CUMBERLAND, Md. — Everyone has a story to tell and every story is different, but everyone is searching for a happy ending.
For acclaimed poet and author Rita Zoey Chin, that happy ending often felt out of reach, but when she was 15 years old, she discovered the tools she would need to find that happiness in the mountains of western Maryland after a court-ordered stay at the Thomas B. Finan Center Jackson Unit.
This month, Chin returned to the Jackson Unit to share her story of recovery and hope with teens currently enrolled in the program. Like many of these teens, Chin's early years were shaped by abuse and neglect. She first used drugs at the age of 10 and ran away for the first time at 11. By age 13, she was a ward of the court and spent time in a series of institutions, psych wards and juvenile detention centers. Many of these places were as bad, if not worse, than living on the streets. The exception to this rule was the Jackson Unit, Chin said.
Though her time at this residential drug/alcohol treatment facility for teens was brief and more than 27 years ago, Chin's stay created a foundation that led to her eventual recovery and happiness she so desperately sought as a child. With her husband, niece and sister at her side, Chin recounted her time at the Jackson Unit and how it became an important chapter in her story.
"The Jackson Unit holds a special place in my heart; it was the first place where I felt cared for and where I began to believe in myself and have hope. I want you to have that hope, too. I was institutionalized in eight different places, some more than once, and the Jackson Unit was the only place that didn't feel like an institution," she said. "I was 15 when I was sent here, and the caring people who worked here made me feel more supported than I ever had before. This was the first place I went to that I could have run away from but I didn't. I was a hellion but I knew they cared about me. I felt cared about for the first time and they did not treat me like a criminal."
Though she returned to living on the streets and using drugs after her stay at the Jackson Unit, she never forgot the kindness and love she felt there. It was not until several years later that she truly hit "rock bottom."
"I was 19 and I nearly died from using cocaine. It was then that I realized I wanted to live, so I stopped doing drugs and I have been clean ever since. My worst day sober is still better than my best day high. I have never felt the urge and my life is better than I ever imagined," she said. "I got my GED, put myself through college, received my master's degree and now have a book published. I did all of that for myself. I began to believe I could make a better life for myself and I did it."
After answering some frank and direct questions from the teens, Chin asked them to write down three things they were passionate about; three strengths they possess; and a dream for their future.
"I am going to keep these with me always and take them with me so each of you know that no matter what happens in this life there is one person that believes in you."
Chin's story has not been without dramatic twists and turns. Several years ago, she began to experience debilitating panic attacks that left her paralyzed by irrational fears. Within weeks, Chin was afraid to be alone, even for a moment. Her husband, a neurosurgeon, found her condition as perplexing as she did, but together they continued to seek out the help of a variety of therapists and doctors. Chin was determined to maintain the life she had worked so hard to create. After overcoming this diagnosis, Chin decided to document her life experiences in an autobiography.
"Even when I was living on the streets, I loved writing, I was always writing things down," she said. "It was a relief for me to disconnect my anxiety from the feelings of shame. Breaking the silence was liberating and empowering. I came to have a greater understanding of and appreciation for the various forces that have shaped my life. I also came to embrace my years as a runaway, because they revealed a strength and determination that I might not have otherwise known I had."
"Let the Tornado Come" was released in June. Chin has spent the last several weeks on a tour promoting her book and sharing her story of hope. Her tour concluded with her visit to Cumberland. She said this visit has proven more fulfilling than she imagined and she was honored to have the opportunity to learn more about the teens currently enrolled in the recovery program.
More information on Chin's journey to overcome abuse, homelessness and anxiety disorders can be found at www.ritazoeychin. com
Information from: Cumberland (Md.) Times-News, http://www.times-news.com/timesnew.html