Choosing to Stay

November 15, 2023


Hannah Swift, Supervising Case Manager

“Lucy” grew up in an abusive home and was never taught how to identify, express or regulate her emotions in healthy ways. Instead, she learned to mask her emotions in hopes of avoiding additional abuse. She started running away as a way to protect herself and to escape the horrors of home. I met Lucy when she was living in a foster home, and then followed her across the state as her placement changed from foster home to group home to shelter to residential treatment and back to a different foster home. Regardless of where she lived, Lucy continued to run away whenever she felt angry, lonely, sad or unwanted.

One day, Lucy told me that she kept a packed duffle bag under her bed so she could run away at a moment’s notice. I issued Lucy a challenge: “I think it’s interesting that you’ve created a system that makes it easy to run away. What would it look like to create a system that makes it easier to stay? What if instead of a ‘go bag,’ we created a ‘stay bag?'” Lucy really liked this idea.

Lucy and I worked together to create a sensory bag full of coping tools. Lucy loves to journal, but often forgets about it in the heat of the moment. I allowed her to pick out a small notebook and her favorite color pen. Lucy knew that if she ran away, she wouldn’t be able to see her new friends at school. She put a picture of her and her friends in the bag to remind her of the good things about her current placement. Lucy also added a picture of her baby brother because “he motivates me to stay on track because I want him to be able to look up to me.”

I took Lucy to Five Below and asked her to think about things that help her feel calm through the lens of her five senses. Lavender lotion and peppermint lip balm appealed to both touch and smell. Watermelon gum and M&Ms appealed to her sense of taste. She loved unicorns, so we found a little toy unicorn that she could look at and touch. She also got to pick from a basket of fidget toys I had at my office. Pop-its and putty were two of her favorites because they used both her sense of touch and her sense of hearing.

When we thought about the sense of hearing more, Lucy began to get upset. Her foster mom took her phone away when she noticed that Lucy was talking to adult men online. “Music is my main coping skill! How am I supposed to stay calm if I don’t have my phone?” I noticed that a Gracehaven supporter had donated an Amazon gift card to Gracehaven. With permission from my supervisor, I used it to purchase a basic MP3 player. The next time Lucy and I met, we went through my music library and uploaded her favorite songs onto the MP3 player so that she could have access to music even when her phone had been taken. Lucy was so excited!

A few weeks later, I was talking with Lucy over our usual Chick-Fil-A milkshakes. She told me that her foster sister had been picking on her throughout the week and borrowing Lucy’s belongings without asking. “I was so mad at her! I wanted to run away,” Lucy told me. “But you know what? I used my stay bag instead! I was able to calm down and I didn’t run away.”