With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Treehouse, a non-profit organization, is a group home for five teenage boys and girls, 14 to 18. Funded by private donations and government grants, it’s located in a rambling old farmhouse in the middle of 250 acres off Bethel Church Road.
Chip, a 17-year-old living at Treehouse, wrote the following article. It’s followed by some comments by Cindy Crossen, one of the house parents.
I came to Tree House because I was under so much pressure at home I was about to have a breakdown. My family had broken up and I was living with my mother and my brother. My father had found another woman and had a child by her before he was divorced from my mother and married to the other woman. He took his time and waited until the little girl was nine, living at their house, sleeping at ours.
When my parents were divorced there was only one lawyer — his. We got only enough money to survive on and if my mother didn’t have sex with him, we wouldn’t get any money. My mother was insane and not getting treatment for it. She thought people were watching her and that our house was bugged. She would throw things and yell at the wall (which was “bugged”). If the dogs were barking, she would run out in the middle of the night and yell, “Leave me alone, you goddamned bastards.” She threw rocks at cars she thought were suspicious. Or slam doors. Or break glasses. There was no escaping it. You couldn’t hit her to stop her, because that’s what she wanted — to be treated like shit. If you hit her she would break down and cry. She would lie in bed for days and just cry. Everybody knew about it and talked about it. It was very hard for me because I needed someone to talk to. I was hurting inside, but except when I was in therapy, paying someone to talk to me, there was no one.
I found ways to escape, not through drugs but through fantasy. I lived my life in television, the radio, and books, staying up while my mother was asleep, then going to bed in the morning and sleeping 12, sometimes 14 hours, a day. I knew what was happening and I was scared. I didn’t know how to get out, though.
Finally, through therapy, I realized I was never going to change the life I was living while staying at home. I had heard of Tree House and now I tried to get in. I had to wait five months.
I’ve been helped a lot here. I’ve come out of myself to find a warmer atmosphere. I get help dealing with personal feelings that I don’t understand. The counselors let me know I’m not so alone as I thought. It’s nice to have someone who knows your problems and still cares about you.
My experience at Tree House has been rich and complex. Ken and I are the temporary parents for an unusual family — five teenagers, boys and girls, who have come here because they could not live successfully with their own families. We’ve had residents who have been sent from foster home to foster home (as many as fourteen different homes), girls beaten or sexually molested by their fathers, residents with insane or alcoholic or imprisoned parents. The anger, hurt, and humiliation they have suffered in these experiences must be reckoned with, because their lives have taught them to hurt, rather than to live, to fight, rather than to listen, to destroy themselves rather than to care for themselves, to be angry rather than tender.
Their protective shells may be The Tough Kid, The Giggler, The Ice Princess, The Fighter, The Bitch, The Sneak. They’ll say, “I don’t know,” “Nothing bothers me,” “Motherfuckin honky bastard,” “I don’t care where you send me,” “I’m no good.” We realize that everyone needs a shell, and while they’re here we try to coax them to trade their shell, behind which they’re miserable, for a less offensive, more comfortable one. We try to show them a way of dealing with their feelings — admitting them to themselves, identifying them and their source, understanding them, talking them out within the group, talking with the person involved — “That pissed me off! What did you mean?” From this process, we become very close and learn to care for each other. In this safe place, people can open their shells — we see we are soft inside and learn that others are soft as well. We can let go of the old ways long enough to change.
The problems the residents face are no different from the problems the counsellors have faced and are facing, except in degree. We are all learning to trust, express our feelings, treat our brothers and sisters, as well as ourselves, with care and love. As counsellors we go through intense self-exploration at Tree House. Although the residents may not be aware of it, they are teaching us to change, to grow past our boundaries. It’s more than a full-time job; it’s more than a full-time lifestyle.