Moderator’s Note: “Melissa’s” Story was posted last year but had to be temporarily taken down for personal reasons. It is so eloquently written and so recent – 2009 – that she has given me permission now to repost it.
Shortly after starting high school, I attended my very first ATF. Alone, I went to one of the breakout sessions, showed interest in the Honor Academy and subsequently was put on every Teen Mania calling and mailing list. For the next 2 years, TM called me once or twice a month, and sent me packets, brochures, and invitations to Teen Mania events. Excited about being a part of something bigger than myself and making the world a better place, I went to every ATF that came into town. So sure that I wanted to be a part of what Teen Mania was doing (something huge, beautiful, exciting, and helpful to the world), my mother and I eventually went to a campus preview weekend so we could both make sure that the Honor Academy was the right choice for me. We also wanted to see what the life of an intern was going to be like – something that no intern could really answer for me over the phone. After that weekend, both my mom and I felt God was telling me to go to the Honor Academy. Now, looking back, I can see the different kinds of persuasion techniques that Teen Mania used to trick me into believing that it was God’s will for my life. After digging deeper than the sleep deprivation (from the nonstop activities and inadequate sleep) and normal, human worries of being accepted and fitting in, I have unearthed feelings of discomfort in that campus visit.
As much as I was excited to be there, I remember being confused that even though David Hasz and Ron Luce talked a big talk of “loving us” and “wanting what God wants for us” (which I assumed was the best), the conditions in the dorms and the amount of work that was placed upon the interns showed clear disinterest in intern’s physical and emotional well being. For instance, when I walked bare foot into the shower area in the bathroom I was warned that I should always wear flip flops because of the infections that interns were getting from going barefoot. Of course, these seemingly small red flags were the beginning of Teen Mania’s behavioral patterns that are very close to that of an abusive relationship. Nonetheless, I was still incredibly eager to attend the Honor Academy.
After taking night classes and dual enrolling at my community college, I graduated a semester early for the sole purpose of going to the Honor Academy as quickly as I possibly could. In addition to my full (and perhaps overburdened) class load, I worked part time to earn money for the HA. Finally, after a lot of hard work, I began my intern year on January 3rd, 2009.
All of my friends had supported me completely in my decision to attend the HA (most of them had attended ATF with me), so when I told them I wouldn’t be able to talk to them for my first 6 weeks, they were hurt but still supportive. Although I was told that only texting was not allowed during the week (I could still call and talk to them on the phone anytime) I knew that my time would be completely monopolized by my many responsibilities. I knew this full well and even saw this as a good thing. After all, I had gone to Teen Mania ready to spend the whole year “growing closer to the Lord” and “becoming a leader.” After coming home, I realized that this isolation was purposeful. By the end of the 10 months that I spent at Teen Mania I was terrified of the “outside world.” On a trip to the local Wal-Mart with my CA (or core advisor) I remember her launching into an intense prayer for the customers that were in Wal-Mart, who she believed would die in an apocalypse that would happen right then. Although this might seem like an exaggeration, the terror that interns lived under is not a joke.
Gauntlet week was as torturous as it sounds. We had to get up at 5:30 for an intense workout called “corporate exercise” and had a day that was packed with absolutely no down time. Even our “quiet time” was intended to be a time of study and introspection, in which we were encouraged to “go deep.” Everything was so controlled during this week. Even our showers were timed! We were told exactly where to go all day long, and even coached in what our attitude should be like. That is when the extreme control started, control that only grew worse as the year went on. Also, during Gauntlet week, it seemed like everything was hyped up; it was all about going to the next session and “getting fed”. But when that week ended, the excitement and the joy seemed to suddenly stop. It was like Gauntlet in a sense “fattened you up” but then after that they expected complete loyalty and no complaining for the intense and extreme work schedule ahead. It was as if it was Christmas and you hadn’t been given a real present that was selfless of the giver, but rather some sort of tool that you were now expected to use for them. This mixture of thankfulness but blatant punch or hurt on Teen Mania’s part confused me. I looked to Teen Mania to provide for me (after all, I was paying for these basic necessities), and when that person says that you should be thankful, but yet you’ve received nothing more than the basic necessities (and even less than that sometimes) this is confusing, and, once again, just like an abusive relationship. Looking back, the mindset of everything seems so twisted and selfish of Teen Mania. I do not consider myself a complainer, in fact my mom hated complaining and I learned as a child that complaining is not the way to communicate, so when I voiced my concern for the intense pace of the work and my leaders and peers told me that I was “complaining” and had a “heart condition” that God needed to deal with, this caused me great concern. Trusting these people, I felt that I had to be the problem.
But anyway, Gauntlet was full force, training all day even through dinnertime. There was no respect for our time or for our sleeping and that did not end when Gauntlet was over. The first 4-5 months were just as fast paced, and we were working so hard that my memory of that is mostly a blur.
Ready to put my internship to some use and wanting the kind of teaching and knowledge that I wasn’t getting in my classes (although they were “college level”), I signed up for the IET (Intensive Elective Training) Program. I had enjoyed school in high school and liked the thought of proving my abilities to my peers and to myself. Just as the name implies, IET is an optional program in which you take all the college classes that are offered as well as a class that focuses on one’s leadership abilities. IET is broken down into 3 intense and extremely fast paced 6 week curriculums. It was during IET, which was 2 or 3 months into my intern year, when my mom was beginning to become concerned about my wellbeing. I had to do all kinds of weird things like take cold showers and go to sleep with my arms crossed on top of my chest like a dead person in a coffin. They wanted you to go to bed facing death, because they felt that this life is only temporary and God can take your life away at any moment. I can understand wanting to share you’re love of life and wanting to teach this love and appreciation, but to do that by depriving your student of a well rested, enjoyable life seems ridiculous. Perhaps encouraging and communicating the good side of life would be much more efficient than communicating death.
At one point during IET, I got a double ear and sinus infection. One of my “sisters” found me in my room screaming because the pain was so horrible. Everyone in my dorm was at work for the whole day, but sometime during the day I could hear someone downstairs playing the guitar on the floor below. I thought that if they heard me, then they would come and help me. But no one came, and as the pain continued to get even worse I called for the one person I wanted most- my mom. It took two grown women to help me walk down the stairs of my dorm. They ended up taking me to the emergency room in Tyler, which was one of the most painful car rides of my life. After I had recovered a couple days (my mom fought to have me moved to a separate room… I’m not sure if my roommates had no consideration for my health or did not realize how sick I was, but they were loud and kept the light on very late) I went to staff member Daniel B. and told him I couldn’t finish. After looking at me for a minute he said, “I think you can finish this, I think you can do this.” Hindsight is 20/20 and looking back I see this as utterly stupid. Feeling encouraged that someone (someone in leadership no less) had seen my hard work and wanted me to keep it up, I ignored my body and complied. In fact, I was one of two people in my class to complete Phase 2. As if that story isn’t hard enough, after I had completed phase one David Hasz told my class that there wasn’t going to be a phase 2 or 3 for my January class, and if the two people that finished phased one wanted to finish IET and become “PUMAs” (or Perseverance Under Much Adversity) we would need to stay a second year. I have no doubt that the workload of IET (the lack of sleep, overextension of my body, etc.) brought on the infections, but as it would turn out all my hard work was all for nothing. Unfortunately, Teen Mania’s whole program is set up like this; it seems like you can only succeed at failing.