SURVIVING THE EFFECTS OF A HARROWING CHILDHOOD WITH HELP FROM THE GUIDANCE CLINIC
Behavioral Health Services
For Luce, learning to manage her mental health has been a journey. She has had to delve deep into traumas of her childhood, twist through an unstable family dynamic and grapple with the consequences of decisions she never had a part in making.
Three things have helped this bright, soft-spoken young woman along the way: patience, persistence, and prayer. Catholic Charities has played a part too. For the past four years, Luce has been receiving help and therapy from the Guidance Clinic, which provides long- and short-term counseling options for those facing behavioral health issues and life challenges. “Catholic Charities is a safe place where you can talk and process your feelings. I never stop thanking God for you,” she said.
Clinician Debra McLaughlin (left) has been working with Luce at the Guidance Clinic. She has provided tools to help her manage her anxiety and feelings.
EXPERIENCING TRAUMA AT AN EARLY AGE
Luce was born in Haiti and some of her earliest recollections include domestic abuse. She said she was frequently frightened of her father who was sometimes loving and caring, but sometimes violent and aggressive. “My father was verbally and physically abusive to my mother and verbally abusive to me,” she said. When Luce was five, she was kidnapped. She recalls being in the backseat of a car and the people in the car with her were armed. “I was so young,” she said. “And so scared of the guns. I remember them telling me to be quiet.” Her captors asked for money and Luce was returned when her family paid her ransom. Shortly after that incident, Luce and her mother left Haiti and went to live in New York then Florida.
Living apart from her father and adapting to a new culture made life difficult for Luce. “I remember going to school feeling sad,” she said. “My mom had to work and take the bus. That made me sad. I also felt lonely. I felt like the only one in my situation.” Even though Luce struggled with these bouts of depression, she worked hard and excelled in school. She had one of the highest GPAs in her class and was active in community service projects and school clubs, including the SHAPE (Students Helping Achieve Philanthropic Excellence) and the National Honor Society. She also enrolled in a program to become a Certified Nursing Assistant at the age of 16.
Unexpectedly, just before Luce’s senior year, her mother announced they were moving and offered no explanation. Adapting to her new school was difficult. But she persevered and graduated. Initially, her plans were to attend a community college, but her guidance counselor encouraged her to “think bigger.” Luce applied to the University of Miami and to the University of Florida and was accepted at both schools. Luce couldn’t afford to attend, even with the scholarships she was offered. “I was coming from a bad place, so just knowing that I got in was a mood booster for me.”
THE BENEFITS OF A TEAM APPROACH
During a trip to Haiti to visit her father when she was 18, Luce was subjected to a frightening therapy for her mental condition that included prayers, fire and being held down by strangers. “Treatments in Haiti are very different,” explained Luce, “more spiritual.” While there, a doctor prescribed her medications with horrendous side-effects. One made her entire body shake. The tremors were debilitating. Not long after she returned from Haiti, Luce and her mother moved to New Jersey without her consent.
Clinician II Debra McLaughlin has been treating Luce at the Guidance Clinic and marvels at how well she is doing. “Luce reached out for services and is fully engaged in her treatment,” said McLaughlin. “She is responsible for the progress she has made. She’s taking medicine and seeing a counselor. She’s working on a plan and practicing her skills.”
McLaughlin also noted that Luce has an entire team working to ensure her care is as thorough and as effective as it can be. “There are advanced practice nurses, physicians, psychiatrists and clinicians who are working together who can communicate very easily,” she said. “If a concern comes up about the side effects of a medication, it can be handled right away.”
Luce said the care she has received at Catholic Charities has been transformational. Early on, she met with David Bokor, Advanced Practice Nurse, and then she worked with Clinician II Ricardo Lemos. “There is something special about Debra and Ricardo,” she said. “I wish I had them around me all of the time. They understand. They are genuine. They care for you like they would care for their own daughter or son. You can tell it’s not just a career for them. It is a passion.”
DELAYED RESPONSE TO A STAGGERING BLOW
In the fall of 2018, Luce was working at ShopRite and attending Mercer County Community College. Her mom was looking for work at the time, and while that added some stress to Luce’s life, she had completed a two-month outpatient therapy program and was feeling happy. “I was looking forward to telling my father how much better I was doing,” she said. But before they could have that conversation, her father died.
His death was unexpected and since he was in Haiti, details of what happened were hard for Luce to find. Searching online for information, she found a post that said her father had taken his own life because he was distraught over his daughter’s mental illness. Luce was stunned. The guilt began to weigh on her. “I felt like it was my fault that he was in a depression too.”
For the next three years, she attended community college and continued working. She would find herself sobbing during her breaks at work, feeling fatigued and heartbroken. “I felt so alone. I couldn’t believe I was in New Jersey under all this stress. I was overwhelmed.”
In 2021, Luce finally learned her father’s death was the result of a medical condition he had; he hadn’t taken his own life. The grief she felt was overpowering. “I was finally feeling the impact of his death.” Dreams of her father haunted her sleep. Through therapy, she realized she had had no closure at the time he died. She had been unable to attend his funeral.
“I was really struggling, but I knew it wasn’t just the meds I needed,” said Luce, who finds therapy to be much more powerful than prescriptions alone. “When I met Ricardo, I felt so comfortable. I felt I could say anything. My connection with Ricardo was a miracle. I didn’t think I would ever get better, but he offered such kindness,” she said. “He really cared. He helped me seek closure. He also helped me reflect on the good and see things in a brighter way.”
A BRIGHT FUTURE AHEAD
This past spring, Luce graduated from Mercer County Community College and on September 1, she started classes The College of New Jersey, pursuing a degree in Business Management. “It is really a blessing to live in the U.S.,” said Luce, who is extremely grateful for the care she has received. “I’ve progressed. I’ve gotten better. I learned it’s okay to take a breather, take a step back and look at everything as a whole.” In the future, she hopes to bring attention to the struggles of people in Haiti who lack mental health resources.
The Guidance Clinic is located at 39 North Clinton Avenue, Trenton, NJ 08609. For more information call (609) 394-9398.
ADDITIONAL STORIES OF INSPIRATION
Catholic Charities PACT team helped him avoid hospitalization and live independently in the community.
Linkages program provided shelter and stability for her and her children.
Rapid Rehousing program helped with her housing, so she can stay close to her sister.
READ MORE INSPIRATIONAL STORIES
See All Stories