Shawn: My Story


I have suffered from severe anxiety for as long as I can remember, with clinical depression diagnosed at twelve. My parents divorced when I was seven and, although my mother tried her hardest, we were poverty stricken. I worried all the time and was plagued with stomachaches, shyness, insomnia, anorexia, and terrible self-esteem. In junior high I was the epitome of stereotypical “gothic.” I wore dark clothes, adorned my eyes with thick black lines, wore spike collars and fell in love with Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson. People at school called me freak, slut, weird. All I wanted was to fit in; my new image shielded me from their cruelty. I used drugs to aid my depression and anxiety. By spring I was severely ill with intense panic attacks, hallucinations and night terrors. I had a hard time focusing in school; the images on my teachers’ overhead projector would melt, or the numbers would bounce all over the screen. I often came home and locked myself upstairs, rocking back in forth, pulling at my hair and sobbing. My mom took me to see a child psychiatrist who prescribed the antidepressant. My medication made me feel unnaturally happy. I agreed that I shouldn’t feel “high” but it was so much better than the anxiety and depression. The side effects began to take hold quickly: I couldn’t sleep and my weight dropped to around 80 pounds. I hallucinated that I was flying. Shadows turned to rainbows. Rooms became illuminated with light the color of paradise, colors the human eye shouldn’t see. I thought the rapture was occurring. This same day I was put into a child psych ward.

After this, my mother placed me into foster care. Within three months I was in two homes. The parents of the first were convinced I was a devil worshipper and kept me in my room except for school. The only home available was a militant Residential Treatment Home for emotionally disturbed children. Our day consisted of school and chores with a seven o’clock bedtime and one hour for homework and showers. I was miserable, in one of the darkest stages of my depression. Because I was recently released from the mental hospital I was put on a dangerous cocktail of 12 different antipsychotics, sedatives, and antidepressants. It sedated me so much I could no longer cry. I had uncontrollable drooling, my skin broke out, and my hair became brittle. I gained a lot of weight and could no longer look in the mirror or articulate my thoughts. My caseworker and counselor wouldn’t listen when I pleaded to be taken off the medication. After a few months of mass sedation, oppression, loneliness and loss of self, I decided to take my own life. I felt like a ghost and I just wanted to fall asleep forever. When a school counselor expressed how worried he was, I told him everything: my experience with foster care, the disgusting amount of medication I was forced to take, my suicide attempt, my misery and lack of motivation to live. He intervened and arranged for me to move into a foster home in Kalkaska with a real family. I was able to stay there on respite, and I slept; I dreamed I could live there and be happy. My dream came true. I became part of the Steffe family and through my foster mother, in her home that was filled with love, peace and nurturing, I began to feel better. I stayed there for nearly a year and began to recover. She took me off my medication and I exercised. She protected and loved me and I helped take care of her children. We lived in the woods surrounded by beauty. I attended a small school and was immediately accepted by my peers. I made a lot of friends who I am still in contact with today. I made affirmations of what and who I wanted to be as I grew into adulthood. I learned a lot from Laura’s example; she inspired me to want to help others. I returned to my Mother’s during my sophomore year of High School.

After a year and a half I slipped into another manic episode. I went to a mental hospital in Kalamazoo and ended up back with the Steffes. My eighteenth birthday was fast approaching and I had a lot to be worried about: I was aging out of foster care before the end of my senior year, facing homelessness. I moved in with new foster parents who were nice, but young and inexperienced. I was put on antidepressants again and had the most intense manic episode yet. It came on quickly. I was devastated and fought it with all I had. After three days of full fledged mania, I got all my hair chopped off into a pixie, got two new piercings and made over 20 pieces of art. I was petrified of going to the hospital. I lit candles and prayed but was committed to Center One. This was the first time I stayed in an adult mental hospital; I had only been eighteen for three months. After a month I was released, with medication that actually worked, but I had no home to go to. I moved in with my friend Hannah. It was not the best home and there were terrible things happening around me but it was a place to stay until I could finish my school year.

One night there was a knock on the door, and when I opened it there was a beautiful man; his eyes were a strange color, an unworldly color of green. He smiled warmly at me and asked if my roommate Eric was around. He came over more frequently to play guitar with Eric; I stayed in a basement wine cellar and lay on my bed listening to him play above. One day I drew a picture and wrote a small sentence informing him of my feelings for him. He asked me out to coffee. He had a peaceful presence and I felt safe with him. The end of my senior year, Hannah moved out. I felt awkward living there and had to move back in with my mother. I applied to be on the Section 8 housing list but there was a two-year wait. I had received a tattoo apprenticeship during this time, and I think that brought me to another step of recovery. I wanted to be a tattoo artist since I was a teen and to meet that goal at eighteen made me feel like life might be okay. I had few options for living arrangements. It wasn’t until I was completely desperate that I told Daniel about my situation. He offered me a place to stay. We have been together for three years and are now engaged.

The major turning point was when I began speaking on the behalf of foster youth. It was only to a small group of social workers, but it was exhilarating. I realized I had just voiced something important: I had advocated to change the foster care system. I became involved with the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative and did more public speaking around the state. I stumbled upon an ad for an internship with FosterClub, a national foster youth advocacy group. I applied, just for fun and because it seemed cool. I didn’t expect to get it. After a month I received a call saying I made the finals. I was so excited. After two weeks I got another call saying I made it and that I would be moving out to Oregon for three months in the summer. My internship was one of the pinnacles of my work as an advocate. I traveled all over the country working with teenage foster youth, became a peer supporter and got to see the world in return. When I returned home, my coworkers saw a new level of professionalism in me. I became the youngest member of the Third Level Board of Directors and began to volunteer there as a peer outreach worker. As a member of Jim Casey, I became the facilitator for the statewide presentations. I facilitated the legislative document to Legislators and over 300 state workers in Michigan. People asked me to present and recognized me as a national advocate for youth in care. After the legislative document was presented, Governor Granholm created a Permanency Task Force. I became co-chair of the Permanency Subcommittee and made monthly trips to Lansing to implement foster care reformation. Since 2005, laws and policies have changed in the Michigan foster care system, because the State listened to hundreds of foster youth on how to make change.

My advocacy career continues. I have given over 120 presentations locally, nationally and statewide. I have been featured in numerous newspapers around the country and on several radio stations in Oregon and Traverse City. I have coordinated fundraising events for the youth homeless shelter and national youth leadership events. This was a major part of my recovery – the moment I realized I had the capacity to make change with my input, suggestions and actions. These populations (foster youth, homeless, mentally ill) deserve a higher quality of life than I received. Having Daniel in my life has also helped. He has been a very healthy partner who has supported me in my work and makes life enjoyable. Last fall I started college. I am studying for a Masters degree in Child Welfare and want to become an art therapist. I have found my passion: helping others through change, inspiration and compassion. As long as I am making a difference for other people I think I will sustain my recovery and help others recover. Instead of seeing my past as unfair or a burden, I have turned it into something beautiful, something altruistic – the ability to heal, inspire and empower not only others but myself.