top of page


A brief memoir/op-ed about my experiences in the Troubled Teen Industry, focusing on the time I spent stranded and alone in the Cherokee National Forest.

       In 2014, Mountain City, Tennessee had a population of about 2500. Nine of these people were teenagers from across the US that somebody-- their parents, the public school system, the legal system-- had deemed trouble. Some of this trouble expressed itself as depression and anxiety, other trouble came in the form of legal or behavioral issues, but all of us were there because we had become “too much to handle” in one way or another. Most of these issues, however, stemmed from untreated mental health issues that only worsened within the troubled teen industry.

       Freedom Mountain Academy was quite a place for the average fifteen-year-old. As an observer, it looked like a small family farm and school that prided itself on it’s “alternative” methods. But as a student, there was a much darker reality of abuse and neglect that isn’t so rare in the troubled teen industry. 

Freedom Mountain Academy was run by a small, white, very rural family, all with different focuses on the property. Margaret Cullinane was the matriarch, focused on much of the garden and the animals, and sometimes the kitchen. Mike was her husband, who focused on the expeditions, and some of the harder yard and farm work, and was a big fan of the “tough love” mentality that many troubled teen institutions have.

The troubled teen industry is notorious for preying on confused, lost, and scared families and their troubled teenagers. Freedom Mountain Academy was no different. The aforementioned façade of the small family farm came with messages about tough love, teaching your teen hard work and discipline, and the promise that they would grow along the way. What parent wouldn’t want that?

       Having been born and raised in DC, the rural mountains of northeastern Tennessee were a culture shock to say the least. The same could be said for the hard manual labor around the farm, the requirement to stop taking prescription medication cold turkey, and the week-long expeditions into the mountains. These expeditions were a week long, once a month, and anything but glamorous. Rain, snow, sleet, or sun, the expeditions proceeded.

       I had come to FMA in late September or early October of that year, and was the last student to join the group. During my second expedition, but everyone else’s third, I had the worst panic attack I’d ever had. Normally, during a panic attack, I would excuse myself from the situation and try to use one of the many coping mechanisms I’ve learned from therapists over the years. That was impossible. I was in the middle of the woods, vulnerable, surrounded by strangers, medication far out of the picture.

       Instead of helping me calm down, the chaperones decided to LEAVE ME. You heard that right. Two adult men, entrusted to accompany nine troubled teens into the woods, decided to leave a very vulnerable, very upset teenager in the forest of Tennessee, alone. And then it got worse.

       Alone and still recovering from my panic attack, I didn’t know what to do. The chaperones had left me, thinking I would somehow find my way to them. Instead, I ended up lost, terrified, and without basic resources like matches or a sleeping bag. I continue in these conditions for six whole days in that forest, with below freezing temperatures and possible wildlife threats. It is then, on day six, that a cadaver dog and his two teammates find me. 

       Those six days I spent in the forest alone taught me a lot. The experience taught me about who actually cared about my safety and wellbeing, and what discipline and purpose really are. This isn't to say I recommend getting lost for six days in scary and life threatening circumstances, but I would recommend taking the time to assess the situation below the surface. Often, that’s where the best part of oneself resides. 

bottom of page