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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Medication Didn’t Solve My Sadness
J.G.
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Things first went wrong in middle school. Going from a small elementary school where I knew everyone to a bigger school setting where I didn’t know anybody was a struggle. It suddenly mattered that I didn’t have name-brand clothes. In the 6th grade, the other kids called me a lesbian, which made me an automatic outsider. People cracked jokes about me as I walked down the halls.

I came home from school crying every day, feeling worthless and like life was not worth living. I hated myself for not having friends. It seemed so easy for others. I had always gotten good grades, but they started to fall that year. I began to cry during class, mainly because of loneliness. I would walk down the hall by myself as my classmates joked around and had fun. It sucked being the shy girl people barely knew.

One day I couldn’t stop crying in class and I went to the counselor’s office. I sat in the chair with my head bowed down crying and oozing snot; when the counselor talked to me, I didn’t lift my head. My parents came and talked to the counselor and principal. Then they took me to Sheppard Pratt, a psychiatric hospital in Baltimore.

Misdiagnosed

The doctor there asked if I had ever killed an animal. I said I collected ants, then performed weird executions on them like a mad female scientist. I guess it was strange for a girl my age to do that. I thought the evaluation was going well, but then the doctor spoke to my mom privately, and the next thing I knew, I was on the stretcher headed to the inpatient unit. I later found out that that doctor diagnosed me with psychosis.

I spent two weeks in the children’s section of the hospital. When I got out, I was taking Prozac, which treats depression, and Risperdal, a powerful antipsychotic for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I had a therapist to talk to and a psychiatrist to prescribe the drugs. I believe I was depressed, but I don’t think I had schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

I was assigned psychiatrists who came and went until I finally met Dr. Cooper, who stayed my doctor from the 8th grade until February of my senior year. At the first appointment I said that I could not pay attention and that I was impulsive and easily hurt. She diagnosed me with ADD and started prescribing Adderall. As I went into high school, the prescriptions kept piling up: Abilify, Prozac, Ritalin, Zoloft, Wellbutrin XL, Cymbalta, Seroquel, Risperdal, and lithium are the ones I remember taking. (It was strange to be “on drugs” in high school when I didn’t drink or smoke cigarettes or weed.)

Fitting In

Coming into Franklin High School, I wanted badly not to be different. I wanted good friends like everybody else. I started my freshman year taking general education classes, but I still had the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that special ed students get. During my freshman year all my classes were general ed, but my IEP accommodations allowed me extra test-taking time and to speak with the crisis counselor if I needed to.

If you had an IEP in general ed classes and didn’t say anything about needing the extra help, you were still part of the general population. If you took any classes in the small “special ed” room across the hall from the gym, you were outside of the general population. Any signs that you were different meant your high school years would not be so good. But it was either take IEP classes or get held back a grade, so I ended up in the small room across from the gym. Sure enough, high school wasn’t great.

I struggled academically. I worried about what other people thought of me, about my hair, my clothes, how I presented myself, where I fit in—not black enough for the black kids, but not part of the white kids’ group either. I was self-conscious, and it distracted me from my schoolwork. My family told me not to worry about it, that I’d never see those people again after I graduated, but it was hard to stop worrying.

When I felt out of control I blamed myself. I hated myself for having to take medication, but I had to admit that on the medication, I had fewer outbursts and could focus better on my homework. It helped me zoom out from the negative thoughts.

Up until 11th grade, my mom handed me my pills every morning, but then she said I was old enough to take them myself. Sometimes I felt suicidal, and then she went back to being in charge of my meds. Sometimes I forgot to take them. I felt erratic when I was on and off the drugs, but it was hard for me to take them at the same time every day.

image by YC-Art Dept

I felt less tired when I wasn’t taking the pills every day. The side effects interfered with my life. I could not play on the lacrosse team, for example, when I had to take a four-hour nap after school because of my high dose of Abilify.

And even on the medication, I was not always in control. When I was teased, I did not take it lightly. My temper was short and uncontrollable at times. Sometimes I would scream profanity at the top of my lungs, then storm out of the classroom and slam the door loudly. When the depression kicked in, I would go to the bathroom stall and cry my eyes out.

I hated myself for not being strong enough. I hated feeling vulnerable, and not fitting in. My outbursts only pushed my peers further away, and I began to count the days until I could be out of high school.

Drastic Change

I finally made it to senior year, and I was so hype I was graduating. I got my prom dress catalog, took my senior portrait for the class of 2011, passed all my state tests, and applied to a college a 10-minute drive from my house. I even had a medium-sized circle of acquaintances and didn’t feel quite so lonely.

Then it all changed drastically. One day I was feeling distraught, and I threw a textbook at my friend Mimi and started cussing at her. She was ready to fight, but her boyfriend held her back.

Then I was escorted to the crisis counselor’s office where I waited for my mother to come to the school. I had been suspended for fighting more times than I can remember, so I was hanging from a thread at the school. A few days later I got the news: I could not go back on school grounds and would have to be home-schooled for almost two months.

When I went back to school after those two months, I only took the three classes I needed to graduate, to minimize my contact with Mimi. But it wasn’t enough distance; we would see each other and I would catch serious attitude. I never said anything to her, but she must have been feeling vengeful: She told the principal that I wanted to fight her. It wasn’t true, but I was expelled and couldn’t go back.

Throwing that book changed my whole life. I wish I could go back and not do that. I am still bewildered by the turn my life took then.

The people I called my parents were actually my aunt and uncle. My birth mom, who lived in New York, couldn’t take care of me. After I got expelled, my parents drove me to New York to visit, I thought, my birth mom Row Row, who I had not seen since I was 13. My aunt and I walked into the assisted-living facility where my mom lived, then she and my uncle drove off without saying goodbye. I thought they would come back, but they never did.

I’m not sure why they did that. Maybe they wanted to avoid my getting upset. They always said that they “were getting older.” They were in their mid-50s and I was the last child they raised. They had two older children, my brother and sister, who had already moved out. I was getting to the age that my outbursts could lead to jail or a mental institution. So they left me in New York at age 17. I felt like I lost my family because I couldn’t control myself.

Succeeding Despite the Sadness

My aunt and uncle had been my family since I was 3. That’s when my mother, addicted to drugs, had them take me to Baltimore to raise me. When I’d misbehave, my aunt said I was crying out for my birth mother, but living with my mom in her facility was not an option. After they left me in New York, I was put into foster care with a Dominican woman from the Bronx. I wondered why this Spanish lady took me in with all my problems.

image by YC-Art Dept

I was taking five different pills at this point, and my family and even my new doctors said, “You’re taking a lot of medication!” I did not ask for my medication to be reduced but I was glad when my doctors said they were going to: I was always sleepy. So they reduced my prescriptions down to only Wellbutrin XL and Abilify.

These two medications helped, and at first I took them consistently. My first foster mother got me enrolled in a high school near her home. Though my time there was rocky and my foster home turbulent, I was able to graduate in 2012.

My first year in care I did not keep in contact with my family from Baltimore much. I did not want to bother them with my problems; I felt like I’d put them through enough. When they did call, I would say, “Everything is great!” and then cry after they hung up. It was hard to accept I’d lost my family and was in foster care.

Even though my mother and I are both in New York City, she doesn’t call me and ask to get together. To see her, I have to do the arranging. She asks me for money for cigarettes when I go to her facility to visit.

Things like this aren’t going to be fixed by medication—they make me sad because they’re painful.

I try not to dwell on the hard parts of my life—not Baltimore, not my time in foster care, not my family or the woman who birthed me. For a while I was so bitter and asked myself, “What is wrong with me? Why me?”

But lately, I’ve tried to change my attitude. Instead of, “Nobody loves me; nobody would care if I was gone,” now it’s, “I’m an adult, and adults are busy and have their own lives.” The people I went to high school with in Baltimore and the Bronx moved on with their lives, but I still give them a “like” on Instagram. I’d rather feel happy for people than hate myself because I don’t have what they have.

I aged out of care but got an extension that let me stay in my foster home; I’m looking for housing now. At 21, I don’t suffer from self-consciousness the way I did as a teenager. Now I’m dressing the way I want, and talking to whomever I feel like.

Looking for the Beauty

The world is a pretty messed-up place, but there is also beauty in it. There’s racism, but there’s also a black astronaut, Guion Bluford, and there’s 18-year-old Gabrielle Turnquest. Last year, she became the youngest person to ever pass the British bar exam, the test you take to become a lawyer. She’s a black American girl.

I’ve been through some hard things, but I’m not as messed up as I thought I was, and I’m not a bad person. I’ve held four different jobs, so I know I can work. I’ve taken some college classes; I want to return to college and study sociology.

I would say I still have depression, but I’m trying to handle it without medication. With the help of a therapist, I can mostly control my moods without drugs. I feel lonely and it’s hard to connect with people sometimes, but I don’t cry all the time anymore. I’m able to control my anger and not have outbursts partly because I don’t want to go to jail, have a record, and not be able to get a job. I have more control over the bad thoughts than I used to, and that helps keep me stable without medication.



Worried You’re Taking Too Many Pills?

Foster youth are often overprescribed psychotropic drugs (drugs that affect your mood and can have powerful side effects). Recent investigations found that many kids were prescribed four or five different medications, including antipsychotics, sometimes just to control their behavior. Many foster youth complain about side effects like weight gain and feeling like a zombie and often aren’t listened to. Because of reports by journalists and government agencies, foster care agencies have been ordered to monitor prescribing and make sure foster youth aren’t overmedicated.

On the other hand, sometimes antidepressants or other psychotropic drugs DO help you feel better, particularly if you’re doing talk therapy at the same time. The important thing is to pay attention to how you feel. If you believe you are being prescribed drugs you don’t need and that make you feel worse, tell your doctor to change your medication or the amount you are taking. But do NOT just stop taking them; this can result in bad effects including withdrawal symptoms and seizures. Wean slowly from any medication, with your doctor’s help.

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(FCYU-2018-07-22)

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