Sitting at a side table in Foss dining hall, Jake (not his real name) looks a little out of place. Instead of North Face, he wears a tight plain T-shirt, worn jeans, a grey wool hat, and yellow work boots. Tall, with broad shoulders and muscular arms, Jake looks like he just finished his shift on a construction site. And he uses words like “codependent,” “dissociation,” and “psychological conditioning.”
It’s clear Jake has done some therapy.
“Yeah, I guess it comes out here and there,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that obvious though, considering how much therapy I’ve actually had.”
In fact, Jake may have undergone more therapy than any other student on Colby’s campus. During his sophomore year of high school, he developed a serious drug problem and rarely went to school without getting high. Over time his marijuana use was compounded by the consumption of antidepressant pills—and an unrefined version of heroin called “black tar.”
“In high school, I hated the whole social atmosphere. I always felt uncomfortable, like I would never measure up,” Jake said. He speaks slowly and calmly, carefully processing his thoughts. “I guess everyone felt that way to a certain extent, but at times, that’s all I felt.”
After a deep breath, he said, “When I was high in school, I didn’t care about anything and, after a while, I resented being anything else.”
* * *
Halfway through his junior year, Jake’s strong marks in honors-level classes dropped, and a close friend warned Jake’s parents that he was “killing himself.” His parents sent him to Maine for what was called “wilderness rehabilitation.”
The rehab center in Maine combined classroom and therapy, in addition to four-day outdoor excursions in the middle of a New England winter. A strict regimen of hiking and living off vegetables and tofu was enforced. “They removed us from traditional society, where ninety-nine percent of kids are capable of functioning, but we weren’t,” Jake said.
He admits that it helped build his self esteem.
“I think I made real progress in not getting so down on myself,” he said. “But in terms of drugs, I wanted to get high off my ass as soon as I got out, and I didn’t keep it much of a secret.”
Jake’s honesty in admitting his plans to return to drugs earned him a one-way ticket to California, where he found, in his own words, a whole new extreme in the “breaking-down-bad-kids industry.” Military in its strictness, the live-in rehab institution included several three-hour group-therapy sessions each week. These meetings were loud, intimidating, and confrontational, he said. “If you needed to talk to someone, you had to get up and walk directly across the room to where they sat. The yelling was so severe that you can guess what would happen if people weren’t physically separated from each other.”
The students at the California school had extensive histories related to drug or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, cutting, and/or depression. “I think if someone from the outside saw what happened in that school, they would think, ‘That’s terrible what they’re doing to those kids.’ But it was necessary,” Jake said. “You know how people will say, ‘That kid needs to get his ass kicked.’ Well, I needed that. I just got it in a different way.”
While in California, Jake curbed his craving for drugs, became more self- assured, and cultivated positive communication with his parents. Despite his progress at the school, however, the intensity level was enough for Jake to want badly to leave. When he turned 18, he hitched to San Bernardino to enlist in the military.
“I looked a little haggard by the time I got to the recruitment center, because I had just slept on the street,” he said. “Still, I received a perfect score on the entry test, and they agreed to take me.”
But Jake’s parents wanted him to stay on a track that could lead to college. “I genuinely wanted to go to school, too, but I couldn’t go back to living under those ridiculous rules with people yelling at me all the time.”
Jake and his parents eventually agreed that he would go to a transitional home in Idaho, where he worked his first job, lived in an apartment, and attended classes at a local junior college. “There was group therapy there, too, but it was nothing like California. I had so much freedom. I loved it.” He shakes his head as if still in disbelief at the reprieve.