Monday, July 26, 2010

Keeping The Lifeboat Afloat

Moving this to my new home here, originally posted on my thoughts.com blog on 05/18/2010:
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This is my longest blog post ever, folks, so you might want to grab a cup of coffee. ;)

Normally I don’t come here and speak very specifically about any of the young people I meet and help out. That is because, as much as I would like to “show them off” or brag about how great they’re doing, many of them don’t like their stories to be shared publicly. So, I have made a sort of personal policy of not talking too much about them as individuals.

Today I am going to make an exception to that unwritten rule, because what I have on my hands here is an exceptional situation. The young lady I am going to tell you about is in dire need of help and support, much more than I can personally provide. I feel the need to share her story so that perhaps others will feel compassion and come to her aid along with me. I am being very straightforward in acknowledging that this is being posted here as a plea for help. Anyone who knows me or reads my posts will know that this is an unusual thing for me to do, but as I said before, the circumstances at hand are beyond the norm even for me (and I see a lot). All of that being said, because of the very personal nature of many things I will tell you about, I will probably delete this post after a period of time.

We’ll call her “Ti” (not her real name).

I first met Ti last Christmas, at a function that I put together for homeless or needy young people on Christmas Day (if you like, you can go through my previous blog posts to read all about that event). Since then I have been getting to know her, and her story becomes more and more heartbreaking as it is revealed in bits and pieces over time. To be honest, I might have thought she was exaggerating many things if I had not seen so much evidence to support her story. Not that I’ve asked her for such evidence, mind you. It’s just that every time I turn around it seems there is something – some document, some photo, a travel bag with airplane tags still on it, an overheard conversation with a relative, a comment from her son – that drives home the fact that the sad and frightening events of her life really did happen. Most of us, I think, would have collapsed under the weight of just a small portion of what Ti has endured.

Ti grew up in a family riddled with problems: poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse and sexual abuse, just to name a few. Her father is a violent alcoholic and her mother is a cocaine-addicted prostitute. From the ages of two to twelve she was sexually abused by a friend of her father’s. At twelve she rebuffed the advances of her abuser, only to begin acting out and become sexually active with boys – a predictable pattern of behavior for which she still harbors guilt, although she was only a child. Living with only her father at the time, as her mother was absent and in the depths of her addiction (her mother actually abandoned her as an infant and left he with her father, but did visit occasionally, during which times she taught young Ti to steal for her and also tried to sell Ti’s body for drugs), she was punished for her behavior by being thrown out of the home on a routine basis. At times she would turn to the care of her grandmother, and even after her grandmother was placed in a nursing home, the staff there would still allow Ti to come and stay with her when necessary. After her grandmother passed away, she began sleeping in a local park when her father would put her out. Try and really imagine that for a moment – she was sleeping in the park at twelve years old.

At the young age of fourteen, Ti became pregnant. Again, a foreseeable event considering her background combined with a lack of parental involvement. She gave birth to her son just after turning fifteen. On the day her son was born, her mother, who had recently re-appeared in her life, dropped her off at the hospital and went to get high. She never returned. Ti gave birth alone, without a parent or even a “labor coach” to hold her hand.

Deciding that she did not want her son exposed to the home life she’d endured, she ran away. From fifteen to sixteen she lived in various homeless shelters and transitional living facilities, and at sixteen she married in order to become emancipated, as she wanted desperately to detach herself from her troubled family. Predictably, this did not go well. Although legally emancipated, it proved difficult to leave the relationship and move into an apartment of her own due to her age. At eighteen, she left her husband and joined the army in hopes of providing a decent life for her son.

The military seemed a perfect option, a way to establish a stable life for herself and her son. However, someone needed to care for her son while she was at boot camp. Ti chose, against her better judgment but in a bind, to leave her son with relatives of her father who offered to take the boy in. After a period of time, though, rumors and rumblings began to reach Ti, word that her son was not being cared for. Although she was sending her entire military paycheck to the relatives caring for her son, the money was not being used for that purpose. Her son was being neglected, even going without shoes, while the family was partying and shopping the money away. Child Protective Services had even been contacted. Ti was given an honorable discharge and left the army.

Eighteen years old and now an adult in every legal sense, Ti decided that she did not wish to return to Phoenix and live in the same city as her family. Distance from them all seemed to be the best answer in her mind. And so she decided to build a life in Georgia, somewhere completely new to her and where she could start fresh with her son.

In Georgia, with money she’d saved from her last army paycheck, Ti was able to get an apartment and a job, and I believe she actually began to feel hope for herself. She was still a very young woman who lacked the benefit of any real parenting in her upbringing, though, and did not possess the life skills she needed to make healthy choices and to thrive in the adult world. She most certainly underestimated the costs of raising a child all alone, and she was ill-prepared to handle things like finances and parenting and most of the day-to-day “curve balls” that life throws at us all. She fell behind rather quickly, and her world became very shaky – a scary feeling for a young mom with no support system at all.

Ti was just the type who attracted people who want to use and manipulate. She joined a church in Georgia, one that to me sounds very cult-like. They controlled her through fear and intimidation, insisted that she get rid of her son’s toys (for instance, everything Disney was from the devil), and pushed her heavily to “tithe”, draining her of any surplus resources that might have made it possible for her to get ahead in life. Naturally, they were less involved and enthusiastic when it came time to return the favors, and she found that she could not turn to the church for help when she had needs. Fortunately she had the backbone to pull herself away from these people. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, though, as the old saying goes.

She met a man, of course. Those of us who are older and wiser would have been able to see what was coming, but she didn’t possess the sort of wisdom that comes from years of living, nor did she have a parent or a mentor to give her advice. This man wanted to date her, and he “seemed nice”. He stepped up and helped pay the bills, provided things she needed for herself and her son, and ultimately created a situation of dependency.

Ti was not completely na├»ve, especially since she’d been through so much already at her young age. She recognized that this relationship was problematic, even if she couldn’t quite articulate why; she simply knew this was not good. So, she began to pull away somewhat. She tried to stand on her own two feet, even tried to hide any problems or past-due bills from this man, not wanting him to step in and pay them (because he’d started to make it clear that she “owed him” now). Feeling entitled to his position of near “ownership” in her life, this pull-back made the man uncomfortable and he, of course, became more controlling and manipulative. When she could not pay her electric bill on time and he found out her lights were shut off, he insisted that she bring her son and stay with him. She reluctantly agreed, feeling that she would be an irresponsible mother if she did not take her son to the “better” environment. She also told herself that it would only be temporary, until she had received a couple of paychecks and she could pay her own utility bill. Naturally this man in her life was not going to pay the bill this time, because he now had what he ultimately wanted – Ti was in his home and living under his control.

The man, predictably, began to show a violent side, and he beat Ti when she argued with him. She was his now, he said, and he raped her repeatedly. Within a few weeks she discovered she was pregnant. Ti does not believe in abortion, which is what the man wanted. After an all-night-long argument wherein he intermittently beat her, held her with a gun, and demanded that she marry him, he finally gave her one last beating and threw her out of the house. Barefoot and tired, she walked three miles in the dark night of rural Georgia with her son until they found a place to sleep. In the daylight, they managed to find a ride back to her own apartment. She gathered some things, sold other belongings for quick cash, and just gave up and headed back to Phoenix.

In the Fall of 2009 she was back in Phoenix, back in the presence of the family she’d tried to escape. Like vampires, began immediately to try and find any ways in which they could use Ti for their own benefit. I fell comfortable in saying this because I have seen them in action with my own two eyes (it boggles the mind, really). They wanted her food stamps, they wanted her car, and they wanted her to “take care of” her mother, who was now beginning to pay the physical toll for her years of substance abuse.

To the extent that she could help it (she didn’t have the coping skills to entirely avoid their manipulation), she stood her ground and tried to take care of herself and her son. She got a job and an apartment. However, she was soon hospitalized for an extended period of time due to complications with her pregnancy. She lost her job, and while searching unsuccessfully for a new one, she began having to rely on charity organizations to pay her rent.

And this is the point in the story where I met Ti. On Christmas Eve, 2009, she called me after I’d place and ad on Craigslist inviting young people to my Christmas dinner (again, refer to my previous blog posts if you want to know about this). She had nothing for her son – no Christmas tree, no gifts, no special dinner – and she was concerned that he was now old enough at age five to feel the deprivation. She was in tears. I told her to come, not to worry, that Christmas for her son would be taken care of and he’d have a wonderful day. And he did. Thus began a relationship between myself and Ti that would overtake my life for the next five months. One that I do not regret, I must add, just to be clear.

Ti had a problematic pregnancy, and there was absolutely no way she could handle things alone. She couldn’t take care of her son by herself, yet she was afraid to have anyone find this out for fear that authorities would take him away. She had difficulty getting to and from doctor’s appointments, doing grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning. Reaching out to different charity organizations for help was a full-time job, especially in this economy where everyone else is also floundering and in need. Many organizations were simply tapped out on resources, others wanted endless interviews and referrals and hoops to be jumped through. Not that I blame them, mind you, but it was simply more than Ti could do. This became particularly difficult when she began to go into pre-term labor. A very common reply from charities was, “You must be willing and able to work in order to qualify for our program. Contact us again after the baby is born.” Others were more open to helping, but they needed her to set an appointment and appear in person. At this point, Ti was in and out of the hospital sometimes as frequently as three times in a single day (they’d get her contractions under control and send her home). Her longest hospital stay was about a week, but it was all spent battling contractions. Making and keeping appointments was simply impossible. I know this – I was there. I was the one trying to make all these phone calls and make arrangements for her, in-between holding her hand and saying “Breathe, breathe…”

At one point some charities were willing to meet with her in the hospital, but how does one interview a person whose only two states of mind are either “screaming” or “asleep from the meds”? Let alone the issue of having to provide requested documentation. And all the time, the clock was ticking on all of her personal matters. Her car insurance had expired and her license plates were suspended, her world crumbled, and she was evicted from her apartment. She had – quite literally – nothing and no one.

I began to spend all my time on Ti and with Ti. I was her support and her labor coach while in the hospital (at one time they were so convinced that the baby was coming that they gave steroid shots for the under-developed lungs, but fortunately labor stopped just in time to prevent a high-risk premie), and I was also taking care of her son outside the hospital, as well as arranging sitters for him when I couldn’t be home. I got him to and from school, washed his clothes, talked to his teacher about his homework, took him to the park (because, as you can imagine, he needed to release stress as well), and sent him to the movies with my college kids. “How To Train Your Dragon” made his day.

I was the contact person for all the resources we were trying to tap. I was running Ti’s errands, filling her prescriptions, trying to negotiate with her apartment managers, etc. When it became clear that eviction could not be avoided, myself and two friends moved her belongings out of her apartment and stored them in my late grandmother’s still-empty home (thank God that was available). I was exhausted and sleep-deprived, as the crisis state was non-stop. Sometimes I did not come home for days at a time; I slept in hospital chairs and even on the grass for a few minutes here and there out in front of the hospital, when I just needed air. I was also going broke because I gave my shifts away and wasn’t working. I was neglecting my own family and catching hell for it. Due to my own distraction, our water was even turned off (it’s back on now – don’t worry). I am not a wealthy person, just a single mom who usually lives pretty much paycheck-to-paycheck, and my own household was definitely suffering.

A tremendous amount of energy also went into fending off Ti’s parasitic family. While she was in the hospital, they would be – I kid you not – trying to get into her apartment to get the food out of the cupboards. They’d be calling her cell phone asking, “Why can’t we have your food? You’re in the hospital and they feed you there. Why can’t we have your food stamps? You don’t need them!” The calls were non-stop, twenty-four hours a day. They wanted her car, since she wasn’t using it. I found it noteworthy that her own mother could not find the time to spend ten minutes in the hospital holding her own daughter’s hand (she never appeared once for just a visit), yet she could be there in ten minutes to pick up Ti’s debit card and “borrow” her last twenty dollars. At least when I wasn’t there to put a stop to such nonsense, anyway. Finally, I consulted with the nurses and took away her cell phone (with her permission), and we unplugged the hospital room phone. All calls had to be directed to the nurse’s station, and from her family they only took messages. No, they would not go get her (yes, that was requested!), and a nurse was kept hovering nearby any time Mommy Dearest would make an appearance to cause trouble. Even still, Ti had to be medicated in order to rest, because her anxiety level was out of control as she worried about what her family might be stealing from her and her son while she was incapacitated.

Now please, dearest reader, do not think that I never reached out for help myself. Don’t have the impression that I have some sort of hero complex and believed I could actually do this all alone, nor that I didn’t realize it was irresponsible for me to neglect my own family’s needs. I held no delusions about the fact that I was in over my head, that I had given all I had to give and more. I asked. And I asked and asked and asked. I posted things on my Facebook page, I posted ads on Craigslist, I put the word out at the church where I work. I reached out and came back empty. I started, I will admit, to feel bitter and resentful. Where was the community? Where were all the people who, in theory, should “have my back” when I needed them? I don’t often ask – actually, I never ask, so I assumed that when I did ask, they’d rally around. Nope. This was not the end scene of “It’s A Wonderful Life”. I swear I could hear the crickets chirping in the silence that was my answer. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t mad.

Here is how it felt to me: Imagine that you’re floating down a river in a small boat, and you see someone drowning. Someone heavy, to heavy for you alone to pull into your boat. You reach out to them and grab their arm, but this pulls your boat down a bit, and water begins to seep in. At first you aren’t concerned, though. Other boats are cruising by, and you use your free arm to wave for help. As soon as you catch someone’s attention, you think, help will be on the way. But that’s not what happens. The other boats slow down or even stop, but no one is interested in being inconvenienced by your drowning person. As a matter of fact, as they float on past, they point out to you that your own boat is filling with more and more water, and they tell you that you should really let go before this person pulls you in with them. What are you to do? Let go and let them drown? Really? Besides, while it will be a huge setback if your own boat sinks, you know how to swim and you can get another boat later. You know you can recover from this, but your drowning person can’t. So, you take a deep breath and hold on, ready to go into the water if necessary. And all the other boaters float by and roll their eyes at you, telling you that you’re crazy for letting this person pull you down. After all, it’s really not your problem. It’s unclear whether they really don’t understand or just don’t care that this person really will drown if you let go. And so you do what you think is right and you take the criticism.

But I digress.

Ultimately I did not end up entirely alone in helping Ti. A friend of mine since childhood stepped in to share the burden. She’s a married woman, so she had to get the approval of her husband, but once she did so they moved Ti into their son’s room while he was at college. My friend also helped find a family that was willing to take Ti’s son into their home for the duration of his mother’s pregnancy. I was able to breathe a small but cautious sigh of relief. At least some relief. My friend suffered some consequences of her own as her family began to resent the very pregnant, moaning, floor-pacing woman in their home (my friend was beginning to feel the criticism, too). They were polite enough, but there was always the risk that they’d throw in the towel, so I continued to be the one to take the late night phone calls, run her to the emergency room when she’d start contracting, talk to doctors, fend off family, and all sorts of other various chores. Thankfully, my friend’s family held their patience until the end. Again, thank God.

Ti’s baby girl was born on Mother’s Day, healthy and weighing in at 7 lbs., 12 oz. It was almost funny how it worked out to be the final, climactic irritation for my own family as I spent Mother’s Day in the hospital with Ti rather than with my own kids. But what was I to do? Leave her there alone like her mother did when she was 15? No, my kids agreed begrudgingly, that would not be right. It didn’t change the attitude that was reflected in their faces, though. They will get over it.

The much-appreciated cooperation of Ti’s doctor and a hospital social worker kept her hospitalized for as long as possible while my friend and I found a place for her to go. My friend’s son came home from college for the summer, so his room was no longer available, and as much as I’d be happy to take her into my home, I have no place for someone with children. As of just a few days ago, Ti is living in a transitional living facility that opened their doors to her, so she now has a roof over her head and a safe place for herself and her children, at least for the time being.

And so it is time for re-building. I don’t even know if the “re” should be attached there, since Ti’s life was never really built in the first place. She began her existence in an unstable crisis mode and has been simply surviving ever since, truth be told. So, perhaps it would be better to say that now is the time for building. She’s still young – only 20 – and still has lots of years ahead of her to live a healthy and peaceful life with her children. But that can only happen if she’s able to build a solid foundation right now, and if she isn’t thrust right back out into those rushing waters from where she was pulled.

I have no intention of abandoning Ti now. However, I am literally tapped out. I am, for all intents and purposes, now the one in the water (as everyone predicted). But I am older, wiser, and more experienced in life, so I will have the strength to pull myself out. When it comes to helping Ti build her life, though, at the moment I’m not able to do much, and time is of the essence.

Many resources are now available to Ti that were inaccessible while she was pregnant. She can now honestly say that she’s willing and able to work, for instance, so some charity organizations will talk to her. She wants to take a CNA class and get her certification so that she can work as a certified nursing assistant, and I believe I will be able to hook that up with Tumbleweed Youth Development. It’s an eight-week class, and then she’ll be ready to job hunt in that field. She has food stamps, too, so both food and temporary housing are taken care of for now.

All that being said, there are still a lot of cracks to fall between. Her son has outgrown his shoes, her car still has suspended plates, and the place where she lives has no phone (so she can’t let the cell get turned off). There are resources for these kinds of needs, but they don’t necessarily work quickly. Even since she’s gotten moved into her temporary housing, I’ve had to drive her to WIC appointments and DES appointments, do her grocery shopping (she would have just borrowed my car and done it herself, but I have a broken seatbelt and can’t accommodate a baby car seat), and take her out to my late grandmother’s home to retrieve some of her clothing and possessions. These sorts of things have taken up the last week, leaving her no time to go visit and apply at any charities. She needs to do that, but the days are flying by fast, and she has needs that don’t wait. As much help as there is out there in the world of social work and programs, this young lady is not going to get ahead utilizing only those. She needs us, at least temporarily, if she is to succeed.

So, my purpose in writing this long, drawn-out story is to reach out to you, the community, one more time. If you are local here in Phoenix, we are trying to gather things such as diapers, shoes for her son, nursing bras and nursing pads, and even clothes for Ti (she doesn’t yet fit back into her pre-pregnancy clothes, but I think she will soon, so she doesn’t need a lot). There are no laundry facilities where she lives, so we are asking for pre-paid cards for Laundromats near the Sunnyslope area if possible. Obviously, though, the big elephant in the room is cash. We need to raise some funds to help get this young lady on her feet in a real way, and to help me be able to keep helping her. We will be holding an online rummage sale to raise funds, and any of you can request info on that from me, or I will post about it when it’s ready. We are doing it online because I already have a booth where I sell things online, so that was the most convenient place to set up a quick sale without having to procure a parking lot someplace. Phoenix locals do not need to pay shipping for items sold in this sale, by the way; a shipping price will be listed, but send me a message telling me what you want and you can come pick it up.

A note: It’s actually taken me days to write this, so the sale may be ready as soon as this evening.

And with that, folks, I will end this long blog post. Your coffee is probably cold now, anyway. Thank you for reading, and please contact me if you feel you can help.

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