Hitting bottom — and bouncing back

If you’re a teenager or young adult, how do you know for sure you’ve hit rock bottom? Is it when you’re frustrated because you can’t TiVo the latest installment of “Dancing with the Stars?” Or is it when you realize you just chose not to go to a party so you could stay home instead and post pictures of yourself on facebook?
Or is it when you’re sleeping outside in the woods near the Burlington waterfront because you’re homeless and 20, and any money you can scrounge up goes to buy cocaine, methadone substitutes, and anti-anxiety drugs? This was precisely where Faith Foley, now 25, found herself in the spring of 2003.
Prior to that, she had, by comparison, been living large: Sleeping on the floor of a hotel in Brattleboro or crammed into a two-bedroom apartment with as many as ten other people. She had hoped things might get better in the Queen City. They didn’t and it was then, as she shivered outside, that the St. Albans native realized what rock bottom really meant. Out of options, she turned to Spectrum Youth & Family Services and trudged from the waterfront to the organization’s shelter on Pearl Street.
“It was very difficult to bring myself to go there,” Foley recalls now. “I liked to believe I was better than Spectrum – that I didn’t need them. So I went there with my tail between my legs. But they were great.”
Today Foley is a residential manager at the Spectrum One Stop Shelter, and this December she will receive an associate’s degree from Community College of Vermont. Her long-term plan is to get a four-year diploma and then a master’s degree in social work. She works at the shelter from late afternoon until somewhere around midnight, helping to care for the dozen young adults who are living there. Sometimes that entails giving out medicine and sometimes it means administering a breathalyzer test for alcohol. More often it means talking with them about their lives, and how they wound up homeless in the first place – and their plan to get back on their feet. Most of them don’t know her personal history, but when she thinks it will help the teenager, she is happy to share it: “Sometimes I’ll tell them I know it stinks to have to come in at nine o’clock. I know it stinks to have to do a urine screen [to test for drugs]. Hey, I had to do it too, I’ll tell them.”
Foley credits the case workers and therapists at Spectrum for the way her life has turned around: They weaned her from her dependence on drugs, helped her get a job, and encouraged to go to college. “Spectrum makes a huge difference,” she says. “Unfortunately, I think the public just sees a lot of kids hanging out. But we show a transient population that there’s a better way to live. I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but we change lives. I’ve seen so many people come through here who are doing valuable things now.”
The hardest part of her job is the reality that she simply can’t help everybody. The shelter has 12 beds and often there are a half-dozen people on the waiting list. “It’s horrible when someone shows up in the middle of winter and we don’t have a bed. I give them food and blankets and refer them to COTS (the Committee on Temporary Shelter), but it’s heartbreaking.”
Moreover, as a result of the weakening economy, in her opinion it’s only going to get worse. Lately, in addition to seeing young adults who are coping with substance abuse or mental illness, Spectrum is seeing young adults who simply can’t pay their bills.
It’s never been easy to be a teenager, and my sense is that in some ways it’s even more difficult now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Fortunately, there are organizations like Spectrum out there and people like Faith Foley who have seen rock bottom – and, now, the view from the mountaintop.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on August 10, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Hitting bottom — and bouncing back

  1. Jeannie says:

    Just read your essay in the Washington Post. Skipped over hear to make a comment.
    I worked in several small bookstores, all have since closed their doors, the internet has become my way of shopping for books. I rely quite a bit on Amazon’s user reviews. I would suggest that you not beat yourself up so much ! If you, as a reader, with a sound mind (?) and rudimentary reading skills, are able to pick up on some of the inane contents of some readers reviews, so are others !
    It is my belief that, if one does a lot of reading and wants to find a really good book, they will be very intuitive when it comes to how a book is reviewed. They will also do a little more research, looking into more than what is offered on Amazon.
    To date, we have discussed three of your novels in one of my face2face groups and have a fourth on the list for future discussion.
    To be honest, I have liked some of your novels better than others, but then, THAT could be for many reasons, it could be that the subject matter isn’t the right subject for ME……or it may very well be what is going on in my life while reading the book. Another factor can be what book a reader has read prior to reading any particular novel.
    Please be aware that “thinking” people, even if leaving a, not so good review, would do so in a constructive manner and I would hope, without a lot of negative language. For those who don’t “think” all that much….well, I guess it shows :>)

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