Photos by Henk Dawson
Story by Oliver Sharp
“They moved me from one foster house to another every few weeks. When I was eight, I was placed in what was supposed to be my permanent family. It was right after that when my mother died of a heroin overdose.”
Brendan is an outgoing college senior who is finishing his sociology degree at the University of Washington. “My parents were recovering alcoholics. They were doing pretty well when I was born, but then things got tough. They divorced when I was three years old.” Both of them began drinking again, and his mother went back on heroin.
Before he became a ward of the state, Brendan watched his mother lose the struggle with addiction. Once, she was trying to make the bed, and fell backwards and passed out. Another time she collapsed in the bathroom; a drawer was open and blocked the door, so they had to break it down to get her out.
He and his mother shared some good times together; she bought him his first pair of roller blades and sometimes they made pottery together. But most of the time, he was on his own. Although both parents were musicians, Brendan can’t play a note. “Nobody was ever there to teach me.”
As his mother succumbed to her heroin addiction, Brendan was moved from one foster family to another. He was finally placed with one for several years. At first, he benefited from an environment that had some of the structure he craved. But as time went on, the situation deteriorated. “They were very religious, very rigid. We had a lot of conflict. My grades weren’t good, they didn’t like my friends.” Brendan is gay, and the family was extremely homophobic. He concealed the truth from them, but they probably had their suspicions. He had grown used to hiding inner turmoil from the world by then. “I feel like it’s a performance sometimes, in my own head.”
The relationship grew increasingly tense. Then, he was able to reconnect with relatives across the country, and they offered to take him in. He lived with them for a few years during high school, and that was the happiest period of his life. “They were supportive, and my relationship with them was really positive. They gave me a lot of freedom, but they were there if I needed them.” Even though he ended up attending four different high schools in four years, “my grades were good and I was doing something right.”
He was excited about going to college, but there was a rude shock in store. “I felt like I wasn’t on the same level with everyone else. In English, I couldn’t even speak in class because everyone was so much farther ahead.” It was also “my first taste of complete freedom.” During the first two years he went into an emotional tailspin and struggled with his classes. “I wish I could have made better decisions and that school had been different.” But he made it through that difficult time, and now he’s doing well in his classes and will soon be graduating.
Although his life seems to have turned around, the legacy of his experiences is still with him. It’s hard to hold down relationships. “I was abandoned forever,” he says quietly. “It’s hard to trust people, or I trust them too much and too fast and get disappointed.”
When he thinks about the future, he tries to be optimistic. Stability is the thing that he wants most—“I would feel a lot better if I had security.” But darker thoughts are not far away. “I don’t feel young. I’ve gone through so much stuff that most people haven’t dealt with. I feel aged. Things have always been so crazy .. there is no space for happiness.” When he reflects on his experiences, he thinks about how they have shaped him and how he would like to remake himself. “But it’s hard to change the patterns, even when you know they exist.”