Note: This column was republished with permission from Represent Magazine: The Voice of Youth in Foster Care
It all started when I said something stupid in school. A girl was ignoring me, and I got mad and said, “F-ck this sh-t. I’m gonna do some Virginia Tech sh-t.” I only said it so the girl would pay attention to me. But I shocked all my classmates and teachers, and the school said I’d made a “terrorist threat.”
I was in the 9th grade, and I had recently moved out of an abusive situation with my mom and into a foster home I knew nothing about. I needed someone to listen so I could get my feelings out. But there was no one I could really trust.
My caseworker came to my foster mom’s house and told me that he would take me to KFC and then to a “nice place to get help.” I thought, “OK, that sounds cool. I get my favorite food and I go to a center to feel better.”
The next stop we made was a psychiatric hospital for kids. We went through door after door, and it dawned on me that every door had a lock. Once the door shut you couldn’t open it. The doors locked you in. They intended to keep me here. That realization gave me a panic attack. I started running and the security tackled me. I was forcibly dragged in.
What Was I Signing?
When I got inside, the kids peeked out of their rooms to see who was coming. I was so scared I thought I would pee on myself. I had never been to a place like this. When I entered a dayroom, a place where the kids hang out, they slowly introduced themselves. I shook my head in fright. I wasn’t like these kids. Some were twitching and others drooled. I kept to myself and didn’t speak a word to anyone.
I felt forced into signing a bunch of papers. I didn’t realize I was signing consent to take medication.
The first things they prescribed were Depakote and Risperdal. I didn’t get a say in what I wanted, and that made me feel powerless.
At the hospital, staff joked about it in a perverse way. “Hey kids, come and get your happy pills!” “Come right up for your Skittles, it makes the world a better place!” I was disgusted that the staff were making light of my situation. I wondered how they’d feel if they were forced to take pills in a lockdown facility.
The meds made me feel bad. Sometimes I over-ate, ate too little, or had trouble sleeping. I hated the fake smile the nurses gave me after I took my medication.
I didn’t want to talk to anyone, especially my therapist, because I believed that my depressing stories about my mom’s abuse might make the doctors prescribe more medication.
I was afraid if I kept taking medication I would be just like every kid in the hospital. I wanted to be the kid who stood out, the kid who didn’t take medication. There were kids already looking up to me but I wanted them to think, “Wow, Anthony doesn’t take medication. I want to follow his lead.”
I tried hiding the pills in my hand. I learned how to put pills deep in my throat and spit them out later. It worked for a while but then one pill got stuck there. The staff helped get it out. After that they checked me carefully.
Another way I avoided pills was simply putting them under my tongue. I would hide them in a soap bar box until my roommate saw it and told the nurse. Then I was forced to take liquid medication, which was disgusting.
The Depakote was supposed to make me feel “calmer” and “happy.” Instead I gained over 30 pounds, and that brought my self-esteem down. I felt fat and I wasn’t comfortable with myself. Some of the kids and even staff called me names like fat ass or b-tch tits. I went off on one staff once because he said, “I know the perfect birthday present for you—a training bra!”
I really wanted to do well, and I tried to behave and present myself in a mature manner. But it didn’t seem to make a difference. And the uncontrollable and unpredictable behavior around me started to affect me.
The one and only time I truly flipped out, though, was when the whole unit tried to jump me. “Yo, let’s f-ck up this p-ssy n-gga Anthony,” said one kid. Suddenly everyone turned to me grinning sinisterly, like they’d just found their new target.
“Nah, come on guys, let’s play some board games or something,” I suggested.
“You ain’t gonna get out this, b-tch,” said a fat kid with squinty eyes. “You think you Mr. Goody Two Shoes. We gonna straighten you out.”
I ended up getting chased down by 12 guys. One person caught me and then they stomped me out. I thought I would beg for them to leave me alone, but suddenly I felt myself becoming so enraged that I no longer felt the pain. I got up and screamed, “LEAVE ME ALONE!!!”
I was surprised at my sudden outburst, but most of the guys just laughed. Then everything turned red and my surroundings became a blur. I didn’t gain full consciousness until I was near the dayroom area. I noticed some of the guys holding their lip or arm. “Did I do this?” was the only thought that came to mind.
I was shocked that I’d stood up to them, much less beaten them up. A weird feeling came over me then. I wondered for the first time in the hospital if I was losing my sanity and just becoming one of maybe thousands of nut jobs who end up staying in hospitals.
Suppressing My Feelings
But most of the time I was quick to disengage and try to find ways to occupy myself when I saw these kinds of incidents starting. I tried reading, writing, talking with a staff I could trust, or daydreaming. These were ways to block out any negativity that surrounded me. Although these strategies were very helpful, I was still suppressing my feelings because there were overwhelming situations I wasn’t familiar with and didn’t know how to deal with emotionally.
While I was in the hospital, I saw two people commit suicide, including my roommate. They said I was “further traumatized” by that and put me in a state hospital, which was even more restrictive.
Looking at it now, I can see that the suicides did really impact me. However, I felt outpatient therapy (therapy where you see your therapist but you’re not confined to a psychiatric unit) could’ve been more effective. I didn’t see how living in the state hospital was going to help. I just wanted to be back in the community where I’d be able to interact more freely, go out, and feel more like a normal kid.
I was glad to leave the first hospital, but this was no better. I wanted to get off medication completely. Some doctors finally decided I was stable enough to behave without meds. They started to take me off a little at a time. I was happy to be off the medication, but if I messed up or acted out one bit, like by cursing, I was back on it.
For example, once a staff ticked me off by yelling at me for not doing my laundry. I cursed at him because he kept pressuring me. The doctors and staff said the fact that I cursed meant I was too unstable to stay off medication. But wouldn’t anyone curse if they felt pressured or nervous that a staff he hardly knew started yelling at him?
I had seen some staff do terrible, abusive things to the kids, like getting them to fight each other in exchange for Chinese food (a special treat). Of course I was on edge around some of the staff. The doctors didn’t know that, though.
Can’t We Talk About This?
I felt trapped. Some doctors said, “Well, Anthony, it’s possible to get off medication, but will it benefit you in the long run?” What were they trying to say? That I couldn’t function properly without the use of a drug?
I didn’t question it further because the mental health system had trained my brain to think that meds were my solution to everything. If I felt angry the doctor would say, “Maybe it’s time for Abilify, a drug that stabilizes your mood swings.” If I felt anxious the doctor would try to prescribe Zoloft, a pill that helps with some types of anxiety. I thought, “Have you guys ever heard of talking your feelings out? NOT EVERYTHING CAN BE SOLVED WITH THE USE OF A DRUG!”
I was receiving therapy at the time, and I felt it helped more than the meds. I had a really good therapist, and it was such a physical release to be able to express my feelings. I’m sure the meds did improve my moods somewhat; I was less likely to curse and talk back. But what helped the most was having a direct connection with a trusted adult like I got in therapy.
I sat down one day and wrote how I felt the pills were helping me—pros—and how they weren’t—the cons. I wanted time to reflect on where I was going in life, to feel some control. The cons on my list—the physical side effects, and the depressing feeling I got from taking meds—outnumbered the pros. I wasn’t going to tell the doctor that everything I was taking was all right with me. It wasn’t and I had to put a stop to it.
I was tired of taking meds and then being taken off just to get back on again. No one even gave me a real explanation. Their excuse was usually, “We’re putting you back on because we feel you could be in a more stable condition.” Being on and off meds made me really jumpy. My eyes would twitch sometimes.
I also felt mentally tired because I’d been on drugs for over a year and I wasn’t getting better. I was constantly sleeping and I couldn’t focus. Emotionally, I was tired of the need to even be on meds in the first place.
I believed that in order for me to be better I had to be exposed to the community because then I could feel how a teenage life is supposed to be. To me this meant a cell phone so I could communicate with friends, my own room, decent curfews, a real home, and to be around my family. It wasn’t pills I needed; it was the chance to feel like a normal teenager after years of abuse and being institutionalized.
Love Is the Best Medicine
After eight months at the second hospital, I was sent to a group home at a Residential Treatment Facility (RTF), where I continued to take medication. I began to wonder when I would ever get back in the community. I had just started going on visits with my aunt and I had decided that I would like to go live there. I just wanted to stay somewhere permanently and feel cared for. Thinking about all this moving made me as depressed as when I first came into the hospital.
Finally, they let me go live at my aunt’s house. I think the reason why the RTF agreed to it was because I kept advocating for myself. I felt excited and at peace. I felt that I had achieved the impossible and that I deserved to be with my aunt and my family who would love me for me, instead of living with the institution’s idea of “support.” I had worked two and a half years to get to this point. I would not let it go to waste.
Alone in my room at my aunt’s house, I thought quietly. I looked to the left. There was no nurse ready to give me a cup full of meds. I looked to my right. There was no doctor trying to switch my meds or giving me higher doses. It dawned on me then. There were obviously rules and expectations, but ultimately I could make my own decisions now. I didn’t have to continue the medication. So I made an appointment with the doctor and said, “I no longer feel like I need medication.”
The doctor seemed a little concerned that I was in a rush. She said, “Anthony, you’re a very bright kid, but are you sure that you want to get off? I want you to perform at your highest and do well.” I told her I was sure of my choice and that I wouldn’t regret it. And I don’t.
The Community Transformed Me
Now that I don’t take medication I feel a lot happier, more powerful, and in control. Yeah, I had to get adjusted to living back in Brooklyn, but I adapted quickly. It felt good to see my neighborhood friends and the employees I always talked to at the Burger King across the street. I never ever felt this happy when I was on medication. I always felt drugged or out of it. I’m not always happy, but when I do feel bad I talk my feelings out with people I trust, and I write. Writing allows me to get overwhelming or negative things off my mind onto paper.
Being in the community is what I’ve always wanted. Now I have a sense of freedom. I go to regular school, I have easy access to friends, and I socialize on my time. I’m not on someone else’s schedule and I don’t have to be cooped up inside all day feeling anxious. The community has transformed me.
I no longer have to rely on medication to solve my problems. When I became frustrated because I felt my aunt wasn’t supporting me enough, I decided to go to my cousin to get advice on how to handle the situation. He helped me calm down and analyze why I felt my aunt wasn’t supportive and talked through steps to reaching out to her.
Another time I felt my caseworker wasn’t doing what he had to do to help me get a state ID. I was just about to go off, but I quickly realized that bugging out would not solve anything. I wrote about how I felt, and my feelings became more stable and calm.
I knew I didn’t need staff to help me with every little problem. By taking steps to avoid conflicts myself, I came to believe even more strongly that living with my aunt was the right choice. I’m not saying I wasn’t able to cope in a positive way when I was on medication, but I feel more confident knowing that I’m approaching situations in a mature manner.
I think if a kid has enough support, it reduces the need for medication. Medication, especially psychotropic medication, should really only be used if the kid is unstable and shows that he can’t handle simple situations. If kids had more mentors or staff or adults of any kind who could take the time to listen and help them, I believe a lot of kids wouldn’t need so much medication.
Kids in foster care should be entitled to many support systems that could help them better themselves—not just medication.