“Privileges: Not Approved” by Hannah Straton

Issue 11 / Fall 2017

 

When I escaped from an intensive wilderness therapy program, I got labeled a “run risk” and my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder with a history of suicidal behavior labeled me a “self-harm risk.” Both made me utterly unappealing to all respectable therapeutic boarding schools and landed me at New Beginnings, a secure residential treatment facility.

New Beginnings is located in Coluter County, Alabama. I had never seen more trailer parks in my life than before the thirty-minute drive from the one-star Holiday Inn to the New Beginnings facility. The girls who came from those trailer parks explained how their uncles were in prison “just for a hot minute,” their mommas used to strip, their daddy is a felon, or how they miss doing drugs with their friends in the car outside the high school (or middle school), with the same normalcy I would have described how I went to soccer practice after school.

When I arrived at the facility, the girls told me that you could avoid real juvie by getting a mental health diagnosis; that label sent you to the much cushier New Beginnings. With the exception of myself, everyone else had been court ordered here by the state of Alabama.

 

My first few days at New Beginnings were rough. It was clear I didn’t know how the place worked. I had been assigned a “buddy” by the administration to help me get adjusted. I think in their world this meant showing me which bed was mine, where to sit at lunch, what time meds are distributed, etc. Instead, I got much more valuable information.

I followed Bama into one of those rooms. Bama was a short black girl, a little pudgy, hair wild like a lion’s and front teeth like Sponge Bob. I’d be self-conscious if those were my teeth, but she owned them; she even had several Sponge Bob t-shirts to emphasize the amusing resemblance. We plopped down in two of the empty seats in the big circle of mismatched chairs and couches.

“So this is group. We talk about our how we feel and then the other people give us feedback,” she whispered.

Bama looked at me with a mischievous smirk.

“When we givin’ feedback the trick is to not go first. The first person has to actually come up with somethin’ to say. Everybody else just say ‘I support you and I agree with the group.’”

She snickered and sunk further into the chair. I figured that since I didn’t have to think about anything to say, I could look around. Everyone was kind of what I expected: pre-teens and teenagers with ratty clothes and annoyed looks on their faces. Most looked like they’d given up: they’d accepted their fate as overmedicated and institutionalized delinquents. Except for one girl sitting in the corner by herself, a tiny brunette with a fierce glare that seemed to be permanent. I could tell she was in the last stage of the program that comes with perks that newbies only dream of—she was allowed to wear make-up and jewelry, which made her look like a cooler version of Avril Lavingne. She wore really dark charcoal eye makeup that screamed punk and she had six earrings in each ear, studs at the top, hoops coming down. When I looked at her, she glared at me. I looked away and waited for my turn to say, “I support you and I agree with the group.”

 

I soon learned that she had been here the longest out of everybody. She was in her last step of the two-year program, and that she’d never been in a fight. Both of which terrified me. She had so much power that she didn’t need to fight and she knew the ropes and the rules…and how to subvert both.

This seriously intimidating girl went by her initials, J.T., and when she entered a room I tried to find an excuse to leave it. I sat as far away as possible from her during group and I didn’t address her directly. So when J.T. left in the middle of my second week, I was relieved. We had her graduation ceremony outside where she was given her certificate and we all said our goodbyes, knowing we would never see her again. Her boyfriend’s mother came to the ceremony and signed her out, leaving with her to take her to her a foster home. I waved goodbye timidly, feeling a little better now that she was gone.

It was about my third or fourth week when we saw J.T. at the front door waiting for a staff member to swipe her in, which was kind of weird because no one ever came back to visit. Then we saw the suitcase. Her foster home hadn’t worked out. We didn’t know much, but we knew that completing the program was your ticket out and getting sent back in was the defeat no one wanted to think about. Social services said it was only until they found a placement for her. Coming from the suburbs of Virginia, I accepted that explanation. But the other girls informed me she was here to stay. They said troubled kids with a history of bad placements didn’t find homes easily and the state didn’t waste resources on causes they knew weren’t going to be successful. Plus, she would turn eighteen in a year and since it’s a two-year program, she could spend that year here, and then be released on her own, and no one would have to deal with her. I couldn’t believe that was really how it worked, all those TV shows about social workers told me that troubled teens always ended up in a good home because some social worker really cared about their job. But the girls assured me that this was exactly the way the system worked.

J.T. went through admissions paperwork, got searched, and settled back into her old home, but this time, she had a new roommate—me. Somehow she didn’t look so scary now. I thought maybe it was because she wasn’t allowed to wear makeup anymore (she had to start the program from the beginning with no privileges) or that her eyes were puffy from crying, although she’d never admit it.

The J.T. who scared me was a fictional character; this was Jessica Teller, a real person. A real person who was angry, but who also had a thing for Marilyn Monroe, loved shoes called chucks, and listened to Janis Joplin songs on repeat. It turns out, once we started talking to each other, our personalities connected and it was hard to separate us.

I cried myself to sleep every night during my first weeks at New Beginnings, but once J.T. was my roommate, she was there to talk to me after lights out when we were supposed to be asleep. When it was her turn to monitor the phone calls home, she’d pretend she didn’t notice that my time was up so I could talk to my mom twelve minutes a week instead of ten. She’d write me notes on old pads of Christmas paper so that when I got back in the room I’d have a happy message waiting for me, “Have a great day, Hannah Banana!”

 

December 26, 2005 was my sixteenth birthday. At home, my family always celebrated my birthday with chocolate cake with candles, with dancing to “Free to Be” in the living room, with wearing silly hats and playing party games in the parlor. Today my birthday was going to be celebrated with a recycled Burger King crown and a sheet cake for ten minutes at the end of the lunch period in the small yellow room with painted cement walls, locked from the outside.

Earlier that week I had put in for “privileges” and had been approved for a family visit. My mom and my younger sister Georgia were on their way from the airport to the facility. But they were running late or had been tied up during entry and search. I didn’t know, but I was starting to feel like they weren’t coming. The self-pity party became a self-pity festival. Sitting cross-legged on my bed waiting for what I thought would be inevitable news of a no-show from my family, my tears fell fast and heavy. I leaned my back against the painted cinderblock wall and put my head in my hands. I was locked up for my sixteenth birthday. Nothing could be worse.

I heard my roommates walk into my room and I raised my tear-stained face to look at them. J.T. walked in with Tricia and Tiffany. Tricia was short and stocky, with ashy skin despite her lotion obsession, and a kind face. Tiffany lived in the room next door and had long, curly black hair and blue eyes.

J.T. stood directly in front of me and cocked her head to the side.

“Hannah Banana. I know you’re feeling sad ‘cause it’s your birthday and you’re here and all, but keep your chin up. You’re gonna be okay. You’re an awesome person and you got people who love you. Heck, man, I love you.”

She smiled impishly at me and I felt it in my heart. Then her face did something weird; her expression darkened and went blank simultaneously.

“My sixteenth birthday was very different,” she said quietly.

J.T. had unintentionally overdosed on a recreational drug, nearly killing herself. Her mother didn’t visit her in the hospital. Her mom said it was her own damn fault and to deal with it herself. J.T. was alone in a hard hospital bed, probably handcuffed to it, listening to the beeping of a cardiac arrest machine, connected to an IV through the needles in her arm, in a thin hospital gown celebrating her sweet sixteen. She told me this with a hardness in her eyes as if it were a fact, like she read it from an encyclopedia somewhere and was just relaying the information to me.

When she was finished with her story, her eyes lit up again and she wished me a happy birthday, and then snuck a look around and gave me a hug; physical contact was strictly forbidden between residents, despite common knowledge that two roommates on the other unit were lovers. She hugged me like there was hope. Like I could make it. Like she knew she would never get out, but I had a chance and she wanted me to take it.

In the several hours before my mom and sister arrived, I heard stories of the other girls’ sixteenth birthdays. Tricia was being physically abused—beaten—by her “boyfriend.” He worked a sex trafficking ring, one which she would soon join and would later cause her to become pregnant and have a daughter, who would get taken by the state, of course. Tricia had a 4×6 picture of the toddler that she’d show us from time to time. The girl looked like Tricia.

Tiffany told me that she had a great sixteenth birthday. Her grandma helped her break out of her ankle monitor, the one she got from the prison when they released her on home arrest. Naturally, she got caught. That’s how she ended up here, but she had a great time while it lasted.

My sweet sixteen was starting to look pretty good, I thought. I wiped my face with the back of my hand, took a deep breath, and my three friends and I left the room with a camaraderie I had only seen in movies.

I slowly walked down that long yellow hallway with bedrooms on either side and one by one, all fifteen residents sincerely wished me a happy birthday and told me they hoped my family would arrive soon. No one was bitter or told me to shut up, or that I had it easy. These girls who came from broken homes, foster homes, no homes, with drug additions and rap sheets had listened to this upper-middle class white girl from the suburbia complain that her perfect life had been taken from her. They had compassion for my pain though nothing compared to the enormity of their sorrows. We were all here together and suffering was suffering.

Everyone sang when it came time for the sheet cake at the end of lunch and although no candles were allowed, I made a wish anyway.

 

On March 5, 2006 my parents pulled me out of New Beginnings AMA (against medical advice). I wasn’t any better, but it was clear that New Beginnings wasn’t helping either. It was time to go home. I cried as I walked down that yellow hallway for the last time, wheeling my suitcase behind me. I had said my goodbyes to each of my friends and was allowed special permission for physical contact so I could hug them. I had promised to call. Through the tears, plans were made for road trips when we all got out. But in our hearts we all knew this was the last time I would see any of them again.

 

I heard the rain fall outside my window as I sat on top of my bed in my dorm, drinking Earl Gray tea and attempting to write my final paper for my creative nonfiction senior seminar. My laptop sat open in front of me with a Word document pulled up, but empty. I’d already written papers on my personal experience with mental illness, research papers on mental illness in general, and papers on teen boot camps. Then I realized: I could write about my time in New Beginnings, a “Where are they now?” story about my best friend J.T. That would be a great essay. I could look her up on Facebook. I hadn’t talked to her in years. I wondered if I’d even find her. I decided I could write from memory if I couldn’t find her, but I’d try first. I pulled the laptop closer to me. Re-crossing my legs and settling in to write, I Googled her name, assuming Facebook would be the first hit, as it was with all my friends. Instead I got the Coluter County paper. I clicked on it.

“Jessica Bethany Teller received a five-year suspended sentence with three years of supervised probation and a $1,069.12 fine for third degree burglary and two counts of unlawful breaking and entering a motor vehicle.”

I held my breath and found another article with her name on it.

“Probation violation (3 counts)—Jessica Teller, 23, arrested on Beech Ave SE.”

Tears filled my eyes as I found the next article containing her name.

“Attempting to elude, driving while license suspended, DUI-alcohol/controlled substance, unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia, failure to appear—domestic violence—Jessica Bethany Teller, 24, arrested at 3014 exit ramp.”

As tears streamed down my face, I went directly to Facebook. It took me a couple tries to find the right Jessica Teller. I finally found her when I added a location—she was still in Coluter County. Her Facebook wall contained writings of people wishing her well, but J.T. herself had not written anything in years. I scrolled down through the years and saw the congratulations for her wedding and the “forget that asshole” comments about her divorce, the condolences on her loss of her one parental figure, and the “woo hoos” on her release from prison. I sobbed as I looked at pictures of her daughter, who had J.T.’s fierce eyes, but golden hair that made her look like an angel. The last picture available was of J.T. next to her daughter, both smiling at the camera. Underneath the picture, I read that J.T.’s daughter is named Lindsey Hannah.

That week I turned in another research paper.

 

This is my first year of graduate school and I’m writing about J.T. again. But this time I will turn in the paper. Jessica Teller will not remain a nameless kid in the system, one of many kids lost to a series of yellow cinderblock hallways leading only to locked doors.

On Facebook Lindsey Hannah wears a light blue Cinderella dress and smiles at the camera. When you’re four, you think you can grow up and be anything you want. I don’t want anyone to tell her she’s wrong.

 

Some names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

 

Hannah Straton is a graduate from the University of Mary Washington and is now a part of the MFA program at George Mason University. Her essays have been featured in Hippocampus Magazine and the Kudzu Quarterly Review.

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3 Comments

  1. Jennifer Lang

    Bravo for writing your story. Bravo for keeping J.T.’s friendship alive in your memories and stories. Beautiful.

    Reply
    • Emily

      Nice work! Keep on writing and help dispel the ignorance that is out there about mental illness, prison and minorities. You rock!

      Reply
  2. Elizabeth R. Spiers

    I was so overcome with emotion the first time I read this piece, I was unable to formulate a comment. It has been half a day since and I have re-read it. I have also forwarded it on to several family members and a couple of friends (after getting permission from your mom) and I just teared up – didn’t actually cry the 2nd time reading it. I think you have so many astonishing stories to tell, and who better to tell them than you? You have an engaging voice and are so well-written, that I can’t help but think that your writing will help to educate the rest of the world who cannot otherwise imagine the road traveled by those with mental illness, and those who are “in the system”.

    Reply

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