By Leslie Stickland, Former Chosen Program Director
The following is a true story. All names and identifying details have been changed to preserve the confidentiality of all parties involved.
Ayla had only been in our program a few weeks. She was shy, attentive, and unquestionably kind- with a soft smile that drew you in and made you want to hug her. She had come to Anchorage for the first time from a small Native Alaskan village up north. At just 15 years old, a lifetime of trauma, grief, and inner turmoil that she couldn't escape had finally caught up with her. Self-harm, depression, and thoughts of ending it all had become familiar companions. And although coming to treatment was meant to help, it seemed to leave her feeling more alone and hopeless than ever.
So was the case with Ayla. To say that her circumstances and family life were broken would be an understatement. Nevertheless, it was the only life she had ever known. One dark, rainy, fall afternoon, Ayla was found crying inconsolably in her room. Between sobs, she would wipe her nose with her shirtsleeve and beg to see her mother who was back home in the village, several flights away. Her grief was palpable and reasoning with her was in vain. As time went on, her tears and cries of desperation seemed to only grow deeper. And then suddenly, she stood up and announced that if she couldn't see her mom, she was leaving.
And she did.
Into the cold, rainy, dusk evening.
Youth running from treatment is a common occurrence, and "AWOL procedures" are pretty straightforward. Getting in your car and trying to track them down is not included in said procedures. However, my colleague and I decided in the moment that Ayla's life transcended a policy and procedure manual. Her depression had reached a dangerous tipping point, and we weren't about to just stand by to see how it all played out. Going completely off script and following our gut, we decided to divide and conquer. I would try to find Ayla, and my colleague would try to arrange for Ayla's mother to get to Anchorage as soon as possible.
It's now been over four years, and I still can't take a certain exit in town without remembering Ayla and the events of that day. By the grace of God, I was able to find her and eventually coax her into getting into my car. We sat in a parking lot for over an hour as she continued to cry. She eventually quieted from shear exhaustion. She was so fragile, and my nerves were shot. We finally received word that her mother would be boarding the next available flight and with that, we headed back to the cottage to await her arrival.
It was decided the next day, with her mom by her side, that Ayla would transfer to a higher level of care where her rapidly deteriorating mental state could be stabilized. Her mom, a beautiful soul whose life had also been punctured by trauma, mental illness, and substances, wept and pleaded with Ayla to take hold of the help being offered, so that she could end the cycle of suffering that permeated their family. While she didn't like the idea of being away from her mom again, in that moment, she understood that being alive and safe took priority over temporary comfort. By the end of the meeting, they both let out a sigh of relief and began packing her belongings.
My story intersected with Ayla's for only a brief moment. Just a blip on the radar. And yet, to this day, I still think about her. I wonder if she counted her time with us as one more failure or if she felt like we had let her down. I wonder if there is something we could have done differently that would have resulted in her still being alive. I wonder why some people are born into lives of abundance while others have the odds stacked against them from day one. I pray for Ayla's family and hope that somehow, someway, they are able to overcome their demons.
But after I've had a rough interaction or heartbreaking day, and I cry, and probably take some of it out on my family, and most likely watch a lot of Netflix and THEN decide I'm ready to talk to God about it, He always shows up and reminds me of truth: that He's proud of me. That He's with me and before me and after me. That He's bigger than ALL of it and that my understanding is limited on purpose. That I can be honest with Him when I don't like the outcomes I see. That the weight of the world is not on my shoulders and that justice belongs to Him.
And then, with an encouraged heart and empowered spirit, He invites me to join Him back on the front lines. To fight for the Ayla's of the world.