Sequela for Fascism

I don’t like poetry. It is at once anachronistic and a dominant means of communicating in the contemporary era. Go ahead and consider social media as a never-ending circulation of shitty haikus and test your ability to unthink this consideration. I’ve met some people that called themselves poets and while I didn’t hate them there was something trite about them. They were too well rounded for me. If you’re going to be a poet at the very least be self-destructive. 

The same goes for song. I think it is rare that lyrics of songs rise to the level of beautiful. There are exceptions of course but on the whole I think it’s true that everything too stupid to be said is sung. It’s banality across the board from Radiohead to Toby Keith. 

So please forgive me for what follows. It is not a poem or a song. Try to think of it as a prayer or an invocation. 

In my previous post I made reference to two children, Brissenia Flores and Lilly Mederos, who were murdered alongside their parents by right-wing militants in the borderlands of Arizona. These events are distant enough in time that whatever spirit that flesh might encompass has migrated, disseminated or ascended. And if there is no such thing as spirit become flesh then perhaps it can serve as an invitation to the spirit of the age to pass on and allow those people it hasn’t ushered to their deaths to live in a better time. 

While the U.S./Mexico border itself has been used as a murder weapon for decades, with the desert sucking life out of the desperate as they cross from one horror to another, there are occasions when it bestows its stolid murderousness upon the stupid, the ugly and the cruel. And it is two distinct instances of this that I want to write to, two times that the right wing milieu collapsed into its most distilled ethos. 

Killing sprees happen all the time. Most of them involve intimate and familial violence. They aren’t limited to the idiots who sieg heil for their daily hit of dopamine. People get hooked on all sorts of hate. It is a crack-rock of an emotion but harder to quit and eventually paid for in blood. 

The perpetrators of these acts don’t deserve to be memorialized but neither do they deserve to be forgotten. They exist in the middle-ground as a warning that won’t be heeded by those who would most benefit. When history repeats itself I don’t think it necessarily repeats itself as farce. Sometimes it’s a tragedy all the way down. 

While not a generally accepted position I was overjoyed when Shawna Forde and Jason Bush were sentenced to death. I hope they are terrified. I hope it hurts. As for JT Ready, who shot himself in the head when he was finished murdering the people who were crazy enough to love him, I am denied the satisfaction of imagining the interminable moments that must stretch before a person as bureaucracy moves them towards the stretcher on which their vile heart will stop beating. I don’t believe in hell but I’d like to.

I taught a class on the border region when I was still impressed with myself. I am not a quantitative scholar. I’m not a scholar at all. But when I was good at teaching I felt that I was really good at teaching. So I didn’t speak to the unique beauty of the bioregion or the art and craft of fire mapping. Instead I spoke to the other ecology of the desert, in which desperate humans migrated through a landscape that kills without discriminating between the lucky and the doomed. 

It was important to me that we discussed these murders. There was something quintessential about them. They captured the brutality of the politics that the border engenders and illustrated the bleed between the state’s monopoly on violence and the eager subcontractors who literally volunteer to deliver it. Some of the young people in the class would have to excuse themselves. Others cried openly. I was concerned about those who did neither. What else do you do with the thought of a 15 month old executed by a middle-aged man? Get angry I suppose. That would be another appropriate reaction. 

The sprayed down and sanitized images of children suffering alone in detention is only one step removed from a cristalnacht of unabashed murder. The armchair warriors and internet turds of the 21st century are only one bad cable line-up away from a spree killing. 

And so I offer a prayer for two murdered children, a prayer that is too little and too late.

To Brissenia:

Darling, I hope you came to yourself with the morning forgotten. Don’t worry about what I’m referring to. It’s not important. What comes next, that is what’s important. 

I hope you found yourself at the mouth of a canyon. I hope your father was holding your hand. If he had other matters to address then I want it to be the gentlest of beings by your side, a luminous woman who knows you well, and I hope you can tell by her smile that she is yours and yours alone. 

I hope you walked bravely with your bare feet in wet sand. I hope the animals of dusk marched before you, the mighty and the meek alike and that you could see how they swayed to the rhythm of secret music. If it is Jesus who you believed in and who you knew to love you best then I hope he led the parade. 

I hope the stars burned most brightly for you, that the milky way shimmered and waved and rearranged itself to smile upon you, that the gentle lion and ferocious lamb came alongside you as you began your march into the purple night and that the shining eyes that opened as you passed did not scare you. Their owners only wanted to see how lovely you are. 

I hope that the music swelled as you walked into the nightlands and that you found a door that shimmered, engraved in gold and lapis lazuli. I hope that it opened to you. I hope that you found you had wings, feathered and translucent, and that you anointed yourself in the rising air, your attendants laughing and roaring at your ascendance. 

I call you Saint, patroness of children who deserved better than they got. I hope you received your tiny sister (of course you did) and that you carried her down the canyon yourself this time- that you shushed the animals so that she would not be afraid and then took her on her first flight.   

To Lilly: 

Darling, I hope you remember nothing of the sounds and sensations that came before this. I hope you arrived in your sister’s arms. I hope she glowed for you, the softest and yellowest green and that her face was warm against your cheek. 

I hope you were washed in the water that you were walked through and that it was warm, that the grime of the world drifted away towards the endless ocean as your angel beat her wings to dry you. 

I hope the lion offered his flank and the sheep offered hers and that you slept a million years to awaken to a different life, a different womb. I hope the greatest of mothers gave the gentlest of births and that she cradled you closely, offered the sweetest milk and that when you’d had your fill she let you drift. I hope that you found four dimensions in your drifting and that you move through them all at your leisure. 

I hope that your mother glows for you, wraps you in her endless arms, keeps you warm, keeps you fed. I hope that the greatest and the smallest come to delight you and that they sing you songs of their travels. I hope that you grow slowly in your wisdom (there is nothing so scarce nor so abundant as time). 

I call you Saint, patroness of the innocent in a guilty world, a surfeit of luck is owed to you and may you claim all of it.

Skinheads at the Turn of the Century, Skinheads at the End of the World

I do esketamine and/or ketamine once a week. I consider this to be a consolation prize in a life that’s been entirely cleansed of illicit drugs, the one great and consistent love that I’ve known. It happens in a busy unit of a psychiatric clinic where the rapid fire emissions of transcranial magnetic stimulation marry with the furious typing of the administering psychiatrist and the hum of the machine that monitors my vital signs.

Administration varies based on the substance. Esketamine comes in sleek little two shot bottles that emit a measured vapor. It takes four of these devices to produce an effect that would be considered therapeutic. Therapeutic in this case equates to a breakthrough psychedelic experience. 

Ketamine is more temperamental. It comes from a compounding pharmacy rather than whatever sleek production process births esketamine. The bottle is prone to clogging as it empties. Sometimes it takes several sprays before an adequate mist emerges. The doctor sprays it up my nose in 11 sets which equates to 22 instances of another person placing an object in my nostrils. 

It’s not terrible. I like him. We make small talk as he places what amounts to a flonase bottle into my nose. We talk psychiatry. I wonder sometimes if he’s humoring me, that I may know a measure less of the topic that dominates my life than I think. It gets progressively more difficult to speak, or at least to speak intelligibly as things progress. 

When the medication has been administered I lean back in a recliner and wait for the altered state to take hold and wrest my consciousness from its usual circuit. 

Drugs have their own spirits, a kind of collective ethos that reverberates across the entirety of the range of experiences they engender. Psilocybin is a storyteller and a funerary celebrant, powerfully human and profoundly alien, capable of inducing a cosmic collapse into the whole of being or a terrifying chronic confusion about where one stands on the narrow threshold between life and death. 

Dimethyltryptamine is a cosmic trickster and a rocketship that slingshots off the lens of God’s eye. Joy, terror, confusion melt into a golden spike that lances your heart. It can reveal to you the hidden rhythms to which the universe moves its feet or the faultlines of your life, more heartbreaking than it is possible to bear. 

LSD is a dissolving into intellect, an immersion in the moment, either an acceptance or denial of where you stand as a human being at the end of the age of man. 

These drugs all have a political history, an association with people, their own cultural milieu in which they’ve given instruction, been revered, been outlawed, but through it all the common thread (aside from the neurotransmitters that they bind to) is that they stand outside the bureaucracy and clinical ministrations of the 20th century. If there is anything that can be said about them it is that they have avoided commodification in the classic sense. 

Not so for ketamine. It struggled out of the birth canal of formal medicine in time to facilitate the treatment of flesh wounds in the Vietnam war, continuing a button-down career as an anaesthetic into the 2000’s at which time it came into use as an antidepressant. It is denied the honorific of psychedelic. It seems lonely to me. It seems lost. It has yet to find its voice. 

This is not to say that it is not visionary. It most certainly is. It is just that these visions are scattered, unable to reach the rungs of emotion, always struggling and failing to signify. Perhaps it will find its way. I call its name as the trance state descends and talk to it like an unbroken horse. 

While I have taken breakthrough doses of this substance once a week for six months it is only in the last several weeks that there has been a tint of emotionality to the experience. The most recent was the first time I felt gifted with the insight usually dispensed by the serotinergic drugs, those substances held sacred by societies targeted for extermination. 

This signification requires some introduction. It encompasses three distinct thematic periods of my life. 

Upon the advent of adolescence I pivoted from the quiet repression of the good kid to a creature that became progressively more venomous as time went on. I hated the world and knew that the world hated me. This played out in the kinds of skirmishes with authority that I lost even when I won. The aesthetics and music of punk culture meshed well with my emotional bearing. Everything was stark contrast and jagged edges, unabashed ugliness issuing an invitation to conflict.  

After delivering a brutal beating to a classmate I was placed on probation and ordered to attend a group for troubled teens. It was as useless an overture of intervention as any I’d seen. It was raucous and when the social worker left the room we traded the unimpressive war stories of people who had only just begun on their sad and doomed trajectory as social scum. 

There was a kid in the group with a mohawk and we became fast friends. Haircuts were very focused signifiers in the late 1990’s, communicating your affiliation with a definitive subculture. To immerse yourself in it was essentially a ‘fuck you’ to normalcy, a line in the sand that disallowed back-stepping. He and I became drinking partners, getting shitfaced with people much older than ourselves, stumbling our way home as the sun rose. 

This social scene coalesced around a band as punk cliques tend to. We went to their shows and celebrated the wholesale flouting of social norms that this scene embraced. We huffed gasoline and drank cheap forty ouncers of malt liquor until we fell down face first. The kind of trolling that occurs on the internet now we did in person then. Our very appearance summoned hostility and in the drunken near-psychosis of early morning I felt like a being apart, not human. Something more free than that.

There was an odd phenomenon in the street punk scenes of the time. Right wing skinheads would often attend the shows of their political enemies and dispense a beating to anyone foolish enough (and there were plenty of us) to wander off alone. This happened in the city too, but on the Island it was worse. The downwardly mobile (and none of us knew the half of it) sons of raging Reaganite parents still reeling from the shutdown of the defense industry had nothing to do and so they made their own fun. The historical affinity between skinheads and the bleached out ska of the time turned skater kids into something darker, an alcohol soaked and violence fueled crew of dumbasses.

There’s an historical precedent for this spanning two continents. Skinhead culture was born among working class English youths who became fans of the first-wave ska that the Jamaicans that they worked alongside brought with them to their new, dreary home. It was only a matter of years before hard-right groups began to recruit from amongst this set. The fashion of this scene (tightly laced Doc Marten boots and bleach spotted jeans held up with suspenders), its music and its politics crossed the Atlantic and no one at all benefitted.

The suburban skins of the 1990’s were most likely unaware of the political geography of their affectation. They had their own terrible bands with bad reputations and so their weekends revolved around the creative output of people who were marginally better than themselves. The tension simmered below the surface until my crew announced the inauguration of open hostility.

We challenged them to fights that rarely materialized as direct fist-to-mouth combat. We got their bands kicked off of shows. One of them was the brother of my best friend of a few years ago and I drunkenly called their house at 2AM, announcing to the family that their son, Joe, was a dedicated racist. There was a profound incongruity here. His mother was Jewish, his father a Croation immigrant, his brother just embarking on a lengthy negotiation of his sexuality. But it is rare that you find a fascist who is free of these kinds of contradictions. 

Several of them had perpetrated a hate crime in which they beat a gay man into a coma. They disappeared from the scene as they tried to toe the lines of their bail conditions but there were plenty of them left and as time went by the conflict deepened. 

The epicenter of this rapidly bifurcating youth culture was a bar in Suffolk County, the Roadhouse Pub. It’s a mystery why the owner allowed weekly street punk shows- they had to be more trouble than they were worth. There were enough drunken minors getting soused in the back parking lot that he couldn’t have missed the peril this put him in. Perhaps he simply didn’t care. I passed out underneath a car once. On another occasion I got punched in the back of the head while taking a piss on the chain link fence that bordered the parking lot. The skinhead who did this was named Andrew and he was a recurring antagonist in my young life.

I loved the fighting. I craved violence in the same way I craved alcohol and the latter was my suit of armor. While being trashed does nothing to improve your ability to dole out violence it is an absolute wonder in terms of your ability to absorb it and I truly didn’t care whether I lived or died. Or perhaps I simply wanted to die. 

I went away for a while and in my absence this conflict continued. The frontman of one of the bands I was affiliated with was living in a van behind the thrift store he worked at and one day one of the skins came in. With some concern, as if things had gone farther than he wanted them to, he told him that that a faction of them had stated that they knew where he slept and that they planned on killing him. At the next show his band played he appeared in a t-shirt with a bullseye over his heart.

On another occasion there was a fight where the numbers were overwhelmingly against them. They ran, leaving behind one of their cars and it got beat to shit, windows smashed, tires slashed, upholstery pissed on and burning trash thrown inside. 

When I arrived home from my time away I mostly kept my distance from my old friends.  I spent my free time in Alcoholics Anonymous soaking up the zeitgeist of another subculture for damaged people. Just as punk had been an island of misfit toys so too was the place they went to dry out. 

There is an emphasis in AA on welcoming the newcomer. They are the most important thing in the room. Your own sobriety hinges on your willingness to help them. This is the twelfth of twelve, the culmination of the process of recovery. 

My ‘home group’ was a shit show. Seriously working class and seriously fucked up, whiter than white but with dirt under its fingernails. These weren’t bank executives who ran over the neighbors’ dog or day traders whose wife threatened to leave them. These were orphans, foster kids and the parents who made and lost them.

People died all the time. They ‘went out’ and got found blue with a spike in their arm, or maybe they wrapped their car around a tree. Some killed themselves outright, dangling from a rope but mostly it was more ambiguous. Who knows what’s in the hearts of the dead? 

Freaks and weirdos were the rule. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a shambling mass of tattoos to walk through the door. Me and a friend were among them.

He was another wreck, transitioning from various stages of homelessness to a punk house where I hung out, a place where there was less drunkenness and reckless disregard. I came to hate him over time. I spit in his face once. But for years we were joined at the hip in a toxic platonic marriage. When the drummer for one of the odious skinhead bands, the one whose brother I was so close to years before walked through the door I didn’t know what to do. So I shook his hand and welcomed him to AA.

People only come to AA when the chips are so down they’ve fallen on the floor. They are desperate. Things are irredeemably fucked and they are so sick of themselves, so horrified by the life they’ve led that they are willing to molt- to shake off the skin of who they used to be. Part of them dies. And so I learned to love this certifiable, dangerous madman who was a mortal enemy until he raised his hand and said “I’m Joe and I’m an alcoholic”.

The three of us fit snugly together. It wasn’t like we went out in mixed company though. He was a secret to be kept. The logic of AA and the logic of left wing punks wasn’t likely to translate well.

He told stories of his crazy and violent life. The local keystone pigs in a town trying to wipe off its blue collar grime told him and his friends that they would look the other way as they loitered and harassed passers-by if they would repay them by beating up the homeless men who camped in the woods. He talked about travelling to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to drink and start fights. And he told me about the hate crime. 

Three of them had cornered a man on a late night train home from the city and beaten him to the ground and proceeded to stomp on his head. The queer community called for their heads on stakes and they deserved it. Had the man died they would have been charged with murder but somehow they got off with plea deals, scarcely spending a day in jail.

My newfound friend, still covered in the little known insignia of white power skins told us of his fear that one of the three, Andrew, was going to sell him out to lessen his own sentence. Andrew had no real home at the time, no parents worth staying with and so he slept in a house under construction. My friend stated that he’d gone to this house in the early hours of morning with a pistol, intending to kill him while he slept. But he lost his nerve and I can’t really say that it was for the best. 

Andrew, homeless and alone in the world, was someone that I would encounter throughout the early years of my sobriety. We were always running up to those windows of violence, a fall threatening both of us. I would get word that he and his crew were at a show and I would arrive with a bat, 17 years of nastiness unconcerned with my own well-being. There is an intimacy to this kind of hate, an intensity not unlike love.

On one occasion I stopped at a 7-11 after work. He was inside with a friend and insults and threats were exchanged. There was no way I was going to win a fair fight against two of them and so I filled a cup with steaming water. As I approached the door they lurked outside and I pointed to the security cameras, laughed in their faces. When I stepped outside they asked if I planned on throwing the water that had been boiling mere moments ago in their faces and I said that I did indeed. They followed me in their car for a good while. I pulled into a driveway and they sped off. 

Joseph had removed himself from contact with these people but he spoke in generalities about what he knew. That Andrew was especially in love with violence and had been trained for it from childhood, brutally beaten by his father until he was old enough to escape. I dated a girl who was with him for a time and she said that he liked to hurt her during sex. 

In AA other aspects of his life came into relief. AA is a catch-all. It’s rare that you encounter a drunk that doesn’t do drugs just as it’s rare that you encounter a drug addict who doesn’t drink to excess. Perhaps unfairly AA is considered to have ‘better sobriety’ (whatever that means) than Narcotics Anonymous, and so people show up there hoping to avoid the heroin slinging that supposedly occured in the parking lot after meetings.

I found myself giving lots of rides to people with heroin problems. One of them had grown up alongside Andrew and seemed to have the kind of love for him that two people who experience intolerable childhoods together develop. When I expressed my hate he countered with love, with sympathy, perhaps girded in the sort of racist milieu from which they emerged but nonetheless I heard more about the brutality that he had survived. This person overdosed and died some months later.

You grow up and you grow away from these things, punk and AA alike. You move, you get jobs, life takes you away from the people that you grew up hating, people who are perhaps more formative than those you love. Still though, you get word of them. The circles that the doomed and despairing travel in are small and word travels fast. A race riot broke out at the bar that once upon a time catered to punks, in which a black veteran and his two friends had to barricade themselves inside as beery morons tried to storm the building to kill them. It shut down not long after. 

A story emerged about Andrew picking a fight with two hispanic men. He got stabbed in the stomach and chased them down the road as his intestine began to find its way outside his body. I heard that he married a Mexican woman and I hoped he had grown, heard he had a roofing business and I thought ‘that figures’, but again, maybe he’d left behind his life of inflicting horror for a kind of middle-aged resignation. I didn’t know how much of this was rumor and I still don’t.  

I didn’t hear about him for years. I was a different creature, still wild, rearing and crashing down, nostrils flaring, but in a different place where the footsoldiers of the far right seemed even more dangerous, and they were.

In 2010 a woman named Shawna Forde and two accomplices murdered a child, Brisennia Flores, and her father in an attempted robbery, the proceeds of which were intended to fund their border militia. In 2012 an avowed neo-nazi and one-time protege of Republican troglodyte Russell Pearce shot four people to death, including an infant child, Lilly Mederos, before swallowing a bullet himself. Inside his home police found a cache of weapons garnished by two dozen grenades. And I had my own run-ins with fascists that butted up against violence. Andrew was a decade in the past and thousands of miles away. He might as well have not existed. 

I returned to New York and I tried to kickstart friendships. It worked and didn’t work because some of them weren’t worth having. One of the better ones lived next to a former skinhead. He was on suboxone to kick a heroin habit and was addicted to xanax.

Where my younger self would have exploded with swinging fists at such a person the older vintage felt a more interested detachment. I wondered who these people were, but already kind of knew the answer – they were the crazy, sad and irredeemably broken outcomes of our culture’s white masculinity, an identity that’s wilting, that won’t survive another generation. They were economically and culturally useless and they knew it. And no one loved them enough to tell them that they could be something different. 

But I am not Jesus. Dogs that bite get put down but extending that mercy to these wretched ones isn’t something we do. We lock them up and make them something even sadder and more threatening before depositing them back in the dustbins of America where they hate and stew and simmer. 

There is a saying amongst the white power set that they sometimes tattoo upon themselves, “14 Words”. This is shorthand for a mission statement: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” There are a million ways that this can be lampooned, but the sad and obvious truth is that none of this is about saving any kind of child. It’s about nurturing the misery that for lack of a suitable womb gestates in a series of drunken nights and rageful days, never born. Not completely. There is nothing more dangerous to a child than a rageful parent. 

In 2017 Andrew appeared on the local news. He had been pulled over (and I’m sure that this was no accident- more than likely he was under some sort of surveillance) and police found a pistol and knife in his possession. Upon searching his home more weapons were found along with a cache of ammo.

His mugshot brought me back to stare-downs of the past. His is the kind of face that makes one wonder whether one of his distant ancestors was hit with a brick so hard that it became a heritable genetic trait. It’s the kind of face that looks as though it’s been carved into a potato. He was thicker, older, his nose had been broken a few more times but he still looked furious and disgusted, although whether with himself or the situation he found himself in was unclear.

I dug into him on the internet. He was sufficiently affiliated with the far right to have earned a benefit concert organized by the aging fascist hangers-on who were still making shitty music for shitty people. And I found that he had a child, a little girl, and I thought about Brisennia Flores and how his daughter would be about the same age that she was when she was executed by a grown man as she begged for her life.

In my most recent esketamine vision I saw an image of this lost and angry man, this biting dog. His face was in a gilded frame, hung in the gauzy haze of pink shifting to salmon shifting to yellow. It was a soft light, delicate, and I saw beneath and below the furrowed brow that scarcely killed the gloss of his flat, dead eyes. There was a child there. So hurt and so lost, buried in an archaeology of damage that perhaps no amount of healing could excavate. He was a person who fate and bad choices had made into an animal, a process that he may have embarked on willingly but not without a firm push from behind. While any blood that he has spilled in his life is on him it is on society as well. We have to own our monsters.

Diagnosis in the Age of Reason

On the whole I think that psychiatric diagnoses don’t mean all that much. They simply describe a constellation of affects and behaviors that occur in a cluster that are in total a deviation from the norm (whatever that may be). Diagnosis is an act of production in which the edges of an unknowable state are rounded out so that they can be hammered into a round hole. 

As someone who has spent time on psychiatric units as both a patient and in a professional capacity it is obvious that there is no one thing at play for any of the people contained within, leaving aside poverty. 

From direct observation the mental health that the impoverished receive exists on a continuum of inescapable and unnavigable experiences.  People transition from the crowded housing of the family members who are still willing to deal with them to the street to emergency rooms or jail cells and then back to the psych ward. This is a cycle that continues until their deaths, lonely affairs where harried healthcare workers perform the labor of caring with brusque precision. 

Adherence to a regime of treatment is impossible when you don’t have any money. The quality of Medicaid coverage varies from plan to plan and place to place but can be astoundingly shitty. Many practitioners won’t accept it at all. Combine this with inadequate transportation and the astounding price of medication and the impossibility of modeling the behavior of a ‘good patient’ comes into stark relief. I will forever remember a young woman on the forensic unit of a state hospital asserting that she was a job creator, a necessary object of labor in the neoliberal economy without whom the locomotive of society would grind to a halt. 

I think she was right.  

I am lucky. I do not have a psychotic disorder. There are no voices that ring in my mind and no delusions of terrors less mundane than the task of existing on this planet. My only struggle with behavior is to exhibit some. I can’t say that there are many upsides to living with Major Depressive Disorder but at the very least it allows me to divide my life into digestible slices. There are times when I am sick and times when I am less sick. The former has a clear temporal edge on things. 

Yesterday my psychiatrist stated that he thinks a diagnosis of Bipolar II is a more appropriate framing of my misery. My limited understanding is that this is differentiated from Bipolar I by manic states that do not result in hospitalization coupled with lengthy periods of depression. On its face it is a curious label to place on a person. How are you supposed to distinguish happiness from hypomania? Is the entirety of your life a manifestation of madness?

This is not something that has been suggested at any time in the past and it is difficult to think past the endless period of depression that descended four years ago. There is so much scorched earth, still smoking, between 2016 and now that it is hard to see what lies on the other side. I do have memories of a time when I was well, but this diagnosis has cast its shadow over everything that has come before. It is no longer easy to draw boundaries between sickness and wellness. Instead everything I’ve ever done has become enmeshed in a fluid dance between different manifestations of a constant illness. The times that I remember as happy are suspect.

I will state freely that there have been times in which I felt chosen by the secret spirits of the earth, bestowed with invulnerability and magical charisma. In exchange I was to act in the world in a way that was pleasing to them by playing the role of trickster. Encounters with authority? Undermine them. Chance meetings with minor agents of fascism? Run right to the edge of violence to entrap them. An encounter with a fellow traveler, someone who wanted the earth turned upside down? Aid them with whatever resources I had. I loved to live that way, tapped into the roiling flow of an unstable universe with a great sense of humor that had, at least for a time, pulled up a beach chair to check out what I was up to.  

None of this felt like an illness to me no matter how close I sailed to the shoals of disaster. It felt like freedom. Life was immersion in a nietzschean ideal. I took lots of drugs and never worried about looking down. As a PhD candidate I taught classes with blistering talent, weaving a web of charisma that seemed inescapable, and all of it bestowed by ethereal agents of chaos. I had mastered the tightrope. 

Then I lost my balance. I don’t know why. Romance is anathema to the agents of chaos and I kept falling into it, knowing that I was being gridded and that it was stealing my power. But what do you do? Sexuality is both a driver and murderer of the minor magics available to the wild. I slipped in and out of relationships because of this charisma, a brazen asshole with no compulsion to apologize who walked the wire strung between birth and death with grace and a sense of showmanship.  Eventually I fell. 

Falling always happens faster than you expect. Sometimes, for some people there’s a net. I was lucky in that way. And I climbed back to the rope and tried again, not realizing that once you’ve fallen you will continue to fall, getting weaker and less confident every time. By 33 I had fallen all the way onto my parents couch. Even then I wasn’t done. I had ideas about how my life would go that felt actionable. I was excited about them and I worked at them with a dedication that would be impossible now.

Sure, there were blow-ups, explosive moments where I told people in coffee shops that they were bigots or approached blows with my father. But I was in life instead of gazing up at it from a dirt floor and uttering the old refrain of “I could have been a contender.” 

That all ended around this time in 2016. Frantic depression flattened out whatever tie to the sublime that remained and I turned into an ashen-faced and wide eyed creature, retreating into myself physically with my head down and my shoulders slouched. Over the course of four years I failed to find any relief. 

Things are somewhat better now. I have good hours and bad hours. Early morning is for lying awake and wondering how the fuck I’m going to get through another 30 or so years on this planet as whatever song that happens to be stuck in my head plays on repeat. I’ve been lucky recently in that it’s all been Propaghandi’s “Failed Imagineer”. Sometimes the playlist is far more awful. I had a week and a half in which it was “Camptown Races”. 

When I finally pull myself out of bed I get coffee and catch up with the children. That’s always good. They youngest repeatedly toddles up to me to deposit a toy in my hand, something she’s very proud to have like a matchbox car or a stuffed animal. My nephew says hello and then barrels through the house, engaged in a game of one that I don’t understand. 

After this it’s back to the dark of the basement. Most days I sit on the couch and write while my mother snores and asks what time it is every ten minutes or so. This is okay too. 

Sometimes I make the error of looking for work. It’s not like I can actually do any. When one applies a formula of Attention span x Depression x Anxiety x Rage the result of the equation is totally unemployable. In some ways this is a relief. Working holds a stethoscope up to the heartbeat of the meaninglessness of existence. 

But I’m getting off track. I was writing about a diagnosis and have veered into symptomatology. 

As with any rubric of knowledge in our society psychiatric diagnoses cast a grid over one’s life that doesn’t simply parse out symptoms but creates them. Where in the week prior I was pining for the days in which I rushed from thing to thing and did all of them well now I see a more sinister picture emerging that asserts one universal truth: I have always been unwell. I will always be unwell. Perhaps with the proper calibration of sedation and mood stabilization I will be just sick enough to require less attention, but that’s about as good as things are likely to get. 

This is the peril of pathologization. We all fight our battles against its incontrovertible logic. Some reject it outright and insist they are not sick. I suppose I respect this approach more than others. Of course this denial has another clinical maneuver it runs up against in which the person is suffering from anognosia, an insistence that one is well when a physician insists otherwise.

Then there is blind acceptance. You throw yourself at psychiatry’s feet and plead that they cure you over and over again in a process that is never complete. You take whatever medication is dispensed and accept that the next prescription, the next cocktail, the next intervention will finally save you. You disregard the fact that this approach has failed to save you over the months or years of treatment that you’ve endured. 

Most of us operate on a middle path between these two poles. Just as the pain of no treatment becomes intolerable we turn to the myriad pills that are hurled like darts in a bar room. After months or years of this monthly rite of submission we decide we will emerge from the ashes of this paradigm and taper down to nothing. Then when the pain of withdrawal becomes impossible to stand we are snapped back to the prior position. It is a perpetual motion machine of misery. Never sick, never well, over and over again. 

For now I will insist that if my periods of wild-eyed happiness are hypomania then please, please universe, allow me to be sick in that way again and let me stay there where at least I can make decisions and take action, regardless of the danger this may pose. 

Once in the state of trance that psilocybin engenders I saw in my mind’s eye a figure etched in blue and gold in a feathered cape and crown who took flight to do battle with a serpent of roiling darkness. The serpent swallowed this winged king but he was simply too large and it choked as they plummeted to the ground. I felt that this scene was of me, two agential elements of one human- the part that soars and the part that covets flight and freedom. This battle still rages inside me. They have yet to hit ground. They are still locked in combat.

An Open Letter to Jane Mulkerrins

September 21, 2020

Dear Jane Mulkerrins, 

I read with interest your article published in the Telegraph on September 19, 2020 entitled “How My New York Dream Has Turned Into a Violent Nightmare.” I frequently flip through the innocuous news feed on my phone as I migrate between the spaces that comprise my painful and disappointing life as one of the psychiatrically disabled. What pops up in this digital space is occasionally interesting and frequently banal, but of all the objectionable things that rubbed sand in my eyes this morning the most offensive was your article about the perils of being rich in Manhattan. 

I should preface my criticisms by stating that I do not live in New York City. I cannot afford to. Instead I live in Suffolk County and sleep on a couch in a basement apartment that I share with a relative. Poverty is much easier to hide in the suburbs. The luckiest of us occupy couches, closets and spare rooms. Otherwise we sleep in cars. When that’s not an option it’s simply a matter of sleeping rough, spending nights in shelters or the woods and the days hiding in public libraries.

 I don’t travel to New York City anymore, not out of a fear of violence but due to the exorbitant cost of making such a trip. And leaving aside COVID-19 restrictions, I cannot enjoy the cultural amenities you mourn. They are too expensive. I am not living anyone’s New York dream.  

With all that said, your references to violence visited upon friends and acquaintances seem rather overstated.  Getting spit on is a far cry from being choked to death or shot in a stairwell, and even a good solid punch in the back of the head pales in comparison to being sodomized with a broomstick. 

I think your lack of perspective might stem from the sea change this represents. Until recently such encounters were an unthinkable peril for the upper classes. First Guiliani and then Bloomberg had effectively cleansed the city of the poor and the implicit danger they represent. You speak of an air of permissiveness that “commentators” reference, but I have to make an assertion that permissiveness runs both ways. In a city where brutal inequality is upheld by brutal police why would anyone feel incentivized to adhere to an unstated social contract?  

When you reference your New York dream I wonder if you have ever considered the dreams of the mangled poor beneath your feet- that they may awaken without a police officer prodding them with a nightstick, ready to run their name for any outstanding warrants. Or that they wake up at all as the cold of winter descends. Or perhaps that they be allowed to access healthcare that would help them to avoid lapsing into the psychotic states that offend you. In fact, it seems to be the case that your overall objection is that you and your class have to see these people at all, and that they have not been locked away in Riker’s Island for your convenience. 

Your reference to observing protesters ‘kettled’ in the park that your apartment overlooks fails to identify who was doling out violence in this scenario. You’ll have to forgive this reader for assuming that you were speaking of the protesters, the hooligans who dared litter the sidewalks with glass from the posh restaurants and ‘corporate-lite’ storefronts where you enjoy your well-deserved brunches and purchase commodities that are wildly out of reach for most of us. Are the culprits in these “running street battles” the protesters who had the nerve to bruise the fists and truncheons of the NYPD as they beat and pushed and bullied those objecting to the shooting deaths and violent assaults that are perfectly acceptable as long as they’re committed by cops? 

And let it be said that there is something particularly offensive about your references to jet setting. A sit-down with George Clooney? Heli-skiing with Navy Seals? How lovely for you. I guess violence can be celebrated when it’s perpetrated by a handsome American who doles it out overseas. It’s as though you’ve been placed in the midst of an action movie fantasy as the leading lady, ready for capture by the terrorist hordes, ready for rescue by the leading man. 

There is a bit of an intermezzo in your article when you discuss your efforts to cram not only eggs but your own humanity back down your throat (with assistance from a mimosa or two) as you ponder, seemingly with some shock, the idea that your lifestyle might be disgusting as you observe families utilizing a food pantry operating out of one of those pesky eye-sore homeless shelters. I wonder how the waitstaff and cooks feel about the New York that you love. Is it possible that they look less than charitably on their posh overlords as they take public transportation back home to one of the outer boroughs that they and their families have been relegated to? I hope you tipped them enough to not have spit in your drink.

You speak of an escape to the Hamptons and Catskills by the wealthy, as if this will somehow allow them to hide from the poverty and desperation that they have created. As someone who has served in the reserve army that makes the miserable trek East every morning to all but wipe the asses of the rich I have to assert that you’re just as hated on Long Island. You simply don’t have to look at us when you’re dipping hors d’oeuvres in bowls filled with Gwyneth Paltrow’s self satisfied cluelessness. In fact, one of the poorest places in New York State lies on the automobile route to your upper crust enclaves, the Shinnecock Nation’s Reservation, a place where your lament for the passing of the invisibility of the poor would echo as if shouted down a well. But it’s possible that you travel by helicopter.

Without a bit of irony or an attempt to name the Upper West Siders for Safe Streets fiasco you discuss residents’ reports of increases in “drug dealing, prostitution and assault.” Leaving aside for a moment the hypocrisy of those making these ‘reports’ I’ll take a moment to challenge yours. You make mention of the fact that on your sojourn home from brunch you were struck by the bleak economic situation that has descended upon us. Why then the surprise that people would turn to the use and selling of drugs or to prostitution? I would posit that these are activities that should be legal, and that effectively are legal for the wealthy. Serial predator Jeffrey Epstein and his professional groomer Ghislaine Maxwell hail from the pool of human turds that you consider yourself so lucky to hobnob with. It is only when the poor and the desperate fall back on these survival activities that it becomes offensive to the tut-tutting bourgeoisie. 

And circling back around to the hypocrisy previously referenced, the increase in assaults that was ‘reported’ omits the spirited calls to violence by the West Siders for Safe Streets themselves, which include incitements to kicking people in front of busses and spraying them in the eyes with insecticide. And since we’re all so sensitive to quality of life issues it bears mentioning that one of these internet warriors urged people to smear public benches with dog shit to discourage shelter residents (and literally anyone else) from sitting on them. 

It is interesting that you end your screed against those people who are surviving the unsurvivable by bemoaning your recent encounter with cockroaches and rats and the satisfaction you derive from ending the lives of these other unfortunate survivors. It is almost impossible to miss the equivalence implicit here- that you view those people forced to battle their demons on street corners as nothing more than vermin to be poisoned or bludgeoned to death.  But I assure you with a fair degree of certainty that despite whatever campaigns of violence your class visits upon them the immiserated masses will continue to survive, mostly by the skin of their teeth. I wish I could say we’re coming for you but the reality is that for now at least we’re too busy surviving. 

In closing, please decamp to London or whichever other metropolis you feel has been successfully remade to provide you with emotional stability and condominiums from which to view the forces of law and order as they  assault those who object to a world that is grinding them into slurry. But don’t forget the events of 2011 in your country of origin when the amorphous and unknowable masses enacted their brief but furious revenge on a society that cares nothing for them. And please consider the possibility that the upper class with whom you identify must either submit to a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth or live with the possibility that it is only misery and violence that will be subject to redistribution.  

Sincerely, 

Nobody

Post-script: On the day following the publication of your article William Barr designated New York City, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington as “Anarchist Jurisdictions” and threatened to withhold federal funding unless police agencies are granted complete impunity. This sends a clear message from the Trump administration to lesser branches of government that any objection to the current paradigm must be crushed or the targeted municipalities will be financially strangled. Maybe you will get your New York dream back after all, a dream built on the nightmares of the poor. 

Roadkill

I ride a bike a bunch. I am not one of the unsung heroes of cycling who make their way to work in all kinds of weather and at all hours of the day with nothing but a rusting Huffy beneath them, but I’m not a spandex clad hammerhead either. 

I ride a modest touring bike that might have been an object of envy a decade ago and I ride it for whatever modest benefits it might bestow upon my unfortunate brain and midriff. If any kind of class analysis can be derived from a close look at cycling it is this: The strongest cyclists ride their shitty bikes to work every morning while the weakest cyclists ride their vanity projects to the coffee shop for Saturday brunch. 

As with so many things I find myself outside the entire paradigm. I ride several times a week. It takes me an immense amount of time to get out of the house. I hate changing my pants and I have no idea why. This is the major barrier to getting started. 

It always feels good at the beginning. I like climbing and I live in a low spot so there’s one waiting for me no matter which direction I choose. Cars rush by. I live in a place that could be considered ‘bike unfriendly’. This should bother me more than it does but when I crunch the numbers my earning potential is maximized by riding in wealthy neighborhoods. 

The best year of my life followed on the heels of a near-fatal car accident in Southern Arizona. I was riding eastbound on a road that marked the southernmost boundary of a university and was left-hooked by a student ogling young women rather than paying attention to traffic. My memory of this event consists of the moment of terror that preceded my front wheel making contact with his truck. 

I can’t remember however many fractions of a second it took for my ass to leave the seat or my head to connect with his passenger door. Those moments are lost to me. Then there was the peculiar feeling of surfacing from the type of unconsciousness a head injury produces. It is like being born. Light and sound begin to coalesce into sensation. It takes a while. 

I remember a bit of the paramedics cutting away my shirt. I heard a young woman say “It says ‘fuck’ on that guy’s chest,” which is true and also another story. It wasn’t until I arrived at the hospital that I truly regained consciousness. 

I was in a great deal of pain. In addition to the head injury I had separated my shoulder and gotten road rash all over my face. I demanded morphine and it was given. It felt a lot less awesome than I thought it would, producing nausea instead of blissful nothing. Then, because I lacked health insurance, I was released into the hands of my roommate of two weeks with a prescription for vicodin.

Being as industrious as I am I contacted a lawyer the next day. All told it wasn’t much of a windfall. I got about $10,500 from his insurance carrier and they paid my $50,000 hospital bill. For me that was a tremendous sum of money and between the settlement and student loans I lived a luxurious life in which I indulged my two greatest loves: Not working and second hand bikes. 

But the joys of personal injury litigation are not really what I hoped to write about here. Instead it is the profanity of the American suburb as it plasters the remains of the other-than-humans who scurry between sad patches of second growth forest in a relentless visitation of insult upon injury.  

Roadkill is one of those atrocities that we witness and forget. No one needs to think about it. It’s simply an accident, and not one that requires an exchange of insurance information. Really it’s the animals fault, too stupid to follow signs or observe red lights. 

They are unworthy of a burial. That would be a ridiculous thing to do, to stop and watch the life ebb out of a raccoon’s eyes. To put your massive hands around it as it leaks blood and lift it into your car. 

What would your spouse say? Leaving aside the matter of parasites that riddle these lower order creatures, what order of logic would you be succumbing to if you were to work a spade into the dirt of a suburban backyard under a motion sensing light? What would it say to cradle that tiny body and beg for forgiveness as you laid it in a patch of earth  somewhere between the above ground pool and the aluminum shed? And what of the children? No one wants them to grow up weird. 

As I rode uphill today I neared a train station. A raccoon lay ahead, fallen where the curb meets the road. Curbs are rare where I live. Roadkill less so. Denied the dignity of death in the forest where funerary bugs and keratin eating fungus do their work the corpses can sit for days or weeks by the side of the road. I gave it a wide berth to avoid the smell. This is at once a futile and a dangerous thing to do. Too far off the shoulder and I might end up in a similar position to the creature up ahead and the stink of death would still be in my nostrils. 

As I passed it slowly lifted its head, the rest of its body still splayed on the asphalt. It stared at me and followed my passage with what I can only imagine was dazed and confused terror. I rode on for another quarter mile and stopped. I felt sick and I felt wrong. There are quandaries that one encounters in life and how you reconcile yourself to them can say a great deal or perhaps nothing at all. One is faced with all the actions that the broader society prescribes for the alleviation of suffering, none of which are adequate or even defensible. When the one who is suffering can’t speak or understand what is said the dilemma is amplified. Animals aren’t afforded the luxury of DNRs.  

Should I have gone back with a sense of manly duty and an appropriately sized rock to enact the dubious mercy of bludgeoning a scared and dying thing? This would afford me cover to humbly and regretfully tell the people who’ve accepted my narrative about myself that I put it out of its misery, painting a thin veneer of responsibility over what appears to be sadism. All things are put out of their misery given enough time. There’s really no need to assist in this momentous inevitability. 

There are other dubious kindnesses that I could have visited upon this creature. If it had survived, if it was not merely casting its gaze about at the purple twilight of the forest of the dead with me as interloper perhaps I could have rushed home for a towel in which to wrap it securely and then ferried it to the wildlife rehab. But it is likely that this would just force it into a half-life in an enclosure where it would serve as an imprisoned ambassador for all the wildlife that are already in the crosshairs of the great extinction. 

Finally, I suppose I could have left it in the cool cover of some relics of an effort at landscaping that were regularly rendered futile by the encroachment of weeds. This is what I would want for myself, to stare at the sky as everything transitioned to blinding white light, cradled by grass prepared to accept my flesh as it melted off my bones. 

I didn’t do any of these things. The purpose of such minor heroics seem to only whitewash the overwhelming testament to our folly as a species. The suffering of that creature was unavoidable and mundane, a tiny sum deposited in the ledgers of capitalist society’s tally of neglectful cruelty. 

I rode on. At the boundary of a nature preserve I passed a fox flattened by the rush hour procession, too small to garner the interest of the highway department, a grisly stole that would be nothing but fractured bones by next spring. Another year and it wouldn’t even be that, just shards of calcium washed downhill. 

I thought about all the classes of schoolchildren that would likely visit this preserve. No doubt a docent and a teacher would try to impress on them the fascinating interdependence that allows any kind of life to flourish. What will they make of the deer lying bloated on the green of an adjacent golf course, intestines bursting from its stomach in deep purple loops? I think very little. They will have no one to explain to them that they have been bequeathed a world that is doomed. 

Any grade school teacher with self-preservation on their mind will studiously avoid veering into the horror that is running these children through the chutes of this fucked up rodeo. The deliberate blindness and denial that is required to lift oneself out of bed is what is actually being taught. It is a training regimen that demands that they not notice the animal rotting before their eyes and that if they do that they be incapable of generalizing the implicit logic of such a thing. Always, always deny the violence of speed. 

I ended up on one of the major thoroughfares that connects east to west. I rode past yet another golf course, this one clearly unable to scrape through the six months of the coronavirus’ assault on the dubious sociality of middle-class America. The grass was tall, the trees all dead. It was curious, this uniformity. As though they had forged a suicide pact. 

I was pleased with the end of the golf course. There are few things more offensive to me than the persistence of this game, the origins of which lie in the earliest colonialist impulses of the British empire, a test case for the horrors yet to come.  As I rode past at my usual sluggish pace I noticed a box turtle so flattened by traffic that it could have been a leaf pressed in the pages of a book. 

There was a Walmart across the road. As I passed it I could feel the square become a box become a tetrahedron. A dead animal that could have lived for a century catty-corner to a temple to the dead labor of the suburban poor from whom a well-defined black line was drawn to the sweatshops of Southeast Asia. From there a thinner and more amorphous tendril finished the perimeter of suffering with a perennially despondent outsider as the final node.

The profanity of death cultures is rarely adequately punished. The amount of rope required doesn’t exist. The earth can’t drink all the blood. Truth and reconciliation gives neither. We just have to teeter on the landscape that the past has created and try not to think about the bodies beneath us and the implicit threat that they portend. 

Social Work and its Discontents

From September of 2019 to February of 2020 I pursued an MSW at a large state university. That I got into this program at all seems anomalous. My work history is laughable, my participation in life on a voluntary basis non-existent.  The only reasons I can think of for my acceptance were a well written admissions essay or perhaps simply that they wanted my money.

In retrospect my desire to attend this program was a profoundly bad decision. I have a friend, loving and well-intentioned, from whom I accept as biblical truth any suggestions for improving my station in life. But what works for him is generally not what works for others and in this instance were especially ill-advised. My efforts to participate in bureaucracies both large and small have not worked out to my benefit. I drown in them. 

I had misgivings about the program from the start. The winter of 2019 was not kind to me. It was my third year of profound depression and I was realizing that this might be something I would experience forever.

I had been accepted to the program and was wrestling with it. Mental illness had sapped any enthusiasm I might have felt for what I was about to do and smashed my confidence like a fleet of wooden ships. The amorphous horror of the whole endeavor was upon me before I even began, but I have a foolish penchant for trusting in the benefits of forbearance.  

After attending a series of orientations to the program I was tweaked. The word ‘professional’ has a filthy smell and I was about to bury my face in it. The suggestion that I might very well be expected to drug-test other human beings and that I needed to have a degree of enthusiasm about it horrified me. 

Following this orientation I panicked for days, my body on fire in that way that is particular to overwhelming anxiety. I took a camping trip to Vermont with a close friend, mostly out of a desire to prove to myself that I could still function, and spent the entire time searching for a cell signal so that I could talk to my mom or taking enough Klonopin to put me to sleep. I was desperate to go home but found no relief there either.

The first semester was an endless procession of doctor’s appointments in which I tried in vain to be given a diagnosis rooted in an observable physical problem. I went to endocrinologists, had sleep studies, got MRIs and not one of them revealed anything abnormal. This is the misery of psychiatry. There are no tests, scans or samples that can reveal a cause for the crushing weight of the illness. It’s just there, unwilling to reveal much about itself, a presence that suggests a moral failing or a defect of character. 

The difficulty I experienced in navigating coursework cannot be overstated. Even if I were a person with a normal brain and constitution I think I would be hard pressed to care about the assignments. The classes were so painfully normative, so divorced from any immersion in the actual experience of mental illness, addiction and poverty that I felt my suspicions were validated. Though I know people who have escaped this role the ultimate purpose of the profession as a whole seemed to be to act as an extension of the state and to enforce the particular form of biopolitics that this moment in history demands. 

Ultimately to finish this degree would have placed me in the position of some sort of cop and I wanted none of it. Even the most innocuous positions that I could have attained would have been horrid. The fact that America offers mental health counseling and drug rehabilitation services to the homeless is a sick joke. As if the extension of some victim blaming talk therapy would be a balm to the trauma of being completely divested of resources. As if taking away the only comfort a person has, regardless of how it’s destroying them isn’t an act of cruelty. 

Towards the beginning of the second semester I took a medical leave of absence. It wasn’t a hard argument to make. I was crying constantly, enduring the strange discomfort that emerges in my limbs when I am stressed past my breaking point and was unable to pry myself away from these experiences to do my coursework. I took my leave, which freed me up to swirl in the endless vortex of my body and mind. I haven’t gone back.

Recently a friend invited me to attend a concert. It was after work and I was tired, stewing and bubbling about my poor life choices and the fact that I had sold a bike that cost more than I would make in wages en toto at this inadequate part-time job. I deliberated for a bit but decided to go. He texted me the flyer, a flavorless advertisement for music in a park. 

When I arrived I saw no one that I recognized. I saw no one period. It was one of those events where the only people in attendance were the ones who organized it or were performing there. This used to be a phenomenon that bothered me. I would find my atheism challenged by the feeling that someone was watching and judging me for my attendance. It’s changed for me in recent years. I feel comforted by well-intentioned efforts that amount to nothing. That’s the story of my life. 

As I walked off in search of my friend I heard someone call out my name. Female, Unfamiliar. A young woman walked towards me and gradually recognition dawned. She was a former classmate from the social work program. I felt surprised that she recognized me out of context. I try not to be memorable. It feels safer to me. 

I think the proximity of my departure from school was so close to the COVID-19 shutdown that no one noticed I was gone. I could have taken this as a point of departure before we communicated further but there is an honesty in me when it comes to my own faults that is probably a virtue and definitely a liability. So I told her that I had left school and that it had to do with my mental health. 

She inquired if I would be coming back to the program and I promptly vomited up all my critiques of social work on the ground at her feet. That I saw it as a mechanism of control. That it is another way of pathologizing poverty and disciplining the poor. That it was essentially a strange tertiary instrument of violence and I wanted no part of it. That as someone who is mentally ill I found it to be incredibly paternalistic, endlessly attempting to relocate sickness in the individual instead of in the profoundly sick and wildly violent society we are forced to live in. That any work performed upon human beings ultimately reduces them to raw material, from which the laborer is completely alienated. And that the product of this labor, a more perfect human, is unattainable.  

This was a lot to take in I’m sure. She maintained some grace in the face of my diatribe. She said these were all interesting critiques and that the program we were both enrolled in would be improved by hearing them. 

This was kind of her but the truth is that even if I were to return armed with these criticisms they would never be heard. This was a program meant to spew out social workers as if they were ground beef. Any assault on the ideological pillars of the profession would simply fall off the side of the ship as it headed for the iceberg that is the future. 

I said goodbye to her and I don’t think it is likely I will ever see her again. If I do, it will most likely be as a client than as an equal. I hope that if this is the case some small part of her will remember this conversation and recognize me as less of a product and more of a human being. 

But this is unlikely. From what I observed of what passes for ‘social work education’ it has been completely colonized by the neoliberal impulse that manifests very clearly in the non-profit sector. Firms churn out services with the same blind logic of accounting that Chinese manufacturers and African goldmines adhere to. The product in this case isn’t a pallet of product or a weight of metal and is instead the convoluted metrics of healing that are always imposed on the poor: Are they able to work at Dunkin’ Donuts? Are they numbing their pain with the right sorts of drugs? Are they allowing society to mete out violence upon their children or are they intervening in the process?

Perhaps this is sad, perhaps it is heroic, and it is unavoidably a fact: I will not do these things. I will not lie and tell someone there is a future for them. I will not exert myself to convince them that anyone cares, and the only way I can accomplish this is to absent myself from the process altogether. 

There is a cost for this refusal. I have been paying it down my whole life. I’ve not encountered a cog in this society that I haven’t tried to throw a wrench in. When there isn’t a wrench available I simply shove in my arm. My spirit wanders around on stumps like a Mellvillean whaler crying out for alms, and perhaps too late I’ve realized that I have indeed placed myself in the position of ‘client’ in Social Work’s sloppy division of the world into recipients and providers of services. 

Fear of Falling

I can’t imagine that it is a universal experience to stare down at your proverbial feet and find that the very tips of your shoes extend over a gulf that has no discernable bottom.

And I can’t imagine that many, looking down, don’t feel the pull of the fall- to allow the force of your own descent to cradle you. 

Perhaps you fall face first, wanting a last glimpse of solidity, a final reminder that you are nothing but meat casually animated by an accident of ancient chemistry. 

Or perhaps you turn around to survey the life behind you, a reminder that there’s really very little that ties you to the elevation you’ve grown so accustomed to. 

You fall. 

Perhaps it’s exhilarating, perhaps it’s terrifying, but there’s no returning. Any regrets you might have are finally rendered futile. Your loves as well. There is only the friction of speed and then terminal velocity. You might be free or maybe you’re tragic but the only thing that can really be said is that you’re over. 

This doesn’t have to be a discussion of suicide, though it is that. But it could also be an analogy for the tremendous moments that every life involves, those points from which there is no return. 

I think there is an outcome to the analogy that we rarely entertain in which a leap is made and there is no bottom. We don’t hit water at such a speed that it may as well be concrete or scatter ourselves on rocks once obscured by distance. We are certainly not held and cradled by a loving god. We just keep falling, past bathtubs in which prospectors scrub themselves clean and farmers wrestle with broken tractors. Roots, dinosaur bones, treasures that would make you a millionaire had you not left everything behind, you pass them all as you explore the degrees of freedom of effortless flight.

Another iteration of this scenario is that you jump and you scarcely fall. Maybe four feet down there is another precipice. After a period of exclamatory leaps your knees are skinned and your palms are bloody and down is still the only direction that makes sense. 

I don’t know where I fall in these scenarios. I’m alive, so clearly I never really embraced the art of falling. I know some people who have and their loved ones would probably be unhappy with my admiration for the finality of their departure. So I don’t say in mixed company that I think there’s something truly brave about a willing departure from a state of existence that most of us cling to desperately.

And I hope against hope that I didn’t leap into a descent that has no end. I’ve met some of those and they are sad creatures. They summon images of sickbeds bathed in grey and late night parking lot scuffles- estranged children, marriages that keep happening and keep failing. Smoking indoors, falling asleep in an armchair with the television on, some pills and some beers arrayed around their body as it refuses to die. 

Perhaps it is the last of these that is the closest parallel to my own life. At some point in the last ten years I ran towards an obvious precipice and leapt without looking down. I spread my arms like they were wings. They never materialized. 

After an endless moment I met ground again, grit and blood in my mouth, my knees skinned, the wind knocked out of me. Hurt, but a million miles from dead. The thing that felt like a final decisive choice turned into a new sort of unfreedom. 

Perhaps this is the fate of all things that live. Perhaps some of us see this and some of us don’t. I wish I didn’t. 

I’ve probably been sick all my life. My brain has never truly accepted the world, feeling that it was either very much more or very much less than it claimed to be. The failure to confirm either suspicion drives me to rage or despondence or both depending on the day. 

I thought that I glimpsed something in the populist spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous, a glimmer of the vastness of things in the sadness of drunks who no longer drank. It was an easy place to land really. Despite any failings it may have it remains one of the oldest existing non-hierarchical mutual aid societies created by caucasians. But people drift away from things. They jump again and ignore the hard ground ten feet below.

My next leap was onto and into the glorious figure of who I wanted to be. He was standing. I fell face first behind him. I was beaten up at this point. My split lip had never healed. There was still gravel in there. I had sand in my eyes. But I could see him. He was brave and free and believed in himself to a degree that was hard to bear but he looked like such a comfortable vessel that I stepped right in, hoping that he could find his way down. 

He didn’t. He just jumped. It was an interesting leap. He ate an ounce of mushrooms, smoked three spliffs, fell asleep after smoking a bowl of changa and upon waking took flight again. He landed in a suburban household that looked remarkably like my childhood home. People that looked just like my parents were there, but if they were my parents then how in the world did they get so old? 

We had landed on a couch. Just to be sure of its solidity we lay there for quite some time. When it was time to leap again it was September of 2016. I knew this because everyone was talking about the presidential election, and since my life was spent in the downwardly mobile middle class white enclaves of New York I was reminded many times of the ill-placed resentments of the East Coast cracker. 

The next time we jumped it was out of the way of the impending co-homicide that my father and I had been planning, unbeknownst to either of us. I landed in Vermont. There was no distinguishing me from myself anymore. The shock of hitting ground two times had smashed us into one thing.  Terrified me lived in terrifying me, locked in a stalemate of superimposition until one died and the other was tasked with lugging around the dead one’s spirit. 

There have been no further leaps. I feel done with jumping. I know it hurts. I circle the precipice and hoist the corpse of my other self, but then he twitches and cries out weakly, reminding me that he is not dead yet. I hate him. I love him. I am him and I am not. 

In the next month it is very likely that I will undergo Electroconvulsive Therapy. This seems like the last leap before the final plummet and this is the most frightening thing about it. 

I don’t fear memory loss or brain damage. The idea of seizing on a hospital bed with electrodes pressed against my mind doesn’t begin to encompass the terror of realizing that there is nothing left after this. Instead of the basement of the river valley that I have been throwing myself into for so many years, finally reaching bottom and following the water to the sea, I will be confronted with the option that was there all along, a final hopeless plunge into unknowable nothingness. 

I want to live. I want to die. I have to hold both these truths in tension and learn to exist within the liminal space. Jump? Or don’t? 

DeSisto School Part III: An Epilogue

I drove through the campus of the Desisto School today. My memories of the place were of darkness, of a hidden cult tucked away from the world and endless distances traversed in the snow. Instead I drove through wealthy New England villages with the usual trappings of ski shops, yoga studios and restaurants, each of them promising an innovative take on farm to table cuisine.  Zoning laws prevented a steady winnowing away of the land until the houses were cheek to jowl and the darkness that only a conifer forest can produce was replaced with the blinding glare of the American suburb. 

I think I was hoping for ghosts. For an air of menace. For tall grasses encroaching on crumbling buildings that somehow contained relics of the misery doled out within. More than anything I envisioned a tree erupting from the roof of the mansion, life somehow struggling through the rotting carcass of a building that was mortared with the ego of an utterly forgettable megalomaniac. A stake through the heart of a monster who wasn’t quite dead enough. 

Instead I felt bored. It was so much smaller than in my memories. Close to the road, only a few miles from a good cup of coffee. All of the buildings had been razed except the building I slept in, the gymnasium that served as a waystation on my way out and the mansion itself. They appeared to have been completely and thoroughly emptied. The mansion was collapsing on itself. 

There was no opportunity to enter the buildings. While the buildings were profoundly fucked the grounds were actively maintained with a landscaping crew undertaking the seemingly impossible task of mowing the grass. They didn’t give me a second look. Perhaps they were used to gawkers stopping in. Maybe it happened everyday. It all seemed unlikely to me. How did something that did so much damage to so many children have the evil so thoroughly drained away? 

But then it is worth saying that some of the evil didn’t drain away. It just moved, dressed up in a sheriff’s uniform. It became a dangerously corrupt piece of shit in a new place. In a failed bid for congressional office, right wing border hawk Paul Babeau came undere scrutiny for his time as headmaster of the school. Despite his emphatic denial of any knowledge of the punishments being foisted upon the students under his care in a home movie leaked to the media Babeau stated “They need to feel hopeless; they need to feel depression and complete failure. They have to bottom out and then be able to work through it.” I have been working through it my whole life. 

I came back from Desisto school changed in a bad way. While it was beyond a doubt that I entered the school an angry kid I emerged enraged. I lay awake at night fantasizing a wholesale slaughter of the staff and administrators. Sometimes these fantasies were an action movie pastiche in which I would toss out pithy one-liners as I stood in the center of the dining hall doling out punishment. Other times it was a slow stalking of them through the night, eliminating them one by one. To admit to such thoughts in the present is the highest breach to a number of taboos, but this is all I got out of the Desisto experience. 

My life hadn’t been normal before and it wasn’t normal after. I very quickly became a member of an AA group in my area and thought that this would be sufficient to heal me. It wasn’t. I boiled over. The hostility that I felt against authority figures, suppressed for an adolescent lifetime, turned white hot. I punched trees until my knuckles bled. I terrified my sisters with the enormity of my anger. My father and I circled one another like animals ready to lock horns. 

I was enrolled in a public school for damaged kids. All I remember are grey skies and long bus rides. I was choking on myself. 

A teacher failed me for a paper that addressed the political underpinnings of technological development. I thought it was very smart and challenged her assessment. An F? At the very least I should have been passed with a C. She dismissed my objection. I hadn’t written for the question. 

I was incandescent and launched the kind of verbal assault that only a teenager steeped in violence can achieve. I pointed out the herpes sore on her lip. I told her that I would murder her whole family. Then I walked from the room, intent on leaving this school and all its ilk behind. 

The teachers at this school had some kind of panic button. As I walked down the hall towards the door I was confronted by two security guards tasked with keeping us from leaving. I threw a futile roundhouse punch at one of them and then ended up pinned to the floor for a time, the institutional tile cool on my cheek. It was hard to breathe. 

They deposited me in a closet that served as a stop-gap padded room in this place. I slammed my head against the bricks as they stared at me. Blood ran down my face. I didn’t care. This would be my last day in a school of any sort for years. It would mark the beginning of another boring journey as a person who was peripheral to the world, just hanging on as I chewed the gristle of my life, ruined before it began.

To close, in Colson Whitehead’s 2019 novel The Nickel Boys the protagonist of the story comments upon a man who was imprisoned with him in a state run institution: “Chickie Pete and his trumpet. He might have played professionally, why not? A session man in a funk band, or an orchestra. The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cure diseases or perform brain surgery, inventing shit that saves lives. Run for president. All those lost geniuses- sure, not all of them were geniuses, Chickie Pete for example wasn’t solving special relativity- but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”

I don’t want to present the idea that there is a direct parallel between the plight of a black boy in a reform school in the 60’s and myself. But then I do. Once the world has convinced you that you are not worth saving you turn into something else. Something abnormal, a stripped and sprung cog in a machine that insists on punishing you for the horrors it has already inflicted.

Violence bends you. Violence breaks you. It turns you into something that you never wanted to be. And then, when you have finally relaxed into the shape that it has made for you the whole thing shatters. And then you’re nothing at all.

DeSisto School Part II

I began to sound SK out. He had been at this place for two years with significant gaps where he lived on the street. He was a wellspring of gossip about the functioning of the school and the infractions of the students. He provided a sort of oral history of the place in which heroes and villains emerged and waged battle. My favorites were the stories of a notorious boy who had been placed on the farm in the recent past. 

Fire codes were flagrantly ignored by those who ran the school, but somehow, against all reason, the farm had a fire extinguisher. This boy had used it to beat the staff member supervising his misery within an inch of his life, leaving him with several facial fractures. On another occasion he had punched the glass out of a window and opened up his wrists on the glass that remained. He was always on the farm. There was no speaking to him but I wished him well. I thought he was braver than the rest of us, leaving aside SK. He had known this boy, described him as someone who was mostly silent but completely unpredictable. 

It was through a recounting of the transgressions of others that we sussed each other out. It provided us with plausible deniability. Snitching was embedded in the fabric of life at Desisto school. It was always possible that you would be betrayed. You couldn’t even be angry with the person who sold you out. It was their only way to escape from a corner and have the dubious privileges of a shower and normal food reinstated. 

As we warmed to each other he began to tell me about his escapes, of how on one occasion he hid under a couch for two days, pissing on the carpet until he felt safe leaving. I had always wondered why it smelled like urine in the common area. 

He told me about his months on the road trading blowjobs for survival and booze. He drank to take the edge off and wash the taste of semen from his mouth. As we established trust we made the terrifying leap from telling war stories to making plans, and in the bitter cold of Massachusetts in January we devised a scheme to leave without being captured.  

One night at 12:00 AM we quietly left our bunks. No one woke up, even when we broke the lock that separated us from our shoes and coats. Then we ran in pools of darkness towards the gym and auditorium where we had never played a game or watched a performance. 

It was unlocked. We pilfered warm clothes from a closet then made our way to the basement where we hid beneath a tarp behind a boiler. We stayed there for 24 hours, pissing in the corner. We each had a baseball bat, and in the event that a member of the staff happened upon us we were going to beat them into unconsciousness. This almost occurred. One of the maintenance men came to the basement. I gripped my bat tight, readying myself to attack, but he left after a moment and there we stayed, going from hungry to starving. 

To make the hours tolerable I engaged in a pleasure I had not enjoyed for 7 months, which was cursing. “Fuck”, “Shit”, “Piss”, “Dick”, and “Pussy” were edited out of our vocabulary through a number of punitive measures and they tasted wonderful in my mouth. Every sentence was a proper noun sandwiched between “Fuck” under that tarp. In the mildewed stink of the basement of this deteriorating building I discovered that I could speak once again.

When the next night fell we emerged from hiding. There were bicycles in the auditorium for reasons that escape me and we took two of them. We hurriedly walked them across the campus. Every time my shoe broke through the crust of ice coating the snow I thought it would be the giveaway that caused us to be apprehended. SK was brave. He knew the layout of the administrative offices and entered to steal the petty cash drawer. This would allow us to get bus tickets to anywhere that wasn’t here. 

I watched him enter. The cold and my terror made the night hyperreal, realer than my days of sullen resentment and the delicate navigation of politics that takes place in any cultish bureaucracy. I had been dead for so long that the sudden return to life was too much. I did not know if I was up to the task of hauling myself through a life where I wasn’t commanded to do things, a life riddled with choice. 

Choice was immediately removed when SK emerged from the mansion at a sprint. He slid as he stopped, saying quietly and clearly that we needed to run. There were paths for cars that had been plowed and were clear of ice and snow. We jumped on our bikes and rode as fast as we could. I did not ask for an explanation. 

When we reached the road we turned downhill. This was faster. Between painful breaths I asked him what had happened. He told me that he had entered through the front door and walked towards the business office. When he swung the office door open he almost walked into a staff meeting. Every head turned in his direction.  

I asked him if they followed. He didn’t know. A pair of lights crested the top of the hill behind us and we dove into the ditch on the side of the road, ducking into the dead ferns and stones. My pants got very wet and this worried me. The lights passed by, didn’t slow, didn’t stop and there was a moment of peace there in the margins. It was foundational to the power of Desisto school that a rumor circulated through the student body that the local sheriff’s department was paid a ‘gratuity’ for apprehending runaways. We ditched the bikes. They seemed useless if we were going to throw ourselves off the road whenever a vehicle appeared in the distance.  

I don’t know anymore how long we walked but at some point we reached a railroad crossing and followed the tracks. I felt safer when we left the road and despite my own untenable position in the order of things I felt gratitude. It was a beautiful night. A generous moon made the snow glow and the houses near the tracks were radiating orange light from their windows. I imagined the families within, how they enjoyed a sense of normalcy. How the children were built right, not crazy or dangerous in the way I was.  

We talked as though we were kids on an adventure rather than newly minted homeless runaways. It felt good to say fuck, to talk about how we would eat or where we would stay. The precariousness of our position just passed us by. We were free and that seemed to be enough. Eventually we reached a highway. We walked beside it, moving with the big trucks through the snow. 

We were both tired when we walked into the parking lot of the truck stop. SK immediately set out to get a ride on one of the rigs. I joined him in the effort, screwing up my courage and then getting to it. Everything would be much easier if I could get closer to home. I needed help, a floor to sleep on or at least a way to get rides, someone to help me learn how to be unsheltered. 

We were rebuffed over and over. Sometimes a driver would give us money or cigarettes, a turn of good fortune. We bought packaged pastries in the truck stop. The sugar and the nicotine and the delightful buzz of caffeine kept my fear at bay, all the questions about how I would live and where, what I would do to not die in the cold. 

Finally a driver agreed to give us a ride. I don’t remember what story we told him about who we were but it was very likely unconvincing and cumbersome. Whatever we said he saw through it but didn’t confront us about it yet. After spending the five dollar bills he gave us on more garbage we began hurtling on the highway and I fought sleep as I sipped a coke. Eventually I lay down on the floor of the cab, SK already departed from consciousness in the bed above me. 

I awoke to the knowledge that I was being studied. The trucker was squatting between the seats, staring at me. SK was already awake. He went on to call bullshit on us and our story. He was not without sympathy. He told us about himself. He was a veteran. He was also a gay man who lived with his partner on the outskirts of Albany. He knew we were runaways. He wanted our story. And so we unfolded, spilling out the minor atrocity that was Desisto. Then he brought us to his apartment. 

His partner was laying in an armchair with a slice of pizza in his lap, watching Pulp Fiction at the exact moment when Uma Thurman’s character overdoses on heroin. He invited us to eat and we did. There was something heartbreaking about it. Living in New York there is a foundational aspect of pizza that gets into your bones. I felt I could go an entire day on a slice, that this could be the bedrock of my diet as a person with no place to live. It connected to so many memories of my earlier life that I felt overwhelmed, like I was about to burst. 

I have thought quite a bit about this man in the years that followed. It’s likely that for many readers he would arouse suspicion. I have come to the conclusion that this is unjustified, an insult to a person who ever so briefly provided us with food, shelter and transportation. It is very possible that he had lived through a similar situation in his life and that his empathy was strong enough to pull him across the divide of conventional wisdom. Ultimately all that can be said is that he was kind. He never asked for anything, never touched me or SK. He seemed concerned at our alienation from our parents and I didn’t have the vocabulary to express that we were unwilling participants in a cult that sought to dominate the emotional lives of our families. 

It wasn’t long before I asked for the phone to call my parents. My father picked up promptly, told me he couldn’t talk to me, then asked where I was. I hung up. That had been foolish. Now they could figure out where we were. Very dangerous. There were stories at Desisto of parents hiring bounty hunters to retrieve their runaway children. 

I panicked. As soon as I hung up the phone rang and I knew it was my father calling back. I had fucked up what could have been a comfortable couple of days and I knew it but my heart hurt so badly that  I couldn’t help but try. I basically ran out the door, fumbling an excuse with SK in tow, something about buying cigarettes. We ran through the streets frantically hailing a ride from another kind soul who took us several miles and then gave us all the change in his car. It was enough to buy us each a ticket to Albany. We spent hours in a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street from a station, each of us drinking endlessly from our sad cups of coffee, waiting for the bus to arrive. 

We were deposited at the Greyhound station and into the frigid morning. The possibility that I could die of cold this winter. I carried a piece of paper on me. On it was my name and my family’s phone number. I felt that this would allow whatever agency discovered my corpse on a city street to identify me. I didn’t want to die anonymously, unmoored and unremembered. If there was someone left to mourn my passing than I was still someone. 

The city was cold. The air was dry. Wherever we were in Albany was a desolation and the men’s shelter was the center of it. It was a soup kitchen that allowed dozens of us to sleep on mats on the floor. I slept with my boots as pillows. The air smelled of clothes that got wet and never dried and of feet. In the morning we were given stale donuts and pushed out the door. I’ve come to learn that this is standard practice in homeless shelters. If you’re lucky they will allow you to ride out the freezing night but when the sun rises you are dismissed from their presence to while away the hours of discomfort and boredom.  

SK and I had serious logistical problems. We had no ID of any kind. Neither of us knew our social security numbers. The shelter was requiring us to furnish some proof of our identity and we were using fake names. We couldn’t trust our parents not to sell us out to the school. We were both aware that a return to Desisto would result in a period of psychological torture in which we were ‘cornered’, ‘sheeted’ and ‘farmed’.  

In the absence of any actionable path to identification we sat at the library with the other homeless men while nights on the street barreled down upon us. We all scattered throughout the building and hid among the stacks in an effort to avoid attention. I read childhood favorites, even stole a paperback to bring back to the shelter and read in the dim light that never went out in that sad place.  

In the morning the director of the mission said that we couldn’t stay there if they couldn’t identify us. But if we joined the biblical recovery program that they ran we could guarantee ourselves a place on the floor and food in the evening. Stupidly we said that we were atheists. We hadn’t yet learned that conviction wasn’t worth dying for. He became angry and cast us out, disdain on his face. 

SK and I had a disagreement. He wanted to move on. I didn’t know where we’d be moving on to. I was holding out for a friend of a friend who was attending SUNY Albany, a guy in a band who was originally from Long Island. I thought there would be enough solidarity amongst punk rockers to guarantee us a place to stay, maybe even a weekend drive downstate. I called him time and again, wasting valuable change on a hopeless chance. I didn’t consider how he would be placing his own housing at risk or the spectrum of needs that I would present however much I might be unaware of them. 

Eventually SK ditched me. I understand why. I was trying to get home. He was trying to get free. I took a bus to the SUNY Albany campus. I rummaged through the garbage cans in the food court. There was very little to be had and so I walked outside into a driving cold winter rain that soaked me through. I found a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a bag on the ground, as unfortunate, lost and sodden as I was. I ate it without shame, with an almost religious reverence. Perhaps I wasn’t an atheist after all.  I could feel the shaking of hypoglycemia ease and I looked for a place to sleep that was sheltered from the rain. 

I slept under a loading dock that night. It was protected from the rain and hidden from casual glances. I hadn’t thought to gather newspapers to shove inside my clothes, which was a piece of street knowledge that I had been granted by one of the older men at the mission. I came to realize that it really helps to have a head start on having no place to live. Given a summer’s worth of planning, information and acquisition a person could better prepare for what is an inherently deadly situation. It occurred to me that I was fucked.

Over the course of my two weeks out of Desisto school I had waged a campaign of terror against my parents that was calculated and precise. There was an hour’s span of time between my sisters’ arrival home from school and my parents’ arrival home from work. I made sure to call during that time everyday. I would speak to both of my sisters and talk about how I was dying on the streets of a strange city, whipping them into a panicked frenzy that my parents’ would have to navigate. I thought I could wear down their resolve but they didn’t budge and for the most part wouldn’t speak to me at all. It was a return to Desisto school or nothing.   

After several nights spent sleeping on the SUNY Albany campus I had found a heating vent that was especially comfortable to sleep in front of and when night fell I would curl up there, hugging myself tightly. One night a campus police cruiser pulled in front of me and a lone cop emerged from the car. He asked me who I was and what I was doing there and I answered with relative honesty. I was homeless and wasn’t allowed to stay at the shelter anymore. No, I didn’t have any identification. 

That was all it took. He said he was detaining me on suspicion of solicitation. He thought I was a prostitute. I felt like I was probably due a shower if I was going to be selling my ass for money, but that did not change the state of affairs. He was going to transfer me to the custody of the city police. 

I waited in the back of the car behind the metal grating and luxuriated in warmth in a strange mixture of terror and comfort. It wasn’t long before the city police arrived and transferred me into their car. It was a different vibe. A male and female pig, paired up to retrieve a sad teenage runaway. They plied me with questions about my identity and I was fucking up my answers. After a few fails the male cop turned to look at me and told me that he was going to shoot me in the head and leave my body in a ditch if I didn’t tell him who I was. He seemed very sincere. I wished that our positions were reversed but shooting him in the head sounded too easy. 

I told them. Who I was, where I’d come from. They brought me to the station and told me they couldn’t hold me. I was ‘of age’ in New York and was as free to walk the street in search of pavement as anyone. And then they held me anyway, called my parents, and told me that I would stay handcuffed to a desk until a childhood friend of my father’s came from Woodstock to bring me back to Stockbridge, MA. I wanted to sleep but couldn’t. I knew what I was going back to. 

He arrived in the early hours of the morning and I was released from my handcuffs. I walked out of the station exhausted and got into the front seat of the car, the first time I’d ridden shotgun in many months. I fought sleep as he drove North. We talked about nothing of importance. Not about the school, not about my time on the street or why I ran. Certainly not about what I was in for when I returned. Mostly we talked about Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Contact with the founding document of AA was the only decent thing that had happened to me in my time at Desisto. In my first month, during endless questing for an avenue out of there, one of the sad and futile creatures on staff had told me that the best way to ‘graduate’ would be to address the problems that landed me there. Then they gave me the AA Big Book.

I dug into it, and though it had been written around 70 years earlier I experienced complete and utter identification with the experience described. I had never before known something true about myself. This knowing was hard, so hard that it filled me with regret, but this book explained in plain text an avenue out of the jails, institutions and death that had been the landscape of my future. I resolved to do as this seemingly ancient book said to the best of my ability. 

In the wonderful heat of my father’s friend’s car I plied him for information about how to be in AA. I hadn’t had any opportunity to meet someone in the program outside of the confines of the school. I have no recollection of what he said. It was very likely the garden variety suggestions that any program neophyte is given: Don’t drink and go to meetings; one day at a time; keep it simple stupid.

I told him that I hadn’t eaten for days and that it was likely that I would be punished in a number of ways, one of those being extreme dietary restrictions- could we please get something to eat? And so we did, at some diner somewhere, a place that might not exist anymore, swallowed up by a bourgeoisie renaissance or a post-2008 slide into rural decay. 

There isn’t a hint of recollection about what I ate besides french fries.I told him that I needed to use the bathroom. We were seated in the rear of the restaurant. I was facing the door, he was looking the other way. I walked outside and then ran through the parking lot and into the woods. I thought I heard him calling my name. 

My father’s friend is dead now, killed on an interstate off-ramp when he exited his vehicle, his body thrown or dragged or run down by some young man who ruined a slew of lives, his own included. I went to the funeral in the darkest days of my own life and I wondered why it had happened to him. And there’s no reason. There’s no reason for anything. 

I sat on a log in the woods. It was a warm day, steam rising off of melting snow. Then I walked in the woods along the road for a time until I came to a town. There was a library there, tiny, warm. The librarian said I could stay there even though I didn’t have a library card. I knew so little about how the world works. I read a book until I began to drift off to sleep, then stood and walked to the reference desk. I asked the librarian if she knew where there was a payphone and she directed me to a complex of medical offices nearby.

More walking, but things felt better here. It wasn’t Albany, full of towering concrete and hard living, a downtown denuded of residential life. There were families, children, people other than the desperate men for whom good luck was a thin mat on a hard floor. 

I remember clearly the hallway where I made my final call to my parents. It was a reckoning of sorts. I spoke to my mother, explained that I truly wanted to come home and be a part of normal life again and that I could place a guarantee on abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Otherwise it would be a matter of years before they heard from me again. She relented. My father was coming to pick me up.

I sat in that hallway for hours, not entirely trusting the arrangement. I smiled at the people who passed me by. I asked several if it was an alright place to wait for a ride and the kindly women would assure me that yes, I was okay where I was. Several times I nodded off. It was the safest I’d felt in weeks. When my father arrived from a four hour drive I wasn’t sure what to do. Hug him? Or run the fuck away? The latter didn’t happen and it is quite possible that the former didn’t either. It didn’t feel like a reunion. I was scared that it was a ruse.

I don’t recall him asking me anything much about where I’d been and what I’d done. These things were mostly boring anyway. I froze. I starved. My life was threatened. As far as I am aware these are the commonplace indignities that homeless people encounter. I was worse at it than I wished that I was. 

There was a moment of panic when he told me we were driving to Stockbridge to get my things. There was nothing in me that wanted to face the gaze of all those miserable people, and the nagging fear that I would be dropped off and left was raised and itchy. If I received any further indications that I would be an inmate of the Desisto School again I was prepared to jump from the car and run again. 

We arrived and parked near the mansion. I said I could not, would not exit the car. It loomed large in the turning of day to night. It looked abandoned. It looked haunted. The lights within were those of an ambush predator- come too close and you’ll be swallowed up. 

I sat in the car and the sleep that always pushed on me when I was warm returned. I snapped awake when my father returned. He wasn’t carrying anything. It was Desisto School policy that if a kid was on the run for more than 24 hours their things were donated to Goodwill. All my books, clothes and journals were either waiting to be sold at a thrift store or had been thrown out. I didn’t care. I wanted nothing of the taint of this place on me or in my life. My father seemed angry about it but he was angry much of the time anyway. 

There were two stops on the drive south. We spent the night at the house of the man I’d run from. He wasn’t petty about it. Maybe he understood. I’d spent so much time chewing on the message that I was an irredeemable piece of shit that I expected everyone I met to have heard this message and relayed it down the line. We ate pizza that night. I had three slices and felt fat, and it occurred to me that this was a message from Desisto School as well. They wanted waifish boys and girls who measured their portions of salad and turned their noses up at sugar and flour. 

The next morning we continued on our drive and my father unceremoniously announced that he was taking me to another boarding school. Just to look, to see if it was the right fit for me. I don’t know if he realized how damaged I was. Maybe he didn’t care. I don’t remember much of the place aside from it not looking like a prison and noting that students were allowed to walk alone and unsupervised on the grounds. I didn’t trust it and I didn’t trust him. I said I’d consider it but I’d already made a choice to avoid somewhere that seemed so well adjusted. I was tainted and spoiled and would stick out like a sore thumb in a place like this, a dark miasma crowning my head. 

We arrived at my family home as the sun was setting. My sisters had made a banner welcoming me home. My grandfather was there. All these people were assembled, not giving orders and expecting to love me as though I was the person that I used to be. I was safe, I was warm, and lonely in a way I couldn’t express.

The Desisto School Part I

At the age of 16 I was placed in a residential school for troubled kids that was later shuttered by the state of Massachussettes for neglect, child abuse and financial impropriety. You can locate the state’s complaint against the institution online, and though I am glad that the man who profited most from this institution is dead and gone there are former staff members out in the world who are irredeemable pieces of shit, first among them being the troglyditic Arizona sheriff Paul Babeau, a man who almost certainly had sex with one or more students while they were under his care.

Several organizations have designated it as a cult and I can’t say this wasn’t true. The founder of the school lived in a luxurious mansion where he was served extravagant breakfasts by the students who were most able to ingratiate themselves to him. The rest of us lived in dilapidated, freezing dorms and slept in 10×10 rooms in groups of four. If one of the bunkmates was considered a flight risk two of us would have to drag our mattresses onto the floor. One of us would sleep in front of the door and the other would sleep below the window which would be barricaded with portions of the bunk beds. I got used to the shaking of the bed while one of the other students masturbated.   

My arrival was traumatic. I had gone from punching my father in a drunken rage to sleeping in a sump to the back of a police car to the psychiatric emergency room of a hospital to this place. Upon my arrival they confiscated my clothes and rifled through my belongings. They took my books. The same for any cassettes or CD’s my mother had thoughtfully packed. They took all my medications. They would be administered by staff. This included a tube of ointment for the terrifying rash I had developed on my crotch from being a drunken runaway who pissed his pants and then lived in them. Later that day a grown woman would apply this to my perineum and penis. I was not allowed to touch it. 

I was bereft. I badly wanted to speak to my mother. I was told that I would be allowed to call my parents twice a month and that the phone call would be monitored by the staff. Any complaints about the conditions at the school would be considered to be emotionally unhealthy manipulation and would result in punishment. I was told that I could write to them as I pleased but that any and all correspondence coming into or out of the school would be subject to the same rules and oversight. 

I felt profoundly unwell. Nicotine withdrawal isn’t pleasant and neither is withdrawal from caffeine. I don’t think I had been drinking long enough and hard enough to be physically dependent but I could certainly be wrong. The school cared nothing for this. When I woke from a fitful sleep to my second day in this place I sat at the breakfast table with approximately 20 strangers and ate nothing. How could I? What little remained of me after two years of alcohol fueled trauma had been removed from its environment and placed in an impossible situation. 

I say impossible because my efforts to obtain information about this place and how it ran were frighteningly effusive and I began to realize that there was an expectation that I stay in this place for as long as it took for me to get well. When I tried to parse out what exactly ‘well’ meant I was met with extremely vague answers until I realized that they themselves didn’t know. It was all up to the man in the mansion’s arbitrary whims which were no doubt heavily informed by his love of money. 

We painted his house that summer. In fact we were called ‘zen painters’. The idea was that the labor of painting could be viewed as a type of meditation that would be transformative to those of doing the work. There was even a little butterfly included in the pamphlets. Everything was Zen here. There was a transparent and gross sexual division of labor, and so the young women were called Zen gardeners. The older students who were able to kiss the right asses were called Zen waiters.

This was obviously a bunch of bullshit. We were not trained in any mindfulness techniques, we did not have the concept of Zen explained to us and we did not have any encounters with the luminaries of Zen Buddhism. This was a marketing ploy to appeal to the forward thinking parents desperate to convince themselves that they had done the right thing for their child, so this is what we were called as we labored in direct sunlight with no glasses, no sunscreen and little water.   

I played the game as best I could. I thought this was my clearest trajectory out. I worked hard, was cloyingly polite and desperately constructive with my criticisms in the nightly ‘encounter groups’ in which we accused one another of petty infractions of rules, of emotionally unhealthy behavior or of slacking as we performed the forced unpaid work that no one thought to call slavery. 

After approximately a month of tears and panic I began to see how the game was run and I began to perform the role of a well-adjusted Desisto School student. I knew who to single out. I participated in just the right amount of verbal bullying to not get bullied myself and I kept my communication with my parents on a very surface level. I wanted to see them and talk to them and if the cost was being dishonest, of not talking about the kid who almost died of lithium poisoning and dehydration, or the girl who had a sexual relationship with a 40 year old teacher, or the building that they called ‘the farm’ then so be it. 

As with the actual plants in soil type of farm, at Desisto it was both a noun and a past-tense verb. The farm itself was a one room brick building with a bathroom. Kids were sent there for the most serious infractions, all of which amounted to running away or making plans to do so. Allegedly there were other infractions that could get you placed there, but overwhelmingly it was a punitive measure to discourage flight. 

Rumors about what happened to you when you were sent to the farm were manifold- that you were only allowed to eat puffed rice and skim milk, that you wore no underwear under the Dickies suit you were forced to wear, that you could only use the bathroom once a day so that you inevitably were sitting in your own urine- but they all agreed on a single point: That until you confessed to the staff member watching over you an exact and detailed list of your transgressions leading up to and during your escape you would sit in a hardback chair with your knees touching a wall, a position that you were not permitted to move from. No reading, no writing, no talking to the staff. As with any cult there was an appropriation of language: You were ‘cornered’ or ‘chained’ or ‘sheeted’ or subject to a ‘limit structure’ which were all codewords for humiliating psychological torture. Someone who was ‘farmed’ was not to be spoken to on the rare occasions when necessity dictated that they leave their personal hell. 

The threat of ending up on the farm was a relatively successful though unimaginative form of torture that scared most of us away from any form of escape that wasn’t into our own minds. It strikes me now, 23 years later, that had there been even the slightest introduction to the ‘Zen’ motif that the sadistic pedophile who ran the school liked to pepper our forced labor with that we may have been better able to endure the farm, to find some peace in the petty and controlling nightmare he had devised. But we were not so lucky. 

There was a silly hierarchy that all of us were placed into that was reflected in the dorm to which we were assigned and our position within that dorm. The most recent arrivals were ‘New Boys/Girls’. If you abided by the arbitrary and mercurial rules you would be redesignated as an ‘Alternative Boy/Girl’. From there it was a long grind to the status of ‘Steward’, which conferred upon you both the privilege of living in the mansion and the responsibility of making the lives of those below you more terrible. Steward’s were entrusted with the sacrosanct task of nit-picking every aspect of their underlings behavior and given that they were no more than 18 themselves they could be remarkably petty, a tendency that the rules allowed them to run wild with. 

At Desisto School all the internees with the exception of the stewards had to be no more than one arm’s length away from another student and we were required to travel in groups of three. This was called ‘spacing’ and it was as difficult to execute as it sounds. We were expected to adhere to this at all times which made the need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night a delicate negotiation, as the entire room would need to accompany whoever was unfortunate enough to be the first to give into the need.  

While any fair-minded person would be frustrated at the thought of adjudicating departures from this practice the Stewards were generally not fair-minded. This might have simply been an outcome of giving 17 and 18 year-olds the right to declare people in violation of rules and then patting them on the head for doing so. It also might be the case that these kids were taught over the course of several years that their own welfare depended on a willingness to step on the heads of those who were below them on the ladder. Or it might be that only a sociopath can thrive in this sort of environment. 

My mood has always existed in a quantum state. I present whatever face seems most advantageous depending on the party observing. I can pass from rage to depression to completely impartial practicality if positioned at the center of a circle of three and made to spin. This was helpful to me in my time at Desisto School. While all these emotional states existed at the same time the one that was given voice in this place was always practicality and this was enough to barely get me up the ladder. I ‘spun’ (another puzzling use of words) into the Alt-boys dorm and after not too long I was the ‘Dorm Leader’, a shitty job in which you were tasked with the responsibility of issuing commands in the daily cleanings and weekend ‘super cleaning’ of our living space. As well, as a dorm leader you needed to use a stopwatch in the shower to enforce the unbreakable and unquestioned tyranny of time. We were permitted thirty second group showers in the morning. 

Our bowel movements were monitored as well and I am proud to say that I drew a line on this issue.. While the unpredictable temperament of urine was spared the clock, shitting was another thing entirely. As everyone knows, there is nothing quite like a leisurely sit on a porcelain bowl. With the knowledge that the toilet stall was an invitation to indolence we were permitted no more than 2.5 minutes in which to defecate.  This had two outcomes as far as I was able to gauge: You either left the stall with a shitty ass or you mastered the art of the clean drop at the expense of hemorrhoids. I was more inclined to the latter. The fact is that getting a turd out of your asshole with only blood on the paper requires a kind of full-bodied approach in which you spread your asscheeks as far apart as possible and sit on the seat so that it pulls you even further apart. From there it is a matter of expediency, of forcing the feces out as fast as possible so that it made no contact with the rest of your ass. 

I oversaw all these things, these petty and fascistic rules that institutions of social control need to exercise. They serve as a kind of thermometer in the turkey of defeat. If the trains are running on time and so on. Of course there was always trouble brewing- another hallmark of petty authoritarianism is the need for an enemy and at Desisto School the enemy was within. While students fleeing the school was never a regular occurrence it did happen periodically and for this I felt both envy and relief that I was not the only one who wanted to get as far away from here as possible. A boy named SK was at once the best and worst at running away ended up in our dorm. While I can’t recollect how many times he had successfully made it off the campus it was enough to summon a deep feeling of respect for him. But whatever the number of successful departures he inevitably arrived back at the school. This is because he wanted to be loved by his parents and live with his family and they refused to have any contact with him, having greedily drank from the Kool-Aid of this ridiculous place. 

As part of a young person’s residence at the school (and I use the term ‘school’ loosely as I attended perhaps a week of classroom instruction while there) the parent’s were expected to attend monthly meetings in which Michael Desisto himself appeared to harangue our moms and dads about how deeply manipulated they had been by their children and how this was indicative of the codependent love that was actively destroying their family. On the whole I think my father was far more taken in by this amateurish psychobabble than my mother but nevertheless the months stretched on. I think this might have been where Michael Desisto accomplished a measure of control that many cults aspire to. 

There were tremendous dividends to having these meetings. It allowed the parents to imagine that not only were they healing their children, they were healing themselves. And thus was fealty pledged to a shitty little empire ruled by decree of a greedy old man who exercised absolute control over a fiefdom of children engaged in a constant circular firing squad. If a student ran away their parents were supposed to cease all contact and refuse to take calls and to contact all their friends’ parents and the whole extended family and demand that they not provide to their children so much as a porch to crawl under and die. 

Obviously this poses a serious danger to the young person. How would a kid, displaced and likely to be unfamiliar with how to access social services survive outside whatever bureaucratic channels runaway and homeless youth are able to access? In SK’s case the answer was getting drunk enough to deal with the realities of trading sex for food and shelter and then doing just that. But he always came back, and I don’t know whether that was the pain of being completely cut-off from his family or a simple need for stability. 

No matter the case I respected him. I was so dedicated to leaving this place through the front door that I hadn’t considered the rear. I knew there were deficits in my knowledge of the geographic locale- I had only been off-campus once in the time I was there. As well, I had no real ability to survive, only an ability to endure. Endurance can take you very far but if you don’t get the hang of survival you’re fucked.