While working on two degrees, Psychology and Women and Gender Studies, I spent time both fascinated and disturbed. While I participated in research, excelled in all classes, worked overtime and attended conferences, I was painfully aware of how much some of the subjects and issues studied weren’t just academic – it was personal. I was unnerved by how much my earlier history had propelled me toward these fields and interests. It was at this time I physically felt my brain actually complete its total development – I could sense the final locking of neurons, the synapses at full strength and speed. While I had no problem figuring out my major for school early on, I was unsure my future course of action in a myriad of tempting and interesting possibilities. However, a pattern had been established: helping behavior. I had come to this: there was no greater honor, no higher virtue, than that of serving others. While seeing a psychologist at the Veteran’s Administration hospital, shortly after I had come to this conclusion of thought, I said to him in great joy and satisfaction, “I diagnosed myself! Would you like to hear it?”
This was a development years in the making, but this is only something that’s obvious in retrospect. Years ago, I was one of those street kids everyone is so afraid of. I was homeless because I kept running away as there was abuse at home. There also wasn’t any food, heat, soap or other basic luxuries so what did it matter, I thought. If I went back fights happened, and yelling and screaming. I spent time on friend’s couches and basements, washed my hair in the bathroom at the bus plaza when they opened in the morning and really did try to make it to school – I really did like it and enjoyed things like reading and writing. My father, whom I was close to, said I was the smartest of all his kids. I inherently valued education for some reason. I enjoyed competition and knew school was something at which I was talented. It bothered me my life was so chaotic my classes suffered. But school is a luxury when you’re hiding from the snow so I only made it intermittently and my grades suffered badly. I dropped a lot of acid, smoked a lot of pot, and would rather be drinking than actually addressing my problems. I got raped. I was stealing a lot, often reselling the items to make money. I got caught and went to the Juvenile Detention Center and I couldn’t believe it, how scared I really was. It’s a kind of scary that makes your face hot and the rest of your body cold with a clammy film. They kept me a couple days and took me to Crosswalk, the homeless shelter for teens downtown. I guess they couldn’t find any legal guardians or whatnot – to this day I’m not sure what exactly went on here. At Crosswalk I just remember being so hungry and they fed me and gave me a jacket but you must have permission from a legal guardian to be staying there overnight so it was back on the streets. I also had mental problems from bipolar disorder, something I’d been diagnosed with when I was nine, and if I went to school I fought with others, had crying fits in class, and sometimes just stormed out of class and ignored the teacher asking me where I was going. I cut on myself, tried to kill myself with a bottle of pills and then a razor, got arrested for vandalism and shoplifting again, got released, got arrested for being in possession of alcohol, got released, for possession of drugs, released, being drunk and disorderly, over and over again for many months. I don’t remember much of this period. Mostly, cooling off in holding cells. On a day I made it to school I got called in to see the school social worker. She was asking me about my living situation and that made me really uncomfortable. My adrenaline was pumping; I started crying immediately and asked her to please leave me alone. She told me she had already called Child Protective Services and she knew about the cutting and a Mental Health Professional was coming from Spokane Mental Health. I adamantly refused to talk to the MHP and was taken to Secured Crisis Residential Center, or SCRC. This was a hellish place for me. Then I was moved to Crisis Residential Center (CRC) and I ran away again. I stole a gun from a friend’s parents and intended to shoot myself with it but my friend called the cops and there was a small standoff where I may have pointed the gun at the police in my fear and confusion. This time I was taken to jail and stayed there several weeks, charged with felony minor in possession of a gun, resisting arrest, and possession of a controlled substance (I had a bag of weed on me). Then there was all the truancy, running away, being a pain in the ass on the streets of Spokane, etc.
What changed my life was the miracle of the social worker. On my very first day in jail I was taken to this little office, my left hand was handcuffed to the desk and this lady started talking to me. I was high, and hungry, and cold and crying and a total mess. She asked me where I got the gun and what I wanted to do with it. She asked me if I knew I pointed it toward police. She asked me if I wanted to die, point blank. So I told her everything, everything over the course of years. She gave me a sandwich. I was put on suicide watch and assigned to a public defender who was also working with that social worker. Together, they prepared me for court with the goal of not being branded with a felony. In statements to the judge, the social worker testified that prolonged abuse, homelessness, and untreated mental disorder warranted psychiatric hospitalization, and the lawyer argued past success with singing and academics suggested efforts should be made to keep me from losing all incentive – it would be difficult to find reason for rehabilitation with a felony record before turning eighteen. They both felt my problems stemmed from mental illness and I needed treatment with a stable social environment. The judge agreed, went with the treatment option, and dismissed the charges but there was a price to pay – I was to be taken to an adolescent psychiatric hospital indefinitely and when released, subject to a unique mental health type of probation known as the LRA, or Least Restrictive Alternative – I had to take my meds, see my doctor, the therapist, the social worker, etc. I had several case workers and at the time, didn’t know the extent to which they contributed to my survival and eventual maturation. I spent close to four months in Sacred Heart’s psych unit and was just about to be sent to a long term facility in Tacoma when the treatment team changed course and decided to release me. When I got out, things at home were nowhere near being healed, so I was taken to a group home. I was going to be eighteen in about a year, and began working with more social workers in navigating the system, seeing what resources I had, and preparing for total freedom.
While completing my Psychology degree I used to joke that the major was more therapeutic than actual therapy. This isn’t always a joke though – sometimes it’s really true. The foundation had been set by all these difficult experiences while I was so young – I never stopped being interested in how I could be such a delinquent and then such a scholar. I relished it and wanted to work with teenagers of my own, so I did. I wanted to learn about other bipolar people, so I did. I wanted to learn and meet and treat and help and talk to those people that were there in jail with me, in the hospital, and later in college. I had to, like Brene Brown states in her video, use vulnerability to find my courage. It is so hard talking about these things, and when I do, it’s like taking a real wall apart brick by brick. Each brick is a word.
The “personal is political” is a powerful phrase often used in women’s circles. While all can relate to this, it still feels so significant and powerful to the individual person. Both of my majors were very triggering and I had no idea that was going to happen – never did it become so starkly true than when we talked about asocial families and delinquent teenagers in Attachment and Child Development Theory class, or when sexual violence as a construct of power was discussed in Women’s Studies class, or when I learned through a psychology research project on campus just how strong my attachment disorder really is. I can’t have relationships, I can’t live with people, and I can’t have children, because I’m not mentally and emotionally able. I stayed on my course, I dealt with the triggers and ongoing trauma effects with the VA doctors and when I didn’t make it into a PhD psychology program, in hopes of working with mentally ill and disadvantaged people, I found the next best way- Social Work. I needed to do this, and still do. I need not just a graduate degree, to prove everyone and myself wrong, but I need to do that which is social work. Social work is also a noun, a thing, and work toward and with people – learning about them, helping them. I have come all this way and that still blows me away, surprises me – at the same time I don’t know what else I could have done, what other course I could have taken other than this one. The condition is simple as stated before: no higher virtue or honor other than serving others.
When I went to visit the psychologist at the VA that day, I asked him if he’d like to hear my self-diagnosis. He grinned and said sure. I smiled.
“The Jesus Complex!”