The first place I remember living was a small basement in Queens, with dust and mold that made my asthma worse. I asked my father why we’d moved from the Philippines, five years earlier, when I was a year old.
“We were stuck in the Philippines and there weren’t really any opportunities to move up,” he said. “When I heard all the stories about hard-working people coming to the U.S. and making something for themselves, I decided this was the best for our family.”
My father’s words gave me hope that we would someday have a beautiful house with a dog and a huge backyard, like I saw on TV.
But we stayed in the basement, and when I was 8, it got more crowded: My baby sister was born. My father said, “Listen buddy. You’re not an only child anymore. You’re an older brother now, so it’s your job to protect your baby sister no matter what happens, OK?”
“Got it, Dad.” I was nervous to have that kind of responsibility. I was a timid kid, and I could tell our household was precarious. My friends, who were mostly immigrants too, lived in big apartments or nice houses. I wondered what their parents were doing right and what mine were doing wrong.
Talking to Nobody
About a year after my sister was born, I first saw my mom talking to the couch. I followed her gaze to see that no one was sitting there. I tensed up and asked who she was talking to.
With a smile, she said, “To your grandma and grandpa.”
“Mom, Grandma and Grandpa live in the Philippines, there’s no one on the couch.”
My mom’s manic smile turned into a look of rage. “Are you f-cking crazy? Get out! Get the hell out!”
My heart sank into my stomach and I held back tears. My dad rushed in and said, “It’s OK; go to your room.”
I ran to my room and heard the faint sounds of my parents fighting. Over the next few years, my mother slowly slipped further into psychosis. Her soft whispering to the ghosts she saw rose to hate-filled screaming.
Sinking Into Debt
My father was a manager of a T-Mobile store. His friend owned the store and had sponsored my dad to immigrate and work for him. This granted my dad an H1-B working visa. My mother and I had “dependent visas,” and my dad was in the process of getting the three of us green cards.
His salary kept us above water until my mother started to spend huge amounts on my dad’s credit cards on things like clothes and dishes that she’d then throw away or destroy. My father went into debt.
When I was 13, I noticed that my father and mother had stopped sleeping in the same room. Under my dad’s bed, I found empty vodka bottles, and the whites of his eyes turned a grotesque yellow as he grew thin and weak. Often, there was no food in the house.
My father’s drinking opened the gates to a land where my mother wasn’t talking to ghosts and where his children had full stomachs. It made me sad watching my dad physically deteriorate and my mother mentally deteriorate. I didn’t know what to do.
Man of the House
At age 14, I started working off the books at the local pizzeria after school from 6 to 11 pm. My father was still working, but all of his paychecks were going into feeding his alcohol addiction, his credit card debt, and only some of our household bills.
I became the man of the house. I was making only $7 an hour, but at least I was able to bring home pizza for dinner. I was the father figure to my little sister and helped her as much as I could. I made sure she was eating, took her to her friends’ birthday parties, and got her ready for school every day.
My mother’s symptoms were getting worse, too, but my father wouldn’t talk about her condition with me. When I was 15, I typed into Google, “talking to yourself,” “random episodes of anger,” and “paranoia.” It seemed like she might have schizophrenia.
Creedmoor Psychiatric Center was right by the park where I rode my skateboard. One day I just walked in and asked for a consultation, then explained my mother’s condition to a psychologist. He told me that it could be a variety of things, but that it did indeed sound like schizophrenia. Then he said, “We can’t force your mother to seek treatment, but if she does something that endangers others or herself, you can call the Mobile Crisis Unit.” But I couldn’t do that to my mom. And we didn’t have health insurance.
It now seems odd that the psychologist never questioned why a 15-year-old was asking for a consultation for his mother by himself. It’s almost as if the adults I reached out to for help purposely ignored the possibility that I was slipping through the cracks.
From my freshman year to my junior year of high school, I worked and went to school, even as I skipped meals to make sure there was enough food for my parents and especially my sister. I was as thin as a skeleton. The teachers and other adults at school never asked me about my life at home. I had friends, but I didn’t want them to have to deal with my problems. I became good at faking a smile.
Rescuing My Sister
When I was 16 and my sister was 8, I called my grandfather, my father’s father, in India, and told him how we were living. He agreed to take in my sister. I didn’t ask to go with her because I don’t speak Hindi, and India’s colleges aren’t the best. I also couldn’t leave my father and my mother alone; they couldn’t take care of themselves.
One of my father’s closest friends was flying to India around the same time, and I asked him if he could take my sister. He agreed, and I felt relieved. I knew my grandparents would treat her like a princess in India. My father didn’t argue; he knew he wasn’t taking care of her. My mother didn’t seem to understand that my sister had left for good. She was in her own world.
After that, my father lay in her old room all day drinking. At night, I heard him sob drunkenly, “I miss my little girl.”
Fall semester of my senior year, my father collapsed, completely disoriented. He didn’t know what year it was and he seemed to think he was a child again. I called 911 and an ambulance rushed him to the emergency room.
In the ICU, they discovered he had major gastrointestinal bleeding. From his hospital room, I heard blood-curdling screams of pain that filled me with fear. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
While my father was in the hospital, I went through our mail and found a letter from Immigration. I opened it: The green card that my family had been in the process of getting for over a decade was denied.
I felt hopeless. I reached out to two of my friends’ parents and told them the situation. They said they had no idea what to do and that they couldn’t take me in because they had no space in their homes. I never asked for them to take me in; all I needed was some guidance.
My father stayed in the hospital for almost two years. He never recovered and currently lives in a nursing home. My mother continued to wander the house talking to herself.
A few weeks before my 18th birthday, I came home to an oddly quiet apartment. I called out for my mom and received no response. I went to check her room and saw her suitcase and some of her clothes were gone.
I was so used to handling everything alone that I didn’t even try to find out where she’d gone. I felt sad yet also relieved. Now I could focus on finishing school and getting out of this hole instead of worrying about taking care of her. A year later I found out that my mother’s sisters had come and brought her back to the Philippines. More adults who weren’t concerned with what was going to happen to me.
Soon after that, while I was visiting my father in the hospital, a social worker asked me about my life. I told her it was just me alone at home. The social worker asked me how old I was and if I had any other relatives in the U.S. I told her I was living in the house alone.
Finally, an Adult Steps Up
For the first time, an adult responded with care. She said, “Don’t worry, everything will be OK. You’ll get a visit from Child Protective Services (CPS), and they will help you out.”
I was worried because I hadn’t heard good things about CPS and foster care. But I realized that this might be my only way to make a life for myself in the U.S.
CPS workers visited my house a couple of times. I wanted a foster home and asked them when I would be placed in care. They kept stalling. They wouldn’t return my calls and when we did meet, they just talked and wouldn’t take any action. I was turning 18 soon, and I wonder if they too were trying to avoid taking responsibility for me, even though foster care goes to age 21 in New York.
Nadia, a woman in our Indian community who had worked with my father, knew my situation through the grapevine. She pressured CPS to admit me into care and let me live with her and her husband. She had never been a foster mother before; she did it just to take care of me. I stayed with them until I moved into the dorms at Queens College, two and a half years ago.
During the pandemic I moved back in with them. They no longer get any money to be my foster parents, but they’ve assured me I’m welcome in their home. That someone cares about me enough to take me in makes me feel like I matter for the first time since I was about 8 years old.
Having parent figures brings responsibility along with a support system. My foster mom and foster dad have done so much for me that I can’t let their hard work go to waste. I need to do my best to succeed and make them proud, which gives me strength and motivation. So does my desire to take care of my little sister, if she should want to move back to the U.S.
She is doing well in India, though. My grandparents send me pictures and videos of her and I have to say she does look way happier. When I talk to her on the phone or video call, I can tell that she’s thriving.
My foster care agency, Forestdale, sent me to The Door, a nonprofit organization that has immigration lawyers who help foster youth through the green card process. My lawyer was able to put me under SIJS, which stands for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. I just turned 21, when kids are usually discharged from foster care. Because I hadn’t gotten my green card when I turned 21, CPS extended my stay in care until I get it.
Without a green card I was ineligible for college financial aid, but CPS paid for my tuition. I am on my way to graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and a second one in economics.
It’s hard enough being an immigrant, let alone having both parents suffer from mental disorders. I wish adults had seen sooner that I was struggling and needed to go into foster care, especially my teachers. For whatever reason, no adult until that social worker in the hospital asked me, “Do you need help?”
I truly am thankful to CPS, Forestdale, Nadia, and my foster dad for giving me the opportunity to go to college and helping prepare me for independent living. But why did it take so long? I’m shocked at how many adults saw me suffering, trying to take care of my whole family, and brushed me off. Still, overall, I’m thankful that this happened to me in the US. In the Philippines and India, children are allowed to starve. It took far too long, but the safety net did eventually catch me.