Vol. 15, No. 2 May 2011
"I just didn't have anybody"
Foster Care Alumni of America’s deputy director explains how she found her own supports
by Misty Stenslie, as told to Represent Magazine
I was in foster care in eight different states growing up. I was in the middle of North Dakota when I actually aged out. I had finished high school early and gone to college when I was 16. So for my first year in college I stayed in a foster home, but then I was on my own.
My last foster parents were very good people and I learned a lot while I was there, but I wasn’t their child. Once I aged out, I wasn’t their responsibility anymore. I just didn’t have anybody.
‘I Need Help!’
I remember when I was 19, I was going to try to make Thanksgiving dinner for the first time, and I didn’t know how. I went shopping at the last minute and all the stores were closed (I didn’t know that stores close early on Thanksgiving).
I ended up going to a gas station convenience store to try to get supplies and I just broke down and started to cry. I was just feeling so sorry for myself, that I didn’t have anybody who could help me, and I was wondering if life was always going to be like that, if I was always going to be alone.
Plus, I didn’t know how to cook a turkey. Sitting in my tiny little apartment, I saw there was a tag on the turkey with a phone number on it to call for help, so I called Butterball. I said, “I’m an orphan, I need help!” They talked to me for a half hour, and the lady told me to call her back later to tell her how it turned out.
That’s a small example of something I did throughout my life: finding other people and other resources that could stand in the place of a family.
Even now, I’m still really careful to keep things at my fingertips. For instance, I always have a membership to AAA, the auto club, so I have someone to call if my car breaks down.
The other thing is I’ve had this ongoing relationship with NPR (National Public Radio) and Time magazine. That’s where I learned a lot of things that I think most people learn at home. I really do see Garrison Keillor and the Car Talk guys (radio hosts) as part of my extended family, even though they’ve never met me.
Having those things consistently there is a source of a lot of comfort for me. I think there’s something to the ritual of it, too. I think rituals are really important to people, and so I’ve brought that to my own life.
Accepting My Grief
Being resourceful has always been one of my strengths. And I think that has a lot to do with why my life has been as good as it has. I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity.
But I still went through times of deep, deep despair. I came to realize that if I took the time out to actually experience that despair for a while, rather than push it to the side, then I could go through it and be done with it.
In the old days I didn’t know that I should do that. I’d be feeling increasingly sad and upset and I’d try to ignore it and it would just leak out anyway. Now I recognize that it makes sense that I would feel some lasting grief and sadness over these things, and there’s no shame in that.
Figuring Out Relationships
As far as developing supportive relationships, it was tough. I spent a lot of time feeling and being very much alone, because I didn’t know how to go about having a truly reciprocal relationship.
I found that I was doing this thing where I’d have polite conversation with somebody and we’d start developing a friendship, and then when the first time came for a real conversation I’d end up telling my life story.
Afterwards I’d feel vulnerable and exposed, and I’d have a hard time knowing how to relate to them now that they knew this stuff about me, and then I wouldn’t follow through with the relationship.
It took a while to figure out it doesn’t feel good to me to do that and I’m not going to do that anymore. I really got lucky to have a couple of friends who called me on it.
Once I learned to not get caught up in my only identity being as some kind of victim, then I had a lot more to offer in a friendship. It was easier because I didn’t feel so vulnerable and the other person didn’t feel so overwhelmed. But those things didn’t come naturally. Therapy has been really helpful.
In early 2000 I got involved in what became Foster Care Alumni of America. For the first time, I was able to look around and realize there are a whole lot of other people like me. Finally finding some role models and some peers was a great relief and a great source of inspiration.
I think it’s part of the culture of foster care to always wonder if you’re worth it. You feel like you were never good enough for your original family, or for any other family. I carried those things around in my own heart without even realizing it.
Then I looked at these other people who I thought were so worthy, and found out they had the same feelings of worthlessness that I did. I could recognize that regardless of how they felt about themselves, they were good, they were loveable. Then I could finally extend that to myself. Connecting to other alumni of foster care has been a new kind of freedom and love and belonging that I never found anywhere before.
Reprinted with permission from Represent, Copyright 2008 by Youth Communication/New York Center, Inc. (www.youthcomm.org).