'Homeless to Harvard:' Child of Addicts Counsels Youth in Spirituality

Columbia University pioneers meditation therapies to protect against depression.

October 10, 2013, 2:37 AM

Oct. 10, 2013— -- Liz Murray forgave her drug-addicted parents for her fractured childhood in the Bronx, as the family lived from one welfare check to the next. She moved out at 15, figuring it was safer living on the streets than in a home where there was more cocaine and heroin than food on the kitchen table.

"People are surprised by the poverty and think that I wasn't cared for," Murray told ABCNews.com. "But that wasn't the case -- I was deeply loved."

Murray, now 33 and married with two children, is the inspiration for the television movie "Homeless to Harvard."

Living in stairwells and with friends, Murray turned to writing in her journal. When her mother died of AIDS at age 41, Murray had a spiritual epiphany and while crouching outside other families' apartments, felt "my mother's presence." Her mother asked her to promise to excel in school and her daughter decided to fulfill that pledge.

Murray became a top student at a Manhattan alternative school and wrote an essay on her personal journey that won her an Ivy League scholarship. But getting into Harvard was only half the battle. She struggled to be socially accepted and it took her nearly a decade to complete her studies.

At the same time, she lived and cared for her father, who was then sober, but also dying from AIDS.

Murray's story of resiliency was fodder for her 2010 memoir, "Breaking Night." By the time she was 19, she was motivating others on speaking tours and by 22, she was conducting workshops to guide others struggling with life's curveballs.

Now, in a new chapter in her journey, Murray is helping youth struggling with homelessness at New York's Covenant House, a nonprofit that provides shelter and support services for the city's youth population.

She is using storytelling as a tool to help abandoned youth tap into their inner spirit and to help them actualize their dreams. "Something in their family structure has fallen apart," said Murray.

"Our nature is biologically and inherently spiritual. It may take its expression through religious tradition, but every single one of us is innately born with a spiritual capacity in our genes." -- Lisa Miller, director, Spirituality & Mind/Body Institute

Her work is part of a psychology and spirituality program at Columbia University's Teachers College, a pioneering effort to use meditation therapies and mindfulness to help teens overcome trauma and successfully transition into adulthood.

"I always had a mind to go back to school," said Murray. "Then one day I picked up a New York Times article and the title was 'Merging Spirituality and Clinical Psychology at Columbia,' What? It sounded interesting."

She shot off an email to Lisa J. Miller, professor of psychology and education and head of the Spirituality & Mind/Body Institute, and was eventually accepted into the graduate program.

Miller had launched Youth Rising, a cooperative effort with Columbia's medical, social work and law schools to address the psychological, psychiatric and education needs of the city's 12,000 homeless youth, a third of whom had aged out of the foster care system.

The counseling component is funded by a $170,000 grant from the Goldman Sachs Foundation.

Miller said she has seen a "stampede" of interest in spirituality among her students.

"They've had years of practicing meditation and have a language of consciousness -- these are spiritual students."

Graduate students like Murray are trained to deliver counseling at Covenant House to focus on extreme stress, strength building and mental wellness.

Murray sees writing, alongside visualization and meditation techniques, as part of an important part of the healing process.

"I am experimenting with having them write a series of personal stories, but do it with a twist," she said. "I want them to go grab a journal and write a story about their lives. And at the very end of the semester, round them up and if a piece is particularly moving, to have a stand-up performance – get a microphone and read slam poetry."

As in her own life, Murray says, "when you take charge of your own narrative it gives you a handle on it."

The study of psychology and spirituality is now acknowledged by the American Psychological Association and Miller is co-editor-in-chief of its journal, Spirituality in Clinical Practice. She also conducts research on the benefits of visualization therapies on troubled youth.

Recent studies by Miller and others that have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Psychiatry, show that spirituality can protect a person from depression, even if they have a high risk for the disorder.

"I come to this as a scientist," said Miller. "Our nature is biologically and inherently spiritual. I call it natural spirituality. It may take its expression through religious tradition, but every single one of us is innately born with a spiritual capacity in our genes."

Spirituality may take the form of religious belief, but it goes beyond that, according to Miller. "It's a two-way relationship in which you are part of something more and are buoyed up as a part of that oneness."

Miller's program involves the Best Self Visualization Method (BSM), which uses a Tibetan Buddhist sound bowl a dish that emits a hum that helps with meditation, deep rhythmic breathing, visualizing the "ideal self," and sending and receiving loving kindness.

"These therapies have the most traction with those kids who have built-in inner resources," said Miller. "Beyond being the object of abuse and poverty, these Covenant kids go very deep. They know themselves in a truer way as valuable and worthy."

"This is not a fringe thing," said Miller. "If a person's spirituality is supported, it can be a robust form of resilience."

She said Covenant House youth show compassion and optimism, despite their psychological wounds.

"For having suffered so much, they have deep and open hearts," said Miller. "These are beautiful kids."

Miller said her new student Murray is a shining example.

"She sees things with clear eyes and glory and sees the splendor in her life and inherent goodness and brightness in the world," said Miller. "She is a very kind and encouraging person to her classmates."

But Murray knows the pain of homelessness first-hand.

She and her older sister had grown up with a schizophrenic mother and an intelligent father who had become a drug dealer while studying psychology in a doctoral program. He met her mother selling her drugs.

"It was the '70s and they had a party lifestyle," said Murray. "But when the party was over, there was the shadow of addiction."

The family became homeless after they were evicted for not paying their rent. Her father went to live in a shelter, and her mother moved in with a boyfriend she met in a bar.

"It wasn't a stable place," said Murray. "My mother was in and out of the hospital."

Both her parents developed HIV from shared needles.

While at Harvard, Murray was "going back and forth to New York City on a Greyhound bus" taking her sick father to doctors' appointments. She convinced him to move to Cambridge, where he died at age 64 in 2006.

"It was peaceful between us," she said. "Before he died, he wrote a little card to me that said, 'Lizzy, I left my dreams behind a long time ago. Now they are safe with you.'"

"Forgiveness came very naturally to me," said Murray. "People can't give you what they don't have. My parents were mentally ill and drug addicted. I understood they were not really malicious toward me. They loved me and I loved them."

She echoes that message to her students at Covenant: "Bad things happen, but it's not someone's fault."

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