A Story of Our Mental Health System
I walked in the gate of the ten-foot high wire fence. There was no razor wire on top if it, but there could have been. I imagined the sign "Arbeit Macht Frei" hanging over the gate, but it was only hanging in my mind's eye. I ambled across the dusty courtyard toward my new office, which was in a renovated old two-story apartment building, now being used as a residence for the mostly inner city juvenile delinquent youth I was just hired to work with as a psychotherapist. The treatment center was called the Farm and was located on the outskirts of Miami's inner city.
As I approached my office, one of the kids, who was about 16 years old and 6' 4'' tall walked up to me. He had one of those hair do's hip hop youth like to wear, the ones that look like there is a small palm tree growing out of your head. He stepped up to me with his face about one foot from mine with an expression like those Irish Gurning contestants, and asked, "Are you scary?"
Not having much of a clue as to what this usage of the term meant exactly, I decided to play it extremely cool, "No," I said, "should I be?"
He repeated himself with a sneer and moved to within about six inches of my face, "Are you scary?"
Not being sure if he was trying to find out if I was scared of him, or if I was some kind of frightening person myself, I decided to just respond to his threatening physical intimidation.
"Ha, ha, ha, not at all," and I walked by him into the gray inner hallway of my new office, trying not to show any anxiety about a 6' 4," incarcerated, inner-city black kid, who could have without a doubt kicked my butt from here to next week, getting in my face on my first minute of work and asking me incomprehensible questions. I had been told by my new boss that the two previous therapists in this job had been scared off and quit within a week of being hired. They were female therapists, I reassured myself, and more easily intimidated by rough young men. Rocketing through my imagination was the image of Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan gleefully drawing and quartering me for thinking of women as somehow "weaker." Welcome to the Farm.
I was 35 years old at the time, about 5'10" and 175 lbs. Although I was a decent athlete in my younger days, I had a visceral distaste for violence, and senseless violence and intimidation in particular, so I knew this was going to be a challenging job. I countered the image of Gloria and Betty with a memory of my graduate school psychoanalysis professor "Where id was there ego shall be," he quoted Freud, in a German accent no less. All I had to do was persuade young men who have used intimidation and violence their whole lives to embrace sweet reason and "more appropriate coping skills." Make them Platonists. Failing that, Epicureans; no worries.
The majority of these young men have been incarcerated in the Juvenile Justice system since they were about 13 years old. They get sent to the Farm instead of jail or state school, if the judge decides they have a chance to be rehabilitated. He has to believe they are willing to accept help to change their behavior.
We got some of the kids who became famous robbing Canadian and German tourists, and a lot of not so famous others who sold drugs for a living, or committed robberies, or were picked up by the police for carrying concealed weapons.
I continued down the hallway, squeezing past the old kitchen that was left over when these buildings were converted from run-down apartments to run-down offices, and I arrived at the door to the inner, "private," office. Taking a deep breath before I walked in to meet the other therapist who shared the office, I began to wonder how I was going to do therapy in a large open office with other people present. PSY 666, "Techniques of Psychotherapy with No Privacy and Lots of Unpleasant Noise Nearby." I must have missed that course.
"Hi, I'm Harold Brickell," my new colleague said as he got up to greet me. He was about my height, but black and he weighed about 290 lbs, most of it solid.
"Hi, I'm Steve Adler, the new therapist," I greeted him in return as we shook hands. We sized each other up and I felt the very unusual feeling of being a minority person, a white guy in a predominantly black treatment center. It's an odd feeling, being under constant scrutiny, having to prove oneself in so many ways, wondering if people will read different significances in to my every action and decision. If I knew how to sing, I guess I'd feel like I was "On Stage at the Apollo" waiting for the clown to yank me off the stage amid hoots from the audience. Do they wonder if I'm secretly a racist? Do they hate white people? Will I fit in and be accepted as a member of the team? Will the young black men accept me or will I be challenged as a representative of the white authority that they mostly dislike?
Ordinarily, I would rather have preferred replaying old newsreels of Babe Ruth's swing or imagining my childhood idol, Henry Aaron, in his Milwaukee Braves uniform loosening up to hit with that little preparatory flip of the wrists as stepped in, all relaxed power and grace, but today I didn't have that luxury. I had to ponder weightier, if more unpleasant issues.
"Harold, nobody told me anything about the paperwork and record keeping around here."
He threw his head back and let out a laugh that started in his ample diaphragm and burst from out of his throat like the first appearance of the sunrise in Strauss's, An Alpine Symphony. I thought the whole room would light up in a burst of orange.
"That's the usual around here, Steve. I'll show you."
He proceeded to show me numerous forms we had to fill out for numerous agencies with numerous redundant information about the kids. I caught myself wondering if Brother Matthias had to fill out all those papers on one G. H. Ruth back in 1910. How did he ever find time to coach the Boys Home baseball team?
Harold brought me out of my reverie, "...but don't get to used to it, the state Juvenile Justice Agency changes these forms about every 3 weeks, Ha, Ha ha, Ha." There was that sunburst of laughter again.
My musings about the spiritual qualities embodied by Harold's laughter were interrupted by the sound of loud but muffled voices outside.
"You sizin' me? You sizin' me?" The anger in the question rose in intensity as we hurriedly exited the outer office door into the courtyard.
Two of the kids sentenced to rehabilitation here were nose-to-nose on some dusty turf about five feet into the inner courtyard.
"What are they arguing about?" I asked one of the other boys. "Dunno," he mumbled, looking down and away.
By this time some of the other staff, called milieu therapists, had come up to confront the young men in the argument. Their job is the daily minute to minute supervision of the clients in rehab. It is a difficult and stressful job and they are generally underpaid and under trained for it.
"Knock it off," shouted Ned, a big man of about twenty-five who clearly had little patience for this sort of behavior. "I told you guys about this sort of crap. Keep it up and it'll be thirty days with no privileges."
"Fuck you, nigger," the taller boy shouted at Ned. This shocked me, as both of them were black. Neither seemed insulted at the racial epithet. I made a mental note to ask Harold about this later on.
Ned said, "Have I ever disrespected you? Have I?" I wondered why he took this tack with the young man who had just told him to fuck himself. I was about to see.
Suddenly this angry young kid who seemed about to come to blows with either his peers or Ned, stopped completely short. He looked right at Ned and said, "No, you haven't" in a voice that was almost embarrassed and simultaneously soothed and guilty. "That's right," Ned said, "so don't disrespect me. Now you guys break this up and we'll meet about it later. James go to my office."
James was the guy who had been ready to attack a minute ago and was now sheepishly following Ned's requests like any compliant child.
I began to learn right then how important respect and the lack of it was to these kids. They seemed focused on all kinds of subtle communications which they believed either conveyed respect or did not. I saw that being careful to treat these adolescent, angry, sometimes violent, and often quite disturbed young men with respect would be a real currency in dealing with them; a currency way beyond that of the world I was used to where it was taken for granted that people were treated with courtesy and respect, except, of course, during middle school, where people treated each other with the respect the invading Visigoths showed the Romans.
--more to come--