I entered St. Petersburg Florida Straight system in March 1987.
I’d been on 1st phase for over 100 days so that when I finally made 2nd phase and was able to stay overnight in my own home, in my own bed, I’d developed a very ‘little girl like’ attachment to my ‘being back home’ and my parents. I’m a Highly Sensitive Personality so that even in coming to the Straight building the next morning, the smells of my familiar home, my mother’s perfume, and the feelings of being reunited with my parents, remained with me in my memory.
Straight staff wanting to know what I felt guilty about or what I had done wrong that would put me in spontaneous tears during group. “Nothing,” I told them. “I just miss my parents.” I remember feeling fear from their suspicion.
Not even on 2nd phase for 14 days, a newcomer would begin staying with me.
I did not want a newcomer. I did not want to be ‘in charge’ of anyone. I wasn’t good at belt-looping and I did not want to be good at it. Being suspicious of people to the degree that I had to follow the Straight Rules of keeping my eyes on her at all times, especially while in the safety of my own home, was ruining the dream that my life had returned (or could return) to some sense of normalcy.
So that when some 5th Phasers came to my house Saturday night and I was continually ostracized for my inability to keep my ‘forward facing eyes’ on my newcomer, I knew that on Monday, I was going to be written up. The threat was very real that I would lose 2nd phase status, although at this time I cannot remember all of the violations I had committed during that home visit (inspection).
Sunday, the next day, is easy to remember because we did not go to the (St. Petersburg, Florida) Straight building that day. It’s also easy to remember because the day was inordinately beautiful with classic sunshine, warmth and beautiful weather that my newcomer and I were able to see, despite the blinds in my bedroom and the rule to ‘not look outside.’
I do not remember if it was the beautiful day that introduced the thought to run away from the hell of Straight (that had turned into a comfortable hell) or if I had been been introduced to the thought when the threat of last night’s home visit assured destruction of my 2nd phase status – at least in my mind and coupled with my weird parental attachment disorder that provoked tears while in the building for 12 hours a day.
I remember specifically testing the water with my newcomer.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I said, as I peered deep into her eyes to read her mind.
“Yes it is,” she said. “We’re not supposed to look out the windows, are we?” she asked.
“No. We’re not,” I replied.
Testing further, I continued watching the signs of her face which, so far, were reflecting wide eyed innocence and what looked to be hope. And she was innocent. She was like how I used to be. She’d only been in Straight about a week or so and her large brown doe eyes, accentuated by the smattering of freckles on her nose and cheeks, reflected an innocence that only a not-yet-inculcated-Straightling could exhibit. I could never imagine her getting hot-seated, confronted, spit-therapied and called names. “They’ll kill her,” I thought more than a few times. “They’ll kill everything sweet in her.”
It never occurred to me at the time that Straight, Inc had killed me.
I was successfully brainwashed. I was so successfully brainwashed that, before Saturday night’s fear of not remaining at my own home had settled in, it never occurred to me to run away (cop out). I was a ‘good girl’ (despite what Straight had brainwashed me into believing) and, to the best of my ability, always did what I was told.
It was just unfortunate for me at the time, that the best of my ability also included listening to my alcoholism, which was what led me into the arms of this cult prison camp. [You can read my beginnings and my 1st recounting of my experience of Straight at “Cult-Control, Kids, and Straight Inc.” (May 2006)]
“But I won’t tell if you won’t,” I said, still watching for a face change that might reflect entrapment into assured destruction; Just in case the 5th Phasers potential write-up on Monday wouldn’t do it. As I saw no face change in my newcomer, I decided to take the risk and go full monty.
I got up from my bed we were both sitting on and turned the blind slats so that they were fully open and looked directly into my front yard; Green grass, trees, sunshine, road, neighbors going on with their lives, having no idea that prisoners living here were being keyed in at night and tortured during the day.
I hadn’t been outside in months, save for transferring from car to building, building to car, car to home. Straight did not allow ‘outside’ for 1st and 2nd phasers. Twelve hours a day in blue chairs, Monday to Saturday had been my life for 4 months. And now, at least, I got to sleep in my own home at nights. This was my sanity and I couldn’t give it up so easily.
“If Sherry were here, she would write us up for this, wouldn’t she?” My newcomer spoke in slow attenuated syllables as if she was the one, this time, testing me.
She knows she just broke a Straight rule for that: “No talking behind backs.” And she also used the word ‘us’ instead of ‘you.’
So we’re in this together I thought.
Good. Here we go.
“I think Sherry’s going to report me Monday for turning my back on you. I’m going to get set back to 1st phase and you’ll get a different host home. I can’t go back to 1st phase.”
I can’t remember these many years later who said the actual first words about ‘copping out’ but I do remember we both came to agreement on it.
My Mom, being in the other room, I could not let her worry and have questions as to what happened. I could not let her think it was her fault I ran away or that she had done something wrong. I also could not tell her I was running away because she, too, had been brainwashed by the propaganda and would probably call someone or try to stop us. I am sure there was some sort of action in place for if a 2nd phaser tried to just leave because there were alarms on my bedroom door and the window for this very reason.
I wrote a note to my Mom. I decided to tell her the truth as to why I was leaving; why I was running away; why I was ‘copping out.’ I decided to tell the whole ugly truth about the place she had entrusted me to.
She had been told Straight’s version of the truth to the extent of loyal indoctrination and I could not tell mine without risking she would question the Straight staff who, then, would assuage her concerns with more lies and half-truths, call me a liar (or a lying druggie to be precise), and then promptly put me back to 1st phase after a violent confrontation by a room full of other blue-chaired teenage Straightlings she would never know anything about.
Speaking the truth in Straight Inc was never encouraged when ‘the truth’ involved telling the truth about them or when the truth about your own story did not quench their lust for ‘Rated R or XXX’ material. I could not simply be an alcoholic teenager who needed help because her family was scared for her and listened to the emergency room physician when he recommended a rehab called ‘Straight Inc.’ after she’d poisoned herself into blackout incoherence for the umpteenth time.
No. That was only PG-13.
The note explained or told several things that I can remember right now:
How I was watched when I went to the bathroom and showered. How I could not move to 2nd phase until I said I was a druggie, cried a lot, and showed that I felt remorse. How showers were only 5 minutes at my 1st host homes house so that I had to choose what to wash; I could not wash/rinse/condition/rinse my thick hair because I did not have time to do that and wash my body, too. How we were not allowed to read, look outside, or speak without permission. How we never went outside for fresh air.
How we sat in blue chairs 12 hours a day to get belittled, mocked, humiliated, and yelled at and get called on to belittle, mock, humiliate, and yell at each other. I explained the flailing about of motivation and how they made us tone it down on Friday Nights Open Meetings. How they made up a fake story of theft of $1 in my jeans to confront me with just to see how I handled rejection and confrontation after putting in for going home. How they had no problem spitting on people, getting in my face, and calling me names. How some needle users and former prostitutes had HIV positive status and I was scared of getting it due to the unsanitary practices of basic social hygiene.
How there were no doctors on staff. That my 1st phase talks with them (mom and dad) had been supervised because they had fear you might tell your parents the truth of what went on. How they forced you to stand up in front of 80 or so other kids and tell stories about your history while they screamed at you if they did not think you were telling it right. How they were not addressing my alcoholism but were forcing me to say I was a druggie and to invent a history I did not have. How every night in the form of Moral Inventories I had to find 3 things wrong with me. How I was exhausted every day due to lack of sleep.
That I was punched in my breast by someone who was acting out and staff told me to get over it. That a dog at another’s home accidentally got into the living room, ran after me in attack mode and that when I ran into the garage and slammed the door to protect myself, I got in trouble for leaving the eyes of my old-comer. Kids were forced to stand up and we had to scream at them, humiliate them just because Staff wanted us to. That if you failed to be a bully toward other kids you would not progress. If you did not cry or show appropriate contrition despite the confrontation, you would not progress. I told the note how I witnessed body slams and other physical abuse.
That I began ripping my hair out from the root due to a psychotic break that led me into ‘acting out’ that led me not to a doctor but into being restrained by other kids to my chair; that I primal screamed in group one day after the last straw of my first old-comer making up more lies on me and I’d still not seen a doctor. That even someone on staff told me, in code, that Straight Inc was ‘not real’ and I had to start playing the game to progress.
And that this was how I was FINALLY on 2nd phase and at home to start with, after 114 days or so; because I began lying really well and faking. I told her the only way I progressed to 2nd phase was lying and exaggerating and faking.
And that this note and my running away now was due to great fear and terror they were going to move me back to 1st phase on Monday and I would not be at home anymore. That if this happened, I would be stood up in front of these 80 or so kids and screamed at and that I could not take it anymore. That if I was set back, I would kill myself.
I remembered not wanting my mother to think this was blackmail. I remember feeling very strongly that if I were set back, I would muster every bit of fakery inside myself, get back to 2nd phase and then kill myself. I told her that I would call her when I got somewhere safe to talk about my note but to please forgive how I could not tell her in person….But that I was scared and trusted no one.
I remember the heartache I felt thinking my Mom would be scared that I’d just left. But equally, I was even more scared of what Straight Inc would do to me and how I could not take it anymore and that yes, death would be better.
We left the note on my bed I think. I made sure my Mom was in the other room and I do not remember where my Dad was.
We snuck from my room to my parents room, opened the window, and quickly took the screen from the window. I jumped out first and my newcomer came right after. I remember wanting to put the screen back on but scared to death my Mom would hear so I think I just propped it back onto the window.
Then we ran. And ran. I was convinced we’d already been discovered and that Straight was being alerted and they were looking for us already. My newcomer and I reached some woods and we laughed. We were out of breath but we laughed and enjoyed the freedom we couldn’t believe we’d attained. Even if they picked us up and kidnapped us back at that moment, we had freedom; we looked outside, and we ran in it too.
After killing some time it did not take long before some kids I knew – older seniors from my high school – pulled over, asked where I’d been, I told them “Rehab,” and then asked if they could give us a ride to wherever they were going. They were going to a party, of course. My newcomer and I went with them and stayed at the party long enough for me to know I wasn’t exposing her to this shit.
I felt a responsibility for this girl who I think was a mere 13 to my more sophisticated 15 and a half. So we hauled ass via pedestrian style and felt like enough time had passed for that phone call to my Mom.
It was funny, looking at the pay phone.
I remember it’d not been even 3 weeks that Straight, Inc had made up a fake story to confront me with on Friday night; That they’d found a dollar bill in my jeans pocket during my transfer to my 2nd (and final) host home. And how I wished I had that dollar.
I do not remember if I found a quarter for the pay phone or if I reversed the charges.
I cannot remember the precise conversation; in fact, only in bits and pieces do I remember some words. I do remember my Mom expressing great concern after she had, yes, read the note. I remember crying how sorry I was that I had scared her but that I was serious in expressing that if I were sent back I would kill myself.
She assured me she would not send me back.
But I knew that parents told their copped out kids such things, from stories from other copped out kids who were sent back. I also knew that even if she meant it and the wrong Straight person got hold of her, they would convince her differently. Something in her voice made me believe her – or maybe I just needed to – so I told her where we were. It’s still pretty blurry at this point, my memory, but I remember trauma and fear having such effects on memories.
I think she picked us up and we immediately went to my newcomer’s mom’s house. Due to my note basically spilling all sorts of Straight secrets, I do remember my mom saying she was going to talk to my newcomer’s mom and try to talk her into not sending my newcomer back.
I remember, once at her house, we were told to let the adults talk and we went back to her room. She was scared; Her eyes reflected it. I knew fear and she had it. I knew rage and her mother had that. I was scared for her. Her mom was not like mine.
I hugged my newcomer before I left with promises of keeping in touch and the hope that her mom would keep her word and not send my newcomer back. But even as we left, I had a feeling she would have said anything to get us to leave.
I remember immediately waking up and feeling a kind of sick fear in my stomach. The day before had been pretty cathartic but today was a different day and the effects of what I had done began to wash back onto me. I dare not really believe I had freedom to make my own cereal? Seems unusual I would not feel strange about being in my house alone, but I didn’t.
I do remember being quite on high alert for strange cars peeling into the driveway to kidnap me back. I remember taking note of which knife would be the best with which to slice my throat. Or should I stab myself in the heart? I cannot remember which method of death I was prepared to choose should anyone come to take me back.
So the phone rings and it’s Mom. She’ll be coming home, she says, so we can go back to the Straight building so I can sign myself out. So this is how they do it, I remember thinking. She’s talked to Straight staff and this is what they told her to tell me to get my dumb ass back there so they can grab me by my britches and imprison me again right? I remember telling her or thinking, “The hell I am.” Hell, maybe I started crying. I was such an emotional fuck-it –all-mess at the time, I have trouble, in retrospect, deciphering which was the REAL me or which was the STRAIGHT version of me.
She quelled my concerns with something that must have made sense to me at the time, but for everything holy, I cannot remember what they were.
We get out the car. We’re holding hands or maybe I’m holding hers. I looked at the parking lot and the building wondering if the people on the highway knew the torture that went on in here. I wondered if they knew, would they keep driving to work, keep driving to the mall, keep driving at all. I remembered the last time, four months earlier, I’d walked happily through this parking lot, thinking I was going to get some help; Happy that I was going to find relief for this thing that was consuming me.
I remembered with regret how it took going into the bowels of hell called this building operated by Straight Incorporated, how fooled I had been; how my mom had been fooled. How they lied and desired money and hurt me and hurt other kids. How their Lord of the Flies experiment was going unnoticed by anyone with power to do anything. I hated them. I hated them with the kind of hate that can only be felt in freedom yet while imprisoned was terror.
In this moment, though, with freedom in the balance, walking toward that fucking building, I felt sheer terror; no hate here. Best behavior. Terrified. I’m sweating. My heart is palpitating. My mouth is dry. Is my mother going to fall for it like the others? Is this a trick? She wouldn’t lie to me. Wait, would she? But if she believes them, it’s not a lie; it’s that she’s brainwashed. Same outcome for me.
We enter the building and it’s all a blur until the office of Mrs. Yancey, the same woman I met on my intake day in March looked a lot different now; scary. As silly as it is, the externals are blurry, but with clarity I remember easily my thoughts of my stronger feelings and Mrs. Yancey provoked some of those stronger ones.
Here we go. We sat down. It was coming. I bet this is how it happened when all parents brought the kids back. My heart was in my chest. I expected a higher phaser any minute to come in and grab me by the back of my pants and to lead me back to the windowless room with the blue chairs. What was I doing? Why am I trusting my mom? I felt compelled to is my only answer.
People who’ve never been psychologically tortured day in and day out might ask, “But why not trust your mom? She wasn’t part of it. She didn’t know.” And this is true. But it’s a fucked up psyche I have now, at this point. Paranoia and fear of people; No true north, nothing solid to rely on; No security; No safe place. Free falling and you’re falling into hell. And all this, AND I’m a kid. A KID who was doing her best – despite anything else – to survive and cope in her life and physiology until I go to this place who manages me WORSE than I was managing myself EXCEPT for the fact it assured my physical heartbeat.
It did not assure any psychological, mental, or emotional well-being.
Straight Inc. sold to my parents how it would save my life and yes, this sounded good to them. It sounded good to me but, like my parents, I thought it meant life as in “my entire well-being.” Neither one of us thought it meant saving my life at the cost of my spirit, mind, emotional health and well-being, happiness; and all the other things that make life, you know, LIFE.
The woman got some papers together and asked: “You know you can keep her signed in?” My Mom looked at her and then me. She squeezed my hand, “_____? You want to stay signed in?” Unable to comprehend what was going on, I could only express my truth in one word as “No.” I knew when I looked down in my lap and felt my Mom’s head raise up to eyeball this woman what that meant. It meant that was that. The woman said, in a condescending tone, “You’re going to let her be responsible for this decision?” My Mom, my heart hasn’t swelled this much since, said: “Yes I am.”
The next day is when my mom would tell me that my former newcomer had been sent back.
I was signed out from the St. Petersburg Florida Straight system at the end of July 1987.
I walked away from that place unable to believe that my faith hadn’t been misplaced.
Psychologically, though, I was still a mess. I had two specific attacks a few times when I saw specific items. Once it was barbecue ketchup in a grocery store that caused me to start shaking, having to leave the store my grandma and I were grocery shopping. Another time, a specific cereal bugged me out. Later in life I would experience these same sorts of attacks when overly stressed or triggered.
A few weeks after leaving St. Pete Straight Inc., I put my hand on the door handle of my dad’s car, prepared to jump out, because we had to drive by the building to cross the bridge to get to Tampa and I was going, via train, to stay with my Grandmother for the summer – which was usual for my summers. Though neither my mom or dad had ever threatened to send me back, the fear was still so real of going back to hell, just mere proximity turned my mouth into a dry sock and my hands sweaty.
I would awaken from nightmares for years afterward; The kind involving waking in the middle of the night in cold sweats, sometimes with real tears. I can’t remember them today and for all I know I’ve blocked them out as serving no healthy purpose.
I did quit drinking successfully for about a year but I adopted fear and the tools of anorexia and self-mutilation to help keep it abated. Fear propelled me to make straight A’s in school as I denied food and learned the relief of self-harm. I finally began drinking again when I needed courage to break up with my first serious boyfriend who’d taken over where Straight left off.
Straight indoctrinated me into believing, back then, that at anytime I can be placed somewhere and abused and that no one will save or help me. It taught me that there is a warm comfort to be had in the thought of suicide. It taught me that self-abuse feels better than others doing it. It taught me, back then, that anyone has a right to my body whether I agree or not. I’m sure it taught me things that even today I may not be aware of.
I remained in the abyss of this thought system for years and tried my best to put the memory of those 4 months behind me despite the effects that stayed with me, and despite my trying to keep them covered up. Trying to move forward, my life was always against the back-memory of my four months inside the beast that was Straight, Incorporated.
My mind, now, is different than the aftermath of Straight story. But it’s only different, due in no small part to others who went through their own psychic mutilations and healed. And those 12 Steps from Alcoholics Anonymous that Straight, Inc. bastardized into fitting their Lord of the Flies modality; I finally found the original version that has no such plot. As of this writing, I’ve been sober over 10 years.
No longer a victim of an alcoholic mind OR the shattered one post-Straight, that’s a different story for a different day. But today, I’m happy I listened to my intuitive mind, my heart, and hopped out the window. It was about my life and it was about time.