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Getting Out of the Swamp
My therapist helps me through
Andrew Starr

“You don’t want to be stuck in the swamp,” my therapist Ted said to me one day as he pointed to a sloppy drawing of a stick person on a curvy line. I must have looked confused because he continued to explain. He told me that, as I go through my life, I will have to face many challenges. Ted said I can face those challenges or I can run away from them.

“When you run, you’re taking yourself back to the swamp, and the swamp is not where you want to be,” Ted said. “But if you stay focused on accomplishing your goals, you are facing those challenges and you’ll eventually win.”

Facing the challenges in my life has been the focus of my therapy sessions with Ted. My anger has been the main problem that has gotten me into some very tricky situations, including being placed in a juvenile detention center, getting kicked out of schools and missing many classes. As a result, I am now far behind in my school work and every day is a challenge for me to try to catch up and continue to control my anger. With Ted’s help, I think I just might be able to do it.

Dealing With My Sadness

I am 15 years old and I have been in foster care for about six years. In those six years, I have lived in at least 12 foster homes. I started going to therapy the first time when I was 8 or 9 years old because I was depressed about being far away from my family.

It was especially difficult when my mom would say she was coming to see me, and then not show up because she didn’t have a ride. Sometimes she’d forget to call and tell me she wasn’t coming and that made me even more depressed. I would worry that something had happened to her, and if there was no reason for it I’d feel abandoned by her and all alone.

My social worker at that time thought I needed therapy, and I agreed. I had a lot of sadness to deal with. And I thought, “What could it hurt?”

My First Therapist

My first therapist, John, was on staff at the group home where I lived, and he would sometimes help on the unit if they were short-staffed. This was a good way for him to see me interact with peers and get to know me outside of therapy. But it was still hard to know who I could trust after everything that had happened to me. John tried to help me, but we never really connected.

image by Todd Milhouse

After about a year, John felt that my attitude and behavior had improved, and he recommended that I leave the group home. I think therapy did help a little. It helped me realize that some people do care and everyone isn’t as bad as they seem. I’d started to express myself a little more and I got my act together.

But I still found myself opening up my eyes and seeing that, although my depression might have improved somewhat, my issues will never be completely resolved, even after I leave the system. I will never get those years back that I could have had with my family.

Finding Ted

About four years later, I was just getting settled into another new foster home. I really needed to talk to someone about my new living situation and about being in the foster care system, period. So I suggested to my foster mom that we get help. My foster mother got a referral from a co-worker for a good African-American therapist, and that’s how we met Ted.

What I like about my foster mom is that she was willing to go and discuss some of our problems together, and Ted was always willing to have us. We were hoping to improve our relationship, and therapy helped us do that. Over time, my foster mom and I really grew to love one another. I also started seeing Ted on my own.

I didn’t immediately trust Ted, but it didn’t take very long. Ted’s funny, and most importantly, I really think he understands what I have been through in my life. I felt comfortable talking to him because of our similar backgrounds. He had also been in foster care and he had some of the same problems I had growing up.

I have been meeting once or twice a week with Ted for almost a year now and I feel pretty comfortable talking to him. He helps me think about things in different ways and tries to keep me focused on my goals. Since I started meeting with Ted, we have been working on three major challenges in my life: learning to control my anger, adjusting to new schools and learning to express my feelings through my writing.

Controlling My Anger

I have a lot of anger inside because of being in the system. I’ve missed out on a lot of time with my family, and I don’t even know some of my family members. Ted has told me to release some of my anger by writing in my journal. He has also encouraged me to put pieces of my life into my stories and even poems.

image by Todd Milhouse

Now when I get mad I make up stories to express myself. After I write, I feel relieved, calm and focused on something else. Ted also encourages me to spend time by myself to calm down and then to talk to the person I have a problem with to try to fix whatever’s wrong.

Even though Ted talked to me a lot about controlling my anger, he never really got to see what it looks like. Then one day my foster mom dropped me off on the wrong side of the street and that made me very angry. I had to walk in front of a lot of people and I felt stupid because everyone was looking at me.

As I walked up the stairs to Ted’s office, I was swearing under my breath. When I looked up, Ted was standing there and he had heard everything I said. He looked shocked and said, “I never thought I’d see the day.” We spent the rest of that session talking about how I could have handled the situation better.

Helpful Solutions

Another big challenge for me has always been going back to school or starting at a new school. I have gone to about 15 different schools and have been in many different kinds of settings—mainstream classes, alternative programs, group homes and resource rooms to name a few.

I don’t like to be in big crowds of people and I can be very shy. It’s not that easy for me to make friends. Ted is always able to calm me down and help me to stop worrying so much.

This year, I started 9th grade at a big public high school. Ted helped me feel less nervous by telling me that my fears were all in my head. He told me to go to school and stay focused on my goals, and not to worry about what people say or do.

Ted and I mostly talk about whatever is on my mind at the moment. But I think that as the relationship builds, I’ll be able to talk to him more about deeper stuff.

Ted addresses problems with me and he always has some helpful solutions. I always feel better when I talk to him and when I am able to release some of my stress. I trust his judgment, and I believe he actually knows what he’s talking about.

Even though Ted has helped me face a lot of challenges, once in a while I still take a trip back to the “swamp.” Sometimes, though, when I feel like I’m heading to the swamp, I can hear Ted’s voice saying: “Face these challenges and you will succeed.” That’s exactly what I plan to do.