FCYU127 cover image See all stories from issue #127, Winter 2017

Unexpected Emotions
Getting an apartment didn’t end the pain

I had a lot of trouble finding a place to live after I aged out. I got an Exception to Policy (ETP) that kept me in a foster home past my 22nd birthday. It wasn’t a happy home, and I felt ready to leave foster care and live on my own. So when I heard I had been placed in a supportive living apartment in a brand-new building, I felt a huge sense of relief, like a tow truck had been lifted from my shoulders.

For the first time, I actually had the key to the place I lived. I had no curfew; I could go out without anyone in the home asking me where I’d been. I had a roommate, but I did not have to conform to anybody’s rules. I paid about $200 a month for rent, which is way less than the average apartment in New York City. Besides the apartment, I was also assigned a social worker to help me with things like applying for benefits and finding a job. I felt lucky.

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But when I moved into the new apartment, I quickly realized I was not prepared for independent living, emotionally or practically. The transition had been abrupt. I hadn’t heard from social workers who had promised to call. I got a genuine hug and a little gift from my socio-therapist, but then nothing. I got $100 and my first month’s rent from my foster care agency, and that was it.

I started feeling anxious almost as soon as I unpacked my things. I looked back at my time in foster care and realized I was still holding wounds from those years. That hurt didn’t go away just because I aged out. From the safety of my own home, I started to mourn everything I’d gone through and to realize that it was up to me alone now to heal and move forward.

I felt especially bad about the last two years. I’d lived with a foster mom who got more money because I took medication for depression. She let me stay an extra year in foster care, but for a therapeutic foster parent, she had a strange attitude toward emotional difficulties.

If I got angry, she’d say, “I’m going to call 911,” or even, “I’m going to call the agency and get you discharged to a shelter.” That made me feel like a dangerous, unwanted animal. Why couldn’t she have just let me vent and asked me “What’s wrong?” I felt like nobody could ever accept me or be close to me.

Anger Exploding

Since I was 3, I have expressed my anger in outbursts with yelling and temper tantrums, and I still struggle with controlling those. I have noticed that I erupt when I feel I’m not being listened to—which happened a lot in foster care.

I grew up without my mother and was raised in Baltimore by an aunt and uncle I called my parents. As a small child, I got upset over little things, and it got worse with puberty.

I felt like an outcast in middle school. Kids picked on me, and I would spend hours in the girls’ bathroom crying, hating myself. I told the guidance counselor “I want to die, there is nothing to live for.” The school told my parents to get me a psych evaluation.

I ended up in the child/adolescent unit of a psychiatric hospital for about two weeks. They prescribed Prozac, an antidepressant, and Risperdal, an antipsychotic. That was the beginning of six years of pills.

If I told my psychiatrist about an outburst in school, they would simply increase the dosage of whatever drug I was prescribed. There was a medication for every emotion, it seemed. I was diagnosed with one type of bipolar disorder, the impulsive part of ADD, paranoia from schizophrenia, and some mood disorders, all before the age of 16.

My outbursts helped me get my feelings out and I felt better afterwards. I didn’t understand why everyone else made such a big deal out of them. I felt like my emotions were misunderstood and no one could relate to them. I felt like a black sheep.

When I started seeing my first therapist, in the 7th grade, I did not say much. Sometimes my mom was in the room, but even when she wasn’t, I held a lot back. My mom had warned me about telling too much: “What happens in this house stays in this house,” she said.

image by YC-Art Dept

It wasn’t a hostile place to live, but there was tension between me and my mom. This usually consisted of yelling, but a few times it got physical. I was not going to tell my therapist that.

Still, she did help me by treating me like a person, not a patient. She took me on trips on weekends. We went to museums and workshops; I even went to Six Flags with her grandchildren. She remained my therapist up until I left Baltimore.

I fought a lot during high school and was suspended several times. The last time, I was thrown out of school only three months before graduation.

Abandoned in New York City

I didn’t think the fight was my fault, but even my family believed the school over me. I felt betrayed. And then the people who raised me, my parents, took me to New York City and simply left me there. We were visiting someone, and they said they’d be right back. Instead, they drove back to Baltimore without telling me. Of all the painful things I’d been through in the previous six years, that was the worst.

I had to find my own way into foster care in New York City. My parents told me later that they were too old to deal with my difficult behavior. I was heartbroken and alone in a new city living with strangers.

My first foster mother was nice, but she didn’t speak much English. My five months living in her home was not easy. I was a lost 17-year-old with a Baltimore accent living with a Dominican family in the Bronx.

Then I moved in with a foster mother who had a disease called lupus. Because she was sick, I did not mind doing the dishes and cleaning the bathroom and the bedroom I shared with three of her birth children.

I did mind her verbal and emotional abuse. When she was mad at me, for missing curfew or having an outburst, she said things like, “At the end of the day, your social workers go home. They do not care about you. This is my house, I pay the rent here and if you do not like it, then transfer to a home where I guarantee they would treat you like sh-t.”

She did not give me the money I was supposed to receive each month. Meanwhile she was going on vacations and buying her birth children nice things. She did not go to any of my therapist appointments as requested.

My frustration was building up, and one day it boiled over. She woke me up early to take her kids to school and told me to leave because she wanted the house to herself and her boyfriend. I was exhausted; I had just started college classes in the evenings, plus I was working.

I lost it and screamed and cursed at her. In terms of effects, it was one of my worst outbursts. After she kicked me out, I had nowhere to go and was homeless for a week. Then the agency found my next (and last) foster home, with the therapeutic foster parent who didn’t like my depression or my anger.

What’s in My Control?

In that last foster home, I agonized over how much control I did have over my behavior. Could I have stopped myself from spazzing out, or did my mental illness control me? I had been angry and upset so many times in that last home, but I had never AWOLed. I had a bad attitude, but I still listened to my foster mom and followed her rules. I was not going to put myself in a shelter. So I wasn’t completely out of control, though my fuse was short. And the fuse was shorter by the time I moved out.

image by YC-Art Dept

The last thing my foster mother said to me before I moved into supportive housing was to get back on medication. “You don’t want to get crazy and end up in the hospital,” she warned me.

There’s a lot I don’t like about being on medication, starting with the side effects: drowsiness, weight gain, paranoia, shakiness. I slept over 12 hours a day on some medications and felt mentally slower.

I really don’t like taking the stuff, but I cannot control all of my emotions, and it got worse after I aged out. At age 22 and finally in my own place, I became scared to go outside my new apartment. I had a therapist that I was comfortable with, and I told her more than I’d told any other therapist. Even with her, though, my anxiety grew. I became more isolated, paranoid, and depressed. I cried uncontrollably on the train. I got in several screaming fights with my roommate.

I knew I needed help. I did not want to be in the hospital or even jail because of my behavior. I realized that my anxiety and depression were keeping me from my goals of supporting myself and going to college to study computers. I knew I needed to change that or else I would get nowhere.

Lacking Real-World Skills

At the same time that I was wrestling with these feelings, I also realized there was a lot I didn’t know about functioning in the adult world. I’m a full-time student looking for a job and now I have to pay for rent, my own food, my own clothes, everything.

Nobody had taught me how to go to the welfare office, how to find a doctor, how to pay bills.

I realized that I was depressed, and that was causing anxiety and paranoia. On top of that I ended up feeling alone. To succeed at the practical parts of survival and to heal from the wounds I suffered in foster care, I had to get back on medication.

Turning a Corner

Two months ago, I started taking Welbutrin XL, a mild anti-depressant. I had tried it in the past and liked that it didn’t have side effects. I feel a difference already. Instead of being triggered by small things, I feel at ease. The panic attacks have stopped. I do not regret my decision to go back on the meds.

My mentality has changed for the better. I appreciate my supportive housing more than I did at first. I pay cheap rent, and I get referred to services like help with Medicaid, job leads, and public assistance. I’ve accepted it’s not always easy for me to get along with new people, so I’m looking for work I can do by myself, like computer programming or cleaning.

I kept missing appointments, so I decided I needed a paper wall calendar. Yes, my phone has a calendar function, but my phone is a distraction: 10 minutes can turn into two hours on my phone. Ever since I put up my calendar on my bedroom wall, making my appointments became more manageable.

I also realized that changing the way I react to things changes people’s response to me. I initially thought that public assistance was the worst thing to deal with and the social workers were rude. But then I tried being more polite with them. I told them, “I’m in school. I want to work and do better for my life.”

If I’m positive, often I receive positive feedback. I remind myself that there are reasons people do offensive things that I know nothing about. I feel more in control, and haven’t had an outburst for several months.

I recently got a summer job, and I’m in my second semester of college. I’m communicating better with my roommate—no yelling. I draw and go to the gym to keep myself busy and energized, and I’m taking computer classes once a week at a new program for people who’ve been in foster care. I’m making these changes because I have to; if I mess up as an adult, I will go to jail.

I keep myself busy and working as a way to cope with aging out of foster care. I am aware that it is not easy for me to forgive and forget, so I try to turn my pain into a learning experience. By sharing my story, I hope to help other young adults going through the struggles of aging out of care.

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