Single mom Elizabeth Anderson was depressed, suffering mystifying pains and struggling to make ends meet with she turned to Atlantic Street Center for help. The nonprofit helps more than 3,000 kids and their families each year, mostly from Central and Southeast Seattle.

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She tried to keep it together, but just couldn’t.

When the father of her kids went to prison in 2008, Elizabeth Anderson overnight became a single mom. She was alone with a young son and twins not yet 2 years old.

She made ends meet waiting tables at a strip club. The hours only made things worse. After work each night at 2 a.m., she’d walk to the sitter’s, collect her three kids and sleepwalk home through the dark streets. She was broke, or close to it, and suffering mystifying pains — in her wrists, her ankles and behind her eyes. She sank into depression. She slept constantly.

By spring 2009, Anderson’s life was a mess — literally. Her home was such an unsanitary wreck that her apartment manager complained, and the state came and took her kids.

“I was overwhelmed,” said Anderson, who is now 29. “I was stuck in this rut and I couldn’t get out. I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do.”

Ordered to undergo several weeks of mental-health counseling, Anderson landed in the offices of Sharmayne Arrington, a therapist with Atlantic Street Center. The century-old nonprofit helps needy families with literacy classes, parenting skills and mental-health treatment. Arrington typically counsels troubled children from Shoreline to Renton. But she also has a knack for helping adults.

Anderson came back almost every week for 18 months.

Today Anderson’s kids are home. The state no longer supervises her family. Anderson replaced her furniture and got a steam cleaner; she calls the machine her “new best friend.” The waitressing job is gone. Anderson now works as a parent aide at her 7-year-old son Aries’ elementary school. She’s finishing her first year at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Seattle, where she’s working toward a bachelor’s degree.

Even the aches have mostly subsided. They were symptoms, Arrington said, of a somatoform disorder — a rare, anxiety-related psychological condition that can lead to physical pain. It’s chronic but treatable with therapy, which is one reason Anderson still sees Arrington weekly. Plus there’s a bounce to her step for days after each talk.

“She’s just an amazing person,” Anderson said of her Atlantic Street counselor. “She didn’t judge; she listened. She helped me figure out how to make things work.”

Arrington is quick to shake off any credit.

“She’s really self-motivated,” Arrington said. “And she’s realistic about her goals. I’m really proud of her.”

Atlantic Street Center is a child-centric family support organization focused on keeping kids healthy and happy, primarily in Central and Southeast Seattle. Each year the staff works with more than 3,000 kids and their families, helping improve early learning and social coping skills or working through issues as varied as teen pregnancy and family violence. Therapy is just one piece of that.

Counseling isn’t like providing a hungry family with canned vegetables. The benefits are often intangible. But mental-health issues can be a profound barrier to family stability and are frequently intergenerational.

“If you break your arm, that’s not likely to affect your children,” said Ralph Fragale, who runs the counseling program at Atlantic Street. “But if you have undiagnosed depression, or untreated bipolar disorder, that will.”

And poverty can have a compounding effect. Amid the angst of everyday life, psychological issues can sneak up on people.

“Oftentimes folks have grown tolerant of stress in their lives, so asking for help seems silly,” Fragale said. “They figure they just need to be more tolerant.”

In a sense that’s what happened to Anderson.

She grew up in Tacoma and spent years in foster care, and eventually fell in with people who took advantage. Friends came by at all hours searching for a free couch. Some lied, others stole from her.

“I just kept inviting trouble in,” Anderson said.

By the time she found herself in Arrington’s office, surrounded by the board games the counselor uses to distract her child clients, Anderson was angry and frustrated and at wit’s end. Looking back, she now sees how much she needed a friendly ear — someone unbiased and nonjudgmental, but willing to speak the truth.

Within a few months of their early sessions, Anderson felt different. She felt stronger, more resilient, more in control. The state returned her children, but Anderson didn’t stop there.

On her own she began extracting herself from bad relationships. She took a new job and looked into college and financial aid. She started drawing again, a childhood habit she’d fallen out of.

“One day she brought her art in to show me — she’s really good,” Arrington said of her client. “That’s a pretty personal thing. That’s when I knew she was really making progress.”

Aries started doing better in school and Anderson finally enrolled herself.

She wants someday to do graphic design — advertising logos, wedding invitations, you name it. New ideas swirl about her head constantly. But for now she’s happy to be healthy and learning.

“People ask me if it’s too soon to feel so confident about Elizabeth’s future,” Arrington said. “But I’m completely confident because she did it all herself.”

Anderson knows how far she’s come. “You do what you have to do,” she said. “Sometimes you just need help.”

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or