The First Two Years
Being a single mom of five teen girls really shows you what you’re made of. On one hand, I was filled with purpose, a calling. What I was doing mattered in a way nothing else ever had. I was filled with joy and a sense of value. On the other hand, I was in the eye of the tempest. I had to constantly be tuned in to body language and tone of voice, subtle cues that an explosion could erupt, or someone might run away, or harm themselves, or someone else. I had to sleep with one eye open, always alert to sounds and senses.
I cared for 10-15 in those first two years. Some aged out, some reunified with family, and some ran away. I was told by social workers though, that most of them stayed with me longer than other placements before me. I knew it was because of this model. This family-style model that allowed me to hug them and do their hair, to make them feel like I was more than just a paid staff, there to “supervise” them. And they, were more than the “troubled teen” label they had been wearing.
The other thing that happens when you work with traumatized youth is, your own trauma is triggered, and brought to the surface. I wasn’t really prepared for that. It did provide empathy with which to address the needs of my charge, but it also brought uncontrollable tears. Tears that I had to bottle tight, until I could be alone long enough to let it out, then get myself together to show up strong again.
I did this in the forest while my administrative assistant supervised the house through the week. I would go to a local forest park and run. I would run until I couldn’t anymore and at some point, plant my face in a mossy tree and sob until I had nothing left. I did this every week. It wasn’t just about my own “stuff”; it was also about secondary trauma that comes from loving these kids. And then there’s the stress of trying to do so, in a state-run system. I’ve heard many state workers say, “We’re (the state) lousy at raising kids”. Yes, you are. So, speak for yourself.
Back then I wasn’t good at setting boundaries with my employer. I really should have had more time off. I was just in it, so I accepted my 48 hours off every other week…. For two years. Over time, however, I began to break down and knew I had to leave.
As this point, most of the five had been with me for some time and were quite attached, especially “P” and “Q”. Those two would fight over who got to sit next to me on the couch and would compete for my attention frequently. Trying to come up with a way to tell them was excruciating. But I was so overwhelmed by the work, and my own newly-surfaced trauma, I knew it was what I had to do.
I don’t remember the exact words I used, but I do remember what happened next. P and Q got into a physical fight. Q blamed P for driving me away, and J defended herself. I got between them to break up the fight, then P rushed out the door and ran away. Q ran upstairs and slammed the bathroom door. After calling out the door in a failed attempt to turn P around, I went to check on Q. I found her, sitting on the toilet, right arm extended, razor in the left. I will never forget the desperation on her face as she looked up at me through teary eyes, and blood flowed from her fresh cuts down to the floor.
What do you say after a story like that? Oh, there’s plenty. In fact, there’s so much it needs to be continued on another blog……. or 20. Otherwise, I’m just writing a book.