Numbing Up


 

 

“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

 

Grieving and Anticipating


It’s the harshest kind of grief, hanging around, not ready to even barely get started. It hits me hard, even before I’m ready to stumble down that long road through the jungle that is grief.
Anticipatory grief, that’s what the psychologists call it. Grieving a loss before it actually occurs. But, I know it’s coming. So, I gird my loins, I steel myself for what is coming. I’ve been in this place before, and I’m old enough, lived enough life to know there’s a storm coming and I better get ready.
This grief doesn’t get to enjoy messing with all of me, not yet. There’s still hope. Hope that my friend will recover from cancer. Or that my relative who’s had several strokes and is severely depressed will turn the corner and be their old, dependable and personable self. Or, grieving some other change, some other loss in my life.
I can’t fully grieve, I can’t yet look ahead on this journey and start thinking those logical, sensible thoughts, that death is inevitable, that my loved one has passed away and that is simply reality.
No, that’s not reality. Not yet. There’s that hope poking around, reminding me that all is not lost, at least not yet. They could recover, they could rebound and this dark time will simply be remembered over coffee as a bad time, just one of those stumbling blocks on our walk through life.
This wound is open, infected. My magical thinking is that I can let this grief run its course, that I can gnash my teeth and scream at the wind in the middle of the storm. Eventually the dawn will come and I can see my way ahead, that life goes on, and I must take some steps in the right direction.
No, not yet. There’s that hope thing; there’s that uncertainty. So, I bargain and I rationalize and use all my grieving tools, looking for the easy way out.
“It’s not that bad,” I say to the mirror.
It is. The cancer and the stroke and the depression, or whatever disease my loved ones are battling are fierce and strong. And, let’s face it, fatal. It’s just a matter of time.
But. But, let me bargain. Let me cajole and do my best imitation of a cheerful Pollyanna.
That’s part of the grief process, the potholed journey I’m embarking on. My rational mind knows that. Yet, grief isn’t rational, isn’t a nice progressive process with a bright light shining a mile down the road.

Grief is chaos, bewilderment, a wringing of the hands, storming through my life, often blindsiding me, getting knocked off the rails.
This anticipation, it is still grief, and I don’t know how to deal with it, or make much sense out of it. I’ll just be grieving, with all of my righteous anger and rage, depression, frustration, self pity and glimmers of rational thoughts full of hope and a renewed healthy perspective of what life is all about.
Grieving is messy work, and like everyone else I know, it is work that I want to avoid. When I can’t avoid it, I’ll bargain and argue and ignore it and play all the mind games with the Fates that I’ve come to be pretty experienced with. Grief and I are wary rivals, wrestling as we do to see how I can move through these rough patches in my life.
Anticipatory grief? Heck, no. I’m right in the middle of it all. I call it out as grief, in all its forms and all of its moods. And, some day, I’ll emerge on the other side of the wormhole, a little worse for the wear, maybe. Yet, stronger for the journey.

—Neal Lemery. 9/6/2016

The Power of Listening


The Power of Listening

“Concern for others is the best form of self interest.”

—Desmond Tutu

I talk a lot. I’m pretty opinionated, and I usually have something to say.

Yet, this week, I learned, once again, the magic of being quiet, of listening to others, and just being there, so that they could say what was on their mind. In doing that, I learned a lot, about them, and also about myself.

I had lunch with a man I’ve known for quite a while. I don’t think we were friends, but now we are. He needed some help in his life, some advice, some direction. He needed a bit of my time.

We talked, or rather, he talked, and I asked a few questions along the way. He had quite the story to tell, and needed some direction. Not many people had been listening to him lately, and life had gotten out of hand. He was living in chaos and things that needed attention weren’t getting his focus. He was overwhelmed.

The more I listened, the more I realized he really needed some medical care. That wasn’t on his pretty long list of the crises and dilemmas in his life, but, the more I heard him talk, the more I realized that the solutions were to be found in him getting some medical help.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), he’d just been accepted into the Oregon Health Plan. For the first time in about fifteen years, he had health insurance, and didn’t need to rely on the emergency room as his only source of health care.

Up until this year, he hadn’t been able to afford to go to the emergency room, and so, when his thumb got cut pretty deep, he sewed it up himself. He showed me his thumb, and the decent job he did. I winced at the thought of his pain, and his determination, to take care of himself, no matter what he suffered.

He wanted me to wave my magic legal wand and solve his legal problems. Yet, the real issues were rooted in his health. If he could become healthy, and address his medical issues, then he could manage and resolve the things he said were troubling him. Soon, he’ll need a lawyer, but today, he needed a doctor.

I drove him to the health clinic and made an appointment. A few days later, we met there, again, and we filled out the long questionnaire about his medical history, and a survey on depression. Bingo, he self scored a 100% on the depression survey. I admired his honesty in answering all the questions with an open heart. It’s tough for anyone to be brutally honest with themselves when it comes to your health, and that challenge is doubled or tripled when it comes to looking in the mirror and saying the word “depression”.

We met with two amazing, compassionate staff members of the clinic. In a few minutes, they were doing tests, asking more questions, and engaging my friend in a frank and respectful conversation about his health. He could see the entire picture, and the collision in his life of genetics, diet, exercise, addictions, and the stress of his life.

We talked about remedies, and new choices to be made. More tests were scheduled, and a follow up visit was set, to check on how he’s doing on his depression medication, and to begin work on some of his other long term problems. They offered him hope and professional competence. More importantly, they offered him respect.

It was a hard day for him, hard to show up for the appointment, hard to have a real conversation about the realities of his life, and hard for him to accept the help he’s needed. Everyone in the room was concerned about him, him as a person, as a human being. There wasn’t a word of judgment, a word of criticism of his choices and the way he’s chosen to self medicate.

At last, he could get the medical care he needed, and to gain the tools he needs to move on with his life, and regain his health.

Our country is having a big discussion about medical insurance and health care. A lot of folks grump about the costs of medical care, and the pros and cons of subsidized health insurance for people in poverty, and the working poor. I’m overwhelmed with all the statistics, plans, and arguments on all sides of the discussion.

All that quickly gets intellectually confusing, with lots of rhetoric and politics, and, I suspect, a lot of propaganda. There’s money to be made, and lots of self interest, and self serving posturing going on.

Yet, for all that talk, I sat with my friend, seeing him get first class health care, seeing him get the services he’s needed, and to be able to work on restoring his health. Soon, he’ll be able to work, he’ll be able to get out of bed and feel good about himself, and to be the kind of father he needs to be to his kids, and be an active, healthy member of the community. If there’s a price for that, I think we’d all think that would be a pretty good investment, especially if you could see the tears of relief and validation that flowed down his cheek, as we sat in that exam room, and he realized he’s on the road to getting well, and he had hope for his life.

The next day, I visited a young man in prison. He’s asked that I come visit him, to mentor him a bit, and have some conversation. I’ve admired his art work, and some of my other buddies out at the prison thought it would be a good idea if I came to see him.

I brought some coffee and doughnuts, not sure what he would like to enjoy, as we got to know each other.

“You could have brought anything,” he said. “I haven’t had a visit in a year and a half, so, …anything’s fine with me.”

He gets out next year, and is working hard on the work crew, earning a bit of money so he’ll be able to find a place to live, and get settled into adult life. After seven years, it will be a big change, and he’s ready to make a fresh start in life.

He had a lot to say, once I asked him a few questions. I shut my mouth, and gave him the space to talk. His family only came once a year to visit, and now that they’ve got some serious health problems, they haven’t been able to see him for a year and a half.

He sees his younger brother going down the wrong path, and wants to be there for him, to help him turn the corner, and live a decent life. My buddy knows the drug and alcohol road, and the road of anger and not having a healthy father as a role model in his life. He’s done his work behind those walls, and is walking on the straight and narrow path now. And, he’s not afraid to share his wisdom.

I heard him tell the sad tales of his life, the struggles of his mom, raising kids on not much money but a whole lot of love. I heard him speak about his anger about his stepdad, and the hunger he’s had for some good role models, and some direction in his life. I heard him speak about the fights he’s started, and how being a gang member addressed his hunger in his life, until he realized that punching someone out and being angry at the world wasn’t doing much for himself. He wasn’t being the person he wanted to be, and he needed to change.

He showed me the violin his grandfather sent, and he grinned as he told me how he’s learning to play it, and how it gives him a voice for all that he feels in his heart, about who he was and who he is now, and where he wants to go.

He wanted to hear a little bit about me, who I am, what my life is like. And, sometime soon, we’ll have that conversation. But, yesterday was his turn, his opportunity to speak his mind, and tell his story. He needed someone to just listen, to take the time for him, to let him be the focus of a conversation for once.

His story is a sad story, but also a story about courage, and determination, and the power of a person to reach down deep inside of themselves, and realize that they need to make a change. It was a story of reaching out, of finding some resources, of seeing hope when you are at the very bottom of your life, and of deciding to climb out of that hole, and to move on, to seek the destiny of your precious, wonderful life.

These two men, these two encounters this week, are teaching me a lot about courage, and determination. They are teaching me that there is hope in this country for men deciding to summon their courage from deep inside of themselves, to face what they need to face, and then to step out, to move on, and change their lives.

—Neal Lemery, March 9, 2014