I worked in various teenage residential treatment facilities for many years, under many different titles – case manager, behavioral health associate, mental health technician, residential counselor, etc. I never really cared what my handle was – I was there to be an advocate for kids who were in these facilities primarily because they hadn’t had many advocates to begin with. I figured they needed one, because I was finally coming around to realizing that I could have really used one when I was a teenager growing up as a preacher’s kid in the Southern Baptist Church. Not a pastor or priest or youth leader or Sunday school teacher driving the theology down my throat, but someone who actually tried to listen and encourage me to be myself without any other intention, agenda, or mission.
Every kid I knew in church needed a safe adult like that, but the Church just wasn’t a safe place to find those kinds of advocates, and we were taught to distrust teachers or anyone “of the world.” So while I was working with teenagers professionally post my deconstruction, to be an advocate for kids was always my primary intention. Whether it was in behavioral or mental health, rehab, an emergency shelter, para-educator – it didn’t matter: Just tell me what my job description was supposed to be and what paperwork I needed to do for billing; I’d get it all done in record time, just so that I had an opportunity to make connections with kids and try my very best to be a safe place for them. My number one job was always to keep them safe, but I’m of the opinion that no child who doesn’t feel heard will ever feel safe. I learned that from experience.
As I learned the ropes of this line of work, I eventually set two pivotal rules for my own self-care: 1. Never work overtime, unless it is a matter of an emergency; I’d seen too many staff excited to earn extra money eventually quit because they reasonably could not handle the high-stress levels that come with the intensity of a “troubled teen” in crisis. 2. Never take my work home with me; if you were my client, I would be your advocate for eight hours a day, five days a week – and then go home to my dog and my books and my bourbon and shut off all of the day’s stress with all of the self-soothing tools at my disposal. When you are working with kids with debilitating addiction problems, mental health crises, anger issues, PTSD, opposition defiance disorder, reactive attachment disorder, personality disorders, and (unofficially) religious trauma syndrome, every return home was a new adventure in detoxing from some pretty intense interactions.
Throughout my career, I broke that second rule far more often than the first. I was not the guy who you called if you needed a shift filled, but the chances were pretty high that if a day had been really bad for one of my clients, I was likely to carry some of that weight home with me. How can you not, if you’re a human being with any shred of empathy? Still – I’d mostly figured out how to balance work and life. (Writing helps.)
Today, I want to tell you about a time that I broke both of my rules. Details (including names, descriptions, and some genders) have been fudged for confidentiality purposes, but my reasons for breaking either of my rules are 100% accurate.
It was an unusually a warm and sunny Monday – one of my days off for which I had a special ritual. I’d already accomplished the first part of it, which was an omelet from the nearby greasy spoon and a wander up and down the used book store’s stacks. I was sitting on my back porch with my dog, ready to settle into one of my finds, when my cell phone rang. It was work, which meant my first inclination was not to answer. On the other hand, they’d figured out by now that I wasn’t going to take any extra shifts and usually didn’t bother to call me to ask – why the hell were they bothering me? My curiosity can be impulsive, and it was on that day.
It was one of the clinicians, “Chloe,” from the behavioral health treatment center where I was currently a residential counselor. She seemed pretty distressed. “Hey, Danél,” she said apologetically. “I know you hate to be called on your days off, but we’re out of ideas. It’s about Mindy.”
My heart quickened a little. “Mindy” was one of the clients whose case I managed – from a small town north of our little town. Being one of the only agencies in the state to offer residential services, we got teens from all over. Mindy’s case had been typical of so many of the kids that came to our facility – a history of drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, teenage rebellion that had her parents at their wit’s end, an increasingly thorough criminal record. She’d understandably come into treatment with an attitude that this place wasn’t going to help her; during her first several weeks there, she caused a lot of trouble, riled everyone up as often as she could, AWOLed a few times, and was generally not interested in any of the help that we were offering.
Unlike many of the others, she’d actually come around and started opening up when it became increasingly clear to her that there were some of us staff there who weren’t in it for their Medicaid – that we were actually trying to listen and to help. The turning point came about a month prior to Chloe’s phone call; after talking to her and her parents and studying her case file thoroughly, I thought I’d put some pieces of Mindy’s puzzle together, and I was resolved to take a chance and carefully told her so. It was risky, but if I was right about suspicions, I hoped that hearing someone else say it out loud would be a turning point for her. It was either that or her inevitable transfer to a higher-leveled facility, in which most kids were simply prepped for a life of incarceration. Mindy deserved better than that.
I talked Mindy through the process of my detective work. She knew that I had weekly telephone meetings with her parents, in which we talked about how she was doing. They were mostly accusatory and blunt, frustrated that we hadn’t “fixed” their daughter yet. After a few conversations with them over the weeks that nearly always began with their regular ramble about her many transgressions for which they were so ashamed, I noticed a consistency in their narrative about their daughter’s plight: Before the alcohol and the drugs, Mindy had started with lying. That’s exactly how her parents had put it – “all the lies, all the time.”
The sequence of troubling behavior always matters. This one suggested to me that whether or not Mindy was telling the truth, the most important element here is that she’d told her parents things that they hadn’t believed. So I asked them what her lies had been. They were hesitant to tell me at first – but when they finally did, it all started to make sense.
Sometimes, all it takes is knowing that someone is willing not only to listen, but to believe you. Feeling validated is such an important step toward healing. While I was cautiously telling Mindy what I knew about her “lies” and relaying my hypothesis to her about her story, I thought maybe I’d accidentally broken her – she just kept shrinking deeper and deeper onto the treatment center’s back porch where sometimes we’d sit and check in. But then I’d said it all, bitten my lip, and cautiously watched Mindy’s face break out into this look that I’d never seen in her before. Terror had lived in those eyes for a while, and anger; now, I detected a ghost of relief. “How close am I?” I said.
She was quiet for a long time, processing everything I’d just said about the breadcrumbs I’d followed that led to this conversation. Then she sighed deeply. “It didn’t just happen once. It was happening for a long time,” she finally said, quietly – and then with a little more confidence: “But at least all the drugs and drinking kept me out of church.” I thought she was going to burst into tears, but she didn’t. She didn’t shrink – she sat up, straightened herself out, and filled in the gaps I’d missed. I’d been pretty damn close.
Mindy had left that conversation with a long way to go, but at least now she was in the company of someone who wasn’t going to call her a liar. From there, it was a matter of encouraging her to increase her number of allies and tell her story to her clinician Chloe, who I knew really cared about these kids (like all the clincians who did, she didn’t last long at this facility). After that, it was a little group of us collaborating, making all the right reports, figuring out a path forward both physically and emotionally. Through it all, Mindy started healing – nearly overnight, in fact. It’s one of the fastest turnarounds in a treatment center – one of the ONLY turnarounds – that I’ve ever witnessed. The first step is always, always, ALWAYS being believed.
So on my day off, when I heard Chloe speak Mindy’s name with this kind of urgency in her voice, a panic began to swell inside of me. “What’s going on with Mindy?”
“She got a reply,” Chloe answered.
My panic turned into more a flush. “Did she? That was quicker than I expected. What did it say?”
“She didn’t tell me,” Chloe said. “But it wasn’t good.”
“No. She’s locked herself in a room. She says she has a razor blade, and that she will only talk to you. We’ve tried everything else. Our options are now to either call the police…”
“Or I come in and talk to her.” I already knew what I was going to do.
“I’m sorry,” Chloe said sincerely. “It’s not fair to ask, and that’s putting you in a really shitty position. But…”
This trashy book from the used book store was going to have to wait, and the bourbon I was just about to pour would keep. “I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I said.
For every moment of that drive, I swirled it all around and around in my head – dreading to learn the contents of the letter Mindy had received that day. What a critical step it had been in her reclaiming her life, her heart, her body; how quickly that reclaiming can be rocked when reminded of the abuse we’ve experienced that can make us feel like nothing. Had all of our work been reset with whatever this letter told her?
We’d still been working on Mindy’s parents. As of that day, they refused to believe that any of it could actually be true. It’s the same when so many Truths to which we cling start to crumble: Sometimes we think it is better to refuse to accept one clear truth, simply because to do so would be to shake the foundations of every other truth that we’ve ever been taught to believe. I felt that fear in the very depths of myself for many years as I was trying to untangle the knots that had been my religious upbringing. I understood why Mindy’s parents didn’t want to believe what she’d been trying to tell them, even though it was clearly their responsibility as her parents to do so.
I also understood that this young woman had all the symptoms, all the red flags, and none of the bluffs that I’d been trained to look for. I completely believed every part of her story. And I was at a point in my own spiritual journey – I’d walked away from faith ages ago, but had not yet reached an awareness of my own residual religious trauma – where it wasn’t difficult for me to believe that this kind of thing happened on a regular basis, all over the world. It was clearly a goddamned pandemic.
The letter Mindy had written had been such an important first step toward her healing, because she’d had the courage to tell her story and was at the point where she was willing to hold someone other than herself accountable for it. And she’d picked the right people from whom to ask for that accountability – the only people who could have done something to help the most. Mindy was just a warrior like that – she cut straight to the gut punch, every time. Group therapy was always something to see with her, the way she called kid after kid on their bullshit. She didn’t have another moment to waste feeling sorry for herself or anyone. She wanted to write the Church Diocese, so Chloe and I helped her draft the letter.
The letter Mindy had written hadn’t been accusatory, vindictive, or even angry. She’d just briefly told her story, and she asked what steps could be taken to make sure that something like this would never happen again to anyone else. I’d been so proud of her when I put it in the mail for her for choosing to have so much grace, because had I been in her shoes, I wouldn’t have. Sometimes I wonder if the Church in any of its manifestations finds anyone more threatening than someone trying to hold them accountable in the most Christ-like of ways.
I more or less put together the contents of the Church’s reply to Mindy by the time I pulled into work. So have you, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock and are unaware of the long, rampant history of enabling, protecting, and covering up sexual abuse against minors within the Catholic Church – of which Mindy and her whole family had been long-standing members. I felt a little foolish that I hadn’t prepared myself for the possibility that they were actually going to write back, especially so soon. Now that I was at the treatment center, I wasn’t even sure what I was going to say to her – but it wasn’t difficult to understand why I was there.
All the other clients had been taken into the gym, so Mindy was all by herself in the center with just a handful of staff waiting outside her door. They looked a little relieved to see me, since it meant that they could get on with their day – and a few of them legitimately cared about these kids. I nodded at them all, shrugged apologetically, and watched for Chloe to catch up before I knocked on Mindy’s door. “Hey, Kiddo. It’s me.”
“Yep. What’s going on?”
“What’d they tell you?”
“That you got the letter, that you’re only opening the door for me.”
“That’s all they told you?”
“They told me about the razor too. Do you have one?”
“No. I was lying.”
“Are you sure? It’s okay if you have a razor. We just don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“I don’t have a razor,” she said a little defensively. “Where the hell would I get a razor, Danél?”
“You’re pretty clever, Mindy. But if you say you don’t have one, I believe you.”
“Okay, great. Thanks.” She was pacing in there, with the bed pushed against her door so we couldn’t open it. It hardly mattered if she had a razor or not – few rooms are completely devoid of things with which you could use to hurt yourself. Mindy was pretty clever, after all.
“So you got the letter?” I said.
“Yeah, I got the letter.”
“That was quick.”
“It’s not very long. It has the official seal on it and everything though.”
“Do you mind if I ask what it said?”
“Yeah, you can ask.”
“What’s it say?”
“Stupid bullshit,” Mindy spat. And she actually went on and read it out loud to quickly settle the matter. Only Chloe and I were close enough to hear its contents, and when Mindy was done reading it, my fist pressed firmly against my mouth to keep myself from screaming and Chloe’s eyes were red hot with boiling tears.
The letter’s contents were pretty brief, and they could have been (and probably were) copied and pasted from a generic template. For Mindy’s unspecified sins against the Church, they were excommunicating her. But the Church would be more than willing to accept her back into its gracious arms if she ever turned her heart over to repentance. Not one word of apology or accountability. Not even a sadness expressed for the pain that she suffered. I knew that any reply the Church sent her was going to be dismissive – but I hadn’t expected it to be so vulgarly cruel and completely indifferent.
A palpable silence settled. What possible response would have sufficed? Finally, after many deep breaths, I pulled myself together. “Mindy. I am so… so very sorry.”
“Don’t apologize for it,” she said.
I’ve always wondered if she knew just how much her retort there resonated as a man who had once been a Southern Baptist preacher and youth pastor who now sometimes wondered if I hadn’t taken this job in part as a kind of penance. At the time, I think I just answered, “Okay, I won’t. What do you want to do?”
She was so calm. “I want to hurt myself.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. What’s another thing that you want to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“May I make a suggestion?”
She and Chloe had been working on this therapeutic ritual in which Mindy would write something bothering her on a piece of paper, crumple it up, and toss it into the river’s little pathway in the forest behind the center. Apparently, it had been quite useful – or maybe Mindy just liked walking down to the water (who doesn’t?). I said,“You want to throw that letter in the river?”
She thought about it. “Will you come with me?”
“I mean, I can’t let you go out there by yourself. A staff has to go with you anyway. So yeah, I’ll do it.”
“Isn’t this your day off?”
“Kid, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do today than help you throw that letter into the goddamned river,” I said. I remembered one of the critical days after I’d left the Church, when I symbolically buried my Bible in the back yard and then pissed on it to make sure I hadn’t summoned lightning from heaven. When nothing had happened, I began to actually feel hope that I was free. So I added, “Maybe bring some other shit to throw in too.”
She did. In the end, she stuffed all of the reminders of her Catholic upbringing into a box – crosses, rosaries, drawings she’d made, little saints, her Bible, all of it. And I don’t have to tell anyone who has been religious how profound her connection to it all had been, despite of the abuse that she had survived for years from the Catholic priest who had baptized her little brothers and taught her how to pray. At the river’s curve, she scared away the ducks by throwing in everything she had left that reminded her of the way that the Church had decided to protect their priest over the girl he had confirmed into their army. With every rosary, cross, and symbol of her abuse tossed in, she seemed to be just a little less shackled.
Her Bible went last, and its deep, hollow splash was so satisfying to us both. Mindy’s very Catholic aunt had given her this Bible, and she’d written an inscription within promising to pray for Mindy every day. Mindy hated that aunt; when the Bible sank deep and then emerged from its baptism further down the river – soaked and ruined and still swimming – Mindy defiantly cheered.
We cried loudly, we screamed at the top of our lungs, we laughed maniacally. Don’t tell anyone this – but we even had a cigarette. As we sat at the river and smoked, Mindy turned to me and said, “Do you believe in God?”
“This isn’t about me,” I said.
“Yeah, I know – but I really would like to know, just because I’m wondering myself. Do you believe in God?”
I thought about it for a long time. Because honestly, I wasn’t sure. I enjoyed the concepts of pantheism, that the universe is really just a single consciousness experiencing itself subjectively through ever particle of life. We are all but thoughts that build off all the thoughts that came before it, and we end so that more thoughts can be born. As a writer, that metaphor gives me a more profound sense of connection to something bigger than me than the Christian narrative ever did. Some days I felt that connection more than others. On that day by the river, ironically, it felt a little more real. I said, “I don’t believe in a God that the people who raised us would recognize as God. I don’t think it’s found in the churches you and I grew up in.”
It was the first time I’d ever indicated to her that I had a sense of the pain she’d experienced that was more than simply professional empathy. I’d never before suggested to a client that I’d had a past at all before I started working with them – I’m supposed to be here for them, not the other way around. But I very carefully worded it, so that she would at least understand that though I could never fully comprehend the depths of her suffering, I had an understanding of the profound sense of betrayal that she felt – against both a system that had failed her and parents who were supposed to be loyal to their children over the Church. We never talked about it, but I think she’d always detected this injury in me – simply because it takes someone who feels your pain to fight as passionately for her behalf as I’d tried to do for her. Also, kids are so observant and intuitive.
“I don’t think I believe in God,” she said after a while, without a trace of doubt in her voice. “I think it’s all just lies that people make up to control other people. It’s just a big lie. Doesn’t mean shit. We’ve all been lied to.”
“I don’t think you’re wrong at all,” I said.
Mindy shrugged. “And if God IS real – well, he’s a dick for letting this happen to me. So fuck him.”
I nodded. “Fuck him, if this is the best he could do in his divine omnipotence.”
She nodded. She wasn’t wilting at all, not shrinking into the ground like she always did when she first arrived at treatment. She was sitting up straight, her defiant eyes burning. She was even smiling a little. “Yeah – what an asshole. They’re all assholes.”
Christians talk about leaving all of their worries at the foot of the cross, surrendering our will to Christ completely so that he would take up our burdens and carry them for us. Watching that teenage warrior on that day, I found a better place to leave them: Never again at the foot of a God who would give you burdens just so that you’d surrender them to him, but rather tossed into a river and lost down the stream so that they no longer had any power over you. It remains one of the most profound moments of my life, and I’ve never regretted breaking my work rules for it. If leaving evangelicalism taught me anything, it’s that all rules should be deconstructed eventually.
Stories like this don’t exactly have happy endings, but I will say that this one found light at the end of its tunnel — at least for Mindy. Once more kids in Mindy’s hometown started coming forward about being abused by this priest, the Church whisked the offending priest away to someplace safe where he most certainly lived to molest another day. It became an investigation that got stacked into a pile of countless investigations just like it of assaultive priests that the Catholic Church continues to protect over their nameless and countless victims. But I must give Mindy’s parents credit: In all my years working in treatment centers, I’ve never encountered guardians who were sincerely more sorry for not keeping their child safe. They begged her forgiveness, and what do you know – without any remaining faith in God or the Church, she forgave them. Mindy’s parents took their whole family far, far away from that place and started over – and never went back to Church. It’s been a while since I’ve heard anything, but last time I checked, Mindy was clean, sober, and healing in a safe place.
I’ve never met warriors like the teenagers I’ve met in treatment centers. I often think of so many of them with such pride. Not all of them made it, but Mindy did.
I want to conclude this entry with a brief epilogue: Last month, German law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl published a report that was commissioned by the Catholic Church. It concluded that between 1977 – 1982, Cardinal Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, failed to adequately take action against clerics in four cases of alleged abuse. Ratzinger was Archbishop of Munich and Freising at the time of the abuse. It is one of many reports irrefutably linking the Pope Emeritus to cover-ups of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church, and it is certainly not the first time that he has denied the accusations. Even when he acknowledges that the Church has committed wrongdoing (and he does), he denies that he personally committed any wrongdoings. He simply was not aware.
It does make one wonder what exactly God and the Pope, who is supposed to be God’s mouth and conduit here on Earth, talk about if they’re not chatting up the decades and decades of rampant child sex trafficking clearly linked to the Vatican’s highest-ranking officials. Perhaps instead, God and the Pope discuss that Catholic priest in Arizona who resigned in disgrace last week when he realized he’d been wording baptism prayers wrong for sixteen years, rendering them all invalid and the souls of those he’d baptized in peril. In his resignation letter, offending reverend Andres Arango sorrowfully wrote: “It saddens me to learn that I have performed invalid baptisms throughout my ministry as a priest by regularly using an incorrect formula. I deeply regret my error and how this has affected numerous people in your parish and elsewhere.”
Yeah, that’s probably exactly what the Pope and God talk about. Because as one teenage warrior once put it to me: They’re all assholes.