Exposing Alsana Castlewood Treatment Centers - A Survivor's Experience
July 5, 2019
Recently, I read an article written by an extremely courageous former patient of Castlewood. Of course, it stirred up a lot in me. All those memories came flooding back, which wasn't fun. Mostly though, what it brought up in me was anger.
My experience with Castlewood and Mark Schwartz was brief, somewhere between two and three weeks (honestly I lost track of time), but it was long enough for me to realize that something dangerous and formidable was happening inside the statuesque walls of that treatment center overlooking the breathtaking Castlewood State Park. I remember Schwartz as a creepy, cunning man: smart enough to get what he wanted, and slick enough to mask his true motives. Before I left, the Castlewood staff encouraged me to cut ties with my family and outpatient treatment team, using the word "toxic" to describe their influence on me, despite the fact that I'd not yet had a single family therapy session. I refused, and started to count up the red flags I was seeing. I notified the staff that I would like to leave; I was an adult and I was there voluntarily. I was told that was not an option, and a phone call was placed to Mark Schwartz, who was off site for the morning. Despite being told no, I promptly got online and booked myself a plane ticket home for that afternoon and ordered a car to come pick me up from Castlewood and take me to the airport. Ten minutes before the car arrived (about an an hour after I'd originally asked to leave), I told a nurse I would be leaving and to please print out discharge paper work. I'd already packed my bags.
The car arrived and I jumped in. The driver asked me what this beautiful place was that I was leaving. I told him it was a dangerous place, and to please not stop the car or unlock the doors before we reached the airport for any reason. I knew Schwartz was on his way, and I wasn't taking any chances. As we drove up the long driveway, Schwartz's SUV came toward us. "Please, do not stop the car," I reiterated. He didn't.
As we passed Schwartz, I made eye contact with him. For some reason, I wanted to remember his face, and I wanted him to see that I was not afraid of him and that I'd escaped his reach. Immediately after I left, the Castlewood staff instructed my close friend who was still there to cut off all contact with me. I was a traitor, after all. My anger toward Schwartz and Castlewood is as fresh today as it was when I last saw Schwartz face to face that day in November 2010.
So many questions are still unanswered. HOW is this place still operating? WHY didn't any insurance companies investigate any of the claims patients were making? And, HOW THE HELL is Mark Schwartz not in jail? Or at the very least, not able to practice anymore? The author of the article I mentioned in the first sentence of this post said it brilliantly: "It's insurance fraud, at the very least."
What makes me the angriest though, is that families are still sending their loved ones off to Castlewood (AKA Alsana- **A name change doesn't mean you're a new brand, totally different company! It's just TRICKING PEOPLE into thinking that the Castlewood that got slammed with all those patient lawsuits has suddenly ceased to exist, and you built a magical new treatment center in its place!**) ...sorry about that. Clearly I have strong feelings on the name change. To get back to what I was saying, what makes me the angriest is that family's are still sending their loved ones off to *Alsana* for treatment, many of them not understanding that its still a corrupt facility, just with a different name. Yes, Mark Schwartz stepped down and was forced to leave, and he was the biggest problem they had. What I think many people don't know, however, is that many on the executive leadership team studied under Mark and learned what they know from him.
Is Castlewood...excuse me, Alsana...a better treatment center now that Mark Schwartz is gone? I'm sure it is.
My question is: why would you choose to go to a facility swarming in controversy when there are many reputable, respected eating disorder treatment centers in the United States?
Mark Schwartz, after inflicting trauma and deep emotional wounds on countless patients at Castlewood, moved out to California. He is currently the Clinical Director for Harmony Place, an eating disorder treatment facility in Monterey, California. On their website, Harmony Place Monterey claims to offer "an alternative approach to psychiatric care, eating disorders, and addiction." Alternative. I'll bet.
According to the website, Schwartz is practicing and appears to be licensed, interacting with vulnerable men and women everyday. How are the licensing boards just fine with that?!? The man had three serious lawsuits against him, and very serious allegations are continuing to come in, more every day. Did I mention that "Alsana" also has a location in Monterey, California? Coincidence? So, they're just down the street. But we'll pretend that's not incredibly weird and suspicious. His wife is right there with him too on the Harmony Place website, listed as their "Senior Therapist." A "Jeff Schwartz" is listed as the CEO and founder of Harmony Place. If I am not mistaken, Jeff Schwartz is the brother of Mark Schwartz. A dangerous trio--the Schwartz brothers and Mark's wife Lori Galperin--are hard at work on the west coast, no doubt following the same modus operandi Schwartz used at Castlewood to destroy the lives of numerous women and their families. If that's not a scary thought, I don't know what is.
When I decided to write an article of my own on Castlewood and Mark Schwartz, I reached out to several women that I knew had spent time at Castlewood and asked if they'd be willing to share their stories. The rapid response surprised me. My inbox flooded with stories similar to what I witnessed during my brief time at Castlewood, and the experiences I've heard and read about since then. Three brave women gave me permission to share a brief synopsis of their experience, in their own words. Two of the three only felt comfortable sharing on the condition of anonymity.
I arrived at Castlewood in November of 2007. From the moment I arrived Mark assured my dad and I that I would be his special case and he would treat me like a daughter. I was immediately put on very high doses of a plethora of medications. From the very first group I attended it became very evident that groups were just people sharing narratives of horrific trauma and satanic cult abuse while Mark sat back in his chair with his eyes closed. After a few weeks, I started developing false memories of my own, believing for years that I had prostituted myself on a train and that my mom had been the cause of all of my problems and abusive my whole life.
After about a year, the sexual assault started. It was decided for my healing that I needed to have sex dreams, so I made them up and then Mark forced me to reenact them with him. This went on for two years. I was in the Castlewood system for over three years. I finally got out when I was falsely diagnosed with schizophrenia and my dad pulled me out to go to Johns Hopkins. There they told me I did not have schizophrenia, but I was so brainwashed that I knew I HAD to have it. Mark offered to fly me back to St Louis and that I could stay with him.
It has been over 8 years since I left, and that place still haunts me every day. It took me so long to trust a therapist again, to rebuild my relationships and to be able to walk through life again. I had no idea when I flew from Virginia to St Louis that it would change my life forever and that the amount of harm that would come would be so great that it may never fully come undone.
Another past patient spoke of the reckless misunderstanding of nutrition and refeeding that Castlewood displayed, which could have resulted in very serious consequences for her physical and mental well-being had she not been abandoned by Castlewood when she was. Instead of focusing on the medical stabilization she desperately needed as a primary concern, the staff at Castlewood insisted on digging into her trauma background right away:
I admitted to Castlewood after having spent years starving myself into a severely malnourished state. I had been eating only several hundred calories a day and was below 60% of my ideal body weight, and my cognitive abilities had been significantly impaired as a result. I wasn't able to focus my thoughts enough to even carry on a simple conversation and was consumed by irrational eating disorder fears, one of the most prominent being the belief that I could "absorb" calories through the air simply through breathing. I was terrified of being around other people or food because I thought calories would "get into me" even if not making the conscious choice to eat.
Rather than chalking this up to the reality that I had simply starved my brain to the point of insanity, the providers at Castlewood wanted me to "dig into" when else in my childhood I had felt out of control in relation to what entered my body, assigned me to write an 8-10 page narrative of my life, asking me to focus specifically on painful and traumatic events that may have led me to this point. I felt truly incapable of writing given my cognitive state, and did not complete the assignment.
After 3 weeks had gone by without my doing so they made the decision to administratively discharge me from treatment given that I "did not show commitment to doing the real work". I remember begging them to let me stay, promising them that I would "try harder". There was a lot of talk from clinical staff about Castlewood being "different" from other treatment centers, and I had allowed myself to buy into that, had placed a lot of hope in their ability to help me. I also remember just feeling a great deal of shame in having failed what I thought was my "chance" at getting that help. I transferred to an inpatient eating disorders hospital where I received the treatment that I actually needed, which consisted of nutritional stabilization and weight-restoration rather than searching for and writing about past traumas. In retrospect, I could not be more grateful that Castlewood discharged me when I did. It makes me really sad and angry to think back on how I was treated and the disregard given to the basic biology of human starvation.
The third account from a previous patient names another key player in the warped Castlewood world: Jim Gerber. The push and pull, sudden discharging, and forced disclosure of detailed sexual experiences seems to be a theme that runs throughout numerous different patient accounts I've heard: Castlewood recovered memories from my past, told my parents, and then told me I had made it up and was sick beyond help.
Jim Gerber accused me of faking diagnoses and then put me in the middle of an argument between the doctor and the therapists. They had us tell deeply personal and intimate sexual abuse accounts and act them out in front of everyone. When I was relapsing from being re-traumatized, they sent me home rather than stepping me up to a higher level of care. I have an impossible time opening up to therapists about traumatic things. I can’t connect to my emotions when I’m doing EMDR anymore because they sat me down and told me “if you want to have [blank], go to a different treatment center.” And, “you’re too sick to be helped; you’re making this up.”
There's no question that when Castlewood Treatment Center transitioned to "Alsana," it left a trail of lasting pain and broken families in its wake. Lives were forever altered, and although some have since recovered, many of the patients I spoke with reported that Castlewood set them back in recovery for many years. This was certainly the case for me.
A fourth former patient wanted to contribute to this article, but despite the many years that have passed since she was a patient at Castlewood, when she sat down to write a summary of her experience for me, she found it to be too painful.
Though she ultimately decided not to contribute her personal account of what happened at Castlewood (and I commend her for putting the needs of her personal recovery first), she encouraged me to mention that the events that took place still plague her--and many people--to this day. The impact was strong and deep, and the wounds are slow to heal.
This is Castlewood.
The two Castlewood buildings still stand today, and patients with severe eating disorders are still treated inside those walls. Some of the original staff that trained under Schwartz remain at the original Ballwin, Missouri location just outside St. Louis, hiding behind a revamped marketing campaign and the new name: Alsana. They're expanding, having just recently opened a new adolescent treatment center in Birmingham, Alabama. Their website is beautiful, showcasing castle-like residential centers with modern furnishing and smiling models. Its easy to see the appeal. When I was a patient there in 2010, every patient slept in a queen size bed with a down comforter. The views from the balconies were, and I'm sure still are, spectacular. But don't be fooled. An established treatment center changing their name isn't a common occurrence, and Alsana is running... from the bad press, lawsuits, and horrific allegations that plagued Castlewood in the end.
Their website does, of course, feature their own positive testimonials. I am in no way saying that those who claim to have had positive experiences at Castlewood (or ~Alsana~) are lying. I wasn't there, and I can't speak to their experience. I only know what I saw, heard, and experienced, and what many brave souls have shared with me. Castlewood or no Castlewood, if someone has found true and lasting recovery, while maintaining their integrity and they're able to be honest with themselves and others, I am happy for them.
Personally, I know of a couple women who credit Castlewood as the foundation for their recovery. I do not doubt their stories, either. I just think its only fair to put the full story out there, complete with successes as well as horror stories, so that people can see the whole picture and decide for themselves.
***I want to thank the brave women who shared their Castlewood experiences with me in detail. I know it couldn't have been easy. Your courage, resilience, and uncompromising honesty are inspiring.