Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Taken Away

I remember the last time CPS took me away from my mother.  The times before the last time were before my ability to form memories or the memories blend together so much that I can’t really decipher what happened when.  The last time was traumatic so it remains clear in my mind.  The last time I was removed, I was 8 years old.  We were living in a house in a bad part of town.  A giant saguaro cactus stood in the front yard.  There was a family of wood peckers that lived in a hole near the top of one of the arms of the cactus.  I used to spend a lot of time outside watching the mother bird fly in and out of their little home in the saguaro.  I called them my little cactus family and she was the little cactus mommy.

A police car pulled into the driveway and immediately my siblings and I started running around aimlessly, panicking.  "The police are here!  Momma, the police are here!"  We knew what this meant.  The police men were going to put us in their car and take us away.  I was going to jail.  I had done something wrong or I was bad and now we were all going to jail.  This is what I thought.  Even though it happened over and over again, I always thought I was going to jail.  Foster care was my prison.  It probably didn't help that every single time we heard a siren my mother would tell me they were coming to get me.  "Uh oh, they are coming to get you,” she would say while chuckling.  It was a joke to her, but my heart would go crazy.  It was never funny or a joke to me because sometimes they did come get me and take me away.

We did not have any furniture in the one bedroom house we were living in at the time, only an old sofa in the living room, and a mattress in the bedroom where my siblings and I slept.  Despite the lack of furnishings, the house was filthy.  Our mother never cleaned.  The carpet was caked in dirt, food, animal droppings, and little bits of crack my mother had dropped.  There was trash everywhere.  There was only one closet in the house.  It was my closet.  It was where I spent a great deal of time "thinking about what I did."  This closet was in the bedroom, in the back of the house but I could still hear my mother and siblings when I was in there.  They always seemed to have a good time together when I was in the closet.  Maybe it just seemed this way to me because everything was better out of the closet.  I used to think that maybe the reason my mother was so unhappy was because I made her that way.  She would be so much happier without me.  She told me this often, but she didn't have to.  Just hearing her laugh with my siblings when I was locked away was enough.

The police knocked on the door.  My mother was passed out on the sofa, crashing after coming down off of crack cocaine.  “Momma, the police are here,” I said while feverishly shaking her."  She didn't budge.  They knocked on the door again.  I nearly had a heart attack.  "Everyone be quiet, maybe they will think nobody is home," I whispered to my siblings.  The police officers knocked again and my brother began to cry.  "Who is it?" I asked. "We are police officers.  Is your mommy home?" They said.  "She's sleeping.  Can you come back later?"  The police officers called me by my name and asked me to open the door.  "It's okay sweetheart, can you please open the door for us?"  The fact that they knew my name sent me into a severe panic attack.  I could barely breathe and my head was spinning.  I gathered my siblings, helped them climb out the back window and we ran into the desert.  Our mother had shown us the route to take to get to our aunts house in case of this very situation.  Our aunt’s house was pretty far away and in my panic I had forgotten which way to go. 

We were running barefooted through the hot Arizona desert for what seemed like hours but I‘m sure it was only minutes.  Lost and scared, we stopped and sat underneath a large Palo Verde tree.  I thought our mother would come get us, but she never did.  Four police officers eventually found us.  As they approached us, I was trying to think of what to do.  "Run!" I shouted at my siblings and we scattered.  We all began to run, but we weren't much of a challenge for three adult men and an adult woman.  They caught my siblings right away.  "It's okay.  We're not going to hurt you.  It's okay" They kept saying.  They were lying.  I screamed as one of the officers lunged at me and grabbed my arm.  I got free and took off.  I ran like I had never ran before.  I was running for my life.  I was a very fast kid.  The desert ended and now I was running on the sidewalk leaving bright red footprints on the grey cement.  There were a million foreign objects invading the bottoms of my feet, but I didn't even notice.  I didn’t feel anything.  I rounded the corner and continued running.  A police officer stopped his car a little in front of me, jumped out and caught me.  I was small for an eight year old and he lifted me pretty easily.  He hugged me to his body as I began to scream.  "Let me go.  Let me go!!"  I kicked and screamed and then began to sob.  "I don't want to go to jail."  "You're not going to jail, honey, your mommy is."  Those words were meant to make me feel better but they made me feel worse.  I didn't want my mom to go to jail either.

The officer put me in the back of his car and then drove me to a DCFS building where I met a woman named Susie.  Susie was my case worker.  She was extremely nice to me.  When she met me, I was filthy, bleeding, and covered in bruises but she hugged me anyway.  "I know you're scared sweetheart, but you're safe now, I promise."  If only that promise were true.  I sat on the floor in her office for a few hours.  There were chairs and toys but I chose to lie on the floor and try to fall asleep.  I guess I felt that sleep would make it all go away.  Eventually she drove me to my foster home.  I was going to be staying with a woman named Mickey.  I expected her house to be full of Disney characters but it wasn't.  When I arrived, my sister was already there.  I was relieved to see her and rushed to her.  No one told me where my siblings were and I began to look for my brothers, but they weren’t there.  They were at a different home.

My case worker and Mickey chatted for a while before my case worker left me.  My sister and I played with a toy piano at their feet.  As soon as my case worker left, Mickey took me into the bathroom.  She ran a bath and told me to get undressed.  "I don't want to."  My legs began to tremble.  She only wanted to give me a bath, but I didn't know what was going to happen.  "Don't be silly, we need to get you cleaned up and get those bugs out of your hair."  "I have bugs in my hair?!"  I began to panic and sift through my hair looking for bugs.  My dark golden blond hair was gray from dust and dirt.  My face was also gray from the dirt except for tear streaks down my cheeks.   "Your sister had them too, it's okay, I have a special shampoo to kill them."  I still refused to get undressed so she began to undress me and I began to cry.  "Please, I don't want to."  I said.  "You'll feel much better when you are clean.  Look, I got you some new clothes.”  She held the shirt up for me to see.   “Look, the shirt has kitties on it.  Do you like kitties?"  Through my tears, I sniffled, "yes."  As she undressed me, Mickey examined my body and wrote things down on a paper.  This made me even more nervous.  She explained to me that she was just taking inventory of my wounds and bruises.  “I just have to write down wherever I see a bruise.  Where did you get all these bruises kiddo?”  I said nothing.  Mickey was very gentle with me, and I remember how good the hot water felt on my feet, but I could not relax enough to enjoy it.  She washed my hair and pulled the green comb through it to get ride of the lice.  She wiped my face with a pink wash cloth and said, "You're such a pretty girl when your face is clean.”  I sat in the tub, staring at the bubbles in the dirty water.  "It's okay honey.  There is no reason to be scared."  Why did people keep telling me that?  I had every reason to be scared.  When the bath was over she wrapped me in a towel and lifted me out of the tub.  She dried me off and then let me get dressed on my own.  When she left, I cried some more.  I sat on the bathroom floor and stared at my new clothes, a pair of shorts, and a shirt with a cat on it.  I did like the shirt but putting in on felt strange.  It felt wrong.  Why was this lady giving me new clothes?   A few moments later, Mickey knocked on the door and told me to come to dinner.

I came out of the bathroom and nervously walked to the kitchen table.  “Have a seat,” my foster mother told me.  I was starving but I didn’t eat.  I just sat at the table and stared at my food.  After dinner it was bed time.  Mickey tucked my sister and me in, and read us a story.  She turned off the lights and said “Goodnight.”  When the lights were out I looked around.  Everything was strange.  I wasn’t used to sleeping in a bed by myself.  I asked my sister if she wanted to sleep with me and she came over to my bed.  She cuddled against me and fell asleep.  I took comfort in the little breathing noises she made while sleeping.  Later that night my stomach was killing me.  I was starving.  I tiptoed out of the room and into the kitchen.  I grabbed leftovers from the fridge and took it into the bedroom where I ate it.  I ate so much that I got sick and vomited.  I was scared that I would get in trouble so I threw away the plastic food containers, cleaned up as best I could with toilet paper and then covered the rest with my pillow.  I eventually fell asleep despite my determination not to.  When I woke up the next morning Mickey wanted to talk to me.  “You don't have to sneak food in this house.  If you’re ever hungry just let me know and I’ll get you something to eat, okay?”   I looked at my feet but didn’t respond.  I was so ashamed.  I only stayed with Mickey for a few weeks.  Eventually my sister moved to a different foster home and I was sent to a childrens' shelter until a more permanent foster home could be found for me. 

Mickey did everything right for me.  She was gentle, sweet, and caring, but not ever child who enters foster care is as lucky as I was in this home.  Being taken away from your parents is extremely traumatic, no matter how it’s done or how abusive your parents are.  It didn’t matter how nice Mickey was to me.  I was terrified because my connections in life had been taken away.  

Connection is the basis for all human life.  All human beings need connection to survive and thrive.  From the day we are born we are programmed to connect with other people.  Our very survival depends on it.  If an infant doesn’t connect with other human beings, it will die.  That child will fail to thrive.  Vulnerability and tenderness are vital from the day we are born.

When CPS “saved my life” they also severed my connections.  They should have found new connections for me, connections that would allow me to grow into a healthy adult, but they didn’t.  Instead of connections they bounced me from placement to placement.  I only had disconnections.  Sadly, my story isn’t unusual.  While my number of placements is a bit unusually high, you have to take into account how many placements were temporary foster homes and children’s shelters.  Those placements were only meant to last a month or two.  If you take all those placements away my numbers drop down considerably.  Only ten of my foster families were potential adoptive families.   I had ten chances at connection but never got it because by the time those chances came into my life I was too old, too damaged, and unwilling to take risks with my heart.  My purpose in life became solely to protect myself.  Foster parents were not worth the risk.

In order to feel love and belonging, a person needs connection.  Without it, he or she will not have a sense of worthiness as adults.  They will not feel worthy of love or success in life.  He or she will not be able to be vulnerable or be able to accept themselves and what life throws at them.  Their lives will be filled with fear and shame.  They will not be willing to take risks with their heart. They will not be able to take risk in any area of their lives.   They will try to numb themselves in order to survive.  A person cannot numb hurtful feelings without numbing the pleasurable feelings too.  When we numb the pleasurable feelings, we are left needing to find purpose and happiness in life.  Life feels unworthy.  Life isn’t worth the struggle without the happiness.  We can't find happiness without connection.  It's a vicious cycle. 

How do we find connections for foster children?  How do we make sure they don’t lose their ability to connect with people and grow into healthy adults?  I wish I had the answer to that.  I don’t.  I don’t know what needs to happen in foster care.  All I know is that what happened to me should not happen to children and it continues to happen today.  Foster children are used and abused before foster care AND while in foster care.  For too many children, trauma continues and gets worse in foster care.  While in foster care I experienced every kind of abuse possible but it was worse than with my mother.  My mother abused me, but she was my mother.   I was connected to her.  She was a constant in my life and constantly abusive.  In foster care I never knew what to expect and I didn't have any connections.  I didn't have tenderness.  I didn't have love.  I never felt connected.  Instead I felt suspicious, scared, and shameful.  I never knew when I would be moving again.  I never knew if my foster parents would get angry at me and then get rid of me.  As much as I say that I didn’t ever connect with my foster parents, it’s not entirely true.  The reality is that I put in a lot of effort NOT to care about my foster parents because I knew it would hurt later, but no matter how hard I tried, I always felt a little bit attached to them.  I always wanted to stay with them.  I wanted them to want to keep me.  I ALWAYS wanted them to love me.  I just wanted them to tell me they loved me first.  I wanted them to risk loving me first.  I wanted to be sure it would be safe to love them and I wanted them to prove this to me.  I wanted them to show me that they would love me and keep me no matter what, and no matter how hard and stubborn I acted, it always hurt when they didn’t.  It still hurts that they didn't.

Sometimes I feel like I’m not a whole person because part of me died a long time ago.  I’m hoping that that something is just broken because I’m ready to fix it.  I’m ready to start living my life.  Twenty-something years is enough suffering.  I’m ready to move on.   How do I let myself feel with my whole heart again?  How do I learn to love without fear?  How do learn to be vulnerable again?  How do I let go of all my shame and torment?  How do I learn to accept who I am and where I’ve been, and allow myself to feel the feelings associated with those things and move on?  How do I make myself believe that just being me is enough?  How do I make myself believe that I am worthy of love and connection?  Is this even possible for me or am I too damaged to ever live a normal productive life?