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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Personal Account of Attachment Therapy/Holding Therapy

The following is an account of one adopted girl's experience of attachment therapy in 1995-1997. The author, "Ann Onymous", would like readers to understand what this was like from the child's point of view. As she suggests, treatments of this type are still happening in the U.S. and other countries today.

If readers recognize what "Ann" is describing and know that they had similar experiences, I would appreciate it if they would comment or get in touch. One of the difficulties of the fight against these fringe treatments has been that victims have grown up isolated from social networks and sometimes with little education, and as a result only a few have come forward.

My thanks go to "Ann" for preparing this account:

  " My first experience with Attachment Therapy happened when I was 12 years old. These two women came to my house and my Mother called me downstairs to meet them. I walked in the living room and one of the women immediately ordered me to do jumping jacks “fast and snappy and right the first time”. I laughed and then did a few jumping jacks. She then told me that I had done the jumping jacks wrong and that I needed to clap when my hands were above my head. Because I did them wrong the first time, I was assigned 150 jumping jacks. After doing the jumping jacks, I was assigned 80 pushups, and I was made to complete them before I was allowed to go back upstairs. On my way upstairs, I overheard one of the women tell my Mother that I definitely had Attachment Disorder as evidenced by my failure to look into her eyes. My parents thought there was something wrong with me because I lied and snuck out of the house and hid food and nothing they did made much change in my behavior. After seeking support from many counselors my mother did not agree with, they sought out Attachment Therapists.

            It was after this first meeting that everything changed in my home. The same night, my parents came in my room and installed an alarm on my door. If I tried to open the door, the alarm would go off. The alarm was about the volume of a house alarm, and I think they are normally used to keep dementia patients from escaping. Also, after this meeting, my mother started keeping me out of school for long intervals and locked in my room. I was only allowed to come out to go to the bathroom or when my mother said I could. Sometimes I was allowed to eat with the family and sometimes I ate in my room. This went on for several months.

            Several months after the change, my Father came into my room one morning with a duffle bag and told me to pack it. He told me that I was going to go and stay with someone else for a while. I was not told anything other than that limited information. We got in the car and drove for two hours. During that trip I was excited. I thought living with someone else would be better and that maybe this person wanted me. I was so wrong. I was made to get out of the car, wait on the curb, and not do anything until the lady came out to get me. When she came out, I was shocked. She was an older mean looking lady and she had two other kids with her. Though her name was Mary Harless,she told me to call her “Mom Mary”. We then drove another hour to her home. During the drive she introduced the other two kids. I will call them S and D. I was very interested in S and D and so I began to talk with them. Mary then told me that she expected complete silence in the car. On the way home, Mary stopped at the grocery store and told us to remain seated and silent when she went in the store. While she was gone, S and D and I talked. When Mary returned, she said that we were all in trouble because we had not remained silent. I later found a recording device in her car while I was cleaning it.

            Life with Mary was one of unending horrible. Each day, we were woken up very early and made to go outside and run laps. She would assign laps each morning based on our “behavior” the day before. I never actually knew whether I would have many laps or only a few. Sometimes it took over an hour to run all the laps. We then had to wait in silence outside the front door for her to let us back in the house. We were not to open the door or enter the house ourselves. Mary would then let us in and assign morning work that had to be completed before we were allowed to eat breakfast. The chores included weeding the garden, washing the van, sanding a piano (more on that later). Sometimes those chores could take two to three hours and if they were not done right (which could be something as minor as leaving one weed in the flower bed) we had to either get the thing dirty and clean it again or just do another chore of equal time consumption.

            Once chores were completed, we were given a bowl of plain oatmeal (no milk, no butter, no sugar). After breakfast, we were assigned morning chores. Morning chores were similar to the before breakfast chores except that they were harder or took longer to complete. These chores had to be complete before our lunch of a piece of bread with peanut butter on it and maybe a carrot.

            My chore that I had for several weeks was to sand a piano. This was an upright piano that had been painted green. Mary found this piano and brought it home just for me to sand as my chore. I had to sand the entire piano with small pieces of sand paper. In order for it to be done, there had to be no green left on the piano. Morning, noon, and night, I would sit and sand this piano. Like I said, it took several weeks.

            There were punishments if we did something wrong. Something wrong would be anything but complete and total compliance and completing tasks fast and snappy and right the first time. For a minor infraction, we would be assigned exercise like 300 jumping jacks, 100 push ups, or 150 squats. For major infractions we had to do wall sitting, which is where we would sit cross legged in front of a wall with our hands at our sides and our nose touching the wall. We would sit there for hours, and sometimes even days. My longest time of wall sitting was two weeks. If I was given food, I was allowed to relax my position only long enough to eat. If I relaxed my position or my nose wasn’t on the wall, Mary would come up behind me and grab the back of my neck and squeeze hard until I straightened back to position. The other form of sitting we did was called cookie sheet sitting. We would sit facing the wall with our legs outstretched and feet flat against the wall. Mary would place the cookie sheet upright against our ankles, and we were to sit holding the cookie sheet up with the tips of our fingers. This would also be for hours or days depending on how much trouble we were in. This one was particularly painful for me because I am not flexible and I dreaded it.

            Another particularly tough punishment was to have cold showers. We were told to get into the bathtub with our clothing on, and then she would turn on the cold water. We were not allowed to get out of the shower. We would stand there in the water for a while, then she would turn the water off so we had to stand in our wet clothes. Then she would come back in and turn on the cold water etc… The longest I saw a kid in the shower was S, and she was in the bathtub for a week. She was made to sleep in the tub. At the end of the week S was very ill, but was not taken to receive medical care.

            The most brutal punishment was food deprivation. If we were in minor trouble, we missed two meals and were only given oatmeal once, and if we were in major trouble, we did not eat. The longest I went with no food was either three or four days. The longest I went with oatmeal only once per day was three months. One week, I stole pickles. I was so very hungry and I saw the pickles and I took the bottle and hid it behind my bed. When was caught, I was made to eat the entire jar and then went without food for two days. Another time I stole food, I stole marshmellows from an open bag on the counter. When Mary found out, I was made to eat an entire large bag in one sitting and then did wall sitting for the next week. I stole the food because I was hungry, but soon learned that stealing food caused me to be even hungrier. 

            After a while of living with Mary, we began “homeschooling”. Homeschooling consisted of writing sentences in a notebook. These were done in the afternoon between chores and usually consisted of something awful about ourselves. I once had to write “I hate myself” 5,000 times.

            After living with Mary for a few months, maybe three or four, we moved to Evergreen Colorado. S and D were sent to residential treatment facilities and I was the only foster kid to actually move with her. When we arrived in Colorado, we were greeted by a woman named Connell Watkins. Connell was a therapist that Mary travelled to Colorado to work with. Once again, I held onto hope that things would get better in Colorado and that Connell would be nicer, but not so.

            I started therapy twice a week with Mary, Connell, and sometimes another lady named Deborah Hage. Therapy was bizarre. I was wrapped from head to toe and blankets, and then all three women (who were not small) would sit on top of me and I had to get out of the blanket. It was horrible and sometimes I couldn’t breathe. They would make fun of me as I struggled. They called me a quitter. They said I must not want to be born or live. They told me I should just give up because that is what I always did. Sometimes during therapy, they would hold me across their laps. I would have one arm behind Connell’s back and be laying across two or three laps. They would ask me questions (usually shaming questions about me) and if I answered wrong they would put their faces really close to mine and yell at me. If I answered right, I had to yell the thing I had just said over and over. It was usually something bad about myself. If I was not compliant, they would make me lie down on the couch and kick my legs for long periods of time, and sometimes they would wrap me completely in a blanket and lay there for long periods of time. I would get really hot and sweaty and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. There was a lot of yelling and anger involved with therapy, and in order to do a good job, I had to be angry. They were always looking for anger. If I did not get angry, they would dig their fingers into my ribs until I screamed. They called this hassling.

            During the time I lived in Colorado, I had two very severe punishments. The first punishment happened because I started giving Mary and Connell sassy looks. They bought me a pair of sunglasses, and for several weeks, unless it was therapy time, I had to wear the glasses because they said that other people shouldn’t have to look at me. Once, I took the glasses off. Mary came up behind me and grabbed the back of my neck and led me to the mirror. She made me stand for hours in front of it until I had shouted out all the horrible things I could think of about what I saw when I looked at myself in the mirror. She then explained that all those things were why no one else should have to look at me. I didn’t remove the glasses again.

            For the other extreme punishment, I was locked in my room for three months. I got to come out of my room to go to therapy and that was it. I was given plain oatmeal once a day unless I tried to escape, and if I did that, I was not fed. The room was stripped of everything but the mattress, a bucket for me to urinate in, and a journal and pen. Mostly, I wrote about how I wanted to get out.

            I lived with Mary Harless for a year and a half from the ages of 12 to 14 years old. I spent a Christmas and two birthdays there. I was Connell Watkins client for a year. The abuse I suffered was extreme and horrible. I actually did have some attachment insecurity growing up due to foster care and a negative adoption experience. When I was a child, I lied and snuck around and got bad grades. My Mother (adoptive) and I did not get along. I was absolutely sure she was disappointed over having adopted me at all, and I behaved accordingly. If I was already a disappointment, I figured I could just do what I wanted. I was also angry because I didn’t get a family I “fit” with. Even with all my behaviors, I did not deserve abuse. My Mother took me to several different counselors when I was a child, but each time, as soon as the counselor suggested any changes to her behavior, she would get angry and we would never go back. My Mother wanted to believe that she had just received a defective child and she didn’t want to shoulder responsibility in fixing me. When these women came and told her what she wanted to hear (I was defective and it must be so hard for her), she latched on. It is, for me, the biggest rejection of my life. Not only did she not want me, she paid someone to openly and blatantly abuse me. If parents are still doing this to adoptive children, it needs to stop."

Please, readers, if you have other information like this and are ready to join the fight against this type of treatment--  which is certainly still in existence--  please get in touch!

Once again, my thanks to "Ann" for coming forward--  JM


  1. Dear "Ann": Thank you for writing publicly about your truly dreadful experiences. There can be no doubt that this is torture, no matter how you define the word.

    It seems impossible that a child could survive this treatment. I hope you realize that you are one tough cookie, and that the knowledge of that fills you with confidence, although the aim of this "treatment" is to make children feel worthless.

    I hope you feel some satisfaction that Connell Watkins brutal methods were made public and she was finally sent to prison, although that unfortunately involved the torture of another brave girl.

    I am sure your account will be a comfort to other victims and serve to enlighten the public.

  2. I find it frustrating that Connell Watkins only served 7 years for the murder of Candace Newmaker. That is not justice.

  3. But it was remarkable -- and maybe a first time since before WWII -- that therapists went to prison for the dangers posed by their therapy. Her name has been so blackened that she reverted to her maiden name: last time I saw, she was using "C.J. Cooil."

  4. Dear "Ann": I have been linking to your story here already.

    For example: ABC posted today an apparent promo for their 20/20 show tonight. It showed Holding Therapy (a therapist lying on a child), with a row of "Trauma Mama" trying to outdo each other on how bad their "RAD" kids are.

    A couple complaints, I suspect, caused ABC to reconsider and the clip was taken down. My complaint included reference to your essay.

    It may be a lot harder to do anything about the 20/20 show, alas.

  5. Thank God that sometimes people are stronger than the so-called therapists - sadists. The extraordinary strength of will and strength of character to be a child to stand up, not to break down and tell people about these crimes. It really is very difficult to do. These sadists try to humiliate the child and ultimately destroy the personality of the child. After such a pressure not every child can adequately perceive the reality and to distinguish right from wrong. These so-called therapists achieve servility of the child. Slaves can not think on their proper and independently. Slaves can only relay the words of his master.
    "Ann" is admirable. She has retained its identity and its independence.

  6. Im sure the writer of this stry really appreciates th above comment! Things like this are hard to shar and I know if it was me, I would appreciate the encouragement and support.

    1. Yes, I think she does, and she is reading the comments with interest. Thanks for your encouraging words for her.

  7. Connell Watkins got me too. How she is allowed to continue with her life is beyond me. I would love to confront her one day to tell her how successful I have been despite everything everyone has done to me. She should not get to hide from this.

    1. McKenzie, there is another survivor who would like very much to talk to you. If you could contact me at, I can put you in touch.