How Party Boy Cleaned Up His Act
A Former Foster Kid Describes Life After the System. By Linda R.
When you meet John Michaels today, he seems like he's going to get wherever he wants in life. Even if there's a brick wall, he's busting right through it. At 22, he seems successful, happy and confident. He's got good friends who back him up. He's working full-time, and he's in school too. "The nicest part is at night," he says. "I come home, and I just feel like, 'Thank God this place is mine.' It's just a sense of peace." But reaching this put-together life wasn't a one day to the next day thing. John grew up in foster care and had a rough transition to independent living. At 17, John thought independence was going to be easy, and he went AWOL. He moved in with his older boyfriend, and started partying big time.
Partying on the Mind
But soon life on his own lost some of its charm. He was out of control buying clothes, jewelry, cell phones, drugs, and his credit card bills went through the roof. So did the fights with his boyfriend. He tried college for a semester, but he couldn't concentrate, so he dropped out. Life was getting more and more crazy, and then came the final blow: His boyfriend broke up with him. Three months after he left, John called the head of his agency and asked to come back. He was really hurting.
Deep in the Drug Scene
"I felt like I needed to be with someone or I wasn't worth anything," John said. "Plus, I was dealing with issues from my past, the neglect and abandonment." John didn't want to deal with that pain, so instead he got deeper and deeper into the drug scene. By the time he was 18, he was out partying every night, popping drugs like X and special K. Eventually, all this drug use began affecting his life in the most negative ways. "I forgot how to maintain myself, how to get up in the morning," he recalled. "Physically, I was going to hell. I was pale and not eating. You could see it in my face. Everyone saw it except me." John would go out on Sunday night. On Monday he'd come in to work tired from the previous night of disco fever. One time he was even written up for being intoxicated. "That hurt, because I like to maintain face in public," he said. John began having unsafe sex too, and he contracted HIV, although he didn't find out he had it until several years later. But even without that knowledge, John had too much to deal with. "I didn't think I was going to make it," he said. "That's when I felt so alone." But going to waste wasn't something John wanted to do. For most of his time in foster care, John had been out there trying to get ahead. "I always knew that if I wanted something, I was not going to be given it on a silver platter. My mama was not going to give it to me. A rich man was not going to come and give it to me. So I developed a really strong work ethic," he said.
A Colossal Craving For Independence
Even early on, John had a colossal craving for independence. He started writing for Foster Care Youth United at 14. A few years after, he began working at The Door, a youth center, helping to teach teens in foster care how to stand up for themselves. John spread the word that if you don't speak up, the system will run right by you. He worked for the Board of Ed's SPARK program as a stage manager. And he started volunteering at the Gay Men's Health Crisis. At these places as well as in his agency, he met adults who cared. In particular, there was Torrence-"my surrogate dad," as John calls him. They met when John was 15, while he was volunteering at the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Torrence is the person who John relied on most during the rocky times. In general, he said, "I had too many people on my ass, too many friends and mentors telling me to get my life together." Plus, John remembered the first time he was out on his own, and he didn't want to repeat that. When he left the system this time, he wanted to be prepared for independence.
Not Going Home to Mama
"I didn't want to graduate to the welfare system or the prison system. I had heard horror stories," he said, "from seeing kids age out at 21 and not have a pot to piss in. I said, 'I don't want to rely on no one.' I knew I was not going home to Mama. That was damned well not going to be me." Getting back on track, though, was not easy. One of the biggest helps was his late-night conversations with Torrence. They would talk about what John wanted out of life, and why he was messing up. "Without him I don't know what I would have done," John said. I would have been out there somewhere lost, damaged." Eventually, John stopped the round-the-clock partying. He stopped using drugs. He started focusing on work and school. He still went out, but just once or twice a week. The friends he had helped keep him sane. When he moved out the second time, he was ready for it. Today, John has a good job at a foundation that serves the gay and lesbian people of New York. He's still paying off all those backed up credit card bills that he racked up at 17. But he wants to buy an apartment, and he'll need good credit, so he's learning to be more responsible with his money. He also attends Audrey Cohen College, where he's got a 4.0 GPA. He's studying administration and human services. He'd like to run his own non-profit organization one day.
Taking the Challenge
John's had to cope with the shock of having HIV. "I had been out of foster care for less than a year when I found out," he said. "That blew me off my feet. I had to ask myself, 'Are you going to lie down and die or get on your feet?' Everyone I talked to was nothing but supportive. I told myself, 'This is another challenge from God. All right, take it.'" John still likes his freedom. He's glad that he doesn't have to "succumb to late night social work visits, or be told how to spend my money, or have to keep the place clean."
All Life's Fast Balls
But John no longer thinks that being independent is all about getting away with murder and being free. He's realized that independence is about managing his money and being able to pay all those bills. It's about getting to work on time and filling his fridge with groceries. It's just about living, day to day. "When you're in foster care, you think that independence is a prize you should get for getting through foster care, but it's not. It's really just a part of life. It's about maintaining your self-sufficiency," John said. "I'm dealing with all the fast balls life throws," he said, "but that's the beauty of life. Being able to manage all the crises."
Thinking It Over
John was 17 when he first left the system. He's learned a lot since then. I'm 18, and before my interview with John, I thought I was just going to get a few pointers on what I should do when I got out there. Instead, John revealed his weaknesses to me. That was good for me to hear, because I hadn't really thought about, "What if I get overwhelmed and one day want to throw my fists up and run away from the burden of responsibility?" John helped me realize that responsibility is a heavy thing to carry on your shoulders, especially if you're not prepared. Luckily, I live in New York, so I can stay in care until I'm 21. I have decided to stay home with my grandma, at least for now. I want to grow into an independent young lady, not be forced into one. Since this interview, I've been thinking a little bit more about what I need to get in place in my life and where I need my head to be.
"Reprinted with permission from Foster Care Youth United, Copyright 200X by Youth Communication/New York Center, Inc. ()."