From Near Death to a Better Life

by Chantel Jackson

When I was 4, I watched my father get arrested in our living room. I didn’t see or hear from him until five years later. My mom moved on to another man, and my sister and I got two little brothers. When my mom and their father broke up, the five of us moved to Queens. There, “the Fab Five” lived on our own—until my mom got involved with Michael. 

He was an alcoholic, and my mom started drinking with him. He physically abused her, and my brothers’ father called Child Protective Services. When I was 14, my brothers went to live with their father, and my sister and I went into foster care. 

I grew tired of my mom coming to supervised visits with an empty mug and a black eye, so I stopped showing up. 

Then I got the call that she had killed Michael. I Googled her name and there were the headlines. I swallowed a bottle of Advil PMs and woke up in the hospital almost two days later. 

‘Better Help’

Strangely, it seemed like nobody figured out that I had tried to kill myself. The doctor didn’t try to pump my stomach (which might have prevented liver damage), ask me what happened, or wonder why I was asleep for so long. He suggested I go somewhere to “get better help,” and before I knew it I was strapped to a stretcher. 

An hour later, I arrived at a psych ward on Long Island. It felt like a jail where they shoved medication down your throat, and if you didn’t take it, you stayed longer. Not only were we drugged without our consent, but most of the girls said they’d been admitted for angry outbursts rather than actual mental illnesses. 

It was the worst month of my life—and I’d had some pretty bad months. They kept the doors locked at all times. There were only two bathrooms, which we had to use one at a time even though there were two toilets in each. 

If you gave the staff a hard time or lashed out at your peers, you got “booty juice” (a huge needle of tranquilizer in your buttock). We earned small privileges or “levels” when we complied. At level one you got to choose something from the closet, usually hair braiding supplies or art supplies. At level two you got an ice cream sundae after your lunch, and at level three you received a fast food meal. 

I was prescribed Vistaril for my anxiety and Prozac for my depression. At first the medications had no effect, but when they upped my dosages, the side effects became unbearable. I got migraines so bad I couldn’t sleep. I also suffered such severe nausea that I threw up everything I ate. 

While in the psych ward I received a phone call from my foster mother. She said, “I think you need a new environment,” and that I shouldn’t live with her anymore. That didn’t surprise me: She had been dropping hints that she was through with me before I was admitted. 

After I was discharged from the hospital, I was sent to a bad home that I left almost immediately. Then I was placed in a beautiful home in Brooklyn with a nice foster mother. She introduced me to her extended family and included me in all their events. She would cook three meals a day for me, even bringing me food in my room on a tray. She told people that I was her daughter, not her foster daughter. 

But it was a façade. On birthdays and holidays, I received nothing. We never did any mother-daughter things like shopping or getting our hair and nails done. Her boyfriend lived there with us even though he wasn’t supposed to. And then I figured out she was stealing from me. 

“Samantha, how much is my monthly allowance?” I asked my caseworker in front of my foster mom. 

“Well, you’re 15 now, so you would be getting $120.” 

My foster mother’s eyes widened, and she quickly said, “Oh I knew how much, I just wanted to give it to her week by week.” She saw me roll my eyes at her lie; we both knew she was pocketing my money. 

Things got worse. She bought less and less for me, and even stopped cooking. Without an adult to trust, I ran the streets. I stopped caring if I progressed in life. 

Molly: A Bad Friend 

I’d always done well in school, but now I skipped so much I stopped carrying a book bag. For a while I still attended school in Queens, but around March of my sophomore year, I was kicked out and transferred to a school in Brooklyn. On my second day there, the metal detector found the knife I’d been carrying for a few years. 

I got suspended for two months but never returned. Instead of going to school, I took the train to Queens to meet up with my friends to get high, fight, and get in trouble. School was nowhere in my peripheral. 

I’d already been smoking weed for about two years, and at 16, I started experimenting with other drugs. Molly became my best friend. One day a guy I met on a dating app offered to pay my cab fare to his place. He said he had everything I liked: weed, liquor, and molly, so I accepted his offer. 

He lived in Park Slope, a high-class area of Brooklyn. My cab stopped in front of what looked like a mansion. Inside I went up spiral steps made of marble, in shock at the wealth. The inside of his place looked as good as the outside. In his bedroom was a glass table with a bottle of Patrón, an eighth of weed, and lots of crushed-up molly. On the wall was the biggest flat-screen TV I’ve ever seen. 

He told me to make myself at home. I sat down, kicked my shoes off and began crushing down the weed. I put the molly on my tongue, and soon I couldn’t hear him talking or the music on the TV or anything else. All I could see was a blur, like a lake when the wind blows ripples across the surface. After that, the room began to slowly spiral and that’s the last thing I remember. 

This was at the end of August, but when I woke up it was September. There were needles in my arms, which were covered in bruises. A nurse came in. I tried to stand up but fell to the floor. The nurse helped me up and said, “Slow down, you’ve been asleep for some time, so it may be a little hard to walk right now.” I learned that my liver and kidneys were failing when I was brought in, so they put me in an induced coma. Three days later I regained consciousness. 

My Life Into Focus 

I didn’t feel anything at first because my mind wasn’t there with my body. But a couple of days later, I had an epiphany. I thought that if I’d died, I’d have been a stereotypical minority foster kid: No one would have known or cared about my story. I vowed to get my sh-t together regardless of my struggles. 

I had no family or support system, but that didn’t have to stop me from trying to be successful. School had always played a big part in my life: In 4th grade, I cried when I got my first B. I knew I was capable of succeeding. 

I decided to start with a clean slate for my junior year back at the school in Brooklyn. The day before the first day of school, I went to get my schedule and ran into the principal, Dr. Steele. He took me upstairs to his office. He said he knew I was the girl who got suspended for a weapon and never returned. We had a long talk about what had happened to me and what I wanted to do with my life. 

I told him that I’d wanted to study psychology at Spelman College since 6th grade because the science of the brain was fascinating to me. I told him I worried that I wouldn’t get into any colleges because of my terrible record, but he encouraged me to work to the best of my abilities. He told me as long as I came in every day, he would make sure I graduated. 

I was willing to do whatever it took to graduate on time. I had a full day of classes Monday through Friday, plus night classes twice a week, and three classes on Saturdays. I isolated myself, avoiding my old friends in Queens. I quit smoking weed and didn’t replace the phone I’d lost, so I could really focus. 

I grew more at peace with myself. Stuff wouldn’t tick me off as much and I started to let things go. Having a lot of alone time allowed me to figure out how I really wanted to live my life. It helped me realize who I would keep close and who couldn’t be in my bubble anymore. When a situation heated up, I kept my distance because the drama wasn’t helping me graduate on time. 

Inspiration, Determination 

Dr. Steele was a middle-aged black man with a PhD. I thought, if he overcame the stereotypes and obstacles, why couldn’t I? I ended my junior year with an 87 on my global history Regents exam, a 66 on my English, an 85 average, and 30 credits. It was the proudest I’d been in a long time. 

My senior year, I had to do the same routine to get the last 14 credits I needed. I retook my English Regents exam and got a 94. I passed my U.S. history Regents exam with an 85. 

I got accepted to three colleges and was also accepted into the Dorm Project, a program that pays for foster kids to live on campus and helps with almost everything else we need. I began dorming at the College of Staten Island in August 2017. 

I had hoped for diversity, acceptance, and new experiences in the dorm. Instead, there were tons of people from my first high school, including girls I’d fought. People asked if I was emo or listened to rock music because of how I dressed and my apparently standoffish demeanor. I felt like I was in high school all over again and knew I didn’t want to live like that for four years. 

Toward the end of my first semester, I got into an altercation with one of the RAs and got kicked out of the dorm. I received no grades for that semester. I had to find a place to live, and I ended up with my grandmother in the Bronx, the place I’d been avoiding my whole time in foster care. She’s a spiteful person, and my seven months living there were hell on Earth, which is why I’d never communicated with her before my mother got arrested. By the grace of God, my caseworker found me a new home on Staten Island. 

Though living with my grandmother was bad, I did at least get time to myself and discovered my talent for poetry and love of writing. I was about to sign myself out of care and move to Miami with my girlfriend, but my former Dorm Project tutor reached out to me and told me to reapply and go back to school. I’ll leave my Staten Island home to dorm again starting in August. I’ll be in a different dorm with a calmer atmosphere that’ll hopefully help me progress and stay focused in my classes. 

My traumas don’t dictate who I am. They shape me, but I have the power to decide that I wasn’t made for the streets and the streets weren’t made for me. The old Chantel wasn’t me; in fact, she was a phase I outgrew. She was angry, hateful, manipulative, and didn’t care about anything or anyone. The new Chantel is vibrant, helpful, calm, and encouraging. There are still things I have to work on—nobody’s perfect—but since the overdose I’ve figured out how to change for the better. 

Learn From Chantel’s Turnaround

Discussion Questions

  1. Throughout her life, what situations make Chantel give up? Can you see a pattern?
    Chantel gives up when adults let her down: She stops visiting her mother when her mother won’t leave her abusive boyfriend; she attempts suicide when her mother commits murder; she “ran the streets” and “stopped caring if I progressed in life” when her foster mother stops taking care of her. She gets into drugs without an adult to care about her. 
  2. What makes Chantel retake control of her life? How does her relationship to herself change?
    After the overdose, Chantel looks at her own life from a more mature perspective. She decides to double down on school, reaching out to her principal, an adult she knows is invested in her success. 
    Though it’s important to get help and to trust trustworthy people, Chantel gets a lot of strength from solitude. She pulls back from her gangbanging friends; she doesn’t replace her lost phone; she avoids conflicts, “because the drama wasn’t helping me graduate on time.” When she’s back with her grandmother, who’s “spiteful,” instead of acting out again, she stays to herself and writes. By studying her own life, she finds more control and the power to be who she wants to be. 
  3. What motivates you the most? Do you draw strength from being alone and figuring things out? From talking things through with others? From encouragement? All of these? Can you name a time in your life where you exceeded your own expectations? How did you do it?

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