June 18, 2010 – Yesterday was my day at a half-way house in Sparks, Nevada. It occurs to me that every time I have to go there, I am not sure what it is I am supposed to do. I was given the instructions to “go there and do therapy,” with whomever happens to be thrown into the mix that week. All the residents are boys eighteen or older who have been released from what is called, “A Youth Detention Center,” but is really a prison for boys. The “house managers” are a couple who seem only to be present to put food in the fridge and monitor the rules, which include curfew and cleaning chores which appear to me to be absent altogether. The food choices are mostly cheap cereal, hot dogs, Top Ramen, and frozen taquitos or burritos.
These boys do not run to greet me exclaiming, “Oh goody, it’s therapy time!” They are polite and they cooperate with me, but they are all understandably guarded and most definitely not really that interested in exploring their deepest emotions. They do not show outward signs of any mental illness, most have conduct problems arising out of horrible childhoods and institutionalized life. They all have parole officers and some have a crew of so-called treatment providers to help them launch into adulthood without boomeranging back to prison. Who do I think I’m kidding, entering this place in my therapist-y skirt and dainty shoes, thinking I am somehow going to make any dent at all in the layers of trauma?
This half-way house is dismal. It’s dirty, it has no soul or warmth, and the house managers are not interested in participating in any way to help me know what exactly it is that I am here for. I just know I have been instructed to “do therapy” by a non-profit that contracts with the state of Nevada to find therapists to provide family reconciliation and prison rehabilitative therapy. I feel like a surgeon who gets scrubbed and shows up to the operating theatre ready to work. There is a patient on the table and the surgical teams says, “Just do surgery.” “On what?” I ask. “We don’t know…but do surgery.” I ask the patient, “Do you know why I am here? Does anything hurt? Do you have a tumor I can take out?” The patient says, “No nothing hurts and I don’t think I have a tumor. They just told me I need surgery.”
I tear off my latex gloves. “Goddammit,” I curse and leave the theatre, pissed off that I have wasted an entire afternoon preparing.
I walk into the half-way house after getting a phone call from Derwood, the house manager who tells me I need to be there as soon as possible because he needs to go somewhere. And could I please change my schedule around to come earlier because it isn’t convenient that I am coming later in the day. “I arranged it this way because Jose works until 4PM.” I tell him. “Oh well that changed and he now has Wednesdays off.” “Well people need to inform me of these changes,” I say brusquely.
I leave a message for Edward, whose role I am uncertain of. He seems to be a case manager of sorts who is there a lot of the time. I have told him before that I can’t really “do therapy” with people who don’t want it. In fact I won’t. It’s a waste of time and tax payer money and it’s unethical to excavate a person’s psyche against their will. The boys are in the half-way house for up to three months to learn basic life skills, to get treatment for emotional and mental health problems if they need it, and to re-integrate themselves back into society. They are expected to find jobs or get into school, save enough money to get a place to live and obey all the rules of the house while they are there. One boy has Asperger’s Disorder which is a form of autism, not quite as severe, but still, most with Asperger’s have difficulty understanding social cues. They are eccentric and odd in their behavior, which isn’t a bad thing, it just puts people off if they don’t know. Although he is very bright, he has the classic spectrum of behaviors I would expect which means he is an anomaly here in this half-way house. He has weird tics and habits, which include binge eating because he has no impulse control; excessive masturbation because he sits in his room most of the day with his computer and nothing to do, and intrusive behavior with other boys, who, having just been released from prison, have no patience and no way of understanding him.
When Edward presents me with this set of problems with this boy, I tell him that he will not respond to traditional therapy because he does not know me or trust me, and he will deny that he has any problems with food or masturbation. He casually told the other boys that he would like to have sex with the house manager’s Chihuahua but she was too small. He eats without attending to cues that he is full and is unconcerned that he is eating other people’s food. He eats until he vomits. Edwin would like me to perform some kind of therapeutic magic. I envision myself a surgeon again in the operating theatre. “Just remove whatever it is that causes him to want to have sex with the dog,” the team tells me. My first thought is of course to go right to the most obvious source.
I tell Edward, “This client does not feel comfortable enough with me yet to have discussions about deviant sexual behavior and its consequences. Therefore, I suggest that you, as the person he feels most comfortable with, tell him that having sex with animals or any other living thing without consent or cooperation is against the law and unless he wants to end up in prison where he’ll get plenty of non-consensual sex, he’d better knock it off. And furthermore, the kid needs to get off his ass and do some hard work for about eight hours a day; then he’ll be too fucking tired to sit in front of his computer jacking off.” Edwin blushes and shifts around in his chair. He wasn’t expecting me to say “jacking off,” I could tell. “And as far as the eating behavior, the medicine slows his metabolism and increases appetite which is even more reason for him to quit sitting around, so I suggest you get him into a fitness program as well. Got it? That’s my “therapy.”
I leave the operating theatre.
I walk into the grungy, disgusting kitchen where the other boys are searching for something edible. “So, Lozado, I hear you fucked up and didn’t come home last night,” I say. Edwin complained that he wasn’t following house rules. Lozado is a tough kid. I weigh about 110; he weighs about 160, all muscle, teeth and memories of knife fights. But his eyes soften when I catch them. “Yeah…I was trying to get home but my bus transfer expired,” he says in his gang-twang Mexican tinged English. We sit down on the dirty sofa. His father was deported the other day and he is uncertain that his mother will be able to pay rent. She has three other children including a daughter who at fifteen, has just aborted her second pregnancy. Nobody is sure whether she did it on purpose, it happened in a bathroom at the mall. I ask him if it helps to talk. “No, talking don’t really help. It just makes it worse,” he says wincing. He talks anyway though. He talks about how the food is disgusting here; Derwood makes rice and beans without any flavoring. The kitchen is disgusting and there is never any food. “Let’s go look,” I say. We take a tour of the rotting food in the fridge and the layers of scum on its shelves. Tins of catfood with crusted edges, containers of putrefying salad dressing, the stench of soured dairy products make my stomach turn.
Lozado and Fish, the other boy, newly out of prison, are preparing to make chicken. The mother in me arises and the therapist leaves my body. I notice the fouled sponges and dish scrubbers sitting by the sink. “Those will kill you,” I tell them. Don’t use those to wipe counters or dishes, they are loaded with bacteria. Lozado says, “I usually try to find a rag and some bleach.” I want to hug him for knowing this. “Good!” I exclaim, now fully engaged in kitchen coaching. We look at all the food that should be tossed. “Do you think Derwood would kill me if I threw all this shit away?” I ask. They laugh. I realize that what is needed here is a sense of community and a cooperative environment where everyone feels valued. “Does Derwood involve you guys in deciding the menu for the week and preparing meals?” No he does not. He makes the same fuckin’ thing week after week. The cupboards are filthy. I see two boxes of the cheapest and least nutritious cereal there is, a container of white flour, a couple of cans of what used to be corn before it was robbed of its nutritional value by processing, and some Top Ramen, which has the nutritional value of a cardboard box.
So who am I now? Not a therapist. I am a mother who wants to create a home place. I imagine these boys would love a chance to participate and decide about meal planning and preparation. I promise Lozado I would bring my cleaning gear and some real Mexican spices next week. He smiles. “Thanks. I feel better now,” he says.