The multi-billion dollar troubled teen industry sees tens of thousand American youngsters put through harsh and gruelling ‘treatment’ every year.

Known as ‘brat camps’, these initiatives promise to iron out kids who are violent, lawbreaking or or abusing drugs and alcohol – among other behavioural problems.

However, understandably, they are also huge controversial. Paris Hilton says she was traumatised after she was woken by strangers in her bedroom in the middle of the night as a teenager and taken to a facility.

Meanwhile 51-year-old Cyndy Etler, who lives in North Carolina, was also sent to one when she was a teen in the 80s.

The author says she is still traumatised from her year-long stay at one horrific facility, which has since been shut down.

Here, Cyndy shares her story. 

‘I had a really difficult childhood. My father died when I was a year old and my mum became very depressed. There was no affection, no love and I didn’t have many friends growing up in Stamford, Connecticut.

I wasn’t running track or winning beauty contests and I had zero self-esteem. But when I was 13, I made my first real friend. She hung out with these scumbag men in their late 20s who lived in basements, and I was desperate to fit in – so when one of them offered me a puff of a joint, I said “yes”. I tried to inhale but I ended up hacking up my lungs. I tried two or three other times but never really learned how to do it. 

Cydny Etler as a child
I was desperate to fit in and had zero self-esteem but I was never an addict (Picture: Owner Supplied)

My mom and I didn’t get on and when the rows got too much, I ran away from home and ended up in a homeless shelter in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

I had only tried beer and peach schnapps once, but it was decided that I was an addict. So my mom signed me into Straight Incorporated – an adolescent drug rehabilitation programme.

It was the ‘Just Say No’ era – cracking down on drugs was the fashionable thing and Straight was all the rage. Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana had visited the Springfield facility a week before I arrived at the age of 14. 

Cyndy Etler at a high school prom
I had only tried beer and peach schnapps once, but it was decided that I was an addict (Picture: Owner-Supplied)

At first I was excited to go. I naively thought it would be a boarding school where I would meet new friends and get away from home. But when I arrived I was shocked to find it was literally a depressing warehouse, with no windows. Inside were rows of hard plastic chairs with an aisle down the middle. There is nothing to compare this place to because nothing like it exists. 

Following an interview with a woman who diagnosed me as an addict, I was put in an intake room with around four teens – some of whom were male. Within 10 minutes of arriving in this room, I was subjected to a cavity search. There were digits inside my body, with other kids watching.

I don’t think the English language has words to describe how that feels – especially when you are a child. It was horrific, violating and terrifying. And it was dehumanising, physical and sexual torture. The psychological torture came later. 

For seven days a week we were trapped in that warehouse; for 12-16 hours a day or sometimes more. There was no learning, no education, no school and no sunshine. We would sit in group sessions where we had to share lurid stories about druggie or sexual incidents from our past.

If you didn’t, there would be attacks; kids screaming and spitting in your face with vitriolic accusation and denigration – quite often of a sexual nature – accusing you of having had sex with animals or siblings or courting sexual assault from fathers.

Princess Diana and Nancy Reagan visit the Springfield Straight Incorporated facility a week prior to Cyndy's arrival.
Princess Diana and Nancy Reagan visited Springfield the week before arrived (Picture: Owner supplied)

These were “upper phasers” – kids who had been there for years who were like Hitler’s henchmen. They stood around the edges of the group and if anyone tried to run, they would tackle you to the ground and restrain you. Or they would push a fist into the base of your neck, and fly them down wicked fast – digging their bony knuckles into the spinal column to force you to sit up – a thousand times a day.

It was just one small physical reminder of the fact that you were under control.

There was feelings of threat at all times. There was an adult overseeing things, but the rest of the brainwashing was done by the kids who had been through Straight – who were aged 16 to 19. Peer approval and inclusion is everything to teens, so the fact that everything was run by other kids made it even harder; it was like the Hunger Games

Imagine being in that warehouse all day, every day, with no stimulus. Just your peers screaming at you and spitting on you, hitting you and berating you. There were no doors on the toilet stalls and you would be given three squares of toilet paper when you needed to go. You were watched at all times.

We would sing adapted preschool songs which was all part of the brainwashing: “Here at Straight, feel great. Nine to nine, feel fine.” You had to sit there – ramrod straight with both feet flat on the ground. 

There were also humiliation tactics – like “motivating”. If we wanted to talk, we had to raise our hands over our heads. We thrashed around with our arms up, bashing in our chairs. But we had to keep our bodies in the chair or else we’d be attacked. You had to simultaneously “bust ass” motivating, to prove you were so on fire about Straight and had no fear of speaking up in group while also staying in the chair. It was an impossible feat. 

Cyndy as a child in kindergarten.
I had a really difficult childhood; there was no affection, no love and I didn’t have many friends (Picture: Owner supplied)

The food was disgusting; undercooked chicken with really stringy stuff connecting the bone and the gristle and really disgusting-smelling stewed vegetables. And only water to drink.

I remember one girl was put on a diet where all she could eat was peanut butter sandwiches for 30 days. It was one of a number of punishments; all of which were humiliating and unfair. 

We were locked in that building with no escape, physically or mentally. We lived with a constant threat of violence or punishment. We saw other kids bloodied or dragged into the small rooms around the edge of the warehouse; we heard their screams. It was utter desperation. 

At the end of the day, I was sent to stay with the families of Straight kids who lived within 90 minutes of the facility. The room I would stay in would have nothing in it. Devoid. Just a bed, blanket and sheet. No lights in case you wanted to kill yourself with a smashed bulb. The windows to the bedroom were locked and alarmed. I stayed at more homes like this than I can remember.

Usually, we would arrive back past midnight only to leave for Straight again at six the next morning. We really didn’t get much sleep. One of the rules was that if we got fewer than three hours, were were allowed to sleep in the warehouse. But that never happened. 

Cyndy Etler as an adult
As soon as I could I left home (Picture: Marcy Murphy Photography)

Then after 16 months, out of nowhere, they let me out. It was a Friday night and my mom came to collect me. But by this point, I was completely brainwashed and I didn’t want to leave. It was like Stockholm syndrome; I believed everything that I’d been told; that I was a druggie and that I couldn’t cope in the real world. I was terrified.

I went back to my mother’s house and back to high school and I was a zombie – a fucking weirdo. At the end of the day, I got back home as soon as I could to hide in a bed and sob. I was self-harming and very unhappy; suicidal.

I was overeating. And then I was anorexic. I don’t know how I survived. As soon as I could I left home, I went to live in rich people’s basements and cleaned their toilets and looked after their kids. An indentured servant keeping a roof over my head. 

It wasn’t until I was 29 years old that I went to college and got a degree. Only they did I discover my confidence and purpose. I now work as a coach. If it wasn’t for all I’ve been through, all the suffering and torture, I wouldn’t have the skills and knowledge. 

Cyndy Etler surrounded by books.
I have friends, a partner and business but I am haunted by my experience at Straight Incorperated (Picture: Owner supplied)

Straight has since ceased to exist, but I later found that there were 50,000 kids locked up in institutions like mine. Most of us had abusive, neglectful parents. Most of us had barely, if ever, done drugs.

Even though many years have passed, what I experienced at Straight stays with me. I’ve thought a lot about how veterans of the Vietnam War won’t talk about what they saw there. I understand that.

Humans are capable of raw depravity; of inflicting torment on others. When you’ve experienced this human capacity, you can’t unsee it. You go through life haunted by that knowledge. Straight left me with a lifelong, pervasive, learned fear of others.

I function; I operate at high levels, I have friends, I have a partner, I have a business. But always, I know the truth about what people can do to each other. There’s no coming back from that.’

Cyndy Etler is an author and teen life coach. She has written two memoirs about her experiences: Dead Inside and We Can’t Be Friends

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