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Give Me My Freedom and Privacy
Bella Hill

On November 30, 2017, my whole life changed. I did the usual morning things: I got dressed, petted my Chihuahuas goodbye, and left my tiny dim apartment to wait for the school bus. I lived in the projects in the Bronx with a man named David. It was just the two of us since my mom had died three months earlier. I didn’t say goodbye to him, as usual.

At school, while most of the kids went into the gym for breakfast, I sat near the entrance of the school. I played with my beloved Nintendo handheld system until the bell rang and it was time to go to my first class, math. I was in 11th grade.

I went to my classes as usual, but around noon a worker from Child Protective Services (CPS) picked me up from school and drove me straight to Edenwald, a residential facility in upstate New York. I had visited the area a month earlier, on a tour. I had been skipping school, and in September, I told my occupational therapist that David abused me both before and after my mom’s death. CPS had already thought about removing me from my home, and had taken me to look at Edenwald.

So I knew where we were going – but I didn’t know anything else. During the ride, I kept asking the CPS woman about my personal belongings, but she said it would be too dangerous to go back to the apartment without the police. They didn’t tell me why they’d suddenly decided David was dangerous, more than a month after I told the occupational therapist what was had happening.

I felt devastated. Not only was I going to be in a new place, I was also unprepared. Even though life with David was bad, I was used to my routine.

My Life Before

Before she died, my mom, three dogs, David, and I had shared the cramped apartment. David had lived with us for as long as I can remember.

I am still not sure why David was in our lives. When my mom was alive, I pestered her with this question, and she told me she met him on the streets. They did not seem to be a couple. They didn’t say or do anything affectionate with each other.

I had a good relationship with my mom and dogs, but David verbally and physically abused all of us. David would yell, kick the dogs, hit my mom and me, and throw objects around. We never knew when he would explode. My mom told me he was paranoid and bipolar.

My mom also told me that it was dangerous outside. She told me to wear loose clothes so I wouldn’t be kidnapped and prostituted. She wouldn’t let me wear my red sweater because of the Bloods gang in my neighborhood. She hated police, so she wouldn’t call 911 when David attacked us. She and David both talked about CPS coming and taking me away in the middle of the night and placing me with a black family that would abuse me. (We’re white.)

About a year ago, my mom started to lose weight and grow weak. She had cancer. She had to stay in bed most of the time and could only walk a little.

David had to do everything. He walked the dogs, bought food, and helped my mom to the bathroom. They also argued a lot. My mom often begged David to buy food for me when we ran low. Once I didn’t eat for almost a week.

My mom was in constant pain and lay in the same position for so long that her side was all red. Her skin was loose and you could see her ribs. Near the end of August, my mom went to the hospital, and she died on September 17.


I told my occupational therapist about a week later that my mom had died and that David hurt me. I’d had the same occupational therapist for five years and I’d grown attached to her. I told a guidance counselor those things too, plus that there wasn’t enough food in the apartment. After that the school gave me food and clothes to take home.

I stayed with David in the apartment for three months after my mom died. He did buy me food sometimes and fed the dogs every day. David left me in the apartment for long periods of time to go to work and came back late. I didn’t have to be around him most of the time.

I was mostly nocturnal during those three months, awake when David was asleep. I enjoyed the deep hours of the night when I seemed to be the only person up.

Since I did not know much about foster care, I was nervous about my new life at Edenwald. Despite the negative things about my life with my mom and David, I knew I was going to miss the positive moments, like going to the pool in the summer and spending time on the computer by myself. I had a lot of freedom in my old life even though I was afraid of David.

Edenwald wasn’t all bad. I liked the fact that there was a recreation building and that there were trips to different places. On the other hand, it was a treatment facility and I did not want to live with a bunch of people who had serious problems and relied on medicine.

I lost most of my independence and privacy when I moved here. In Edenwald, I have to deal with people all day without much time to recover alone from all that social interaction, which I find exhausting. I share a cottage with five girls; some girls have singles, but I share a bedroom with another girl. A normal day in the cottage is like this: 6 a.m., everybody gets woken up and has to take a shower. Then chores like cleaning the bathrooms, hallway, and kitchen. Then, after the staff unlocks the pantry, you can get breakfast. You have to wait for staff to get the spoons before you can eat your cereal.

After breakfast is Sanctuary in the common room. One of the girls greets the other girls in the cottage and asks everyone “How do you feel?” “What are your goals?” and “Who will help you?” It is a tedious, repetitive process. I give the same answers: I feel tired or agitated. My goal is to go to work or school. Who can help me is me, myself, and I.

image by YC-Art Dept

Missing Solitude

Sometimes they push me to give different answers, but I don’t want to share my feelings and goals. I tend to lie about myself to different people, even my own friends. I go with a fake smile and reply, “I’m good,” when people ask how I’m doing. I don’t want people to pity me about my life and I don’t want to explain why I feel a certain type of way.

After Sanctuary, we are called down for morning medicine. Even if you don’t take medicine, you cannot go to school until the whole cottage is called down. School opens at around 8:40. My favorite subjects are math and history, and I really like my ELA teacher. She makes the subject interesting and she seems to care about me. She listens to my rants about how I hate my life in Edenwald, and she even reached out to one of my teachers from my old school.

At 11:54, we return to the cottage for lunch. After everyone is done eating, the staff take us outside until it is time to go back to school.

At 3:03, school is done and we return to the cottage for quiet time, an hour where we are in our rooms. For me, it is a pain to have a roommate, plus the staff talk incessantly. I used to enjoy recharging in quality solitude after school, back at my mom’s.

Being alone lets me avoid the stupidity of humanity. I don’t get as annoyed and I can clear my head. I can lose myself by listening to music and not worry about people breathing down my neck.

It’s hard for me to connect with the girls when they gossip or narcissistically obsess over their appearance. They criticize other people, make jokes, sing, and bother staff. I do have a few friends at Edenwald, and even a boyfriend. My boyfriend and I talk about comics, we joke, and he tells me to eat more. I have friends I complain about my life to, but around my boyfriend I try to avoid looking depressed.

At 4 p.m., quiet time is over, medicine again. Then a shower, more chores, and dinner. Some nights we have another Sanctuary, and then we have to sit in the cottage until lights out at 9 p.m.

According to its website, Edenwald “focuses on teaching residents life skills that foster independence and improve relationships with adults and peers so that they may return to the community as quickly as possible. Children receive support around developing social skills, enhancing daily living skills and practicing more effective coping skills to heal from past traumas.”

I was surprised to read that Edenwald claims to teach “life skills that foster independence.” I haven’t learned how to create a bank account, cash checks, or what “mortgage” means. The only practical thing I’ve learned is what size bra I should wear. I am all set in life when it comes to bras but absolutely nothing else!

I don’t feel I “receive support around developing social skills” either. My relations with the staff and my cottage peers feel toxic, and if I do speak up, they accuse me of being rude, lying, or having a smart mouth. That’s why Sanctuary is uncomfortable for me.

Getting Out of Here

It’s hard for me to keep my mind in the present. I often find myself thinking about running away from the cottage, but the only place I have to go back to is my apartment. I still have my keys. But what if David is still there? Alternatively, what if the apartment is completely empty? Then what? I’m not ready to live on my own.

And if I got caught, I would lose the agency’s trust and have to live in the cottage even longer, with no hope of being let out to work or do anything else. Thinking about my lack of options, I end up feeling anxious and trapped.

When I’m not worrying about the future, I reminisce about the past. David isn’t in my memories. It’s mostly me alone on my computer, playing games, listening and watching YouTube and Netflix, or reading zodiac and psychology sites. My dogs are there with me, sometimes on my lap.

Five months after I got to Edenwald, in April, I finally told staff how unhappy I was there, and they sent me to a therapist. The therapist said that I suffer from anxiety and depression. They suggested antidepressants. A few months later, for the first time in my life, I took medicine.

I told the therapist some things about my experience and my feelings, but that didn’t make me feel any better. Neither did the medicine. I didn’t feel happier, just tired all the time. The last time I saw the therapist, I told her that I wanted to stop taking the meds, and she said OK.

I start 12th grade soon, and then I’d like to go to college. I know that living with David wasn’t safe for me, but I miss my independence. It was the only life I had ever known, and I like to remember the good parts of it, not the bad ones.

To get out of Edenwald, I need to play their game. I have to do my chores, tolerate my loss of privacy, participate in Sanctuary, and follow their “program.”

Staff at Edenwald say I’m ready for a lower level of care, and I’d rather live with a foster family or supportive housing where staff help you with things. I like the recreational staff and the school staff more than the cottage staff, who I feel criticize and humiliate me. I don’t want to share my feelings with a group of people I don’t like. I’d rather talk one on one. I may get a new psychiatrist, and maybe she can help me.

Although I do worry about the future, I hope to finish school, then go to college and discover something I’m passionate about.

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