E. & the Essay that Inspired

As I walked up the concrete steps with rusted handrails to the center, a strange presence lingered about it. I could not hear the usual echoed chatting of kids outside, trying to put off going to class… if only for a second more. I did not hear the psychologists and staff members trying to corral or chanting “disorden (disorder)” in an attempt to maintain structure and discipline. These things are common occurrences at the treatment center as, anyone who has ever worked with kids will tell you, it’s a constant struggle of authority and appeasement that allows you to get your way. As I reached the top step, hearing only the clocking sound of my left heel as it made contact with the floor, I could see B. sitting in a secluded area, on the ground, behind the offices. He was sitting there in a position that although not quite fetal, was extremely guarded to say the least. For a moment I hesitated. Entertaining the thought of minding my own business, turning right, and heading to the office. However, this was not the route I chose. Almost instinctually, despite uncertainty, I made my way to the secluded area which appeared to come equipped with its own black cloud, and sat down next to B. I had no idea at that moment that this would be our last conversation.

Immediately after sitting down we said our hellos… B. sounded choked up and I couldn’t help but feel that way too even though I hadn’t yet learned what was wrong. When you hear someone struggling to speak, with blood shot eyes, you don’t just notice it, and you really can’t ignore it, so you’re forced to embody it. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me his behavior had been evaluated and he was having problems with the staff. I offered some condolences, and thought of many things I could say, but in the moment, based on everything I knew about this boy… it wasn’t some sense of false sympathy or understanding he needed. No. What he needed was something real, and it was for that reason I asked him what I already knew… “You hate it here don’t you?” As if a sigh of relief had taken him a grip he nodded and said, “I miss my girlfriend, I miss my life.” B. was an expecting father of just 17 years. In a weeks time he would have been transferred to an adult treatment program, and allowed to rejoin her and society… well at least that’s how I understood it. I didn’t know what was to come next… I told B. if he needed to talk, if he needed someone neutral… after all there’s very little neutrality when you’ve basically lived with your mental health care workers for a year or more… that I was there and totally available. He thanked me with a trembling voice that to me had conveyed sincerity, and I left him to his thoughts… with much trepidation I might add, and went about my day. I really wish I had stayed to talk.

Two days later I came back to the center for “bingo day”. A day I had initially thought was for the boys to play bingo with their families and friends… when in actuality it was a day for their families and friends to spend money that would be funneled back into the center. I looked for B. for a good 20 minutes before asking the other boys where he was. They told me two conflicting narratives, however I believe the truth lives between them. One was that B. had displayed aggressive conduct and for that reason was asked to leave, and the other was that he had chosen to leave after displaying aggression about staying. I’m still unclear on what truly occurred, but what I do know is that with one week left in his treatment B. was cast back into society without proving to it that he was capable of sustainable change. With one week left, because misconduct is unacceptable in programs involving others and their mental health, as well it should be, he was sent back to the toxic life that not only I had feared for him, but that he had dreaded with every fiber of his being. It is very unlikely that I’ll ever see B. again. I’ll likely never know how he turns out or if he learned what he needed to about himself to change his situation. I hope he did.

On the same day in which I learned B. was no longer in the program, I sat down to talk with E… E. was yet another unbelievably bright young man who called the center his home. Unlike B., E. had taken an interest in rising up the ladder of the facility and held a role of authority amongst the boys to some degree. Every day upon entering the center he would greet me with a very loud, extremely boisterous, “What’s up man?” We’d then proceed to exchange pleasantries, talk about our weekends or how our days were going, and this day was no different… or at least, so I thought.

With a clamorous crowd of anxious parents purchasing food and setting up for bingo in the background, E. and I sat down, poking fun at the ridiculous spectacle that was “bingo day”. Amongst the incessant shuffling of feet and clanking of dishes as food was served E. began to divulge to me his life story, and I, well I listened. E. had come from a relatively small pueblo from the north where he lived with three brothers and his mother. A few years back when E. was only the age of 12, his father passed away, leaving his family with little more than a minor pension to fill the void in their life that only a father truly could. Left to their own devices the family made due according to E., but they were far from wealthy. In fact, with 4 children in total, 4 growing boys to be exact, they sounded destitute… to me they sounded as though they were in imminent danger.

E. was a smart boy, understanding a great deal of English, mostly self taught, and understanding that to survive in the program you had to adopt the mindset of, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” and so he did. He accepted a role that gave him the responsibility of mediating the conduct of the newer inductees. He did so with a friendly face, but with little tolerance for any dissension in the ranks. While we sat there I asked him about his goals. I never would have guessed how incredibly ambitious they were. He wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, but not only that, he expressed a deep, overwhelming urgency in his desire to obtain a college degree. This boy who’s next step was high school, was already acutely aware of the importance of his going to college, so that he might be able to improve not just his own life, but the life of his mother… the life of his family. To me it became clear that this was not simply a boy who was conforming because it made the days go more smoothly… to me this was a boy who recognized the insufficiencies in his life and was going to stop at nothing to rectify them.

He mentioned to me that he had a family friend who worked on planes. He said that he could work with him once he left the program and start learning early. Feeling I knew the answer, however not completely sure, I asked E. why he wanted to work with planes. He stated the obvious, money, interest, security. He then said what I found to be the most profound reason of all… freedom. Simply the ability to travel where he wanted and when he wanted was more than an appetizing notion… it was a must.

In my life I have been to many countries, I have met incredible people, and I’ve had experiences worth romanticizing. However, in E.’s life… a romantic notion had always been being able to eat, a brief sense of security. And if he were the boy with little insight and limited ambition these would continue to be his only concerns… but E. wanted something more, something we all want but many of us take for granted… E. wanted privilege. Not luck… not some spoiling sense of entitlement… privilege. For E. it would be a privilege to see the world… to expand his mind, to broaden his scope. To E., soaring across the sky would be akin to recapturing a destiny in which he never fully had ownership. In fact, to me, his desire felt oddly familiar. I thought if I were to find out, in some near or distant future that he had made his dreams come alive, that maybe just maybe I’d be able to feel the sweet relief of freedom too.

You know it’s the stories about the struggle turned to providence that we all resonate with… we care very little for the man who had it all who continued to have more. In this world we are still surrounded by a story as old as time… the story of aspiration, the story of hard work, the story of the dreamer. The story of the kid who is so ready for his future that he’ll too soon become a man… These are the stories worth hearing… these are the stories in need of telling.

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3 Essays, 3 Lives – Essay 1

Below is the first in a series of 3 essays written during my time in Cartago, Costa Rica, working with adolescents in addiction recovery. While working in this amazing program I crossed paths with some of the most inspirational young men one could ever hope to meet. Each doing the best he could to better his life in spite of harsh circumstances. Although one could never hope to encapsulate an entire person’s life in a short essay, I hope that I at least, in part, captured a moment in time that might provide some semblance of insight into the difficulties many of us do not face, and very few are aware of. (Some questions will not be answered, these challenging problems go unsolved).

So much regret in two eyes. More than I’ve seen in my entire life. As I sat there with B. he recanted his sorted past with drugs, with his girlfriend, who was then pregnant, and the less than providential nature of his barrio. Sitting there we were like two new friends attempting to bridge a gap that in reality might have been a ravine. I a child of privilege, and he a victim of circumstance. Not to mention we both only spoke a semblance of the language of the other, and in that alone most would give up. But we didn’t. We spoke at length for what must have been two hours. Trying to explain ourselves, trying to connect. He spoke of the pimps, the killers, and the dealers that had overtaken his home, and how it had simply just been this way.

B. was a skinny young man, with green-blue eyes, buzzed hair, and a prominent spiderweb tattoo on his hand and upper wrist. He wore baggy cargo shorts, converse and a tucked in white t-shirt like many of his peers in the program. With zero interaction, and a little imagination, you might judge a book by it’s cover here and think that you would avoid any engagement with him… however he was far from unnerving… he was actually quite approachable.

As he sat there expressing himself with salient body language… perfect gestures with his hands, body and feet, I could see the track covered skin of his arm that had once been like mine, that had once been clean. What was the difference here I later wondered… how did this incredibly smart, and good soul find himself down the wayward path, while I, no smarter than he, ended up, for a lack of a better term, “okay”. The fact of the matter is the answer wasn’t some mysterious, or elusive notion. In fact it was quite simple… circumstance.

So there we were… both hunched over, only occasionally turning to the other to make eye contact… I mean who wouldn’t experience at least a little opia (the discomfort of looking into another’s eyes, particularly a stranger’s) when expressing a potentially foreign concept to a stranger? Especially when the matter at hand carried with it, so much pain, so much uncertainty… so much fear.

I remember I had asked him what his plan was. “What do you plan to do when this is over?” I’m not sure he fully caught my meaning because he told me what anyone at age 17, about to cross the threshold into adulthood, not to mention fatherhood, would say. He told me he would find a job, and try to take care of his kid (B’s words exactly in English). While I appreciated those thoughts what I really wanted to know was what he was going to do to make sure he stayed sober. “Join a gym,” I suggested? He nodded and agreed to that hypothetical. He and I both knew that a gym as well as a proper program, while undoubtedly beneficial, was only a possibility. Here’s a luxury that many on this planet of ours can’t afford and without question, may never be able to… and compared to day-to-day survival is absolutely trivial.

I then asked if he and his girlfriend would try to get out of their barrio? An insanely ignorant question, I must admit, I think I admitted it in the moment. Because here again, a luxury, the ability to escape your circumstances. This also takes money. I didn’t know at the time if B. had problems with the law, and if so, if they would be expunged from his record… An extremely important factor in the ability to find proper housing beyond just financial security. And I still don’t. I may never. What I did know was that in less than a few weeks he would be 18. As he was in a program for adolescents (ages 7-17), he would be forced back out into the same neighborhood, on to the same streets that bore him so much pain.

After some time he mentioned he never wanted to do drugs again… that they had ruined his life. For a moment I beamed with pride inside. I thought, “Have I done it? Have I just helped someone process their life in 2 hours?” Oh, the hubris of a young man wanting to save the world. Of course not. B. had been in this program for well over a year. If nothing else this could have been a conditioned response that he had conveyed to make a good impression. After all when we’re young, and we’re talking to someone who is our elder, we look up to them. We want them to think we’ve got everything handled, even when we don’t.

I don’t mean to say that he was lying. I absolutely don’t think he was disingenuous in his claims. My only concern was simple. Here was a boy, and yes a boy… who was about to return to those drug dealers, pimps, and killers that were probably my age, maybe even older. And in his world… bearing more clout than I. And if he was in fact just telling me what he wanted me to hear, and what he wanted to hear from himself… what might he say or do in the presence of the same influences who had once ruined his life? Who could protect him from a toxic environment? Who can undo the trauma of 18 years in just little more than a year? I don’t know that I could, and it’s for this reason I fear for not just B’s life, but for the lives of all the souls that we cannot protect, that reside in the places we cannot reach.