The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Changing the Pattern

It’s a weekday evening. I’m sitting on top of my bed, sobbing profusely. I just received a beating from mother. What did I do to deserve it? I can’t really remember.

Sometimes I’d get beat if I talked back to Grandma. Other times, for touching something in the house that didn’t belong to me. Or for forgetting to clean out the tub after I’d used it. It really didn’t matter what I’d get beaten for. At the end of some whippings, I’d sit on my bed and say to myself, “When I have kids, I’m never gonna beat them.”

Mother demanded that I take my punishment in dignity and silence, “like a woman,” she would sneer. Any yelping or whimpering from me would cause her to strike again. Beatings were endless, until I choked, literally, to hold down the screams.

You will read this, I’m sure, and conclude that I was a victim of abuse. But at the time, it wasn’t obvious to either mother or me. You see, mother thought children were victims of abuse only if they were sexually molested, beaten into unconsciousness, or abandoned in the streets.

No, to mother I wasn’t being abused. She was simply raising me the best way she knew how.

During my first year in foster care, after tearful nights and weekly sessions with the resident therapist, I was able to acknowledge to myself that I had been abused. However, I wasn’t aware that mother’s abusive patterns were very much alive and growing within me.

In the group home I was known for my hot temper and quick, violent ways of ending disputes. Little mistakes made by the girls would send me flying into a hot rage. I’d cool off only after several doors had been kicked and a few glasses broken. Concerned counselors would pull me aside, but I waved away my actions as just “blowing off steam.”

Last year I visited my grandmother’s house one weekend. (My mother, my aunt Lunette, and my cousin Clyde also lived there.) On this particular weekend, both Auntie Lunette and mother were at work. Grandmother and Clyde were home. After about an hour of chatting and watching television, Grandma stepped away to take a shower, leaving me to tend to young Clyde.

Before leaving, she gave me specific instructions to call for her if Clyde misbehaved. “Don’t give your cousin any trouble, Clyde,” she said, and went off. Well, as soon as Clyde heard water running in the shower, he decided to turn the television from the Thanksgiving parade to the cartoon channel, which Grandma had advised him not to do.

“Yo, Clyde,” I said sternly, “chill with the TV.”

In minutes, a matter as trivial as what TV station to watch evolved into a major dispute, which Clyde ended with the words, “You’re not my mother. I’m not listening to you.”

I felt humiliated. Here I was, 18 years old, being dictated to by someone eight years my junior. I wanted Clyde to listen. I wanted him to obey me. So I did to him what mother had done to me so many times before. I hit him across the face with the back of my hand.

In doing so, I was careful not to cause him too much pain, but enough to make him realize I was serious. He shouted in agony and rushed my legs with punches as hard as his little hands could throw.

“What?!?,” I said, both shocked and angry that this 10-year-old had actually hit me back. In a moment, faster than it takes for a person to think, I grabbed the remote control and swung it at Clyde’s head. Everything happened so quickly. The remote dropped from my hand and my body trembled as I noticed blood streaming from a gash in Clyde’s forehead.

“Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God, I didn’t mean to hit you, Clyde!”

He was screaming at the top of his lungs. Never had I seen so much blood. I tried to subdue his screams and put my hands over his mouth, but Clyde shoved me away and yelled all the louder.

At this point, I was more worried about stopping the blood than keeping him quiet. Wads of red Kleenex tissue were strewn on the floor. In looking at the amount of blood this kid was shedding, I panicked. Clyde might need medical attention. Grandma heard the screams and came running out of the shower, wet and dripping, clad only in a towel.

“Oh my gosh! I leave you with Clyde for one minute and this is what happens?” she cried. She pulled him into the bathroom and was able stop the bleeding. I walked back into Grandma’s room, stared out the window, blankly reflecting on what taken place in a matter of seconds. “My temper,” I said to myself, “I need help.”

Minutes later Grandma came back, freshly clothed, along with Clyde. His face and neck were wiped clean of blood. There was nothing but a small band-aid, smack dab across the center of his forehead.

I could only stand there and look at him. I had wanted him to be afraid of me just so he would obey. And now I had left a scar on him. Grandma split the blame between us—Clyde for not listening and me for hitting him. But there was nothing she could say to rid me of my guilt. At first, I was going to hang around until mother got home from work, but now I decided it wouldn’t be such a good idea.

The train ride from Brooklyn to my group home in lower Manhattan was agonizing. I listened to music in an attempt to forget what happened, but there was no distracting me. Echoes of Clyde’s frightful screams filled my brain. I spread the palms of my hands and stared at them for a while, not quite believing that I had hurt a child, my own cousin no less.

A couple of minutes prior to entering my group home, I looked at my reflection in a car window and checked for any traces of tears. “I’m fine,” I assured myself, choked up though I was. I walked into my floor and the area was bustling with activity, as is normal on a Saturday afternoon.

image by Terrell Perkins

Before I could even duck and hide myself in my room, one of the girls called out, “Hey, you got blood on your shirt.”

That did it. The protective wall I’d built for myself was crumbling fast, and I needed to talk. Barbara, the staff on duty at the time, pulled me to the patio where it was more private. Five cigarettes later, I spilled the beans. I told her everything—how I felt, what I did, and how sincerely sorry I was.

Barbara sympathized with me, but did agree that I was in need of help, professional or otherwise. She also pointed out that my violent tendencies may have stemmed from the abuse I experienced as a child. As I mentioned before, I did accept having been abused by my mother. But until now, I hadn’t accepted or even dealt with being a potential abuser of others.

It was somewhat disturbing to think that I was becoming exactly what I hated in my mother. Part of me wanted to remain in the comfort of denial, but I knew that minimizing the seriousness of the situation would lead to more expressions of violence.

One helpful outlet for me was the self-help book, Anxiety, Phobias and Fear: Taking Charge and Conquering Fear, by Reneau Z. Peurifoy. It was comforting to see that someone had taken the time to write out what I had experienced and what I was feeling.

For example, in the first chapter, “What, Why, and How,” Peurifoy talks about the general anxieties people suffer from and how they are linked to the abuse they experienced as children. I was shocked to find that I possessed many of the traits that characterize someone as having high anxiety—namely, the excessive need for approval, extremely high expectations of self, and an excessive need to be in control.

But the scariest was yet to be found. In the following paragraphs, there was a list of family factors that led to a person having such a “high-anxiety” personality. I suffered from all the factors, including alcoholism in the family and a Rigid Belief System (meaning that your parents set up strict rules for everything, without room for compromise). It was upsetting to see that I experienced more than one “high-anxiety” factor in my family. Most people have a hard time swallowing this kind of information.

While reading this book, I continued to see Ms. Hoffman, the therapist assigned to me at the group home. She was helpful for a time, but I needed to do more than talk about the problem and discuss the possible solutions. I had to apply these solutions to my life and practice them daily.

For example, during the last three weeks of school I had to put in a lot of study time. That meant either staying at the Chelsea Library until closing time or locking myself in my room. I preferred to stay home and study. The problem was, I shared my space with two other girls. So every five minutes or so, I had to get up from my desk to open the door for them, which eventually got annoying.

Rather than telling them to go to hell, I left the door open just a crack to avoid getting up. All was quiet on the Western Front until the girls turned up the volume on the television to watch The Muppet Show.

At this point I could’ve dealt with this situation as I did with Clyde when I didn’t get my way: by yelling at or even hitting the girls. And again, as with Clyde, I was experiencing an “excessive need to be in control.” But unlike the incident with Clyde, I understood why I was angry. So I shoved down the temptation and instead shut the door that sectioned off the hallway from the living room and things quieted down.

In dealing with anger, it is wise to not put yourself in situations that will upset you. I had to admit that if I had turned in my school assignments on time, I wouldn’t have had to rush at the last minute and be an inconvenience to everyone. I had to acknowledge that I had responsibility for my anger.

Another productive outlet was journal writing. I didn’t write entries at the end of the day as some might do, but during those times when the thought of shoving my fist down someone’s throat was most tempting. In a month’s time, not only was I able to analyze my feelings and pinpoint exactly what things would trigger off my fits of anger, but I sharpened my skills as a writer as well.

Even though I have made a sincere effort to curb my anger, it still comes out every now and then. One incident happened last summer when I entered a relationship with a sister (let’s call her Lydia). Even before getting serious about this particular woman, I never thought there would come a time when I’d want to hurt her intentionally if she did something to aggravate me. Well, lo and behold.

It was a Saturday morning at her apartment and I was downstairs by the washing machine sorting out our clothes. There was no one there but me.

Someone yelled my name and I jumped out my skin. I turned around and Lydia was staring at me with a box of detergent in her hands. It wasn’t her intention to frighten me. She had come to tell me that I had forgotten the fabric softener.

Well, I just didn’t see it that way at the time. I was so angry that I raised a bottle and smashed it on the dryer. It was as if I’d been possessed. Once again, I was scared of my reaction. I walked to the window and took a few deep breaths. I turned around to apologize to Lydia and she was gone. “I’m sorry,” I said to the space where she once stood. “I’m sorry.”

I went back to the apartment and she looked at me like I was a total stranger. A few days after the incident, Lydia approached me with great concern. She feared that the next time I exploded, I would do worse—perhaps hit her.

I apologized and assured Lydia that I could never lay a finger on her in malice. But deep down I realized that just as I had not intended to hit Clyde with the remote control months earlier, it had happened. I wasn’t too sure that it wouldn’t happen again, but I felt I had a better chance of dealing with it.

Of course, as with the other situations, there were alternatives to smashing that bottle against the dryer. One is using breathing techniques, one of the many methods Dr. Peurifoy lists at the end of each chapter that have really helped me in dealing with anger and phobias. By the end of Chapter Two, I had learned several methods of breathing that are very effective in calming me in stressful situations.

No matter what form of help you seek in dealing with anger, none will guarantee you an overnight solution. It’s like writing with your left hand your whole life and suddenly deciding to switch to your right.

I still get angry. But there is relief in knowing that I’m doing something about it.

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