Thursday, September 15, 2005

Teen Talks About Life After Rape

Teen Talks About Life After Rape
Rochelle C. Eisenberg - SEPTEMBER 16, 2005
Baltimore Jewish Times

Sometimes, journeys take people on paths of self-discovery. Often, these journeys may be spiritual in nature. And sometimes, the journeys come unannounced and unplanned, but when completed, they test the mettle of those who unfortunately must travel them. Hopefully, they pave the way so that others do not have to take similar paths.

This is the story of a journey. Unfortunately, this is a journey that begins with the rape of a young teen.

It is a journey that plunged a Jewish family deep into the depths of darkness, and then allowed it to climb back into the light. At the same time, it is also the tale of a mother. A mother determined to help a daughter she did not recognize. And a local medical community that they say failed them.

Finally, it is a story of hope. A story of a program that the mother says saved her daughter's life.

And a story that ends with the belief that there are no victims but only survivors who move forward.

For a 14-year-old Reisterstown teen named Sharon (not her real name), the devastating chain of events began a month after her bat mitzvah. According to Jewish law and tradition, Sharon had just entered adulthood. It should have been a time for celebration, a time to look forward to young adulthood and the trials and tribulations that accompany this part of life.

But unbeknownst to her, she was about to enter adulthood in a tragic manner she never could have anticipated. On a late summer evening, Sharon was raped by a stranger at knifepoint in a secluded wooded area near railroad tracks located behind the Village of Timbergrove.

A year later, Sharon approached her rabbi and said that she wanted to tell her story to the Baltimore Jewish Times (which has opted not to publish the names of the teen, her mother and her rabbi). She has never reported the rape to police.

"I want people to be more cautious. I want them to watch out," said Sharon. She also hopes that others will stay away from the area where she was raped. (Several Baltimore County Police officers from the Franklin Precinct said they were not aware of other sexual assaults in that area.)

Sharon's rabbi said that her congregant wanted to discuss her case with the media because "she wanted to make sure other girls didn't have to go through what she went through to keep themselves safe. There is often a feeling in the Jewish community that people don't talk about these things.

There is a sense that our lives are perfect. But there is nothing to be ashamed of. You can pass through these trials and come out whole. And there are resources out there and places to get whole again."

Eena Bass-Field is a child and adolescent art psychotherapist at Turnaround Inc., a rape crisis, domestic abuse and sexual assault center that provides therapy, support and legal services to victims. She said when rape victims speak out, they "feel empowered. They take ownership and start to heal."

Ms. Bass-Field, who has counseled Sharon, said she feels that Sharon "wants to help someone else. She wants to let other kids know what happened, and that if they are victims, they don't have to hold back telling others."

That's exactly what Sharon did, at first. As a result, the consequences were dire.

After being raped, Sharon returned home and kept her tragic secret to herself. Sharon – who upon meeting is extremely pleasant and quite open about her ordeal – said, "I wanted to tell people, but I was scared." Shortly thereafter, however, her mother began to see major changes in both Sharon's physical appearance and behavior.

Physically, she adopted a gothic appearance, dying her hair black, wearing heavy black eyeliner and huge skull earrings. She gained 50 pounds over a seven-month period and stopped caring for herself hygienically. She wouldn't even let her mother wash her clothes.

She began communicating with a boy from New York, e-mailing him and running up $100 monthly cell phone bills. He became one of only two friends that she confided in – her only two lifelines.
Emotionally, the changes were even greater. Sharon became belligerent to friends and family members. She attempted suicide three times, swallowing 50 aspirins in one sitting.

"I was super-depressed," said Sharon. "The world revolved around me."

Her mother relates what happened over the next several months – a story of which Sharon said she does not remember all the details.

Desperate, her mother called approximately 25 psychiatrists on her insurance plan, only to find out that none were accepting new clients. Eventually, she located one psychiatrist – only to be told that he would see her daughter in three months.

Finally, a psychiatrist not on the insurance plan diagnosed Sharon with depression and prescribed medication.

Six months from the time of the incident, things were still spiraling downhill. "The only way to describe her was as if something or someone had taken over and possessed her body," said her mother.

Sharon began physically striking her mother. In one instance, her mother remembered, "by the third time, I smacked her and with great difficulty and procrastination, I called 911."

Sharon ended up in the emergency room at an area hospital. She was referred to a mental health facility because she didn't qualify for inpatient services. Five days later, she was released with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and sent home with medication.

The next month, Sharon ran away from home. After 911 was called, she was sent to the same mental health facility for inpatient services. And again, she was treated for bipolar disorder and given more medication.

Finally last March, an incident occurred that perhaps, in and of itself, was no different from the many incidents that played out in Sharon's household before. But somehow, what happened that evening made it clear to Sharon's mother that something had to change if she was going to save her daughter's life.

As Sharon's mother recalled, "It seemed to be a good day." When she arrived home, Sharon greeted her with a friendly hello. But 20 minutes later, Sharon ran away. After Sharon was returned home by the police, a terrifying scene at home unfolded. Sharon hurled obscenities, threatened to hurt others, and pushed her mother and grandfather. Sharon's mother again dialed 911.

Back at the mental health facility and watching her daughter continue to deteriorate, Sharon's mother said, "I knew the cycle between the ER, [the mental health facility], and inpatient hospitalization was going to continue indefinitely."

A new approach was needed – a drastic approach. "I realized I had to send her away," said her mother. Her solution – "brat camp."

Unlike a boot camp, which uses punishment and fear to change behavior, "brat camps" are wilderness-based programs, emphasizing wilderness- survival techniques and interpersonal relationships to foster trust, responsibility and self-esteem. Unlike Outward Bound, these camps use licensed therapists and psychologists to diagnose and provide treatment plans.

Sharon's mother investigated the Ascent Wilderness Intervention Program in Idaho, and after sending Sharon's records, her daughter was accepted. "The program was a last resort to save my daughter's life," said her mother.

Unlike the local psychiatrists who diagnosed Sharon as having bipolar disorder, the therapists at Ascent from the beginning suspected sexual assault. Within two weeks of Sharon's arrival, her mother learned the truth – her daughter was raped.

Things seemed to be finally moving forward when Sharon's mother received another phone call. After 40 years in business, Ascent went bankrupt. Quickly, she was able to get Sharon accepted into RedCliff Ascent, a wilderness therapy program for troubled teens in Utah.

RedCliff Ascent was the site for the first "Brat Camp" documentary, filmed by Twenty Twenty Television in the United Kingdom. The Emmy-winning documentary focused on six United Kingdom participants. A site in Oregon was the scene of the "Brat Camp" series that aired on ABC-TV. The experiences of the teens are similar.

Sharon arrived at RedCliff after two escorts, who were on their way to pick up two other teens from Ascent, brought Sharon to Utah. "I got so nervous. 'What is this place?'" remembered Sharon. And from the beginning, she said, "Me and a friend were talking and wondered, 'Has anyone ever escaped?'"

For 116 days, almost four months, Sharon would stay here, unable to see family and friends, although she was able to correspond by letter.

The program was rigorous. Dinner consisted of rice and lentils, breakfast was oats. The teens were placed in groups, and every day they hiked, sometimes with a 60-pound pack on their backs. There were no showers. Napkins were rationed as toilet paper; once used up, the teens resorted to the bark of trees.

And in order to graduate and see their families again, they had to complete eight phases of the program. The first was to build a fire without using matches.

"It took me 45 days," Sharon said, adding, "when I started the fire, there was such a sense of accomplishment."

Physically, Sharon began to regain her former appearance. In the first week, she lost 10 pounds, the second week another 15.

As she progressed through the phases, Sharon grew stronger. Through the projects, such as learning to build a shelter out of tarp, she realized that she could do anything if she put her mind to it. More importantly, she regained her self-esteem. The staff named her "Dreaming Willow" because Sharon said, "a willow is strong and it knows how to bend. Dreams are safe places."

Meanwhile during Sharon's stay at RedCliff, her mother gave authorization to a psychologist in Utah to perform a full psychological testing on her daughter. The result of the testing determined that Sharon was not bipolar but suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Finally, on a beautiful day in July, Sharon's mother arrived at RedCliff to attend Sharon's graduation. Watching a video as Sharon and her mother embraced for the first time in four months, as a mother saw the glimmer of a daughter she used to know, there is finally, after a year of tragedy, hope that normalcy can return.

"I found self-control and self- confidence," said Sharon, who hopes in the future to counsel other rape victims.

"You don't know the tears that have been shed," said her mother. But now, she said, "it's so good to hear her laugh."

During the long ordeal, one of the things that troubled her mother was Sharon's loss of faith. Every time that they filled out paperwork at the mental health facility, Sharon responded to the question, "What is your religion?" as "I'm an atheist."

Coming so soon after her bat mitzvah, it was particularly difficult for her mother. But when a letter from Sharon arrived from RedCliff asking, "Would you please send me a copy of my Torah portion, the
Shema and Va'ahavtah?" her mother said, "I got so teary-eyed."

Although Sharon still wonders about the existence of a higher power, she plans to read "Who Needs God" by Rabbi Harold Kushner, a gift from her grandmother. Shortly after returning home, she spoke with her rabbi and is beginning to participate in religious life again.

Yet it is the words of her mother – "The honeymoon is over. She is acting like a normal teen" – that might just be the sweetest sentiment to date.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nowhere in that article does it say that the rapist was Jewish.

September 20, 2005 3:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The survivor was Jewish. B'H' she finally got the right kind of help, and her and her family have a chance to do some healing.

September 21, 2005 12:09 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home