My Residential Program Experience

When meeting someone new, it’s normal to ask them where they went to high school. Usually, it’s a pretty easy question to answer, but with me, it’s a little difficult.

I was in the same Jewish school for my entire life up until ninth grade. Then came the high school transition, which was very difficult for me. I wasn’t doing great emotionally, and spent most of the year in and out of the hospital, hardly able to complete a full day in school. The teachers and staff tried their best to accommodate me, but in the end, the decision was made for me to go to a school that could better help me.

Finding my Program

After interviewing for a few programs, I started tenth grade in a school called Harmony Heights, a school designed for girls diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders. Although there was a residential program option (which would entail my living there for more intensive long-term treatment), it was close to home, so I was able to commute every day. Throughout the year, I still struggled a lot and had multiple hospitalizations. During a hospital stay in May following a suicide attempt, the decision was made that I was unable to go back to Harmony Heights. I spent weeks in the hospital while waiting for a new placement.

I finally chose a program in upstate New York called Charlton, and the decision was made that I would join their residential program for long-term treatment. In all, there were about 40 students, 30 of which were a part of the residential program. I knew going to a residential school was the best thing for me–and I really didn’t have another choice–but it was still an extremely difficult transition. My parents picked me up from the hospital and we drove directly there. I remember spending the whole car ride being so anxious–I had no clue what to expect.

A Residential Campus

The campus was big and consisted of a school, dorm houses, an art building, a barn with horses, and some other places. Those who lived on campus were split into two dorm houses. Each house had youth care workers (sort of like dorm counselors, but they were also trained in mental health care) and a head of house. The dorm itself was very nice with plenty of room. We had our own rooms, though I learned that you often have a roommate in many programs.

The school part of the program consisted of small classes–usually about five kids–with an individualized plan for each student. While the teachers taught the material, they were also attuned to the emotional aspects of our well-being. Additionally, there were teachers’ aides there and “calm down rooms” if we needed a break during the day.

My Residential-Mates

For the most part, the girls were super supportive of each other. It was easier to have a bad day there than it was in other settings, because everyone really understood you. Being in a setting where you can be completely open about your struggles was definitely super helpful. But as with anything in life, there were pros and cons. In any high school, there is drama and there are kids who don’t get along. Living with people who all experience heightened emotions was very difficult sometimes, but the staff was incredible and super supportive.

What the Program was Like

A big adjustment for me was that there were a lot of restrictions in the program. For example, when we first got there, we didn’t have our phones and had a limited call list from the dorm phone. There were also nighttime chores, set times for meals to be eaten together, and we would have our stuff checked every time we came back from a home visit.

The main goal of my program was to show us how to live in the real world. So, while they had a lot of rules, there weren’t direct consequences for breaking most of them, just like in regular life. However, by keeping up with the routine, we were able to earn privileges, such as being able to have our phone for at least a few hours a day. This system really helped me because it helped motivate me to want to keep up with my responsibilities and routine, not just to rely on other people to take care of me.

The weekends had a lot of the same rules, chores, and routine, but at the same time, it was more unstructured. Sometimes the staff would take us on a trip off of campus. A lot of the time, you could do your own thing such as watch TV, play games, go to the art room, or go down to the barn. One of the privileges I eventually earned was being allowed to go home for the weekend. This was especially important to me because it was difficult being the only Jew there, even though they did a great job accommodating me and my needs.

Perceptions vs Reality

Going into the program, I was very fearful, because I didn’t know what it would be like. The build-up was intense, but once I was really there, it was not as scary as it seemed. I also definitely did not expect the program to actually help me. Going in, I was saying things like, “This is going to be stupid” and “Nothing works for me.” However, once I got there, I decided to let it work and not fight the process.

Was it Worth it?

I wish there wasn’t a stigma surrounding people who go away for residential treatment. It is not something that people who go usually talk about. Still today, when people ask where I went for high school, I have trouble answering. But even with the stigma, it was worth it because being in a residential school helped me become who I am today.

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