By Kurt Wellman
We all have a “story” — certain events and experiences that shape our future, define our present and help anchor us to the world in which we live. Our past is the foundation upon which we build our future and we cannot escape our past just as we cannot escape our shadow on a sunny day.
As a social work student who is developing into a social worker, I am beginning to find my inner strength and my voice and it is time to begin the process of sharing my story, with the sincere hope that in the end it can help other people.
I was adopted when I was one day old. My childhood can best be described as “The Little Shop of Horrors.” I have the name of my birth mother and some of her story. She was a young college co-ed who decided adoption was a better alternative than abortion. I have never met this woman nor have I had a sincere desire to. My adoptive family had a natural son who is seven years my senior. My adoptive mother was a very caring woman who tried to nurture me. My adoptive father was emotionally distant and unapproachable. I knew growing up that I was different and didn’t fit in with this family.
At age nine they sat me down and told me I was adopted. I began to act out and display a lot of behavioral issues. I remember trying to reconcile two opposing thoughts: on one side, I kept thinking, “What could possibly be wrong with me that my own birth mother would give me away for adoption?” And on the other side of my developing mind I thought that my adoptive family had taken me away from my birth mother. I was lost.
Therapists and clinicians couldn’t help me reconcile these views. I began to use controlled substances to help anesthetize myself. At age 13 my parents announced they were getting divorced — another big hit to my young psyche. I lived with my father who began to physically abuse me. This went on for over a year until I moved in with my mom. My father and I haven’t spoken in 20 years. He is a broken man who forfeited a place at my table.
My high school years were spent in foster and group homes, as my mother couldn’t control me. I was defiant, rebellious and inebriated. My relationship with the juvenile justice system culminated with an offer from the judge to join the Army or go to jail. The Army was a rewarding experience and I learned some exceptional skills.
After the Army and its structure I decided homelessness was my next career path. I lived on and off the streets for years. I learned what it was like to be dependent on the street for my existence. My family was a gang and controlled substances were my constant companion. Survival was the only thing that mattered. I suffered from a condition that is known in therapeutic circles as “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.” It wasn’t until I sought help from the VA and attended a San Diego–based veterans re-entry facility that my life took on meaning.
I learned or should I say I “relearned” how to live life on life’s terms. With the help of my counselors and therapists I learned to love myself and not to look in the mirror with shame and guilt.
I knew that going to school would afford me the opportunity to help other people who have been in my situation. Social work seemed a natural fit. I could use my experience to positively impact others. I was fortunate to apply and receive a scholarship to San Diego State University. The support and leadership opportunities that I have received from the department are gifts that I am grateful for and humbled by. Each semester I inch ever closer to my goal of becoming a social worker. Joining the NASW was the best decision I ever made. I have made tremendous contacts, learned valuable experiences and have the privilege of working on huge projects with dynamic people that change people’s lives. My participation in the NASW, coupled with my education at SDSU, is making me an empowered agent of change.
I have walked the same path that a lot of my clients have; we have a shared set of experiences and I feel that I cannot only understand them, but my firsthand exposure to a lot of their problems puts me in a unique position to help them. My education and my life experience have taught me that all of my experiences can be looked at through a strength-based lens. Everything that I have done — the good, the bad and the neutral — can be transformed into a strength-based lesson that I can share with others. I am no longer negatively chained to my past. I am free. I feel that becoming an LCSW will afford me the privilege of helping clients on a daily basis. What more could I ask of my skeletons?
Kurt A. Wellman is Student Director South for the NASW-CA and can be reached at email@example.com.