book review: Counting Backwards by Laura Lascarso

Counting Backwards is a well written account of a teen facing variety of issues in apsychiatric residential program.

Taylor is sixteen. She is arrested for stealing a car and evading the police when she ran away from her mother’s house. Her father, in aheartfelt attempt to try and get his daughter on the right tracdk requests to the juvinele judge that she complete her Sixth Month probation at Sunny Meadows a psychiatric rehabilitation facility in a rural area.

Enraged is putting it mildly to describe Taylor’s feelings when she is dropped off at the facility. She is introduced to Margo her peer mentor, and Kayla her resident intern. She is also confronted with people called “safties” basically security guards absolutely everywhere. She lives in the dorms and everyone has their own room but the doors are always kept open. Along with Margo she meets Charlote, a girl so terrified of people getting close to her that she screams anytime someone enters t the door to her room. Her only peace seems to be in coloring. On the other hand that same day she comes face to face with Brandi and the “Latina quenes.” From day one she hates the place and is plotting an escape.

After the first full day of school she is attacked by the Latina queens and her long braid is cut off. They blame her for having stolen the scisors that aren’t allowed for obvious reasons. While in her room she screams in anger into her pillow. Someone asks if she’s ok, but through the floor? She discovers an air vent that leads down to the basement and a mysterious boy who says he has the key to the stairwell.

That night she meets Adam, or A.J. A.J in the daytime hasn’t spoken to anyone for two years. But at night he is in the basement playing music. Taylor sees an intensity and loneleness in A.J. and is emediately drawn to him. At nights she goes down to the basement and they talk. She tells him briefly about why she came to be at Sunny Meadows, that her mother’s an alcoholic and her parents are divorced. That her father always seems disappointed in her. She feels like she doesn’t have a place in her own family which is why she ran away.

One of her “electives” is “ automative therapy.” (really stupid group to put someone in who stole a car!) She and the others in the group work on an old car and she gets the idea to break into the garage and steal the car. She becomes more invested in her plan day by day as the dramas of the place increase. The nosy therapist she doesn’t want anything to do with, the schoolwork she’s not interested in, the Latina Quenes. And “the feeling” in her chest that makes it impossible to breathe. She figures this placed is making that better not worse.

She does like Margo who encourages her to give the place a chance. When it comes time for her release Margo confeses how scared she is to be “back in the real world.” She was a child actress who had a breakdown and ended up here. She was there two years. Taylor couldn’t imagine actually wanting to stay.

At a dance soon thereafter the fire alarm goes off. Taylor notices that the front gates open automatically for safety. Another piece of her plan falls into place.

Soon after she walks into therapy to find her parents waiting there. Not to take her home but they’re all encouraged to have a discussion about what they want for Taylor. Taylor ends up rleasing her angry feelings about her life with her alcoholic mom, never knowing where she would be always being taken to bars, never knowing what guys would come home. By this point “the feeling” overpowers her and she runs outside and faints. She was meaning to run away and jump the fence.

A few days later though she promised A.J she would stay until December she knows she has to leave. This place is for sure making her worse. She has the key already made. He gave it to her on the promise she would be staying til the next month. She slips downstairs out the basement. Sets the fire alarm off. Races to the garage brakes the glass door to get in, gets in the car and speeds out the open front gates. Everything goes as planned until she stops and looks both ways at the stop sign and sees a car full of safeties following her. She knew then that someone had let them know about this. She tries to escape abandoning the car and going on foot but the safeties corner her. She sees A.J in the crowd and knows it’s him. She screams in a crazy rage about him and making the keys and the fact that he doesn’t talk anyway so why would he do this!

She’s put in observation and kept within the sight of a safety at all times. Dr. Deb her therapist tries to talk with her but she refuses. Laughing hysterically or staring blankly. She has to stay there over winter break and the kids that have to stay behind are put to work by maintance. During this time she forms an unlikely truce with Brandi from the Latina Quenes. She advises Taylor to “play their game.” Fake getting better. Since trying to escape and going crazy haven’t worked otherwise she could end up staying there til she’s eighteen.

She gathers her internal resources and gives it a try. While not having done any schoolwork for months she now goes to her teachers and says she’ll make up the work. They’re all surprised and demand a lot of her one teacher is suspicious and doesn’t want to do the work giving her the old assignments so to prove she means it she builds a bookcase for him w ith the help of the wood shop teacher.

With this new faking it attitude she knows she has to convince Dr. Deb which won’t be easy. She forces herself to talk and answer questions about her family but nothing big. Then Dr. Deb throws her off by asking about her breathing. She says she’s noticed Taylor has trouble breathing. She tries to tell Dr. Deb that she has asma even though it’s not in her chart.

She teaches Taylor this breathing exercise which I didn’t pay too much attention too because those never work for me. But somewhere along the line she has to count during it and she counts backwards from ten (hence the Title) because she thinks “at one you feel better.”

After each deep breath she has to say the words “I am strong. I am powerful. I am in control.”

She thinks this is the weirdest thing ever but

Reminds herself she’s “playing the game.”

Soon Dr. Deb says she’s adding a new component to the therapy. She leads Taylor out into an area that’s all weeds and not very well landscaped but where A.J is digging in the dirt. She says they’re doing a pilot program “garden therapy.” And that it’s resident lead and A.J and she are their first two. Taylor is furious with this new development and says that probably these people sit around plotting the most difficult situations for her to be in. She’s been furious with A.J ever since the failed escape. They start out with her stubbornly keeping her area separate from his and barely talk. She has no idea how to plant seeds and will follow his lead on some things like using compost but others will just do her own thing. Within a month her seeds die and his keep growing and she surrenders her willfellness and decides to work together with him. They painfully hash out what happened.

A.J says when he knew he couldn’t let her run away was the day she was outside and couldn’t breathe. The she was so weak and vulnerable and there was her father there and he knew whatever happened in her life she had that and she needed to work through whatever it is to get there. A.J had told her before that he was in for killing a boyfriend of his mother’s who was abusing the both of them. It was manslaughter and he’d be there til he’s eighteen. She understood that through his pain he saw that she had a chance that he felt he didn’t. It didn’t make her less mad and it was a slow process for them to really trust each other.

Meanwhile with Dr. Deb they move their therapy outside to a picnic table where taylor can breathe easier. Taylor is finally able to explore “the feeling” that drives her need to run away and that blocks her other feelings from being expressed. Dr. Deb explains the nature of panic attacks. Taylor asks about meds but Dr. Deb is in favor of other things like the breathing and word exercise. They dive into her past with her alcoholic mom and a traumatic scene when she was young eight or nine and waiting at a bar for her mom. A poleceman came by and he coaxed her to say what was going on. Soon she was forceably taken away from her mom and to a foster home for the night. That incident was the start of her panic attacks.

Over time they discuss more about her feelings towards her mom and the unstable life she lead. As the months pass she feels more in control of her anxiety as she works with Dr. Deb on her issues, becomes closer friends with Charlote and tends the garden. Margo calls her and they talk and she encourages Taylor to keep things up.

At one point Dr. Deb says Taylor will be a peer mentor to a new girl named MacKenziUnsurprisingly, Mackenzi is very angry closed off and totally wants nothing to cdo with anyone there. Taylor tries talking to her encouraging her to “save her screaming for therapy.” And generally trying to cool her off. She gives her a coloring picture as Charlote did. MacKenze is very passionate about art and that passion channels all her out of control feelings.

Before Taylor knows it she’s told she’ll be leaving soon. Just when she feels she has a solid life for herself. With the garden becoming more awesome by the week and her friends all around her. New emotional control and her and A.J going from finally developing a trusting friendship to something ddeeper. Like she tried to run away in the beginning, she tries a couple of tactics to show the staff she’s not ready to leave. Dr. Deb wise and compassionately doesn’t fall for it. Taylor seals her new maturity by deciding what’s best for her in which parent she’d like to live with. She leaves with so much more self security and emotional control knowing she can deal with everything that comes her way. After all she’s strong, [ powerful and in control.

I really liked this book. It portrayed a residential facility as not a prison though there are the security guards and chainlink fence. I liked Dr. Deb’s approach to therapy and know many can relate to the issues of anxiety attacks, alcoholic/ divorced parents ETC. As well as consequences of running away from situations and oneself. I highly recommend this book as a way forward to discuss any of these issues.

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