Bethany Beerhorst (aka "Beern") Interview
In her own words...
- Length of Stay at the New Horizons: I was 17 in August of 1997 when I went to the Dominican, and was nearly 19 when I left their Indiana campus in December of 1998.
- Hometown: Holland, MI
Let’s start off by me admitting I was a depressed, anxious, miserable-to-be-around teenager who pushed limits and buttons. But inside I was suffering from a not well-understood mental illness. I hated how I felt.
Living in a strict household as a mediocre/low-performing oldest child was too much for me to handle with grace. Going to a program where the staff intended to “break” me layered trauma on top of that struggle with mental illness. It was a long battle to get to a healthy state of mind.
I learned things from the program, but my success today is DESPITE what happened there. The program taught me that my boundaries didn’t matter – and someone else always knew the right answer, not me.
It primed me for narcissistic abuse going forward. What happened there was not OK. I am proud of the grit and determination I had after that experience. Overcoming the self-loathing and doubt I learned from the program was no small feat.
Describe the program in a few words...
Cult-based. A point sheet determines everything about your life.
What helped you survive the program?
I went inward and just lived in a sort of dissociative state. It worked for me, but it wasn’t healthy.
What do you want people to know about the program?
Don’t underestimate what an experience like that does to a human – you have to live it to truly understand.
Imagine yourself as a teen there. If you could talk to her, what would you say?
I would tell her "I’m sorry, it isn’t fair or OK", but she’s going to make it because she’s intelligent, strong and determined.
What was the scariest experience there?
The mind games were terrible. There was always an underlying uncertainty about what the day would bring.
Close second was the health issues I experienced with intense stomach pain. I was diagnosed twice with amoebas and I also think I was dealing with a food intolerance and potentially stomach ulcers from stress.
If I tried to communicate my concerns to my family in letters I was told I needed to stop being manipulative and rewrite the letter.
What was the saddest experience there?
Death of a close friend back home. I was told several weeks after she died and wasn’t given time to appropriately mourn.
What is your happiest or funniest memory?
I lived with some “characters” in Starr House and they are the funniest and best memory I have of the program. What resilient, creative, and interesting (and hurting) kids I was surrounded by.
What was the hardest thing you had to do there?
- Abandon my true self in order to excel.
- Turn on and report minor infractions of my friends/housemates.
- Not knowing if I was going to be released tomorrow or in three years.
- Attempting to teach myself chemistry and algebra out of an outdated textbook.
- Wake up and do it all over every day.
What was the strangest rule/practice?
The expectation to respond a loud and robotic “yes” to anything and everything a staff member said – especially the males. Not responding promptly would result in punishment.
What was the cruelest thing you witnessed?
Watching a housemate restricted from communicating with everyone. Instead of being with the group, she was to scrub a rock with a toothbrush on the sidelines. I don’t know why she was given this punishment or how long it went on, but I could tell it was damaging to her. She began talking to the rock and developed an unusual attachment to it. She seemed different and less joyful after that.
What was your favorite part of the day?
Dinner or bedtime.
Least favorite part of the day?
Hearing the bolt unlock on the bedroom door and the housefather yell for everyone to wake up. My stomach still drops remembering it.
Can you describe the main feelings you experienced there?
- Sitting with the emotions that come with being sent away from your family and into a program that was set on “breaking me”
- Coming to terms with why I “deserved” it
Did you have staff you liked? What would you say to them today?
Yes. I liked a handful of them. I would have a lot of questions for them pertaining to what they really thought, and if they had any remorse for the part they played.
Do you have staff you disliked/hated? What would you say to them today?
I didn’t hate anyone, but there were many staff that I was terrified of. I avoided eye contact or interaction of any kind with them.
Do you think the program was abusive?
Every form of abuse was present in the program depending who you were, but the abuse I experienced was psychological and spiritual in nature, and left me with long-term damage.
Were you physically hit or abused in the program?
No. The minute I arrived I did anything I was told. I never once received corporal punishment because they had no excuse for touching me.
Did you witness anyone get physically hit?
No. Students were removed from sight when being abused in that way. You could hear traumatic sounds though, mainly of the male staff yelling and intimidating the student.
Did you witness or hear of sexual abuse in the program?
Yes, after I got out I heard about it.
What did the program teach you?
- Power has the potential to attract predators or corrupt almost anyone.
- At the end of the day it’s just you looking out for you.
- Being “likable” will get you far in life.
- A person’s face might be smiling while feeling like they’re dying inside.
What is the best thing you got out of the program?
It made me realize it was foolish to trust people based on the religion they follow, and it also made me brave enough to abandon my childhood religion once and for all. I was alone anyway and doing just fine.
What is the worst thing you got out of the program?
General disappointment and distrust of the human race. I also still struggle interacting with authority figures. Children are resilient but not unbreakable.
What was it like leaving the program? What happened in the immediate years after you left?
Leaving the program was one of the best days of my life, but I didn’t feel safe though until I landed in the United States and it felt awful to leave the other girls behind.
Within a few weeks I got kicked out of my house for disrespecting a rule set in place by my parents. After that I wasn’t welcome at home unless invited, so when I wasn’t at college, I lived with my grandma or anyone else willing to take me in.
Things have leveled off between my parents and I since I’ve had children of my own. My dad took responsibility for the decision to send me to the program and asked for forgiveness several years ago around the time of my divorce in 2011.
How has being in the program impacted you today?
It made me pretty street smart. And gave me a lot of strange underlying trauma about people and situations.
How often do you think about the program in a given week?
A couple times a week.
Did you try to tell your parents what was happening in the program while you were there?
No, I knew better. I didn’t think they would side with me and it wasn’t worth the repercussions. I told them things that happened afterward, but I’m not sure if they believed me.
If you’re a parent, does your experience in the program affect how you treat your children?
I am terrified of traumatizing my children. I try very hard to remember that they are their own people, and the best thing I can do for them as a parent is teach them to think for themselves.
Do you have a relationship with your parents today?
Yes, I made the decision to forgive them for their mistake whether or not they realized or admitted said mistake. I’d prefer to have a relationship with them rather than punish them.
Did you/do you talk to your parents about the Program?
Not very often.
How do you parents feel about the program today?
Not quite sure.
Do you talk to your siblings about the program? What do they think of it?
They went through different phases of emotions and opinions. We don’t talk about it often.
Are you religious/spiritual? Did the program influence your view on religion/spirituality?
I saw enough there to make me run as far away from religion as possible. My openness to spirituality has been slowly returning.
Do you attribute any successes in your life to your time in the program?
Yes, success despite emotional trauma. Being able to compartmentalize stress and abusive people – I have far too high a tolerance for both.
What are you doing today?
I love my life now but it was a long journey to process previous trauma and stop reliving the same mistakes I was making as a result of the trauma.
My experience in the program made me realize how important personal freedom is. I credit a lot of my current happiness to the fact I am able to be my true and genuine self in my career, my relationship with my loving and supportive boyfriend, and my parenting relationship with my 11 and 13-year-old children.
I’m passionate about mentoring and still maintain a life-long love of animals.
What would you say to a parent who has a troubled teen and wants to get help for their child?
I’m sorry things are so hard and you’re afraid for one reason or another. Be willing to take some of the responsibility/blame in the family dynamic and do not turn over the keys to your child’s life to strangers. Stay involved in FAMILY therapy with your child and have realistic expectations for what success looks like. Look for the middle ground.