When I began my job at the residential youth facitlity, a co-worker immediately coined a nickname. “Hey, Miss Junior League”, she’d say, and I’d have to look twice to see if she was annoyed with me or just being rude. It often was both; we were opposites and we were doing the new acquaintance dance. There was an energy of boldness around her and I knew she likely took charge of anything at all. The tremendous volume of her wavy golden brown hair was enough to give pause. I either laughed or ignored her until she approached me with basic respect since we were equals on staff, more or less. When she sought to entertain people with off-kilter humor in the charting room or office, I obliged her with another snort of a laugh, then came back at her. I knew how to trade jabs that weren’t lethal and saw this was an easy game of sarcasm. I hadn’t expected it to be part of work behavior. But I was new to the workplace though I was not backing down; I needed that job and was there to stay. I understood the odd “Miss Junior League” moniker. I came by it honestly. Well, by upbringing if not by lifestyle. I knew how I seemed, especially in a new environment–we do what is natural without thinking. And then we adapt better and hopefully fast.
She’s been there perhaps a year. And she also “had been there, done that”, as she said, and also got how to handle teenagers that were high risk and full of high drama. I kept quiet and observed her and other counselors the first weeks. The Recreation Coordinator/alternative school’s teacher assistant job was new for me. I’d worked with high risk populations– geriatric and disabled clients. I was a manager in a subruban Detroit, MI. senior center, in addition to other positions. But I was intent on starting over in Oregon–this was the first interesting job available. When questioned as to why I’d want to work with gang-affiliated, drug-addicted, traumatized, often homeless teens, I could only answer, “Because I want to be of service to others–I have a solid history of doing that and I learn fast. I can find and provide good resources. And I can keep calm when things go haywire, usually.” The manager might have sensed I held back much that might impact his decision one way or another. But he took a chance–maybe better a warm body than nobody at all, I imagined. I couldn’t say: I’m desperate to pay my bills and change my life–I have to start somewhere. The work didn’t pay well but intrigued me.
The mistake my co-worker made at first was one we all make: stereotyping based on my clothes (I dressed in nice outfits, pretty flats, not jeans and tshirts…), perhaps my demeanor. She accurately deducted I was raised by white, middle-to-upper middle class, educated parents who provided privledges most of our young charges in treatment had never known. The truth, though, was that I had left that external security with its sense of assumed–if superficial–worth long, long ago. (The nice nice clothes were from old jobs; an articulate way of speaking was taught to me early on, then practiced for moving through the world; my reserve arose from introspection and distrust. My armor and shields.) My new co-workers just didn’t know it, and they likely never would. But they did know I was in recovery from substance dependence, and since I met that job requirement I was included, more or less. If they’d known I had married (for a long year) but was plotting to leave (if I kept the job) a man who was clean and sober, too, but still not kind nor finished with criminalality, they’d have been stunned. I dtill had much to learn about men and being a woman.
But even the kids accepted me based on my addiction and sobriety, alone–in time. Some thought it was a ruse. They had no idea who I was, found me a rule keeper and quiet but with a tad rough edges that began to show up now and then. I could hold a line, was not intimidated by fist fights as well as explosive emotional disturbances. I figured out ways to engage them in learning (like poetry writing); show them new ways to enjoy life’s offerings. In time the greater circles gave me access. I learned how to use my counseling skills with teenagers who believed anything positive or different was another demand they had to resist on principle. Or because it was stupid and irrelevant. They had no reason to believe what I offered was worthwhile. I had to prove it. I was determined to take them to the opera and ballet, museums and nature parks–not just play an explosive game of volleyball outside the facility.
I was naive, perhaps, but I had few qualms so just did it, calling sports event arenas and arts organizations and persuading them to give us free tickets, And no copping out by the kids was allowed. To everyone’s surprise the clients were curious, gradually more open, interested, sometimes well impressed and said so. (Opera became a big hit as was pro basketball.) Most all learned to appreciate experiences outside of former comfort zones, and to reconsider a few suppositions about the world and others in it. They found that something weirdly foreign could be exciting, even pleasurable–while staying sober and clean. They discovered they liked learning, after all–at least at times, under certain conditions. I was relieved to see that. But never let them see it could make me cry a little.
Some counselors shared personal life stories to try to bridge wide gaps between them and clients. I didn’t have that urge. First, I was an intensely private person (back then) and perceived as reserved. Calm in demanding situations, I came to be called upon for crisis intervention. But I also just believed that work was work, my personal life was my own, “and never the twain shall meet.” Let the youth interpret my words and silences. I tried to share some of myself obliquely, responding in ways that said more than language, I thought.
If I had been willing to share my own adolescent troubles with them, they might not have believed any of it. Or perhaps they saw through me in a short time. I caught some looking at me as if they “got it”– that looking and speaking in certain ways didn’t ever mean there wasn’t major hardships. (Though in time I dressed way down, let speech lapse into easier rhythms and it was better to be less conspicuous.) Kids are remarkable in their ability to percieve what we think hidden. They sense things, and those who survive what my clients had also know when you are lying or telling it straight, if you are phony or for real. It’s survival to get the lay of the land right and fast. We managed together moment by moment, even if they sneered at me behind my back or acted out with violence in word and deed as they pushed back at my growing authority. But there were plenty of clients who slowly connected with me–and others–as well.
I stayed in that position for about five years, long after other staff left. It was not the job for anyone who had stars in their eyes or were arrogant about personal power to salvage human lives. It was tough work to just keep the kids going, staying alive, open to change of any sort; it took long days and nights. I loved those lost and sometimes found youths; I liked the work far better than I’d expected. I think my attitude and behaviors spoke enough; I just wasn’t an open book or a bleeding wound with the kids–or adults. I felt that either was unseemly, uncalled for and even unethical. And not so helpful. Sure, I felt my heart open to those kids but lost any naivete fast–it was demanding work shaped by a droning background of impulsivity, resistance, loud eruptions of rage. I was humbled. I became committed to a persistent compassion put to work.
But if they had known any of my truth….For what they had within those simple spaces full of enriching treatment was exactly what I did not have when I needed it.
By age fifteen I was placed in a psychiatric facility in a big city for self harm behaviors. And signs and symptoms of drug use. There were no drug and alcohol treament centers or dual diagnosis programs in the 1960s and 70s. There were psychiatric units for everyone, no matter what the issue was. (Mine, I learned not then, but some years later: PTSD– and, of course, obvious substance dependence.) After that I was to have been placed into a halfway house for youth in Detroit so I could attend a fine performing arts high school and continue therapy. I was thrilled and anxious about such a change. If my parents agreed. They did not. So back home I went, then later was placed in temporary foster care a few months, then got kicked out (smoking pot, not vacuuming or washing dishes enough) of that upright home which I couldn’t bear–put with strangers against my will again. By the time I was almost 17 and still in high school, I was set up in an apartment by a well-meaning or perhaps incompetent psychologist I saw once every two weeks–with a young woman, aged twenty-one, who was deemed responsible and willing to look after me. (I discovered later she was a child of my parents’ friends.) I liked her but we happily seldom saw each other. That lasted until parties I threw included illicit drugs–and police came to our door, took me to the station for interrogation for nine hours. I never made that phone call you are supposed to make. I was terrified and was dropped back off by a narcotics detective at my parents. They stood in the doorway and stared at me, eyes filled with sorrow and heated by anger, their bodies looking as defeated as they felt. Well, so was I. So they let me in again.
They could think of little to nothing else to do with me. I can imagine they did all they could in their way and in those times. They did not avail themselves of family counseling; that was not popular where I grew up. In fact, it was all an embarrassment. I was the source of their embarassment. Deeply held secrets damage people but that was not their view. It was put the best face forward and arry on with denial. But they knew very little of my reality, and seemingly didn’t want to know. They were public people; thy were respected and loved by many. They had talents they shared generously in the community as well as t me and money. I by then understood what becoming mute meant, the essential necessity to all including the threatening perpetrator, even though he had left years before. His threats of family harm, even death, were believed from age 7. (He finally ended up in prison with multiple child sex abuse convictions.) But I loved my parents; they were good people who knew little of things beyond their scope. And beneath that current of frustration and despair, they did so love me. But I didn’t believe it then.
I barely made it through high school-not that my grades weren’t good, somehow I managed–but I profoundly resented having to be there. Except for English class and all arts opportunities. I wanted to pursue my passions in the arts, learn about nature and engage in many outdoor adventures. I was bored to tears. And angry, wounded by the earlier abuse, plus a foiled rape at 14 as I walked one afternboon along city railroad tracks, and fought for what felt like my scarred and yet still valuable life. Someone had to and I beat off the strong teen, who had followed me for blocks, with every ounce of fierceness I had. That took its toll despite my basic enthusiasm for life’s wonders and the goodness still to be found. One begins to think: is there truly any left?
I inhabited a state of clasutrophobic loneliness despite having many friends (and smart, well brought up boyfriends, a requirement of my parents before I brought them by–what irony that was to me). If only I could get out of that restrictive house, away from my provincial hometown. I wrote everything I could, huddling over notebooks or typewriter into the night; read books beyond my depth that were enthralling and wise or confusing; played and created music. Prayed alot, daily, for help. Weeping and praying, singing away at the baby grand as I dreamed of being a composer. Hoping for rescue. What a strange life. The outdoors and and trusted friends helped, not therapy though I did gain a few insights. I held onto nibs of hope for one more day, one more night– with the aid of substances, the lovely escape they provided a time. (I didn’t, surprisingly, drink those years; that came later.) After all, I had a ready pipeline to prescriptions from our family doctor.That’s how they helped people then. It was the time of the tranquilizing, addictive valium; big barbituates for sleep; and dexamyl to wake up. I knew how to get other drugs I wanted. (I also knew I’d figure out how to survive on the street if really neccessary. But I felt I would never do that–until years later, I had to awhile.)
I knew about many coping skills. Study, drugs of various sorts, creative projects in dance, music, art and theater, being outdoors; good friends and falling in love and prayer as I always believed in God, sometimes without seeming reason. (I entirely shied away from sex.) Then, after the foster care and apartment experiments failed, my parents gave me a one way plane ticket to Seattle at 18. My sister and a friend lived in a rusic cabin on Lake Washington. She was happy to have me stay a year and see how it went. I didn’t know her well; she is five years older. But I could hardly believe my good fortune. A geographical salvation, a way to find independence!
Freedom! As soon as I arrived, I believed I’d left the torments of my past and found paradise. Or had I? That year was wonderful with the Northwest’s vast natural marvels and some good times with my sister…then it became a repeat of the past I’d run from: violations, regrets, loss. Falling “in love” with a much older drug dealer who took me places and did things unknown before, and who also gave me lots of drugs. And then a fun but reckless motorcycle guy. Realizing my big sister, a teacher who also smoked pot heavily, was not in such great shape, either. But the dense forests and shimmering, undulating waters of the lake outside our door saved me by virtue of constancy and beauty. I would sit and stare and try to think things through–how to get better, to grow up into a whole human being and at last liberated from negative experiences? How, how, how. But I did learn the value of working at a busy local A and W drive-in, making cash while having a good time. Seattle was a fantastic city to explore. I grabbed a bus ride for the first time, roaming the streets with friends. I also vowed to move back to the Pacific Northwest one day to hike more mountains, make it my home.
It was not the very worst of years but it was a bold departure in a way. But I was too clueless in a much wider world of “regular” life with its temptations and perplexities. I revelled in options at first. Except they didn’t differ enough to improve my life…at all. Freedom suddenly unlocked is akin to releasing a devilish genie out, at long last. It all finally defeated me when a young man, charming and friendly saw and followed me on the road fall the way home. Then he later broke into the cabin when I slept alone. Afterwards, I felt it a miracle I ended up only a little harmed. But it was the final straw.
I returned to my parents determined to begin college. That went well–I was good at learning from books– except…I had over the years become addicted to barbituates and speed, knew pleasures and perils of smoking peyote and opium, had farily often dropped mescaline and LSD. I could not stay clean that year. I could not control the damages of addiction. In time I ended up in a huge, gothic, ugly, prison-like institution for four and a half months. I turned 20 there, and deeply wished I might die.
There were others of us there who were able to think much straighter after goping trhough withdrawals and staying clean of drugs (except for thwta they pumped into us). There were also pot smokers placed by angry, distraught parents. Alongside us were severely mentally ill people who’d been there for years, decades–whose empty presence brought me to tears as I tried to talk with them. Some of the most nighmarish experiences I’ve ever had happened there. The stay consisted of a kind of slave labor provided by lucid patients, surprise harsh treatments and various humilations every day. (I still cannot share those specifics, as well as other things from the trying strangeness of my past.) But treatment for PTSD? Compassionate aid? Those months compounded pain and fear, were felt as punishments every moment. I learned to leave my body, and my imagination flew me to scenarios that could make my life sweeter someday. I could close my eyes any time to see the Northwest mountains, and breathe again. And I learned to ally myself with others who could still walk, talk, speak and make sense–when we were rarely allowed to gather and speak. I held on.
I maintain that no person should have to endure such a place. It was closed a few years after I left. I wept in gratitude for all who avoided its terrible power, a hell of badly treated souls, the imprisoned who had lost all bearings, their eyes empty, their mouths slack, silenced forever.
Yet it was there, in a small corner of a dark room, that I prayed with fervor for God–wherever God was–to help me survive it all and leave one day intact somehow. To be miraculously released. I was afraid I would never walk out, nor stay quite alive any more time there. So I made a bargain: someday when I was able to do so, I would help others, anyone God guided me to help with courage and compassion–if God would only get me out of there. And I felt a little peace stir, lifting my spirits just enough. I wasn’t certain, but I thought for the first time it was possible to survive, to escape.
It happened within two weeks. I didn’t know my parents were working with a lawyer. I was put on a chair, upon a raised platform and questioned at length by a half dozen “experts” for what seemed many hours but must have been a mushc shorter time. I kept my wits about me; I spoke out clearly and thoughtfully. Whatever it took I was going to persuade those who’d offered me nothing of help, nothing of simple respect or kindness. And it was decided I was fit to leave. I got sprung, and the world seemed bright, fresh–and intense and changed. It was I who had changed, had lost more, but I would recover. It was enough to be able to walk in the world at liberty, to not live in constant fear and loathing. To be among bees and flowers, to warm under the glow of sunlight. I had been placed there in mid- April. It was early August and the summer sang out. I stopped taking any medication and felt finally awake, aware and coherent, my mind clicking along again. I behaved reasonably and felt more at ease than I had in aeons though it took awhile to get in sync with society and other people.
I went on and lived a life that became more and more ordinary, with no drugs in my system, though trials still came as they do (and had to conquer late onset drinking later, by a simple surrender to God’s direction again). I had returned to college, worked some, had surprising children and after more time welcomed stepchildren. I had married, divorced, married and so on. Relationships are not a fluid thing, not so comfortable at first for abuse survivors, yet they are possible. I kept trying. I would say well, I liked being married so I did it alot… (I’ve now been married for decades to the same guy.)
But I was restless as my children grew up; I missed the old dreams of a more creative life, apart from mothering. I felt useless in the old, deeper way– so I relapsed after many years sober. A wise therapist told me in no uncertain terms to stop whining and get a job, preferably helping others–to get out of my hothouse of a brain. It made no sense at first–what could I do?– but was fired the same day I applied to work at a large, bustling senior services center in Adult day Care. In months I was promoted to the Home Care department manager for elderly and disabled folks. I provided services to 350 clients at the center and in the community; I enjoyed training and hiring about 150 home care workers. My liquid nutrition program for the very ill homebound garnered a Presidential Point of Light Award, It was a surprise that such work fit me and I, it –that I enjoyed it so much. I kept at it until I left Michigan once more, after another divorce, and planned to return to the Pacific Northwest. I had gained health and confidence, but I was still not able to enjoy a well-rounded, solid marriage.
I had almost forgotten about the bargain I’d made at the end of my teen years. It was going to come back to me soon.
It wasn’t until I was truly sober for more time that things changed completely, and for the long haul. I moved with two teenaged children to Oregon at 42 and applied for a position working with youth at a mental health and addictions treatment facility. At first I thought it absurd to even try, but I could find no job comparable to the one I had left in Michigan. I had minimal qualifications for Recreation Coordinator/Teaching Assistant. Still, it struck me: this may be it, this might be what I promised God to do with my life decades ago…. Though I emotionally resisted it even after I started work, that job got me going in a career that was stimulating, challenging, creative, satisfying. I’d found my calling in service to others alright, to those lost in ways I intimately understood.
But did I really want to do it? I hadn’t once longed to work in counseling services and certainly not with the addicted, homeless, criminal and traumatized. I had had quite enough of all that, I told myself, and the messiness of human struggling, the breathtaking heartbreaks. But, of course, too, the heroics of those who had to choose between grueling emotional work and giving up. I took a leao oif faith.
It has always been a rich if arduous process. I have been allowed to be a witness to many hundreds of tender and tough lives. It was the right thing to engage in a profound give and take between human beings searching for spiritual wholness, emotional health. And God, I have no doubt, was there watching over me and all others, just as is true now. I didn’t ever save one person. But I have to say: I have felt God’s mercy, God’s light moving through me as the young people there and elsewhere (and later, scores of adults) learned how to save themselves bit by bit. If they did not make it, then their valiant attempts still counted for something good in my estimation. Those hearts and souls–what an immense risk taken. What a dangerous thing to dare to have hope. And yet people do it every day, taking a chance on life. On themselves.
If I could have shared anything with those youthful clients of mine, what would it be? I’d have said I undertand some of who you are but even if you do not believe my story, the main thing is to just fight for your freedom–from abuse and from fear, rage and pain, from long shadows of sorrow. The fight is really a smart surrender; it goes far easier if you let love in to walk with you, if you put fists and bitter words down. Anything can be endured in this life if you learn that love is everything, the only thing. You then are never entirely alone; it reveals a path out of the ruinous maze. It will guide you in all work and play and connections.
And some of those kids tool the new ideas into them enough that their whole way of being started to alter. Did it last beyond treatment? I’ve lost many who tried but could not stay alive or avoid old ways. I’ve run into clients who remember and who have gone forward. In most cases, I will never know. But that was not for me to worry over. I could only do what I could do. I have been given the gift of journeying with each, in any case.
Was I actually caring for my own youthful self when I took that job? Perhaps, in part, that is what pople do when they suffer through something–they might help heal others of similar wounds. But at the center of my committment was fulfilling a promise made all those years before in a corner of a terrible place and time. Freedom informed by compassion requires patience and accountability; it is a responsibility. I was still learning how to live well. And it continues. We can never stop trying, will never stop growing when we take chances to break open our minds, hearts and spirits and discover greater possibilites.
This is part of the story of an abused and addicted life. I claim it but there are countless others out there who have lived or still endure these sorts of travails. But it is not the end of my story. Much good came to me incrementally and also in generous amounts. I write about those times and the present peace I enjoy, too.
I bet you wonder about my old co-worker readied for barbed exchanges–the one who nicknamed me “Miss Junior League”. She’s still around, feisty and outspoken and funny. That mane of hair still waves about her like a brazen flag in the breeze as she walks and talks with me. She became and remains one of my closest friends. Thirty years of us learning and living through stuff. Though I retired at 64, she’s ten years younger and continues to work even with health issues and other demands–in a women’s prison treatment program. I continue to admire her insights and courage, her golden soul shared with the unloved, weary and lost. She has become alot softer. I have become much happier. We still butt heads at times, and share hugs and tumbling laughter. As she would say, we’re not amateurs, we’ve got this, all and all–and it’s always worth it no matter what seems to be coming at you.