I Was Taken in the Middle of the Night. Life As I Knew it Ended

I was 17 years old when I heard a noise coming from downstairs. I was sleeping in my bedroom, with my phone next to my head. I picked it up, saw it was 4 a.m., put it back down, and rolled over to go to sleep.

Then the lights came on. There were two strangers standing in front of me; one man and one woman.

"We're here to take you," they said.

At first, I was completely frozen; I couldn't say a word. Then, as they approached and physically restrained me, I started screaming. I thought I was being kidnapped.

I was freaking out, shrieking while trying to fight them off, but nobody was coming to help me. We had two big dogs downstairs, yet the house was completely silent.

Sarah Stusek
Sarah Stusek is a content creator and author. Sarah Stusek

They wouldn't let me leave the bed in case I grabbed a weapon, and asked where my clothes were. It was November so it was cool outside. I'd need sweatpants for the journey.

As they tried to pull a sweatshirt over my head and pants onto my legs, they told me I had a choice. I could go to the airport, and be civil and calm, or I could carry on screaming and drive with them for more than 30 hours across the country.

I chose the airport; at least there would be people there who could help me. Both of the strangers put one hand on my shoulder and walked me down the stairs to outside.

It was still dark out. Nobody was awake. They put me in the back seat of their car, which had a gate separating the front from the back, and no handles on the inside of the door.

I don't remember exactly what they said to make me understand what was going on, but they told me something that only my parents would know in order to get me to trust them.

I couldn't fully understand what was happening, because I had never heard of wilderness "therapy" before. I was never warned, or even had an inkling that this type of thing went on in the world.

When I arrived at the airport, I spoke to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). I guess my parents had made this decision last minute, because my ticket had only recently been purchased. In the years shortly after 9/11, this made the TSA suspicious and meant they flagged me for extra security.

I was taken to a private room with a TSA agent and told them everything that happened. They seemed understanding, and after leaving the room for a minute, they told me I was free to go.

I thought that meant I was able to go home, but actually it just meant I was free to go with my captors. I couldn't believe I was really stuck with these people.

It was very early in the morning. The airport was really empty, and I still had no idea where I was going. I followed these two people to the gate, where I found out that I was traveling to Bozeman, Montana, somewhere I had never even heard of before.

I guess I wasn't deemed much of a threat because the male—who I later learned was hired from an external company specifically to transport me to the program—left me with the female.

When we were on the plane, I was continuously sobbing. The female transporter was trying to talk to me and comfort me, but I obviously didn't trust her or want to appease her in any way.

I was very emotional, and still had no idea what was happening. I was in fight or flight mode. I couldn't do anything else but try and figure out how to escape from these people once we landed. I was concocting a plan in my head constantly.

Sarah Stusek
At 17 years old, Sarah was taken from her home in the middle of the night and taken to a wilderness treatment program in Montana. Sarah Stusek

After landing in Montana I was taken to the base camp of a wilderness treatment program. I kept trying to run away, so they put me on suicide watch, which meant a staff member would put a tarp over me in my sleeping bag and sleep on either side of me to try and hold me down at night.

After one week I received a letter from my parents, confirming that they were the ones who had sent me to this behavioral modification program.

"I know you must be angry at us, and that's understandable," it read. "We want you to know that we struggled with this decision. It wasn't an easy decision, but in the end, we knew that you needed guidance. We sent you here because we love you so much. We want to give you distance from the turmoil in your life to help give you a new perspective."

I had already pieced together that this was likely their decision, but it was still hard knowing for sure.

Growing up in Maryland I had been a child actor and as a junior in high school, I moved to New York City to attend a professional children's school for kids who have jobs.

It was very lenient and we could largely leave whenever we wanted to go to work. I was taking advantage of that a little bit and skipping school, so my parents moved me back home.

By that time I was used to being very independent and was still doing whatever I wanted; coming and going as I pleased and sneaking out to smoke pot. My parents and I have never known how to speak to each other respectfully, so we would fight a lot.

Under the suggestion of my therapist at the time, they decided the best way to deal with me was to send me to a wilderness therapy camp. I was sent to the same program as methamphetamine addicts and arsonists for occasionally smoking pot, talking back and slamming the door.

For the first two weeks, I was on suicide watch. In my experience, there was only ever one kid on watch at a time, so I was on it until someone worse came along.

During my two months at the camp, we would sleep in the snow, wake up with the sun and do calisthenics to warm our freezing bodies. We filled up our Nalgene water bottles with iodine drops and water from the creek, then collected sticks to make a fire.

The process was incredibly complex, and if we failed to make a fire, we didn't get a hot meal that morning. We would pack up our tarps and then hike for hours in the snow. Miles and miles every single day, unless there was a huge storm.

We ate cold lunches of trail mix or pemmican bars, with a bite of cold meat or cheese. In the evening we would set up camp again and make another fire for our evening meal. After dinner, we'd discuss our days and say how the lessons we'd learned related back to our life.

In the beginning, I just went along with everything and followed everybody else's lead. The entire thing felt like a dream.

Sarah Stusek
Sarah, pictured with actor Robert Downey Jr., was an actress as a child. Sarah Stusek

We never had any idea what time it was, or what day it was. There were no clocks, calendars, or mirrors. But one day we were hiking and all of a sudden we came across a cabin in the middle of the woods, with smoke coming out of the chimney.

I looked at one of the staff members, who just said: "Happy Thanksgiving."

Inside, there was a pot of chili, which we didn't have to cook ourselves, and we were able to sleep inside on the floor that night, which was a nice surprise.

A few weeks later we returned to the cabin to celebrate Christmas. We played White Elephant with the tiny—and very functional—gifts we were given, and were able to wash for the first time in weeks.

We were each given a bucket of cold water and were allowed to put it on the stove to warm it before pouring it over our heads.

While we washed we were able to stay inside of the cabin to dry off because it was freezing cold outside and they didn't want us getting frostbite. As the girls dried off, we braided each other's hair—one of my only happy memories of the entire program.

But all of a sudden we heard screams coming from outside, where the boys were showering. Staff members yelled at us as we ran outside to see what was going on. We found the boys, half-naked, saying staff were trying to strip search them.

We'd all been searched before arriving, but it was alleged that one boy had found mushrooms outside and had stored them on his person. While we had all already endured various searches, for some reason this felt like a direct violation.

We as a group felt like we could finally fight back to the staff members. Tell them this is wrong. But obviously, we lost, and all ended up getting strip searched as a result.

I do not believe the camp itself was abusive, and compared to other horror stories I've heard of these institutions, I feel very lucky. But as I reflect on my experience as an adult, I realize that this treatment as a whole was not right.

Most of the children at the camp went straight from the program to some sort of long-term facility, though because I was less unruly than my cohorts, I was allowed to come home.

My parents came to my graduation ceremony, which was at base camp, and had to stay out there for the evening. They could hardly stand to sleep there for one night and were excited to get back to the hotel.

The next day they took me back to the hotel that they were staying at. I remember getting in the car, seeing a stoplight for the first time and fainting. I hadn't seen anything remotely normal in weeks; it was overwhelming for me to be back in society.

I was almost forced back into normality; I didn't have the choice of slowly adapting. After being dropped back into life I even began to question my experiences. Was that even real?

Now, 16 years later, I am definitely always scared that something bad is going to happen to me, because something bad did happen to me. I'm constantly thinking someone's going to come to take me away.

While I do believe I learned some valuable lessons about communication and perspective from that place, there was nothing I couldn't have learned on YouTube. A big part of therapy is wanting to do it yourself, so I don't think being forced into it is very beneficial.

I think a big part of sending me away was so my parents could feel as though they regained a sense of control, and that did happen. As part of my home contract, I had to keep my cell phone downstairs at night, and had a curfew of 8 p.m.

At first, after leaving the camp, I wanted to be as far away from my parents as possible, but I also didn't really know how to function without them. I tried to apply to colleges that were really far, but ended up going to school about eight hours away.

I believe my parents have always tried their best and did what they thought they needed to do, but it has caused resentment issues in our relationship. We do have a relationship now, which we work on every single day. It's a struggle, but they're my parents and I want them to be in my life.

I have seen firsthand some people I went through the program with, who were suicidal and depressed, and had their lives saved by being out in nature and having built-in friends. But there definitely needs to be laws in place that protect the children's rights.

Yes, there were friends who went voluntarily to a program like this because they felt like they had no other option and they wanted to get better, but this needs to be voluntary.

The other two options are your parents or your guardian tricking you into going or hiring people to come and take you, and I don't think that either of those two options is healthy in the long run.

Sarah Stusek is a content creator and author. Her debut novel, Three Rivers, is available from September 12, 2023.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Newsweek's My Turn associate editor, Monica Greep.

Do you have a unique experience or personal story to share? Email the My Turn team at myturn@newsweek.com.

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