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National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

Youth Speak Out: 'Sometimes You Have to Hit Rock Bottom'

A former runaway and her father discuss her struggles with drug use and childhood abuse and the relationships that helped them both recover.

Time: 6:48 | Size: 4 MB


Ravenna Motil-McGuire: [music] Welcome to the Positive Youth Development Podcast Series from the Family and Youth Services Bureau within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services  The series is produced by the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth.


I'm Ravenna Motil-McGuire, a Youth Policy Associate with the Clearinghouse. Every year, thousands of young people run away from their homes, are forced to leave or become homeless in the United States. The Family and Youth Services Bureau, or FYSB, supports emergency shelters through its Basic Center Program. These shelters focus on helping youth by reuniting them with their families when appropriate and by giving them the tools to build healthy lives together.

In this episode, we speak with Jessica and her father Johnny, a single dad. As a child, Jessica was abused by another family member. Seeking escape and attention, she struggled with drugs and frequently ran away for a day at a time.

Finally, she found help at the Alternative House, a FYSB-funded youth shelter in Northern Virginia. But the change in direction came only after a frightening four days away from home.

Jessica: I'm never gone this long. And I feel like crap, you know. And I don't know what my parents are doing. I felt like I was going to go to jail or something. And if someone finds me.  I don't know. I was just thinking all this stuff.

I went and I stole a bottle of Robitussin. And I stole a bunch of Coricidin pills, a whole pack of them. And I took fourteen pills and a whole bottle of Robitussin. And my stomach was tripping and I couldn't stand up. I've never taken so much at once. And I got on the bus and I was really sick. And I didn't know what to do or where to go.

So I just went down in these woods, like kind of like far down. And I just lay there. And I was just so out of myself. Like I can't even explain it. And I was laying there and I was crying. But was raining. And I only had shorts on and a t-shirt. It was raining. There were worms everywhere, all over the ground.

And I didn't care. Because I knew -- I had a feeling I was going to die. And I was there for like 15 minutes and I wasn't dying. You know, I was like, okay. Well -- so I started praying. I said, you know, maybe there's -- maybe I have a purpose in life. Like I haven't died the times that I've been overdosing to get high, you know. I've been in a lot of situations where I should have been dead.

You know, a lot came to me. And I was like, okay. Well, I'm just going to go and try to contact somebody.

RMM: The next morning, Jessica entered the youth shelter. She stayed for two weeks, and then received after care services including counseling and a referral to a drug rehabilitation program.  Her father, Johnny, said the support was exactly what she needed.

Johnny: Slowly but surely, I started seeing her progressing, you know. It all started -- it really all started at Alternative House. You know, it's almost like before you can make that transition, you almost like you've got to hit rock bottom. You've got to have what I call almost that near death type of experience. And that's what she was. You know, it was a near death experience where she just had given up.

One of the things that the social worker would say to me is that I was --

Jessica: An enabler.

Johnny: An enabler, yeah. And I didn't set up proper boundaries and stuff like that, you know. And so a big part of that was I knew what she had experienced. I knew what she had been through. And so it was kind of hard for me to be real tough on her. But they said we do understand. You know, you want to be there for her. Because you don't want her hurt basically. They said we do understand that. But at the same time, what she needs is stern discipline. At this stage, you're not able to give that to her, that what she really needs. Right?  Wouldn't you agree with that?

Jessica: Mm-hmm.

Johnny: Yeah.

Jessica: I needed to figure out what was really -- like what was the reason I'd been doing this. I kind of had an idea. But I didn't really know. And so I knew that once I dealt with whatever it was I'm running away from, that I'm trying to hide from or cover up, that I know that's when I'll be able to really get my life together. And that's what ended up happening.

Johnny: We had a couple of sessions that we had to have together. In terms of trying to understand her behavior and then making sure that, you know, myself as a parent that making sure I give her maximum support, you know, in treatment. She's going to need it even beyond Alternative House. Because, you know, they made it pretty clear that she needs a lot more service than what we have to offer here.

They said it's probably going to be some extended treatment that she's going to need. And you as a parent, you're going to need to be there. You need to be there for her sessions. Be there to make sure that you understand what she's going through. And that you can help her. And that you can be there to coach her.

Jessica: I just remember him like, you know, showing up, always calling me and stuff like that. But I knew -- I told him I was determined. And I had told him like, you know, that I'm really going to do this. I'm really going to stay sober. I really am going to change.

I've been out for almost a year. And I still am sober. Because I actually dealt with what was the reason that I was doing everything.

Johnny: You know, we struggled there for a little while. Because initially when she came back, she was talking about she just wanted to get her GED. She just didn't want to go through, you know, finish any type of formal education. Just get it out of the way, get her GED and be done, you know. But we worked through that. And eventually, she changed her mind on that. And she'll be graduating next month. She'll be walking.

Jessica: I have a career in mind for a little bit. I want to be a youth correction officer. But at the same time, I want to be able to do stuff like either join organizations or anything that has to do with youth, you know, abuse, sexual abuse, anything like that. Because that's the main thing of my story. That's why I did what everything I did.

And so going through a long-term abuse, I wanted to help others to get through it. That is my calling. I know that much. I know I didn't go through a childhood of abuse for nothing. Are you serious?  And then just drug abuse which got me going all kinds of routes in my life. So I know I have a purpose, you know. So I want to give back.

Johnny: She’s overcome so much. Knowing that she's been through the fire so to speak. You now, she's been through so much as a -- as a teenager. You know, more than sometimes people go through in three or four lifetimes. And she's just been through a lot. And for her to have the kind of attitude that she has and the kind of outlook for the future and the desire to help others, you know, just to me it's just remarkable.

RMM: Young people in crisis and adults concerned for their wellbeing should call 1-800-RUNAWAY immediately for help. For information and curricula on how to prevent young people from running away, visit To learn more about programs that serve runaway and homeless youth, please visit the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth online at