“I just want to feel numb,” he said.
The young man sitting across the table sipped his drink and munched on some chips, looking down.
The obscenity he had carved into his arm a few months ago had almost faded away. The pain I saw in his eyes hadn’t.
He pulled hard on the skin on the top of his left hand, and then he poked at it hard with his finger.
“See,” he said, “it doesn’t hurt. I can barely feel it.”
He bent his fingers back, the large knuckles cracking and popping. I winced, sympathetically feeling that pain in my own hand.
There was a story that came with it, about being angry and high; ramming his fist into a bridge pillar on a dark, hopeless night. The pain felt good, felt real, a release from his misery.
The pain made things clear, an atonement of his many sins.
I reached over and lightly touched the top of his hand.
“I can’t feel that,” he said. “Nothing.”
“Have you told anyone about this?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“If I tell people things that are wrong with me, then I’m weak. I don’t want to be vulnerable,” he said.
“Then, they’ll pick on me, kick me when I’m down.”
“Not that I don’t deserve that,” he said.
I didn’t have a good response. He’s vulnerable enough already, I thought.
“What are your plans now, about getting out?” I asked.
He shook his head, then looked down.
“I don’t have a home to go to. So, maybe some kind of half way house.”
He’s got some work ahead of him here, this correctional facility where the staff work with youth, working on their treatment, their education, building them up so that they can be self-supporting, self reliant.
There’s a few years of high school left for him. He came here without any high school credits, but he’s doing the work, and moving ahead in his classes. He’s surprised himself, getting good grades, moving ahead, grasping concepts, and being able to hold his own in class.
When we talk about his vocation, his trade he wants to learn, he brightens up. When we do our math and our writing, if I can make the task relate to that work, he gets it, and he learns.
He’s not the dumb ass his dad thinks he is; he’s no longer getting high on the street, and being the wanna be gang banger.
Still, there’s that desire to just be numb, to not feel, and sometimes, the desire to just end it all, to just curl up in the corner and die.
A few weeks ago, he seemed so down, I asked him the question, the ‘are you thinking of killing yourself’ question. The carving on the arm was fresh then, and the hole he was living in was dark, and getting deeper.
We had a heart to heart talk then, and things got better. He used the word “trust”, and liked having someone around he could talk to, someone to trust. He liked that I kept showing up, even if sometimes he didn’t think it was worth my time.
I kept showing up, kept proving him wrong about wasting my time.
I even saw a smile, then another one.
The medication seems to help some, and the latest pill hasn’t fully kicked in yet. There’s his basketball playing, working up a sweat and playing a good game with some of the other guys here. He’s pretty good at it, and the other guys want him on their team.
And, the weightlifting. Another guy is training him, gradually increasing the weights, building him up, finding that spark of confidence and trying to fan it into a real flame.
I show up, and sometimes we work on his math, sometimes his writing. Usually, we end up talking about what life was like on the streets, him looking to get high, getting into fights, being angry at his mom for getting high, and dad – not showing up, not being in his life.
One day, I met with him and his teachers, talking about his grades and his work. The conversation shifted, and we talked about his depression, his suicidal thoughts, his fear of getting out and not making it. There was a lot of compassion in the room, a lot of caring, a lot of concern.
We weren’t giving up on him, and I could see him taking all that in, feeding his soul.
Today, he’s back talking about just wanting to be numb. It’s familiar talk, and probably all that he’s known most of his life, a familiar way of dealing with the world.
He and I, we are trying to change that, to look at some positives, to work on some tasks and succeed, to change the theme in his life.
I’m seeing progress, at least a willingness to keep working on the good stuff.
Perhaps that’s enough, at least for today.
I’ll be back, and I’ll keep cheering him on, believing in him, seeing him as something more than someone who just wants to be numb.
–Neal Lemery 3/1/17