight’s notion of what a “straight” teenager looked, sounded and acted like. Straight’s rules were overreaching and contradictory.

For instance, the motto “Think, think, think” was difficult to implement, as having to regurgitate Straight’s language and beliefs — a necessary part of making progress in order to go home — and being required to ask Straight staff members’ permission to do ordinary things, discouraged independent thought.

These policies were recited and explained by group members during the “rules rap.” There were also recovery clichés like “Easy does it,” “Think, think, think,” and “First things first,” that were also written up and displayed on the wall facing group (just like the seven steps).

Questioning Straight’s rules or staff was not common — at least outwardly — due to the well founded fear of being accused of “screwing up” or having a “druggie attitude.” Such indictments could impede the girl or boy’s progress and in some cases set them back by several weeks or even months. Most were not willing to take the risk and adapted in order to survive.

I didn’t think much of the rules or the steps or any of the other parts of the program especially when I was new as I was just trying to figure out how to go along in Straight to get out.

Q. What was an average day like in the Straight Program when you were there.

A. I started the program during March of 1977. Straight’s hours were 10:00am to 8:00pm, later they were changed to 9am-9pm. Sunday was the only exception, and I believe it started after 1 or 2:00pm and ended at 8 or 9pm. The day consisted of several group “therapy” sessions —  and I use that term very loosely — known as “raps.”

Rap topics ranged from the very general, ‘using your awareness,’ (referring to how Straight had taught you to see through others’ “games”) and ‘how you used your friends and how they used you,’ to the more specific raps such as “homes” raps. The “homes raps” were held each Monday and Friday on ‘Open Meeting’ days, prior to the open meeting. These raps were held to determine your progress in the program. Youth who were living away from home, on first phase (“newcomers”) had to stand up in front of the group as peers and staff weighed in on an individual’s attitude and compliance with the program. The group would be asked to vote, by raising their hands, on whether they thought an individual deserved and could be trusted to talk with their parents, or if they should receive any responsibilities (such as being able to walk around the building without an oldcomer holding on to them), or if they were ready to go home (to begin living at home overnight).

On most afternoons, other than on ‘Open Meeting’ days, there were ‘Boys Raps’ and ‘Girls Raps.’ These raps were where the boys and girls were separated and the raps session would discuss the opposite sex with participants providing detailed information about their sexual histories including, at times, graphic descriptions of abuse and traumatic experiences.

We had lunch and dinner at Straight. The meals consisted of a lot of bologna sandwiches, peanut butter, Kool-Aid, potato chips, boxed cookies, etc. The food was not healthy and was made by various parents who would sign up. There was no way to check the sanitation/food preparation and ensure safety. One time a parent made a double batch of peanut butter and pickle relish sandwiches (if you were lucky, as a newcomer, your foster family fed you well at home!).

During meals we sang songs and/or took care of miscellaneous business. Sometimes a boy or girl would be stood up and “told where they were at” (confronted) by the group, often over the belief that they were “conning” the group (‘conning’ meant trying to fake your way through Straight.)

On occasions there would be brief periods of exercise late in the afternoon but we were not able to change clothes or shower before or after the twenty minutes of exercise.

Q. What were the nights like? 

A. At the end of the night our foster parents would pick us up from the Straight, Inc. warehouse and drive us to their home. We were required to write M.I.’s and go over them with our oldcomers, before we could go to sleep. M.I. stood for Moral Inventory. Each and every night we had to write about three changes we were going to make in a spiral notebook, as well as how we were going to make those changes.

I usually couldn’t think of what to say, mostly because I didn’t trust the oldcomer with my innermost thoughts. One night during my second week after making up the M.I. and going over it with my oldcomer, I wrote a poem entitled something like “Caring, does it come from the heart or the ego?”  In this poem I wrote about my feelings about being in Straight and its practices. I hid my poem in the back of my notebook while my oldcomer was busy with another newcomer. By the next day, to my surprise, my oldcomer had turned the poem in to Straight (apparently the third newcomer in my foster home had noticed me scribbling something intently, then scored some points for herself by acting as an informant).

Treating the two paragraph effort as a high level offense, a staff member read the verses, her voice dripping with biting sarcasm, in front of the big group. This was intended to humiliate me (and it did), as well as to serve as a deterrent to others who might attempt genuine self-expression that departed from Straight’s norms. The episode was instructive; I knew going forward I must be extremely careful about guarding my innermost thoughts and feelings — much more than I had even originally thought.

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