As a high school senior in Alabama, Donavon Ramsey got used to not having a permanent place to sleep.
If it was a friend’s couch one night, it could be his truck the next.
But never in that time did Ramsey think of himself as homeless.
That wouldn’t come until last year, when he returned to Tulsa.
“It sucked,” said the former Union Public Schools student, describing what it was like to rely on shelters for meals and a bed.
“You’re just — it’s like you have the word ‘homeless’ stamped across your forehead. I didn’t like how that felt.”
Ramsey, 19, was thankful, though, for the services available. Places such as the John 3:16 Mission and The Salvation Army kept him going, he said.
Finally, he found Walker Hall, a transitional home run by the Mental Health Association of Tulsa.
“It’s by the grace of God. That’s all I can say,” Ramsey said.
As is the case with many young people in Oklahoma, Ramsey’s transition from troubled adolescent to independent adult wasn’t easy.
He recently took an adverse childhood experiences — or ACEs — test and scored 6 on the 1-10 scale. Anything over 4 is considered very high.
Among the consequences for him have been depression and anxiety, for which he’s being treated.
The idea that traumatic childhood experiences may play a large part in future mental health problems is not a new one. But recent advances strongly suggest that it’s the primary factor.
Ramsey’s experience doesn’t surprise Lucinda Morte, a clinical coordinator with the Mental Health Association.
In a previous job, Morte counseled criminal offenders with mental health issues through Tulsa County’s Mental Health Court. Most, if not all, she said, had traumatic experiences as children.
“When I was in direct care, working daily with clients, the amount of trauma that was shared in my office — it’s things that I will take to my grave,” Morte said.
Lacking true understanding of themselves, too many sufferers accept that “I’m just a criminal.” They don’t get that “what happened to you growing up” plays a big part, she added.
On that point, Morte speaks with extra conviction. Her own family history — the complex depths of which she’s still just beginning to plumb — strongly backs it up.
Living with ‘a crazy person’
As a young girl growing up in California, it never occurred to Morte to ask.
She hung out all the time at her friends’ homes. Why didn’t they ever come over to hers?
Years later, after she began to dig into her past, Morte finally learned the truth:
“Their parents would not allow them to go to my house,” she said. As they put it, “I was living with ‘a crazy person.’ ”
Today, as a mental health professional, Morte is better able to understand the role adverse childhood experiences play for those with mental health challenges because of her own background, she believes.
It took her a long time, though, to acknowledge that the emotional and sometimes physical abuse she once suffered was just that — abuse.
“I thought it was normal — that was how families were,” Morte said, adding that the troubles began after her parents divorced and an alcoholic stepfather entered her life.
In fact, when Morte first took an ACEs test about three years ago, she scored a 2, not associating her experiences with what the test questions described.
The truth began to dawn on her shortly after that, as she did some serious reflection and talked to childhood friends and family members.
She took the test again more than a year later. This time, she scored a 5.
“I sat down and read those ACE questions for what they really were,” she said. “It was very emotional for me.”
And concerning professionally. How could she go on treating sufferers, Morte wondered, when she had so much baggage of her own?
But this growing understanding of herself would work in the therapist’s favor.
In the end, understanding her background actually made her better at the job. “I was able to turn my experience into a way of healing others,” she said.
It’s gratifying “to know that I was able to, for at least a small part of their life, give them a glimmer of hope that things can and will be different,” Morte said, adding that she still attends mental health court graduations to show her support.
For many, she said, the key is “breaking down ‘what happened to you growing up?’ Because they didn’t become criminals overnight.”
A stint in jail
Ramsey has done his best to stay out of trouble since moving into Walker Hall.
If he ever needs motivation, he just thinks back to last year and the eight days he spent in jail.
It happened after his vehicle broke down near Atoka.
Ramsey, who was trying to get to Tulsa from Texas, found himself stranded on the side of the road.
Frustrated at his luck — he’d recently put money into auto repairs — “I had a gram of weed, and I rolled me up a blunt,” he said.
He’d just taken a puff when he saw the police cars pulling up behind him.
Hauled off to jail, Ramsey eventually worked out a plea deal. He then caught the next Greyhound bus to Tulsa.
His plan had been to move in with a relative and then find work. But that relative, he discovered, was heavily into methamphetamine.
The drug held no appeal for Ramsey, who was turned off by “the way people looked when they were on it.”
He knew he couldn’t live there.
And that was how Ramsey suddenly found himself homeless.
The next Chef Ramsey
It wasn’t just the fact of being homeless that he hated.
There was also the label that went with it.
After eight months of feeling hopeless and living in shelters, he found the Mental Health Association.
Now — and maybe for the first time in his life — Ramsey has good reason to believe the future is bright. Still a resident of Walker Hall, he’s enrolled in culinary school and is working toward becoming a chef.
“We call Donavon the ‘unofficial kitchen manager,’ ” said Lacey Howell, Walker Hall team lead, describing how Ramsey enjoys sharing what he’s learning at Platt College’s Culinary Arts School.
In addition to cooking for the group once a week — a requirement for all Walker Hall residents — “He takes the new guys under his wing,” Howell said, teaching them everything from how to sanitize kitchen items to the proper thawing of meat.
Ramsey showed a couple of residents on special diets how to work within their restrictions, including how to make a turkey burger.
Ramsey grew to like cooking as a child, when he used to help his mother in the kitchen, he said.
Now it’s a real career possibility.
Since arriving at Walker Hall, Ramsey has also begun to learn more about himself.
That growing self-knowledge includes how events from his past continue to shape him.
The strikes against Ramsey, which contribute to his ACE score, start with a lack of stability. A native of New Orleans, as a boy Ramsey moved back and forth frequently among Louisiana, Florida and Oklahoma, staying with relatives while his mother battled serious illness.
When he was 14, his mother died, he said.
He continued to bounce around and eventually landed in Geneva, Alabama.
He moved in with a family member there. But it didn’t last, and Ramsey ended up spending his last few months of high school sleeping on friends’ couches, in his truck and in a space that a church provided for him.
Given his prospects at the time, Ramsey can’t help but feel grateful at where he is today.
“I tell people I’m going to be the next Chef Ramsey,” he said — a riff on TV chef Gordon Ramsey.
But while he now has direction in life, many questions are still ahead.
After graduation from Platt, he hopes to find work and then get a place of his own and a car.
“I want a routine. I’m tired of surprises in life,” he said.
He added, “I want a routine but while still having fun.”
For any other young people facing circumstances like his, Ramsey offers encouragement.
“One of the things that kept me going,” he said, is knowing that “it’s up to me to make my life” better. “If I give up now — give up and let life have its way with me — that’s worse to me than struggling.”
Liberation Meanwhile, Morte’s personal journey to healing — the one she so long deferred — continues.
For years, “I just stuffed it. That’s what mental health professionals do. We’re about helping other people,” she added, noting that it’s easy to neglect your own “emotional and spiritual health.”
Thinking back on her youth, Morte can identify things that served to counteract, at least partly, the negativity at home. There were supportive teachers along the way and other caring people who helped. School itself became a “coping outlet,” she said, adding that she focused on her studies and made straight A’s.
Her experience is consistent with what scientists have learned about counteracting the harm done by ACEs.
“Protective and Compensatory Experiences” — or PACEs, as they are known — have been shown to act as buffers or insulators against trauma and even to promote healing. Most effective seems to be the unconditional love of a parent or mentor, but PACEs also include exercise or physical activity and hobbies or clubs.
In the end, the factor that most likely saved Morte was a complete change in environment. She was able to escape the home life and stepfather she’d grown to hate.
When she was 13, her biological father was granted full custody of her.
She remembers how liberating it felt.
A final, symbolic act of liberation would come many years later.
Morte had kept a secret journal of the things that were happening at home. It was used in court in helping the judge make his custody decision.
Before she moved to Oklahoma in 2011, “I burned it,” she said of the journal. “I put it in the fireplace.”
“It was the best feeling,” she added. “A release. There was a lot of emotion.”