When You Can't "Fix" the Problem

Summer 2014


Two weeks ago one of my students ran away from home.  She is 16 years old, and is not typically a student who is on my "radar" as someone I have to "watch." So when she ran away, I was surprised.  My initial thought was, she'll be home soon, and by soon, I expected her to be back within 24 hours.  When the missing child signs went up the next day, again, I thought, she will be home soon.  I talked to girl's mom and offered to help in anyway I could.  I put messages out on Facebook and on my school's Facebook page, asking that if anyone heard from the missing student, to please call me, or have her call me.  


I heard a few rumors through the grapevine that she was first at one friend's home, and then another's. I heard she was partying. I heard she was with her boyfriend.  I knew that the police in three different counties had been looking for her. And I knew that there had been several searches at her friends' homes, but still, no one had found her.  She did call her mom after a few days to let her know that she was okay, but also to tell her that she was not coming home.  Ever.  


And then I received a phone call from an unknown number.  It was her.  She told me that she needed help and that she could not go home. She would not tell me where she was, and she would not give me a phone number so that I could reach her.  I asked how I could help.  She didn't have any answers.  I asked what had happened that made her run away. She told me that her sibling and parent had told her to leave.  She told me they hated her. I listened. She told me she was suicidal and had been locked in her room and was not allowed to have any contact with anyone else.  


I told her that her mom loved her. And that a lot of people were very worried about her.  I told her how courageous she was to have called me to ask for help. I asked if I could come and get her and take her to the Bridge for Youth (a program specifically designed to help young runaways reunite with their families and get the help they need to be safe.) She told me she wasn't ready for that, that she didn't want to ever see her mom again, and that she hated her mom because her mom hated her.  


I asked her more questions trying to find some straw I could grasp to help her think about her safety, her future, anything that would break her away from her pain and anger. And then she told me her that her boyfriend was suicidal too and that she thought they might kill themselves, that they had a suicide pact. She was crying as she said this.  I asked her if she thought that I could help her boyfriend, if I could do something that might keep him alive, that might keep them both alive.  And I asked her if she would help me help him. When she said yes, that was my "in." 


I started talking to her about strategies to keep him safe (and without saying it, keeping her safe as well.) She made an agreement with me that she would take care of herself because he needed her. I knew this was risky. Neither of these two children are mentally healthy right now.  The risk of them getting into an argument, using drugs and/or alcohol... there were so many issues. But I also knew that I needed some connection with her at that moment, something that she could hang on to, at least until we could figure out where they were.  And then she asked me if I could come and pick them both up. I said I would, and I asked her where and when I should meet them.  She wouldn't tell me where they were but she told me she would call me the next day as soon as she woke up and then she would figure out where I could meet them. 


She did as she said she would and the very next day, she called me from an unknown number again and we made plans for me to come and pick them up that same day. She still would not tell me where, but told me she would call me an hour before we were meeting and give me an address.  The boyfriend is on probation and over 18.  And I knew that she was worried about the police coming, and that she was struggling with whether or not she could trust me. I promised her that all I wanted, was to help them.  She called me three more times as I drove to Minneapolis.  Each time she was crying.  She did not want to see her mom. She did not want to go home. But she did want to get help for her boyfriend. And while she did not say it, I knew she wanted help too.   


We agreed that the Bridge for Youth was a good option. She knew a few friends who had been there before.  Even as I was driving, I did not know where I was picking them up. Because this young woman was under 18, her mom was going to need to be involved in this process, regardless of what the daughter wanted.  I had talked to her mom the night before, so mom knew I had heard from her daughter. And mom was planning to meet us at the Bridge.  The mom and I checked in a few times as I made my way to Minneapolis, and we considered how to make this transition as smooth as possible so that the daughter did not run again.  Mom also shared with me that her daughter was supposed to be taking antidepressant medication, but had not been taking them for several months. I knew that the scary part of this story was close to an end, but the hard part was just getting started. 


March 30, 2015


I started writing this story as the events were still unfolding, last year.  I stopped writing at that time, because I did not know how to bring the story to a conclusion.  And even after all of these months, there still isn't a conclusion.  Like so much of what we do in this field, we don't see the end results.  We can't. Because the end result is not going to be evident for so many years yet.  


I can report that the student did make it out of the "streets" alive.  She currently has a roof over her head and she is attending high school.  And I know that her mom loves her.  I am not sure if the daughter believes that, but at some point, hopefully she will.  The core issues are still there, however.  She has been sexually assaulted on more than one occasion.  She has witnessed her mother suffer from violence at the hands of a former boyfriend.  The mom is supporting and raising her children on her own. The children's father left the picture a long time ago.  The student has attempted suicide a few times. Many of the family members are struggling, or have struggled with mental health issues.   In short, this child has a high ACE score. And that doesn't change.  


I know that the impact of ACEs can be mitigated over time, but there isn't a magic wand. We can be there. We can use trauma informed care practices. We can follow up with the student to help obtain, and keep, resources in place to address mental and physical health.  But we can't erase what has already happened. Over time, we can help the student face challenges, we can help this young person re-assess how she sees herself in the broader world, and over time, we can assist her in building the skills that will support her, mentally and physically - in short, we can help her become resilient.  This is what keeps us going, and keeps me hopeful, even when it looks like the progress is minuscule in the grand scheme of the issues.  It is progress nonetheless.  And that makes all the work worthwhile.  

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You provided a safe emotional space for this young lady. She will never forget that and it will serve her in good stead from time to time, though you most likely will not really know that either. Any moment we have to offer that safe space is to be used. I just heard from a young woman with a lifetime of complex trauma who is surviving, but simply called me to report that she continues to navigate her personal world of trauma. I mostly listened in a supportive manner. I offered some guidance. It's about 10 years since I was her treating psychiatrist. Indeed, we cannot provide the magic "fix," but "being there" is as important for our suffering individuals. In my training days, my supervising psychiatrist taught me how essential that was....and it still is!

Marilyn Benoit

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