My ghosts

My childhood robbed me of being a kid.

I was on survival mode every day.

I was removed from my crack-addicted mother when I was six years old and raised in the foster care system. I lived in three foster homes and one girl’s group home for teen moms.

The system may have saved my life, but that is all it did. Only my basic needs were met.

I lived with a preacher, a bus driver, a mailman and a daycare provider. I could not pick my foster parents, the same way I could not pick my birth mother.

I ended up in the care of people a lot like my mom. They were emotionally distant, bitter women who had suffered abuse as children. They were stuck with their own pain. Foster parenting, work and family provided a way for them to be distracted. Some of the men in their lives were cheaters, gamblers and, at times, violent. The women chose men who took advantage of them.

I knew how to spot dysfunction because I was in survival mode. I learned to assess danger when I lived with my biological family, where things could go from bad to worse without warning.

We lived in Dogtown, a neighborhood of Oakland, California. A typical day would start off with the adults drinking tall cans of cheap beer and wine. It would begin with laughter, but after the adults had been drinking and getting high all day and all night things would often get violent. They argued and fought over almost anything. The police were called to my house often.

I learned to listen and watch the adults and behave accordingly. If they were drunk and talkative, I would mimic their behavior and try to make adult conversation with them; if they were happy I would make jokes; if they were angry and violent, most likely all seven of my cousins and me would be into some sort of mischief. We tried to compete with the adults in the house. We never said words to each like “I am scared”, so we acted out on our anxiety. We fought with each other a lot.

I behaved the same way in the foster homes. I was an actor. Very rarely was I able to relax and be myself — a child in a lot of pain.

I knew that the foster parents were not emotionally equipped to help me. I coped by telling stories about things that had happened in my old house, jokingly and showing no emotions. This helped me get a sense of who I was living with, because many times my foster parents would start talking about the abuse and neglect that they had endured as children. I would try to comfort them. In my biological household I had been the child who cared for hungover adults and told the drunks that they were going to be alright.

I experienced abuse and neglect in some of my placements, but I never reported it to Child Protective Services. I kept the code of silence I learned early in life: you did not tell, because if you did you never knew the consequences. And there was not a day when I did not think about the things that had happened to me. I missed my family and worried about them a great deal. If it were left to me as I child I would have stayed there and endured the abuse. I could accept it from my family.

As an adult I am angry. I never got any mental health services while in the system. I cannot actually recall any adult who took the time to find out what was really going on with me.

When I was twelve years old, I began to use self-destructive behaviors to cope with what I can now identify as mental health issues. I got suspended from school, usually for fighting. I started drinking and smoking weed. I eventually dropped out of school altogether, even though when I applied myself I was always an A student. I had high levels of anxiety, and sadness about my childhood. Social workers used the “feel sorry for you” approach, and this did not work for me. They would allow me to express my anger, but they never tried to make me look at my behavior and responsibilities.

It may seem harsh to some, but I believe I should have started mental health counseling and treatment by the time I was ten years old. You see all these problems had been implanted in me during the critical times of my brain development. It was only a matter of time until I would begin acting on them. I want children to have access to mental health services, regardless of their ability to pay.

I have five kids of my own now. I choose to parent consciously. My kids have seen the good, the bad and the ugly sides of me. I have had to work on my issues alongside of my children, and at times we have been very isolated. It wasn’t until five years ago that I entered into counseling and began to address my childhood pain. It has been very helpful. I have no family to turn to and am constantly seeking outside help, because the adults I grew up with are no longer living.

Yokia Mason is a community health outreach worker at Alameda County Public Health Department. Her story is the subject of Ghost in the Cell, a new long-form article on the science of trauma. The article is available for 99c on the MATTER website and at Amazon.