I worked with kids in foster care in Chicago, for an agency that provided additional advocacy and support services to foster kids who had slipped or were in danger of slipping, through the cracks, something that happened more often than you would think. I mean, foster kids could get “lost” for months, even years. DCFS caseworkers with obscenely high numbers of kids in their caseloads were not always informed about weekend emergency moves or crisis situations that occurred. Or they didn’t have time to read all the memos they got. I don’t know, but sometimes a kid would get moved to another home or institution and the case manager who was responsible for knowing that information simply didn’t. Not unusual.
The kids in my caseload were generally those having the most difficulty, those most at risk. They tended to have been in the system the longest and had the least chance of ever finding a permanent home. They were the kids with the least hope. Marlene was one such child. At the time, she was 12 years old. She had been removed from her home of origin when she was a toddler, and since that time had been in 12-15 foster homes. Her caseworker had lost count. When she was younger, the placements had lasted longer. Months, maybe even a year before she was moved to another home. Now she was lucky if she lasted weeks. See, Marlene was a runner. She had been abused and neglected as an infant and toddler, and so was taken from her mother and placed with her grandmother, who didn’t treat her any better than her mother had. From there it was a succession of foster homes and none of the foster parents really wanted her either. At least not enough. Marlene wasn’t easy to bond with. She didn’t trust anyone, which with her history was appropriate, so she would just keep to herself. Unfortunately, real life is not an after-school special. Foster parents want kids who adjust, who fit in. They don’t usually have the time or the inclination to put extra energy into a child.
Marlene was tough in other ways too. She wasn’t a particularly attractive child, she didn’t smile, and there was evidence she had a developmental disability, although her caseworker had never had her tested. And then there was the running away, which started when Marlene was about six or seven. She would just walk out the door, find a bus or train stop, get on and then just ride until someone noticed her and called the police, usually hours later.
By the time Marlene was 12, she knew the city of Chicago like the back of her hand, and she liked the el trains best. Sometimes she rode all night long. Back and forth, back and forth. She had nowhere to go. Her family did not keep in touch with her, and she never felt wanted at any of her previous foster homes. So she ran. From the pain, the indifference, the knowledge that she had no home, that there was no place she belonged. It seemed the swaying of the trains calmed her for a while. But she always ended up being taken back, although sometimes the foster parents just refused to accept her back and would just throw all of Marlene’s meager possessions in a garbage bag and hand it to her caseworker.
Marlene continued this ritual for as long as I knew her. She had no choice. She was searching for something but lacked the capacity to understand that before you can truly escape, you must have a place to escape to. No such place existed for Marlene, but the compulsion to go, to leave the pain behind, even for a few hours, was too strong for her to resist. We are all like Marlene sometimes. We may not run away in the sense that we permanently abandon the place we call home, but we flee nonetheless. We flee pain, grief, anger, shame, failure, anything we find difficult to deal with. We may drink or do drugs to numb ourselves. Or perhaps we just compartmentalize, refusing to let those difficult feelings rise to the surface, denying the need to talk about them or even acknowledge they exist. We keep secrets, so many secrets, all of them rooted in shame. And we tell ourselves this is a good way to cope. We lie to ourselves, pretending that this avoidance is actually a legitimate resolution. But locked up feelings always find a way out, don’t they? It could be the way you explode when someone cuts you off in traffic, or when your child misbehaves. The sarcasm you direct at your co-workers or family. The emotional eating at two in the morning. The glass of wine that turns into an empty bottle. The sadness or anxiety you feel without an obvious cause.
A therapist once told me that bottled anger eventually comes out sideways, not always recognizable as to origin. When my marriage was breaking up, the first sign of trouble wasn’t a discussion about the relationship. It was my husband’s constant complaining about my housekeeping or lack of cooking skills. What he really wanted to say was that he didn’t love me anymore, but he didn’t know how to open a discussion that painful, so he criticized my fried chicken instead. I knew he was angry, and I knew it wasn’t the chicken, but I didn’t know what it actually was that was happening. His avoidance of pain left me in the dark and consigned both of us to extra months of suffering. And the irony is that he wasn’t actually avoiding the pain. It was just masquerading as anger.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that, unlike a 12-year-old abandoned child, we have a choice as to how we handle our pain. We don’t have to stay on that train forever, because ultimately it takes us nowhere. We don’t escape our pain because it boards the train with us. We feel like we’re moving, but we never arrive. And we won’t escape until we decide where we want to go and figure out how to get there.
Setting forth on a journey to a new destination takes courage. You have to look both outward at the reality and origin of your pain, and inward at your reluctance to actually feel that pain. And the truth is, facing your pain doesn’t necessarily make it go away. Some pain you can only learn to live with. But you can also use your pain as a growth tool, a road to increased self-knowledge and perhaps wisdom. And you will better know yourself, which is one of the most freeing experiences you can have.
Years after I had encountered and tried to help Marlene, I saw her in an area frequented by sex workers. She was standing on a corner with a couple of other girls, and she didn’t recognize me as I walked past. I noticed that her forearms bore the scars of recent cutting, and it seemed obvious that Marlene had not yet found a way to cope with her pain.
You don’t have to be like Marlene.