Blowing Up


” I blew up. I lost it,” my friend said, grinning.

It was such a relief for him, exploding in rage, screaming, carrying on. In a few minutes, the prison staff wrestled him to the ground, secured his flailing hands with handcuffs, and injected some Benadryl to quiet him. He’d earned his 24 hours in the “muser”, the safe room where he could regroup, coming to grips with his rage.

He’d had a hard day.

His phone call with his mom ended in an argument and the same empty promises she’s been making for a while. He was fired from his work crew job, as he was horsing around and disrespecting the task at hand.

His primary staff person tried to talk with him about his attitude and his last phone call with his mom. That talk, with a guy who brings him pizza once in a while as a reward for good work, didn’t go well.

He’s also winding up his second go around with his sex offender treatment, taking another run through all of that life challenging and life changing work. With his medication change, and with his increasing maturity, he’s able to grasp the concepts easier this time around, and apply them to his life. He’s finally been able to see his childhood and his family life for what it really was.

A few weeks ago, his beloved grandfather passed away. His passing was not unexpected. My friend said it was actually a relief, given his grandfather’s declining health and ability to live in his house. The death of his grandmother a few months ago added to his grandfather’s sadness and loneliness.

They were about the last of his dad’s family around, and there is a big emptiness in my friend’s heart. Life with dad hadn’t been easy. There was a lot of alcohol, drugs, violence and anger. When dad died when my friend was fifteen, a lot of unfinished business punched him in the gut.

He went to live with mom, not that she wanted him. She and the boyfriend were busy with the bottle and the pipe, and didn’t need a teenaged boy in the house. But, he had no place else to go.

He’s never had it easy. He’s never enjoyed peace and a sense of place in this world. Life has always been a struggle, and he’s been pushed into the insanity of drugs, alcohol, violence, prostitution, and sexual chaos. School became a joke and he was sidelined and pushed through, grade after grade, and medicated, so that teachers didn’t have to deal with him.

Mom pimped him out, and arranged a lot of drug and alcohol infused “dates”, which led to his arrest and prison.

It was one way to get him away from mom and him dancing around the fringe of the local gangs and criminal element, and off the streets.

Now, he’s completed high school, he’s completing his sex offender treatment, he’s been clean and sober for five years, and he’s able to focus on his needs, and his future. His social skills have grown, so he can live in peace with others and learn to take care of himself.

Still, last week was a huge milestone. Deep inside him, his anger about his childhood and his family have festered and stewed, for his entire life. There are a lot of unresolved conflicts and emotions, and his limited contact with his family hasn’t gone far in settling those. He’s able to see a healthy alternative to all that chaos now, and that brings his anger about what he endured as a kid to an even higher boil.

I’ve played my role in that, too. I’ve been coming to visit him now for two years. Every week, we have coffee and talk. We talk about his work and his studies, and life in prison. We talk about his childhood a bit, and his growing passion for his Native American roots and about him figuring out who he really is.

I’ve challenged him, just by showing up, being dependable, speaking quietly, and gently accepting him, warts and all. He’s been stymied by knowing that I don’t have to show up and be in his life. I’m not a staff person, I’m not a prison guard or teacher, or counselor. I just show up and talk.

And, I don’t blow up. I don’t manipulate him. I don’t call him names. I do my best not to be critical or to put him down. He’s had enough of that for several lifetimes.

I’m a cheerleader here, quietly and consistently pushing him a bit, believing in him, and celebrating the good things he’s doing. Playing that role, I’ve befuddled him on many occasions, showing him that he’s worthy and decent, deep inside.

Over a year ago, he’d struggled with writing about his offense, and the impact it had on the victim, and trying to see the abuse from her point of view. His writing was a big part of his treatment work, the hardest part.

That was a big rock in the road, as he’d been sexually abused, too, and beaten, and neglected, and screamed at. He wrote a great essay on empathy, and then wrote about his life, using another name and making it fiction.

This work went on for months, and there were a lot of times when he cried and threw his hands up, overwhelmed by the enormity of his emotionally draining work. And, I didn’t judge him, and didn’t berate him for not sticking with the “schedule” of getting that work done.

He was digging deep, and opening and healing some awful and infected wounds. He was taking his time with it, taking care to be ready for him opening up every door in his house of horrors, but only when he was ready for what was inside.

And, I waited. I wouldn’t bring up the work unless he did. And, when he talked, I listened. I didn’t play editor, or critic, or judge. Oh, I cried sometimes. The stories that came out were beyond Steven King’s imagination. This was his reality, and he was in charge of peeling back the layers and getting down to the awful core.

A year ago, we celebrated his birthday, an ordinary event for most of us. But, at twenty one, he’d never had had a birthday party. He was able to invite his friends, and my wife and I brought in a cake and some ice cream, and party hats and birthday plates and napkins. We had presents and told jokes and laughed, and sang “Happy Birthday”.

He was nearly speechless. He’d been doubting the idea that we would actually throw a birthday party for him. And, when it came, he quickly slipped into his twelve year old boyness and took it all in.

The birthday party helped. It brought him in touch with his inner boy sweetness, and some healing went on. Silently, we all gave him permission to be a boy and have a party, and enjoy himself, just for who he was. After that, his treatment work moved ahead and he was able to complete his writing.

When that was done, he was a little shy in telling me that the big project was, at last, finished. He let out a smile, but he looked to me for approval.

I put it right back at him.

“This was your project, not mine. This was your work, not mine. You get the credit for all this,” I said. “Not me. This is your achievement.”

He knew that, of course, but he needed me to say the words.

We celebrated, then, with some ice cream. He let it slip that he’d never celebrated an accomplishment in his life with anyone before. Having ice cream, just because you did something that was hard, was something new.

It was another thing for me to cry about, as I drove home from our visit.

Last week, when he blew up, it was a big deal. He’d been dancing around the monster in his basement for his entire life. His treatment and his writing finally gave him permission to put on his armor and deal with the monster. His monster had lots of faces, and lots of evil and darkness. Its demands and screams have filled his ears his entire life.

And, last week, he went to war, taking on the monster and calling it out of his basement.

“I’d never fought it before, never let myself get angry and take it on,” he told me.

“But, it was time. I wasn’t going to take it any more, and I was going to fight him.”

When the six burly staff persons struggled with him, putting him on the ground and handcuffing him, and letting him scream for a half hour, he was winning the battle.

“It felt good to struggle, to fight back. And, I knew they were they helping me,” he said.

He’d never fought back before, taking the beatings from his dad, taking the indifference and the manipulation and the pimping out of his young sexual self in silence, acceptance. He didn’t contest the criminal charges, either, or the seven year sentence. He didn’t cry much when his grandparents died, or when his brother was first busted for heroin. It was all just how his miserable, worthless life was.

It was, after all, what he deserved. His dad had said he was worthless, a good for nothing. And, that must have been true. No one ever said anything different.

He’d never given voice to his grief before, the grief of a lost childhood, of abandonment, of the death of family members he loved and feared. He’d never cried before over his younger brother, now living on and off the streets, dabbling in heroin and sex and petty crime. He’d never screamed before, about being locked up for seven years, over the sex party his mom arranged, and his empty teenaged life.

He makes fifty cents an hour in prison. And, when his mom asked him last year for money, he never raised his voice.

“I’d be dead now, I’m sure of it,” he told me a few weeks ago, giving thanks that he’s in prison and had found the help he needed.

He’s lighter now, and a slight grin flashes across his face, even when he is being serious. There’s light in his eyes, and his shoulders are thrown back, a little pride showing in his face. He’s grown about four inches these last two years, too, and brags about his running and weight lifting and how his biceps are bigger now.

I’m sure there’s some clean up work to do, down in the basement of his young life. But, the monster is on the run, now, no longer the king of the underground. My friend has found his spear and his axe, and has gone into battle, committed to victory.
–Neal Lemery 1/17/2013


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