Healthy Choices

Jordana Steinberg: ‘A story of overcoming’

It was about noon on a weekday, and Jordana Steinberg, 20, sat at a round-topped kitchen table in her Rocklin apartment, her therapist by her side. A faint aroma of tomato sauce on toasted crust lingered from the previous night’s pizza.

Jordana, a second-year student at Sierra College, was prepared to open up about the most private of topics, her mental health. She had a mission: to tell her story publicly for the first time, for the benefit of others.

Lightly freckled, with dark friendly eyes, Jordana spoke candidly and without hesitation. Over the next few hours and in subsequent days, she shared details of her battle against a severe childhood mood disorder and declared her intent to become an activist.

“I want to be the person who helps other people,” Jordana said. “I think I’m ready. I don’t want to be pitied. I want to be an inspiration.”

Then, sounding very much like her well-known father, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, she said: “Everybody knows somebody who has something. I want to be a leader who helps stop stigma.”

For more than a decade, the senator, a Sacramento Democrat, has been among California’s most prominent advocates for expansion of mental health services. He was co-author of a 2004 initiative that imposed a 1 percent income tax on millionaires to fund programs to improve the mental health of Californians. After six years on Sacramento’s City Council and 14 years in the state Legislature – the last six as pro tem – he will leave office this fall because of term limits.

Steinberg said he was as surprised as anyone to learn of his daughter’s decision to talk publicly about her mood disorder. It’s not like the family tried to hide it, he said, but they didn’t broadcast it either, opting for privacy. “She was a kid,” he said, “and it was not my right as a parent to talk about her.”

Regardless, and with his blessing, Jordana said she is poised to lay her voice alongside her father’s – to tell her own story of a journey through a sometimes violent, turbulent childhood and troubled teen years toward a hard-fought recovery.

“It’s a story of overcoming, not hardship,” Jordana said. “I’m hoping I can use my dad’s power and his last months in office to get more people to listen. If they respect him, and he’s definitely for mental health, why not use my story to help more people?”

Accompanying Jordana on this sunny day was Jennifer Lotery, a clinical psychologist who earned her Ph.D. at UCLA. The two bonded while Jordana was living at Summitview Child and Family Services, a residential treatment center in Placerville.

Jordana spent 32 months in one of Summitview’s four group homes, under the watch of staff members 24/7. The girls were kept busy with a regimen of school, behavioral therapy, counseling and chores. Each house was equipped with locked restraining rooms in case of crises.

Summitview is what’s known as a Level 14 facility. There is no Level 15. Failure to adapt at these group homes could land a young person in a locked psychiatric facility.

Many of the girls at the home, like Jordana, were referred to Summitview by their local school districts when ordinary classroom instruction did not meet their needs. Some came from dysfunctional homes, some from physically abusive families; all were deemed a possible danger to themselves or others.

In Jordana’s case, the issues were genetic: a family history of depression and a little-understood twist of chemistry left her roiling and edgy, a little girl with explosive emotions she could neither contain nor understand.

Without the anger and fighting, it’s like you are lost in a sea full of people, not able to trust anyone and scared to death. It’s like when you get butterflies in your stomach and the butterflies are anger racing through you and you are at a loss, not knowing what to do with yourself to keep yourself calm. ... As I lay in my bed, trying to keep calm, I hugged my stuffed dog Fluffy and cried silently.

Jordana, at Summitview, an unfinished memoir

The old photographs show an apple-cheeked girl moving through the years surrounded by family. A toddler in a pink tutu. An 8-year-old, relaxing at her mother’s feet in the backyard, eyes lit with laughter. Her head resting on her mother’s shoulder at age 14, as her father is sworn in as pro tem.

What the pictures don’t show are the family’s private agonies as Jordana’s rages reverberated through the Steinbergs’ Greenhaven home. As prominent as they are in politics and the community, the Steinbergs could not dodge what nature dealt Jordana: a severe childhood mood disorder that wracked their early family life.

Jordana was born April 16, 1994, while her father was in his first term on the Sacramento City Council. As a toddler, her mother said, Jordana could pitch tantrums for hours. “She would just lash out,” Julie Steinberg said. “I didn’t know it was not normal.”

By 3½, Jordana’s fits were so intense that to cope, Julie would load Jordana and her younger brother, Ari, into their car seats and take a long drive to nowhere and back. She would head east up Highway 50 toward El Dorado County. At the Shingle Springs exit, she would get off, turn around and get back on the freeway toward home. The vista at the junction was calming, Julie recalled, with majestic snow-capped Sierra peaks to the east, the Sacramento Valley to the west.

The drives were soothing for Jordana, as well. She was enchanted with the scenery, especially the spectacular sunsets, her mother recalled. “She has these extraordinary challenges,” Julie said. “And yet there were two sides to the coin. Jordana would look at the sky and say, ‘Look at the magenta and fuchsia.’ What 3½-year-old was thinking this way?”

Looking back to those early years, Jordana can’t remember many of her most explosive episodes. One early conflict does stick out, however: the battle over the pink tutu. She was 4, and her mother told her to change from her tutu into pajamas for bedtime. “And I said, ‘No!’ She was like, ‘I’ll help you.’ I was like, ‘No!’ And I screamed.”

For four hours, she screamed, long, piercing shrieks that tore through the home.

The hours-long screaming was just one way Jordana would vent, testing the durability of her wrath. “I couldn’t figure out why I was so angry. I really don’t remember a lot of it,” she said. “I just remember I was all over the place.”

Others have filled her in. Recently, Ari, now 17, told her she used to hit him. Regularly. Once, she stabbed him with a pencil.

One day, Julie recollected, she found Jordana pulling young Ari, then a toddler, across the floor by the hair. “The look on her face was sheer determination,” Julie said. “That was the moment I knew we needed help.”

“I remember a lot of screaming, yelling, threats, fighting, and that being normal,” Ari said in a recent interview, “and I have the scars and stuff.”

With the family’s attention focused on Jordana, Ari grew more self-reliant. Early on, he learned to cook, making grilled cheese sandwiches for himself and his sister. He tried to shield his mom from the household tension, offering comfort and keeping his emotional needs to himself. “I had to sustain myself,” he said.

Jordana was still a toddler in 1997 when her father, then a councilman, developed an interest in mental health while working to establish citywide food stations for homeless people. “I’ve always said, the homeless are the most visible manifestation of mental illness,” he said in an interview.

The Steinbergs say they had no inkling at the time that they were coping with mental illness in their own home. No one doubted that Jordana was difficult, her father said, but no one guessed she was sick, either: “Julie has had a good way of putting it: Jordana was always age-appropriate but always to the nth degree.”

As Jordana unleashed her angry outbursts at home, her father often was working late on the City Council. In 1998, he moved to the Assembly, where his first bill secured $10 million for mental health pilot programs. He had sought $350 million, and the shortfall would inspire his 2004 drive to pass Proposition 63, which generated upward of $9 billion in mental health funding over the following decade.

At home, Jordana’s rages accelerated, and Julie and Ari bore the brunt of her explosive reactions to minor triggers. Small things, like getting bumped on the heel while walking in front of Ari’s stroller, would send her over the top, screeching for hours. At times, she would turn on herself, pulling her own hair, twisting and pinching her skin.

Mother and daughter clashed as Julie challenged her daughter’s behavior. “Her energy was always potent; it could crush your soul,” Julie said. “When Jordana would say, ‘I hate you!’ it was like daggers pierced you. It was toxic. There weren’t words to explain the depth of her power.”

She grasped at techniques to settle her daughter, including one in which she’d wrap her arms tightly around Jordana to hold her close, hoping to convey security and unconditional love. She tried holistic solutions, art therapy, equine therapy.

Nothing changed.

Jordana’s furies left marks on the family’s one-story, contemporary-style home, which itself bears scars. “There are so many holes in the walls. Home is a wonderful place but sort of painful,” her father said. “It was where the hard things happened.”

At age 6, Jordana was prescribed her first medication, a mild antidepressant her doctor thought might help even out her moods. At age 7, the Steinbergs took her to a child psychiatrist for what her father thought was “an overly sensitive nervous system.” The doctor issued a more serious diagnosis: pediatric bipolar disorder. Her medications were increased.

As the years ticked by, Julie continued to improvise. When Jordana was 9 or 10 and better able to conceal her pin-pricked moods in public, Julie would take the kids to B’nai Israel Temple, where she now serves as a cantor and at the time did administrative work. She would treat them to dinner afterward. Four nights a week, she would wrap up the evening at Vic’s ice cream parlor for dessert and story time.

Over cups of ice cream, the kids would listen as their mother read children’s classics: “Black Beauty,” “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” the “Pendragon” series. Ari recalls the staff at Vic’s gathering around to listen. It made for pleasant family evenings, and a way to postpone going home until bedtime.

“In public I could fake it,” Jordana said, looking back. “Only my close friends knew something was up. But I was really, really angry.”

Her father often worked late during these years. There were legislative demands, fundraisers, community events. Often, by the time he came home, Jordana’s worst fits were over and she went to him for comfort. They shared a sense of humor that created a special bond.

“I experienced it mostly by myself,” Julie said. “Darrell just wanted it to be different and wanted me to be different.”

“I never doubted Julie’s version of what went on during the day,” Darrell said. “... But it did cause strains between us in terms of our marriage. You’re so desperate to make it better that when techniques don’t work, you tend to blame the other person.”

But as she grew older, Jordana increasingly lashed out at her father as well. Often, he had to restrain her to keep her from hurting herself as she raged. She responded with force, spitting in his face, punching, leaving him bruised. When it came time to go back to work, “I divorced myself from it,” he said.

Prior to her teen years, Jordana would end her fits by collapsing into an exhausted pile of regret. Once puberty hit, however, remorse vanished, Julie said. “She thought she was all powerful, controlling. That was her demeanor.”

The worst year came in 2007. Jordana was 13 and had celebrated her bat mitzvah that spring. That summer, every day brought fits of rage, her father recalled. Julie told him she could not live with it anymore.

“My fear was she was going to end up in prison, or be dead,” Julie said. She began to feel her own mental well-being was at risk. She also felt very much alone. “There was no one who could give us any tools. None.”

Around this time came the first hospitalization: One evening, Jordana pounded her head against a wall, again and again, and threatened to harm herself more. Her father called an emergency response team to the house.

After a couple of days in the hospital, Jordana was released. She went into another rage. Julie took her to a different hospital and, in the waiting room, she attacked her mother, pulling her hair, kicking and spitting in her face. Julie asked for help; the personnel suggested parenting classes.

Two more hospitalizations would follow.

“We were like a divided family,” Julie said. “We were not equipped to help our child. That’s when I said I was done. Darrell loves his child, loves his family. He was coming from a place of ‘Let’s make everything better.’ He used to say, ‘I won’t be able to breathe if my daughter isn’t living with me.’”

Julie was more pragmatic. She said she saw it as their responsibility to do whatever it took to save their daughter, even if it meant sending her away. Over time, the couple came to an agreement. They reached the anguished decision to enroll Jordana in New Leaf Academy, a therapeutic boarding school in Bend, Ore. Once they started working as a team, Julie said, “He was a rock.”

“I was in my first year in the Senate,” Darrell said. “We drove her up to Oregon, and had a tearful goodbye. They had to sort of drag her away.”

She would spend most of the next six years living apart from her family.

Fighting and being defiant is like an addiction. I couldn’t just stop it overnight. It feels like you need it to have power and show strength, and if you stop the pattern of anger and fighting, you are vulnerable and weak. It’s like you lost a protective shield and a sword that protects you from any harm that comes your way.

Jordana’s unfinished memoir

Jordana’s first placement did not go well. Just 36 hours after her parents dropped off their 13-year-old daughter at New Leaf Academy, school officials called to say she was “out of control.” Come and get her, they said.

By Jordana’s account, she panicked upon learning she was to stay at New Leaf’s middle school program for the next three years. She remembers feeling trapped, and tearing at the hair of a school administrator. She raced through the rows of desks in the academy’s library, chased by school staff. She ripped documents, shoved piles of paper off desks and smashed someone’s snow globe. She remembers thinking she would destroy the place and free the children.

Administrators finally cornered her, but not before she had grabbed a pair of scissors. “I’m not going to go down without a fight,” Jordana recalls thinking. Police arrived and she was held overnight in juvenile hall.

Her father flew to Oregon to bring her back to Sacramento.

Strained financially from out-of-pocket costs for Jordana’s various therapies, the Steinbergs worked with the county and school district to develop a special education plan, known as an Individualized Education Program, for Jordana. Because county and school officials determined that Jordana needed to attend a full-time residential treatment facility to be able to thrive, the cost would be covered through a combination of state, local and federal funds.

Her next stop was the Meridell Achievement Center, a high-security psychiatric lockdown facility near Austin, in Liberty Hill, Texas. There, a diagnostic imaging of her brain showed excessive activity in her frontal lobe, similar to what is seen in the brains of people with epilepsy. She was put on anti-seizure medicines in doses that steadily increased over time.

The drugs gave her more of a feeling of being in control, but also caused side effects that included involuntary twitching, nausea, vertigo, weight gain and difficulty staying awake. She would stay on the regimen for years.

Her father hated the side effects: “It dulled her,” he said.

But Julie remembers feeling relief. “At the time, it was like, ‘Oh my God, I can see my daughter. She was emerging.”

And as much as they missed her, her absence made home life easier. Ari perked up one quiet evening about six months after Jordana’s departure. “Everybody, do you hear that? That silence?” he said. “There’s no yelling.”

Julie said, “When she went away, we started to heal.”

After five months at Meridell, with Jordana’s moods stabilized, the Steinbergs decided to try a lower security setting. Julie drove her from the rolling hills of Central Texas to Provo, Utah, and the college-like campus of Heritage School. Jordana would spend the next 20 months at Heritage, before graduating from their junior high program at age 15.

The school spans 19 acres and offers behavioral health therapy and school lessons, as well as an equestrian center that provides training in stable management and horsemanship, and a performing arts center with programs in set design, costuming, music and direction.

The Heritage staff worked with Jordana on the skills she would need to control her emotions. They practiced coping techniques to deal with stress. She learned which emotions were appropriate in day-to-day situations. She took part in teamwork activities, such as flag football and group puzzle-solving. She adjusted to the disciplinary system, which rewarded good behavior with additional privileges.

Her parents flew in every week for six weeks for family therapy, and wrote to her frequently. “Hi Jordeus of Bordeus,” began one letter from her father. It concluded, “Believe in yourself! I sure do.”

The Steinbergs took their family vacation in Provo in 2009 so they could spend time with Jordana. Ari had trepidations. “I didn’t want to see her,” he said. “I remember being very apprehensive – scared, sort of. But I was shocked. She was different, polite, nice.”

A quick response ran through my brain and I yelled, ‘I hate you! You are the worst dad ever. I hope you go to hell. All you do is work! You are not even good at it!’ .... The look on my dad’s face was shock and filled with hurt. ... He turned away from me. Now was my opportunity to figure out how much he was in pain from the words I had said to him. I looked over at him, and as he looked into my eyes, I realized we felt the same amount of pain and regret.

Jordana’s unfinished memoir

Later that year, Jordana graduated from Heritage and returned to Sacramento. Her parents wanted her to live at home and attend public high school. But after having trained her focus on treatment for some years, Jordana was behind in academics. She hadn’t read a book in years, and she couldn’t write in straight lines. “Her handwriting would go all over the page,” sometimes diagonally,” Julie said. “Her thoughts were jumbled and fascinating.”

Jordana entered George Washington Carver High School in Sacramento, and was placed in a special education class. She would last just six months.

Looking back, Jordana can see that her path to wellness was not a straight line. It was a winding route of fits and starts. Learning to accept herself. Learning to accept society’s mores, and adapt her behavior, even if it didn’t come naturally. There was no one moment of revelation. Instead, it was day to day, month to month, year to year.

When Jordana found Carver too stressful, a county mental health worker told the Steinbergs about Summitview, a program in El Dorado County that offers an on-site high school with a high teacher-to-student ratio.

Patterns can be stubborn, and when Jordana arrived at Summitview, that trapped-animal surge of fear and aggression she experienced in Oregon resurfaced. She crouched outside the Summitview entrance in a defensive position, refusing to enter. She had a ballpoint pen in her hand. When an administrator approached, Jordana plunged the tip into the palm of the woman’s outstretched hand.

“Yes, she did draw blood,” said Anna Gleason, Summitview’s executive director. “To me, it was a metaphor for how disruptive Jordana’s life was when she first came to us.”

Lotery, who would be Jordana’s therapist at Summitview, saw another sign of the severity of Jordana’s condition. In 25 years of experience, she’d rarely come across a teenager taking so many adult doses of potent psychotropic drugs. “That the doctors were willing to put her on so much medication could be a reflection of how severe Jordana’s mood regulation issues were,” Lotery said.

The medication regimen would continue, but Lotery took issue with the bipolar diagnosis a doctor had rendered eight years before. Instead, she saw in Jordana symptoms of the newly recognized childhood mood condition called disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. The hallmark: a persistent, angry mood that erupts into rage grossly out of proportion to whatever provoked it.

Trouble was, because it was so recently defined, the diagnosis came without any proven or even suggested treatments.

Even so, Summitview’s approach – a mix of daily coaching, intensive therapy and schoolwork – clicked with Jordana. Lotery was available for crises any hour of the day or night. The house rules were clear and consistent, as was the system of rewarding or punishing behavior. Each morning, chores and lessons were scripted. Each afternoon, she had to verbalize which life skills she had used that day, reinforcing them.

Maybe it was the support and consistency, maybe it was because she was maturing: Jordana made a conscious decision to go along with the program. And she grew more confident.

After all the years of anger and fighting, her self-esteem had taken a beating. “It scares me how little I thought I could do,” she said. “It’s really sad. I thought I was stupid and useless and didn’t have a purpose.”

At Summitview, she said, she felt she was accepted. “For me, it was never like, ‘You need to change.’ It was like, ‘This is where you are right now. For you to be able to change, let’s set some goals for you to be better.’

“I thought I couldn’t do it. They said, ‘We think you can; try it out, we’ll help you.’ So it guided me toward potential that I didn’t even know I had.”

The Summitview staff also worked on Jordana’s relationship with her family. Early on, when Jordana would come home for weekend visits, she often would panic and call Summitview staff to talk her through the tension. As time went on, the visits grew more comfortable. And at Summitview, Julie could see her daughter emerging as a leader.

“It gave me the skills I needed in real life to function in society,” Jordana said. “If someone bugs me or annoys me, I bite my tongue. It helped me learn how to pick my battles. And I’m happier because of it. I choose not to get upset about most things.”

At 18, she had caught up on her schoolwork and was ready to leave Summitview. At her high school graduation ceremony, she presented a gift to the administrator she had attacked the first day. The parting gift? A silver-plated desk set, with the pen engraved, “Sorry I stabbed you.”

Some days I really struggle with managing the intensity I sometimes feel. But overall I love the life I am living. I used to think that when I left treatment, things would be ‘normal and perfect,’ like I’d be fixed. But I’ve grown to realize that it’s not about getting to the finish line, but really embracing the present and what the present has to offer.

– Jordana, on living on her own, 2014

Jordana’s apartment in walking distance of Sierra College is cheery, with color bouncing out of every corner. Her paintings of flowers and landscapes grace the walls. Lively patterned bohemian shoulder bags hang in a row in the living room. Pages from a little book of inspirational sayings from her mother are tacked onto another wall. Neon Post-it notes display uplifting reminders.

Some people collect objects; Jordana surrounds herself with color, and collects meaningful quotations. Her “Book of Quotes” includes dozens of memorable sayings, from Mother Teresa, the Buddha, Shakespeare.

There’s one signed, “your favorite state senator” (Jordana wrote, AKA, my Daddy.): “Work hard. Be kind to others. And care about something other than yourself.”

Recently, Ari was kicking back at the apartment while Jordana cooked for him. Weekly, her mother comes by to drive Jordana to therapy. They text each other daily, and have grown close.

Julie sees challenges ahead, but takes strength in Jordana’s strength.

“She owns her life. She has taken charge of her path,” Julie said. “It’s rewarding to have a daughter who says to me, ‘You saved my life.’ To hear her speak to it shocks me.”

Jordana’s first year at Sierra College was bumpy, because that was the year she decided to shed all her meds. She suffered withdrawal symptoms such as pounding migraines, and missed classes. This year, she has hit the books and done well in her communications major, while holding down a part-time job at a Mexican restaurant.

Recently, Jordana posted on her Facebook page: “4 papers done, text book chapters read and test studied for! Seems like this cycle of loads of hw never ends. Nevertheless, im super happy to be done! Time to go swimming!!”

Exercise, Jordana said, helps her stay well, along with getting enough sleep and eating well. Having a routine is essential. She still gets uncomfortably irritable at times, especially when stressed, but she no longer explodes.

“I never really feel angry like in the past, but some days are more difficult than others,” she said. “On those days, I can feel a little low, and I get emotionally drained.”

She reads a lot and has picked up writing again. She may finish the memoir she started at Summitview. Jordana said she wants to use her experience to counsel teens with similar struggles, a living example that there can be a brighter outcome.

She says she has no lingering anger toward her parents, and no resentment at being sent away from home.

“Looking back, I recognize my dad was kind of in denial about how bad things actually were in the beginning,” she said. “Mom wanted to challenge me more. Both my parents did their best. I just don’t think anyone could manage how bad things were.”

These days, Jordana and her father have a forthright relationship, in which they sometimes agree to disagree. Her father rides her about her grades and whether she overspends or shops for the best bargain.

Nevertheless, her decision to open up the pages of her life story has him feeling protective: “I am both a little bit afraid for her, and incredibly proud of her at the same time.” Politically, he said, it never occurred to him to pull her into the limelight on mental health issues.

“I’ve made my bones in this area just fine. I’ve had the platform, the title and the passion to do something here, and I’ve done it,” he said. “I’m not going to use my daughter to do it.”

But he also won’t stand in her way. Doing so, he said, “would be hypocritical.”

Day to day, Jordana focuses as much as possible on positives. “I don’t have much shame about what I went through,” she said. “I’m really happy with who I am. I want to be me.”

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