Let me break down what I went through, mentally, during the Elan orientation. Because it was very similar to what is known as the “The Kübler-Ross model”, or the 5 stages of grief:
I was obviously hit hardest by the length of time that they told me was typical of an Elan resident: 30 – 40 months. As soon as those words left his mouth, it was like, I was waiting for the joke to follow “Nah man, just kidding” and then everyone in the room would laugh, shaking their head, saying “wouldn’t that be crazy…lol”. But none of that happened.
It was also scary how nonchalantly all of this was being told to me. Like reading the ingredients from the back of a salad dressing label. It was so robotic. Which, or course, I later learned was because the kids telling me these things were also prisoners simply going through the motions or else they themselves be punished (leading to more time in Elan).
All of these things combined to make the experience very “out of body”, which really made it easy for me to deny. “This isn’t really happening”, I thought. This is all some kind of sick joke, or this is some kind of scare tactic they tell everyone on the first day. All that I knew was that I was not going to be here longer than a few days, or at best, a few months. Because even if it were true, I was special, I was different, I was smarter and would find a way out of this like I had for every other high-pressure situation in my life. But of course, I hadn’t yet fully grasped the situation at hand. I had no context. I was comparing “getting out of this situation” to getting a passing grade on a history exam I had forgotten to study for. Like I could somehow find a way to bullshit my way through it.
These things just stuck in my head on repeat, over and over again. But somewhere in the back, another emotion was stirring…
I can remember thinking “fuck my fucking parents, look at this shit that they stupidly got me into”. And you know what, still, to this day, I completely agree with that original assessment. Because that is essentially what happened. They had signed my life away and naively believed that whoever was going to “fix” me had only the best intentions at heart.
That anger was boiling inside of me during the orientation. I was going to surely give it to them as soon as I got my hands on a phone. Because I had seen enough television shows to know that, even in jail, the inmate is given his “one phone call”, which he makes from the phone hanging from the wall (and nobody is there listening to him or threatening to hang it up if he says the wrong thing).
Like when you imagine yourself having an argument with someone in your head, I was already going through what I would say to my folks. And there was surely going to be a lot of talking over them with phrases like “NO YOU LISTEN!” and “SHUT-UP AND LET ME TALK FOR ONCE!” I was going to impose my voice on them, and make them realize how much they had fucked up and all of the things that I were going to be the consequence if they did not get the FUCK up here right now and sort this out. Because, as guilty as I was of my own problems, this was a mess that they had helped cause, that much was clear.
And it would work, and I would be walking out of this place. Shaking my head at the poor souls who just didn’t have enough of a back-bone to tell their parents how it really was.
This was directly related to my last point because, after I had come up with my plan of action, it was obvious that I needed to get to a phone. So I began to figure out exactly how I could word that request. I even decided that I would do literally anything, just to have that chance. Because in my mind, that chance at a phone call was it, my ticket out of this place.
Until this point, I had really no reason to go along with anything. If anything, I had convinced myself that I should be a hell-raiser so that they would realize I wasn’t going to go down like the rest of the sheep. Up to the orientation, I had been sarcastic, I had been answering questions with grunts and yeah and nahs, I had been making faces at the orders being barked at me, faces that were meant to convey “motherfucker, keep talking to me like I’m your bitch and see what happens…”.
But I now changed my approach. I would smile, and (pretend to) listen, and just do whatever the fuck they told me to do, just so I could use that behavior as my bargaining chip to get to that phone call.
As the orientation droned on (a typical Elan orientation is 1 – 3 hours long), I can remember looking around the room, and looking at the faces of the kids in my dealing crew, and some kind of back-burner in my mind began to combine all of these elements into a very scary conclusion. What if every single kid who came in here also believed they could find a way out? What if someone else, before me, had already tried to use the scheme I was hedging all of my bets on? What if they had failed? What if they had succeeded and Elan had learned and somehow closed that loophole?
All of these questions began to go through my mind. I was suddenly becoming very unsure of myself. The room, which had already begun to spin, started spinning even faster. What if I really was going to be here on my birthday? And my next birthday. What if I had really, this time, gotten myself into a situation that was dead serious? Something that I could not get out of. What if every horrible thing that can happen to keep me here, does happen? What if these people are completely sick and twisted?
As I later learned, Elan’s tactics work so well because of the constant regime that leaves its residents sleep deprived and hungry all the time. But what is interesting, is that by being taken by a “teen escort service” in the middle of the night, and then driven for 22 hours, is that I was also, even on my first day, already succumbing to both of those things. Do you know hard it is to fall asleep in a van with two very large strangers who, as far as you know, are driving you somewhere to murder you? And as far as food goes, I might have eaten twice in those 22 hours, both times at a gas-station, and whatever they happened to bring me.
Yeah, the room was spinning alright.
Honestly, I definitely didn’t “accept” my fate as an inmate of Elan, that was just not going to happen at such an early stage in the game. But I did begin to accept the idea that it may take some time for me to work out my plan. Whereas, before the orientation, I pictured myself being in Elan for a day or two, a week tops; I now began to ask myself: how long could I realistically “fake it” to get to my phone call? A month. Yeah, I guess I could do a month if I absolutely had to. 3 months? I don’t know, that is pushing it, but if I knew that at the end of those 3 months I would be going home, I guess I could. 6 months? No way.
But I did begin to accept that I was going to be there for more than a few days. And I guess that is how our minds cope with trauma. It makes a little game-plan to get you to the next bridge. It say to you: “lets just worry about crossing this first bridge, and then later we can figure out what we will do to get over the next one”. And that is exactly what happened to me.
So by the end of the orientation, I was already well on my way… to being completely broken. Because I had no clue what I was up against.