life stories

Sean just finished up his psychiatry rotation today and it’s been an interesting month.  In our house, I am usually the one with stories about previous mentally ill clients so it’s been fun that Sean got his turn.  He recently had a really funny story; now don’t take this the wrong way. There is nothing funny or lighthearted about mental illness.  But, when you’ve worked day in and day out with this population, joking about it is a way of coping and dealing with the stress of it all.

So I got to thinking about my clients at the psychiatric residential treatment center that I worked at for a bit back in 2005.  I worked mainly on the girls (12-18y.o.) floor; it was an… interesting time.  I learned a lot about mental illness, the injustices of our government systems, violence, and what it means to be human.  There were a few of the girls that really stuck out to me and I often find myself thinking about them and wondering if they are surviving the “outside” world.

From the beginning, I knew that it would be an interesting run with these girls.  That very first day, a code was called because one of the girls had attempted to hang herself in the bathroom.  From the shower rod. With her bed sheets.  That first month I had been spit on, bit in the arm, tricked (several times), hit on, threatened, and cussed at (with words and sentences that would make anyone cringe).

Don’t get the wrong picture; there were some very intense, violent, depressing, horrible times.  But, I also had a lot of fun.  These girls were real.  The “you get what you see” kind of thing. They said some of the most hilarious things because they were so blunt and social rules didn’t apply.  They trusted very few people and it was an awesome thing when they would begin opening up and sharing very personal and deep hurts.  It was hard not to get sucked into their life stories; these girls had more life experience than most adults I know.

I keep thinking about a particular girl, one of the youngest on the floor.  She was also probably the most developmentally delayed.  (Think 12 year old who could not tie her shoelaces or write her full name.)  Her story is one that still constantly plays through my mind.  She was sexually abused as a young child, kicked out of her home by her mother and became a prostitute all before the age of 10.  She was beaten, raped, became a substance user, and wound up in the DCFS system after she was admitted into the hospital because her 40 year old “boyfriend” threw her down his basement stairs because he found out she was pregnant. Again.

Here’s the thing. This story can be extrapolated to so many children in our communities. Too many. What are we doing about it?  Nothing.  You know, I understand the desire that most people want to foster or adopt younger children.  But what about these preteens and teens that really need some consistency and love.  Who wants them?  What services are out there for them?  I was completely unprepared for the job that I held at this center; I didn’t provide these girls with the best services that they deserved or needed.  I tried my hardest, but it’s just not good enough when you’re fresh out of college and have little experience in this particular field.  I don’t doubt that most of these girls aged out of the DCFS system and found themselves in the DOC system or on the streets.  I don’t doubt that most of these girls ended up in the same situations that they were removed from.  What kind of system do we have for these children we’re working with?  A crappy one; one that sets them up for failure.

Now, we purposely turn away when we see that homeless man or woman walking towards us.  We avert our eyes when we see that homeless person begging for food, or money, or anything that will keep them warm at night.  We hold our breath as we walk through tunnels and viaducts because we just can’t bare the stench of days old urine.  Would you do the same if these homeless people were children?

Then why do it at all.


One thought on “life stories

  1. Oh my gosh Alice. The timing of your post and my reading it could not be more perfect. I was just at a panel discussion last night with teens from the MN foster care system – both 18 years of age, one of which was just adopted last year, and one whose mother never terminated parental rights, so she aged out of the system and will never have a chance to be adopted, which she so desires, even as she is considered an adult herself. She had 21 foster home placements in one year. She has one child and one on the way, and no one to serve as a model of a healthy parental relationship. It was heartbreaking. As if I didn’t already know the system is corrupt, this made me hate it even more. It made me want to do foster care (in my personal life, not professional life) so that I could somehow change one child’s experience, so that I could be one less transition and disruption they have to endure. Yes, these kids come with issues — who wouldn’t?? But they NEED someone! And part of me can’t even be mad at their parents because they were probably screwed over by the system and lacked support networks, too.

    If you ever need someone to listen or share your frustrations, you know who to call! Sometimes I seriously doubt my career choice…

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