By Sally, 15
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Illustration by Brian Lopez-Santos, 17, Marshall HS

When I look back at my life I see this very angry person. When I was mad at someone I’d try to hurt them by scratching, kicking, biting—anything I could do. I think I just wanted to hurt people. If they made me mad, I wanted to make them mad. Back then I didn’t think it was wrong.

My life has been messed up for as long as I can remember. My parents were always fighting. My dad was an alcoholic. He’d get mad for small reasons and hit us. I was scared to take showers because my dad would yell if I took too long. My mom didn’t know how to deal with us when we were crying so she’d lock us in the bathroom until we stopped. She’d barricade the door with a vacuum or the sewing machine so we couldn’t get out.

My brothers and I didn’t know how to express ourselves when we were frustrated because our parents didn’t teach us. So we would always fight too. Once my big brother made fun of me so I went upstairs and kicked the closet mirror and it broke.

Sometimes I’d think, am I the only one going through this? My friends looked happy all the time so I thought they had it easy.

I was 8 and in third grade when my mom filed for divorce. We had to choose our parent. We decided to live with my dad since he was staying in our house in Pomona. The thought of living somewhere else sounded weird.

When my mom left we had to take care of ourselves. I’d get myself dressed and nothing I wore matched. I wouldn’t shower. Whenever my father did our laundry it smelled like mildew. We only had soda to drink. When I was sad I’d stuff my face. I’d always eat fast food and Cup Noodles. I was so fat.

At school there was a group of boys that would make fun of me and call me names like “Godzilla” and “tsunami.” I’d usually call them names back. But one day in fifth grade one of the boys was really pissing me off so I kicked him in the groin and hit him. The school knew I was having problems so they took me to a mental hospital. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It’s a mental disorder that has to do with depression. It made me have different moods all at once. I’d be sad then angry then I’d be laughing. I was there for two weeks but it didn’t change me.

When I was about to go to sixth grade I was told I had to go to a special school called Cortez, which was for people who had mental disorders or problems at home or in school. I never got up for school so they decided to send me to a lockdown therapeutic center 50 miles away in Murrieta called Oak Grove. I felt like my dad wanted to get rid of me.

Sent away to a strict facility

When I arrived at Oak Grove I missed being home but I didn’t miss fighting with my parents and my brothers. There were so many stupid rules about when to eat, when you could shower, when you could sleep. It wasn’t fun. They even had a level system. To move to a higher level, which gave you more privileges, we had to show we were capable of things such as good hygiene, getting along with the other kids and helping others. I was trying to be good to show them I was better so I could leave.

I was more motivated when I became friends with one of the girls at Oak Grove, Kristina. We both liked drawing and anime. We were always together. We had a notebook that we’d pass notes in. We’d draw and put poems in there.

Sometimes my dad would promise me that he would come see me on the weekends, but he’d never show up. I felt like he wanted me to just go to treatment and get better. I felt like he didn’t love me. That made me really depressed and not want to follow the rules.

Once they were making me move rooms because my roommate didn’t like me. I said, “She’s the one who wants the new roommate, why can’t she move?” Then I punched one of the staff, Carol, in the stomach. The moment I did it I couldn’t believe that I hit her because she was my favorite staff. I regretted it.

Another time, they dropped me from one of the highest levels to the lowest level for something stupid. I was so mad. The next day I went AWOL, which means being absent without leave. You’re not supposed to go anywhere without a staff person. I left Oak Grove after showering at 8 p.m. I was wearing pink pajama pants and had a big pink rabbit. People were staring at me. I found a pay phone and called my dad to tell him to take me home, which was stupid because he just called Oak Grove. They came to get me and took me back.

Running away became a way to not deal with my problems. When they didn’t let me say goodbye to Kristina when she left, I got mad and ran away.

Another time I ran away and they brought me back and put me in the white room, which is where they put you when you get in trouble. I was like an octopus, scratching and hitting the staff. They were trying to keep me down. Every time they loosened their grip I would kick and scratch. I wanted to hurt them because they had made me upset. I didn’t want them to win. I broke free and escaped the room. There was another staff at the counter. I started choking her (maybe she made me mad, I don’t remember) but then they pulled me off of her. After that the staff were scared of me. They’d call for the big, strong male staff when I got in trouble.

My therapist told me if you run away one more time we’re going to send you to a stricter therapeutic center. I did. They sent me to Heritage, which is in Utah. I wasn’t upset when I was moving to Heritage. I guess it’s because I hated Oak Grove.

I arrived at Heritage in 2006, when I was 12 years old. It was at Heritage that I finally realized I needed treatment, that I needed to be more mature and that arguing or getting upset for stupid reasons was wrong.

A final outburst

I wasn’t ready to change right away. One day I was upset and walked out of the dorm building, which wasn’t allowed. I didn’t care. It had snowed. I threw snowballs at one of the staff, then started running. They caught me and took me to the ISU (Intense Support Unit), the place where you go when you’re not doing so great. A new therapist named Krista came to see me. She talked to me. She said, “If you behave, we’ll work on getting you back to the dorm.”

I started following directions. I answered a whole bunch of questions they gave me, like what did you do wrong, what could you do better next time? The next day they moved me to a new dorm. Krista had reduced the days I had to stay in the ISU from eight days to two. I was happy and relieved.

Things got better when I moved to the new dorm where there were fewer kids and I could get more attention. There were more staff available when I needed to talk to them about a problem, like if I didn’t like a new girl or if I had problems with my parents. They’d see me frustrated or being mean to someone and they’d tell me to sit somewhere separated from other people. Then they’d check on me and ask, “Are you ready to talk about the problem and try to solve it?”

I had therapy sessions with Krista. We’d play the card game King’s Corner. Sometimes she’d put on music and light candles. When I was sad she asked how I felt. When she got something out of me, I’d cry. I’d tell her about arguing with my mom on the phone and how my parents kept talking crap about each other and I was always in the middle of it. It helped me to express my feelings and not keep everything inside and get angry. She’d try to comfort me by saying “It’s not going to last.”

Krista gave me advice, like that I can’t change my parents but I can change myself. She said a lot of good things about me, like “you’re smart” and “you’re a good girl.” She told me she waits until she gets to know a kid before she looks at their file about their past behavior. She said that when she read my file she was surprised. She said, “Wow, that’s a different person.” It made me proud.

After I had been at Heritage for a year I had improved a lot. I wasn’t running away or hitting people. One day I asked Krista, “When am I going home?” She said, “I’ll look into that.” I was happy because she usually said “not yet.”

But I felt like I didn’t have a home to go to. My mom and I argued too much. My dad wasn’t there for me. My options were living at home or a group home in L.A., where I’d live with five other girls and adult staff. Girls are sent to the group home to get help with problems like drugs use, anger or family problems. I chose to go to the group home. It would help me with my family problems because I’d be closer to home and I could have visits with my parents.

I arrived in July 2007, when I was 13. At first I hated it and I always talked about Heritage. The group home was too strict. If I forgot to empty the dishwasher or if my room was messy, I wasn’t allowed to talk to the other girls for an hour and I could only have fruit or veggies for a snack instead of candy, crackers or chips.

I’d get mad at the staff all the time. If they told me to do something, I’d say no. If I talked back they’d say “Sally, that’s a time out.” If I said “why?” they’d add on minutes.

After a while I got more used to it. I learned the hard way that it’s better not to get in trouble. I learned not to get upset over small things, to agree and not talk back. If I get room restriction, which is when you can’t talk to the other girls or leave your room, I say OK and I just go in my room.

I’m now a good student and a caring friend

I’ve become someone I like. I go to school and do my work. I care about my grades and want to be school president. When my friend had a problem I helped her with it. I talked to her. I’m glad I can help my friends. Everybody says, “Sally, she’s sweet.” I feel appreciated.

Looking back, I was going through a lot but I wasn’t handling it right. Whenever my dad was frustrated he’d yell, break things or hit us. We thought that was how to act when you’re upset. These therapeutic centers gave me guidance and role models like Kristina, Carol and Krista. I’ve changed into a whole different person. Plus I’m older. I’ve learned how to handle things differently. I’ve learned that you’ll always face problems but you don’t need to get mad. It’s not the person who’s making you mad, but you reacting to it. You can be the better, more mature person by not giving them a reaction.

My therapist said I’m ready to leave the group home but I still don’t feel like I can live with my parents. Even though I can’t go home, I don’t get upset. I’m proud of who I’ve become. I don’t yell or get into fights anymore. I’m strong enough to help myself when I’m upset. I go to my room and calm myself down. I want to be a person who people respect and want to hang out with. I want to be a person who is there for them. After all the changes I’ve made, I am that person.