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Now in grad school, Yssabella recalls the help she received at Germaine Lawrence Campus

November 1, 2013


My name is Yssabella and I graduated from Germaine Lawrence in the spring of 2008. I am here today to let you know how Germaine Lawrence made a difference in my life and how your support helps to save and better the lives of girls in need.

Girls come to the Youth Villages-Germaine Lawrence Campus for a number of reasons. All of us have faced burdens that require us to need extra support. These burdens – whether they are mental health issues, eating disorders, the impact of abuse, neglect, exploitation or other trauma – have taken our ability to make healthy decisions and instead, we have resorted to negative coping skills.

My struggles prior to coming to Germaine Lawrence stemmed from an early childhood trauma that I didn’t want to face or tell anyone about and that I simply didn’t know how to deal with. It made me feel ashamed and ruined. It changed my life in every way imaginable. I began to act out in self-destructive ways by getting involved in the wrong crowd. By age 14, a freshman in high school, I was going out and drinking with people older than me that I hardly knew. I had tricked myself into believing that I didn’t care. Self-destruction was easier and helped distract me from having to face my thoughts and feelings.

My substance abuse took me to a place where I was unable to identify with myself or my feelings. I didn’t really see it coming, my eating disorder. In 2003 I began to fall into a deep depression and the weight starting to come off. It felt strangely powerful and validating, like I had control over something and could see the results as proof. To me the proof was in the protrusion of my bones, the blue under my nails and the comments from family and friends. For once I felt safe and “content.” I withdrew from the world because who was I to take up space in it? I began to actually fear food. Sometimes I would wish that for once I could eat a meal to stop the hunger for a little bit, but picking up the fork was a battle I didn’t have the strength to fight, and I couldn’t ask for help.

Inevitably I wound up in the hospital at a dangerously low weight. There they stabilized my body by making me eat and gain back enough weight for insurance to say I was good to go. In and out I went through the revolving doors of treatment facilities and hospitals about 9 times in the next three years starting when I was 15. Every time I came home, I would immediately check to make sure I could still feel my fingers touch around my arm, just to make sure I was still small enough. Anorexia is a very powerful illness, much like an addiction. It captures you entirely and gives you the illusion that with it you are strong, content, and resilient, when in reality you are far from any of these things.

At the time, my parents were going through a separation. My dad moved out and so my younger brother, sister, and I lived with my mother who was struggling with alcoholism. I felt responsible for her problems, and I worried about the effect that all of my struggles were having on my siblings. Sometimes my mom would leave and not come home for days. I hated how she treated us when she was drinking. Needless to say I did not do well in this environment.I constantly worried about being an extra burden on my already struggling family, and that was the last thing I wanted to be.

I was in the hospital again for a low weight when my school, my doctors and my family, decided I needed something more than the short-term help I had been getting.They told me that I would be going to Germaine Lawrence after I was discharged. I cried and begged and promised to get better. I felt like I could get better on my own but deep down I knew I couldn’t. What I was really doing was fighting the people who loved me because I was terrified of losing the illness that was killing me. I began scheming up ways to sneak out of the hospital and run away. But I didn’t.

I remember that first day at Germaine Lawrence like it was yesterday. It was around lunchtime and even though I told the staff I had eaten already at the hospital, they didn’t buy it. I had to eat pizza! I couldn’t even remember the last time I ate something like that. It was terrifying. I swore at the table, and the counselor who was supervising me said language like that would earn me consequences. I rolled my eyes, and she told me that this also would earn me consequences. It was going to be a long year.

Later that day, I met Maureen, the nurse, who told me what weight I had to get to before I would be able to go on activities and home passes, and that at Germaine Lawrence, I had to choose my own foods. I burst out in tears and told her that she was nuts. I told her I was obviously just going to lose the weight again after I left so this was just a waste of time. She also told me that everyone cries when they first come to Germaine Lawrence but that they also cry when they leave, which seemed both ridiculously hilarious and extremely infuriating. But, surprisingly, she was right, and she became a support that I could confide in, which was both good and bad – because every time something was wrong, she knew it.

At Germaine Lawrence there is constant structure and endless restrictions, which create little room for withdrawing and hiding. I had to face my thoughts, feelings and fears and start to discover who I was.

See, the thing about anorexia is that once you’re within its grasp it feels like that’s who you are. It’s a scary feeling and hard to describe, but for me, I was convinced that I didn’t need anyone, nor did I deserve to take up space.

The staff at Germaine Lawrence was fully invested in making sure I knew that I mattered to not only to my family and loved ones but also to them. It was evident in their dedication and acts of thoughtfulness. Numerous staff took the time to sit with me one on one and really listen to my issues. They didn’t give up on me when I had a rough weekend at home, or when I found a way to self-harm. Instead, on days when I would try to isolate and withdraw from the recovery process, they would come to my room or pull me aside and try to break down my walls. When I stormed out of the room on my birthday and refused to have a piece of my cake, one of the counselors I was close to came and talked with me as I drank my meal replacement (cake would have been much better!).

In addition to giving me support during rough times, the staff at Germaine Lawrence also helped me discover and pursue things that I was passionate about. Staff knew I wanted to go to art school, so my art teacher Colleen took a classmate and me to National portfolio day at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design with the portfolios we compiled over the year. I gained exposure to many art schools and got offered a spot at one that day! My art teacher’s confidence in me fueled my own self-confidence, and I felt so accomplished and hopeful on that day.

And it was the little things that kept my spirit up throughout my recovery process, like going swimming at Walden Pond, playing basketball, learning how to knit a sock, doing yoga, and on my last night being given a towel with my name inscribed on it from Libby, a faithful volunteer who read us bed time stories once a week.

Slowly during my stay at Germaine Lawrence, I got better. I gained weight and learned to eat again. In group therapy I found that the giving advice to my friends enabled me to articulate my logical thoughts that always got mixed in with emotions when applied to my own problems. Individual therapy helped me come to terms with a lot of the unresolved issues I had tried so hard to run from for so many years. On my last day at Germaine Lawrence, I cried.

My transition home was hard, and the first few months had their ups and downs, but in the end, I had the support systems and tools that I needed to get through it. I felt comfortable calling for support when I was lonely or overwhelmed. Using coping skills like deep breathing, listening to music, drawing, or going for a walk was almost automatic because I had become used to making time to practice them every day at Germaine Lawrence. I still use them now, to deal with everyday stresses like school or work.

I graduated high school and entered college. I started out studying art, like I had planned, but as I grew older, I realized I didn’t want for my dad to have to support me. I switched to accounting, something practical that I ended up really loving. I am now a graduate student at Suffolk University, earning my masters in accounting and, as of two days ago, I’m halfway through the CPA exams!

I wouldn’t be here today or have graduated from high school, made it through college or be in grad school if it wasn’t for Germaine Lawrence and people like you. With your help, the Germaine Lawrence staff was able to provide me with the support and resources I needed to recover. I’m not sure how to articulate my gratitude for your support, but I want you to know that it is genuine and immense, and I am honored to be able to speak directly to you today. I cannot thank you enough for helping make all of this possible for me and for so many other girls whose lives have been changed at Germaine Lawrence. Thank you!

There are many more girls out there who need you.

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