Joelle Williams’ Story: 2018 YouthLive! Gala Youth Speaker

My name is Jo Williams and I am a 24 year old former foster youth. It’s hard to believe that just four years ago I attended YouthLive listening to another former foster youth share her story. But before I share my story, I’d like you to close your eyes and think about the biggest detour you’ve ever taken in life. What was the detour? What did the detour feel like? How did it help you change for the better?

Writer Angela Blount once said: “Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.” For the past year I have been struggling to make sense of of my life’s detour that has felt more like a ditch than a scenic road. In order to understand the significance of my detour, we have to start at the beginning of my journey, with my mother.

Like many foster youth, I have been through many ups and downs with my family, and in particular my mother. As a visual reference, I look like her. She’s tall like me, we have the same skin color. She is an avid reader and loves reading romance novels by Black authors. She used to be a teacher, and her favorite subject is math because she says there’s always only one right answer. She is very goofy and imaginative. She would make up interactive bedtime stories for my siblings and I that did a better job of keeping us up than putting us to sleep. When I think about these positive aspects of my mom, it makes me feel like she could have been the perfect mother for me, but unfortunately her illness got in the way. You see, my mother has Bipolar Disorder. For those of you who may not know, Bipolar Disorder is“a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.” At times people with Bipolar people can experience extremely up and elated moods, known as mania phases, and other times feel down and hopeless, known as depression.

One of my first memories is of my mother during a manic episode. We lived with my grandmother, and whenever my mother got off her pills, my grandmother would kick my mom out. I was about 6 or 7 at this particular time I remember my mom was sitting on the porch rocking back and forth, talking to my father who had been dead for years. I looked at her through the screen door, wanting to help her, but feeling scared and confused. I didn’t have a name for this, for when my mom would act erratic and out of control. When my mom was “on her meds”, as my family would call it, she would be fine. We were poor and there wasn’t always enough money and she was strict, but things were ok. Sometimes at night she would ask me to bring her meds. The pills smelled like happiness, but my mom could never seem to stay on her meds. One minute she’d be stable and holding down her job as a teacher, and the next she would be back on the porch rocking back and forth. At age 9, I was taken to live with my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Arizona. I remember getting in the car to ride to the airport and watching my mom wave at me, her thinking I was just going down the street—me, knowing I wasn’t coming back. I ended up living with my relatives in Arizona for 4 years. When I was 13 my mom got a second chance. At first everything was amazing. But then she stopped taking her meds again. This manic episode was worse than any I’d remembered. She and my grandmother would have yelling matches well into the night, which interfered with my ability to get to school. My mom had instilled in me a love of learning, but even my grades suffered during this chaotic time.

Neighbors filed reports to Child Protective Services and social workers started coming around the house trying to talk to me. At first I was afraid to say anything because I didn’t want to get in trouble. But with a yearning for stability and with the help of family members, I told the truth about what was happening. I had made a vow early on in life that I was going to get to college and I would not allow my mother’s illness deter me.

So at age 14, I entered foster care. After about 5 months at a foster home in Compton, I moved to the Bay Area to live with relatives. Throughout my childhood, I lived with three sets of aunts and uncles, as well as an assortment of cousins. My aunts and uncles provided me with homes in good neighborhoods, access to amazing public schools, and greater stability. However, I will tell you the tale of most foster youth. I was not treated the same as my cousins. I always got in trouble more and was in constant fear of being told I had to leave. Which did happen—twice.I had a puzzling relationship with my mother at this time. I had a strong aversion to her, but I also wanted to have a mother figure who could love me, just like my cousins had. I struggled in my relationships with my aunts. I was seen as the problematic child and I just felt misunderstood and unloved. Looking back I don’t think that my aunts and uncles did not love me, I think they just failed to love me unconditionally. And this failure is unfortunate because by definition foster youth come with conditions. We may come with trauma, we may come with attachment issues, we may come with behavioral problems. We may come a little more broken and in need of a little more love. Thus there I was, stuck between a mother who loved me unconditionally but couldn’t take care of me, and relatives who took care of me but who couldn’t love me unconditionally.

Thankfully, I had always felt loved by the education system growing up. Sadly this isn’t the case for most foster youth. Only about half of foster youth graduate high school on time and only about 3% will graduate from a 4-year institution. Growing up I did not know about these statistics, but I did know that getting into college gave me hope and a reason to carry on. On December 12, 2011, after all of my hard work and effort in school, my dreams became a reality. I was accepted into Stanford University!  

Stanford can feel like Disneyland for nerds! For a foster kid who had moved around a lot and struggled to find her place, college was like WonderLand! I made lots of friends, I joined a sorority and I even studied abroad. Above all, I excelled academically. As a sophomore I decided to major in human biology so I could better understand the effects of abuse on children. When I was 14, I vowed to make the system better for other foster youth like me. I expressed this desire to my advisor and he introduced me to interview-based research. Through my research I learned that there are high rates of teen pregnancy in the foster care system and that these mothers are at an increased risk of abusing their children. As a part of my Senior Thesis I interviewed nine youth in the foster care system who were young mothers.  I wanted to better understand what natural protective factors these young mothers might have that could protect against their children entering the foster care system. That research project made me realize that I was on the right path. I finished my time at Stanford strong; graduating among the top in my class with honors and a 3.9 GPA.

As a Stanford Graduate, with my broken childhood behind me, I felt that nothing bad could ever happen again. Unfortunately, I would soon be proven wrong.After taking a gap year, I was so happy to learn that I was admitted into Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. In August of 2017, I moved to Baltimore, Maryland to start school. The first two weeks there were like a whirlwind; probably one of the best times of my life. But instead of checking in for grad school orientation, I was checking into Johns Hopkins renowned hospital for displaying symptoms of mania. Days leading up to this, I knew that something was off. I felt off-kilter, unbalanced, too happy and too excited; but I just couldn’t pinpoint it. Never in my worst nightmare, did I imagine I would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder— the same illness my mother has. After two unsuccessful hospital stays in Baltimore, my family moved me back to my hometown of LA. After four hospital stays, an enormous fight with my family, and a move back to the Bay Area, I finally came off my mania high.

One year has passed and the nightmare still doesn’t feel over. I will give you a small glimpse of what living with Bipolar Disorder has been like for me. After the extreme highs of mania often comes the deep lows of depression. I have been mad at the world for ripping me away from my dreams. For selling me fool’s gold in the form of a graduate program I was never able to do.The medications have changed the shape of my body, such that now I don’t recognize who I see in the mirror. At the darkest moments of this nightmare, I have battled with extreme suicidal thoughts.

I share my pain with you to show you how crucial programs like Unity Care are. Unity Care and its’ awesome employees have held my pain for me as I try to recover. They have connected me with an amazing psychiatrist and my insightful therapist, Sam. I have a caseworker named Patience who is the best caseworker I’ve ever had. In the wake of my Mental Health crisis, I was teetering on homelessness. Thankfully Unity Care has offered me housing with gift cards for food and transportation. Though I would love to tell you I’m all better, I still have my struggles. When I turn 25 this March I will become ineligible for this program and I am terrified about what will happen next. Some people think that just because foster youth get to a certain age they should be able to make it by themselves without help. But that’s not always the case. Even with my degree from Stanford, my diagnosis begs the question: How will I survive in Silicon Valley if I cannot work because of my illness? 

This past year has given me a new lens through which I view my mother and my childhood. I want to be a mother one day, but my illness certainly feels like an obstacle. Questions run through my head like: Am I my mother? Will I be able to be a good mom? But on the other hand I wonder: What resources could have helped my mother? Could she have taken care of me with the right support? These questions are hypothetical, and I know, I cannot go back in time. However, when I think about the young moms I interviewed, there is no doubt in my mind that people with mental health issues and past trauma are just as worthy of living stable lives and raising healthy children. My goal in life is to help mothers, who have mental health issues and past trauma, find the solutions and the tools they need in order to effectively take care of their kids. As I wait for the right time to go back to grad school, I am focusing on my health and well-being.

Since my diagnosis, I have often been told that everything happens for a reason. I’m still not sure what the reason for my diagnosis is. But I know without a shadow of a doubt that I was put on this earth to help my fellow foster youth. I may not know exactly how to get there, but I appreciate your support along the way. Thank you!

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