Troubled Teens Tell Their Stories

Forbes spent months interviewing kids, counselors, parents, psychiatrists and medical researchers. The students profiled here are minors. To protect their identities, their real names have been withheld; they picked their fictitious names themselves.

Life at Camp

A white-knuckle drive up a mountainside leads to another Brown complex, CEDU Mountain Schools in Running Springs, Calif. The 80-acre campus is flanked by national forest and covered in 100-foot-tall sugar pines.

Buildings are a hodgepodge: The main house looks like a ski lodge, the art building is a barn. Inside, cushy couches and stone fireplaces warm up classrooms. Acquired for $72 million in 1998, CEDU was founded as a nonprofit school for runaways in 1968.

The name is derived from "See-Do" — that kids first see, then do, the right thing. A Sixties mindset still prevails. Counselors impart lessons from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. On a recent visit, a dozen kids gather at a piano to sing John Lennon's "Imagine." The fresh-faced teens look like they jumped out of a J. Crew catalog.

But then they begin to talk.

"I was really scary. People would cross the street to avoid me," Ashley, 14, says with a glint of pride. At age 12 she went "gothic." Tall and thin, she shrouded herself in black clothing, fishnet stockings and a black trench coat. She dyed her hair jet-black with streaks of red. She wore a spiked dog collar and pierced her ears, nose, chin, navel. Behind the barbed wire Ashley felt frightened and alone. "My clothes reflected how I felt on the inside. I was angry, lost and confused."

In seventh grade she was bedridden for months with Lyme disease, taking a deluge of required drugs and swallowing barbiturates to get to sleep. Her mother cared for her at home, but her father, founder of a Silicon Valley high-tech firm, worked long hours. When Ashley went back to school, she had an I.V. in her arm, and other kids teased her. She reached out the only way she knew how: by looking as alienated as she felt. Ashley's mother sent her to a new school and a shrink.

The doctor prescribed Prozac, but she wouldn't take it — she'd been on too many drugs when she was sick (nor did she use illicit drugs, she says). She cut class and fought with her parents. One night, she screamed that she wanted to kill herself. Mom called the cops, who handcuffed the 12-year-old and took her to an adult psych ward where she was held for more than a week. From there, she went to a wilderness program, then to CEDU.

She has spent two years at CEDU. Today it is hard to picture the old Ashley. Counselors unplugged her piercings, and her dyed hair has grown out to its natural brown; she wears it in a ponytail. In her dorm she keeps seven cute Care Bears. Her gothic scowl has yielded to a soft smile, and her black duds have been replaced by CEDU's uniform of khakis and a collared shirt. The idea: without the shield, kids find healthier ways to communicate.

Counselors use rules to break down defiant kids. Students make "agreements" to avoid drugs, profanity and sex (even mere kissing). Break a rule and they must chop wood or dig a stump. When Ashley first arrived she spewed curses at teachers. For each offense she had to rake leaves or shovel snow on Sundays.

Two months of working weekends wore her down. Now she says "cussing is trashy." Instead of shouting, she calmly expresses herself in group therapy. Ashley has even adopted the CEDU protocol of greeting counselors with hugs — without rolling her eyes.

Her face lights up when she tells of how her folks attended a parenting workshop. "They're learning just like I am," she says. "It's cool that we're a family again." In August Ashley graduated from CEDU; she is in ninth grade. Now, she says, "I know I can be a normal teenager and be cool. I don't need to scare people to make friends."

Resistance and Discovery

After running amok at home, kids can be shocked by CEDU's strict structure. They rise at 6:15 a.m. and do chores before class. They must get hourly signatures proving their whereabouts. Instead of watching television they spend time in group "raps" (hippie slang still in use, somehow, 35 years later).

At first, they rebel in whatever ways they can. A dozen kids try to escape each year, but they rarely make it as far as the nearby town. Last year one boy jumped off a balcony and cut his head upon landing; after a few stitches he was fine. Some sneak painkillers from a fellow student with, say, a broken arm.

Skylar is a cute, green-eyed 16-year-old girl still favoring the grunge look long after it went out of style. She arrived on campus in April of last year and instantly resorted to her own form of protest: She refused to shower. On her fourth day a counselor told her she looked, well, grungy. A fellow student called her homeless.

Feeling dejected, Skylar sneaked off with a boy and broke the "sex agreement" (though they didn't have sex). A counselor caught her and imposed an "all-boy ban" —she was barred even from speaking to guys. At one point she endured four months in the no-guy zone.

The trouble that sent her here was unrelated to drug abuse (one-third of the kids at CEDU don't have a drug problem). Her disorder is as disturbing: Skylar is a "self-injurer"; for her, cutting herself is a way of seeking solace. Born with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, she felt school was torture.

She had attended a school for kids with learning disabilities but in ninth grade switched to a private school in Georgia — and failed, despite extra tutoring. She stopped caring about everything, and it showed. She wouldn't clean her room, brush her hair or iron her clothes. "It was so horrifying and so scary," her mom says now. "I could see everything falling apart. It's the most horrible thing to see your child feel so much pain — and there's nothing you can do for them."

Skylar says her father, a professional, was verbally abusive and would push her; he once threw a clock at her, she claims. The only time she felt wanted was when she "hooked up" (i.e., made out) with one of a long string of boys. (Her dad says he never physically abused Skylar but adds, regretfully, that he was a tyrant who yelled too much.)

One night when she was 14, she and Dad had a fight, and she ran into her room. She sat on the floor sobbing, then spotted a broken hourglass on her cluttered dresser and thought about a girl at school who had cut herself. Skylar picked up a shard and sliced her wrists a few times. It was her first time.

"I felt so desperate to get away from my emotions. Cutting was a rush. It made everything go away," she says. The scars on her arms are a deep shade of pink, and she rubs them as she talks, as if recalling the sensation.

Afterward, she says, her folks didn't ask her why she was so upset; later, her father told her to cover her scars and make sure no one else saw them. Says her dad: "The cutting was such a cry for help, but we didn't know what to do with it. We reacted with fear and sadness."

Like Skylar, most self-injurers start in their teens and come from middle- or upper-class families. They feel intense emotional pain, a need to suppress it and, conversely, a desire to be heard. "Self-injury is a symptom, not the problem," says Karen Conterio, director of SAFE Alternatives in Naperville, Ill., where kids like Skylar spend a 30-day stay. "It's a form of self-medication."

In November of 2000, Skylar's parents took her to the hospital for stomach pains. A nurse rolled up the girl's sleeves and discovered dozens of scars. Her parents immediately called her therapist, but after four months Skylar was still cutting. In April 2001 they sent her to CEDU. Within days, Skylar cut herself again. Her roommate found her and summoned a counselor, who sent Skylar to a psych ward for three days.

Similar crises help bloat tuition — and cut profits — at therapeutic schools. Counselors must be available 24/7. To teach kids with learning disorders, classes have fewer than ten kids. At CEDU, counselors and teachers comprise 72 percent of costs. With 130 kids, the program has 130 staff members; traditional boarding schools have one staffer for every three children.

Two months into Skylar's stay at CEDU, a counselor caught her with a boy again, and again she cut herself and was sent to the hospital. After a third incident with a boy, Skylar complained in therapy that "everybody thinks I'm the community whore." A counselor asked her to write how that made her feel, and this forced a turning point. "It hit me hard and made me think, 'If I don't want this, I can do something different,'" she says.

Now at CEDU 17 months, Skylar is putting her life together. School officials say she shows great leadership and is now helping other kids. She has gone nine months without breaking the sex rule or cutting herself, but she knows a lot of work lies ahead. "It's easy to tell yourself 'I'm fixed, I can go home,'" Skylar says, "but if you want to take it on, you gotta give it all you can."

Rejoining the World

Some troubled kids don't look it. Blond and lanky, Darrin, 14, is a bashful techie. He started psychotherapy at 5, when his parents divorced. Later he fled into the Internet. He built three Pokémon Web sites at age 8. By 11 he spent more time at role-playing Web sites than with friends, staying online all night. He quit his soccer and roller hockey teams and cut class, and his honor-roll grades fell to Ds and Fs.

When his mother, a biotech exec in Silicon Valley, took away his PC, he refused to eat for two days. "It was traumatic for him to be without it," she says. "It was like a drug."

It was a way to hide his loneliness. "I was depressed about life. It didn't mean anything to me," Darrin says. "It was easier online. I could pretend to be other people." Therapy and antidepressants didn't work. His mother hadn't seen him smile in over a year.

Darrin joined CEDU in August 2000 after finishing sixth grade. He is joining the real world again. He isn't allowed online and must be supervised at the keyboard. Rap sessions have helped him open up, and he has learned the importance of friends. He crewed on a school sailing trip to Catalina Island and joined in four school ski trips.

He visited home recently, and his mom drove Darrin and some friends to the movies. In the rear-view mirror, she watched him trade puppy-love looks with a gal pal and felt gleeful. "He's just so much happier now," she says.

Darrin could have graduated from CEDU in August but asked to stay on a little longer. When he grows up, he wants to be a programmer or an engineer, but for now he focuses on simpler goals. "I'm learning," he says, "how to make true friends and live my life happier."

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