The Reading

I was ready for my reading. The first of its kind was to take place before a private little gathering in a semi-lit room, with an overhead projector not working because my friend, a confirmed techno-specialist, didn’t have the right cord to fit my computer, my less-than-a-year old computer. We could head down to the Radio Shack to get the VRG-DHR cord (I don’t know—I can’t remember its actual name) cord that we needed, he offered with enthusiasm.

“Forget it,” I said with mine draining from me.

Whenever I invite friends or family to show up for me, whether it’s for a public event or not, I find that I have to fight impulses towards the negative: a sour, ill-humored cloud that creeps over me, threatening to douse energy and kill joy at the first sign of a setback. It wasn’t so much that I needed the damn laptop presentation anyway. It was leftover from the workshop I’d given six months ago, and was a supplement to a reading of about half a dozen passages from my non-fiction, Working Through Rehab, which I am occasionally hawking to would-be readers through…anyway, I didn’t need the laptop. That was the point. So I had to coach myself to breathe, or more specifically, to issue forth a gust of breath that would dislodge the wad of resistance that would soon form a mass and block my voice. I had to, as they say, get over it. “Whatever,” I said aloud to no one, dismissing early interpretations: that this was a harbinger; a symbolic alert, signaling me to stop what I was doing, sneak out the back door, leaving a note with apologies for everyone’s inconvenience. For the next few minutes, the lull prior to my beginning, I fought gravity’s tug upon my lips, that smile that was turning upside down. People started to arrive, greeting me with pleasure, eager to support this writing thing I did on the side.

“How’re you doin’?” asked my best friend, seeing a cloud over my face.

“Nervous,” I said.

“Drink water,” he advised.

I did. Throughout the talk, whenever I paused to field a question or a comment, I stole a sip from my bottle, and felt buoyant, if nearly drowned after an hour. There weren’t many there—maybe a dozen people, total. But it wasn’t so much how many were there, or even the fact that I was speaking before an audience, sharing passages from my book, and breaking to make comments in between. It was the who that mattered. Speaking to family, friends, plus a crossover of collegial knowing, I imagined deeper judgments, more fraught investment, and a more rigorous, concerned critique: speak louder, someone whispered ironically after five minutes. “You should look at your audience more”, someone else remarked afterwards. I nodded politely and took it in. How do I do that and read? I thought churlishly. The positives made it through the blockade, however. Gathered around me in a circle, the assembled uttered their “good job” pronouncements, their gentle congratulations and other good wishes. One person left early, without comment, which nagged at me for the rest of the evening. “Sorry I had to go,” he texted later. “Had to pick up my kid. Good job.”

You’d think the event was about me, and it was. The book is about drugs, adolescents, their parents, and the people who work with those suffering from drug abuse and addiction. If you check out the image which is the cover of the book, take note of its artful rendition of drug treatment, milieu therapy, and community mental health. Up front there’s me, the author, sat on a time-out device, having left the field, but now raising a thumb in accordance with an old protocol of rehab expression, indicating that I have something to say. To my left is a doctor, or psychiatrist, holding a clipboard, observing from an aloof position the goings on, wondering what prescription(s) may be best. Over my right shoulder, there’s an officious-looking floor counselor, a fledgling member of the mental health army, not yet working with kids in the manner of his/her choosing, monitoring an affectless, acting out, poorly attached and difficult young person who will nonetheless touch hearts. With his back to all of this is a man busy at a console, producing a report, maybe of numbers. But he’s not an accountant. He’s a therapist, or a case manager, as they are euphemistically called in such places. Tellingly, his back is to the scene, thought it’s not by choice. It’s by necessity. This is the business of mental health that I’m talking about, and writing about, and reading aloud. In public.

Meanwhile, that review came, the one I moaned about in my last entry: it arrived finally, and it was pretty good, sort of. The reviewer read between the lines, observed the melancholy, and something of the humor. He or she (it’s not clear) wrote that I was cynical and bitter, though the comment was not a complaint necessarily. This reminds me of something I heard recently and have recycled for patients: if you don’t complain how do you know there’s pain? I don’t mean it to sound like a rap, but there is pain. That’s the melancholy truth of Working Through Rehab. From my point of view and that of other veterans of drug treatment, there isn’t a happy plan in place for the consumer; no all-conquering model for the professional to embrace. Once, there was a working idea: treat the adolescent more or less as an adult, and certainly as an addict. Operate as if a compulsive pattern has gained a foothold, and that strategies for using other human beings in a human way were profoundly offline. Those who thought this weren’t wrong, and most agree the attachment disorders of those in treatment seem pervasive. But disagreements abound as to solutions. Containing the drug user’s behavior is one thing; aiming for motivation, and assessing capacities are the other great tasks, and this is where drug treatment with adolescents–with everyone, frankly–has gotten tricky.

Why? Because increasingly, kids, old and young, think that using drugs, sex, video games, and cell phones are acceptable tools for soothing the attachment disorders which they may agree are present and ongoing. Don’t see this? At least as far as drugs are concerned, read the latest statistics released by The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) about the opinions of high school seniors. Only 16% consider that use of drugs constitutes an unhealthy risk, compared to 27% who thought this just five years ago. Wake up: self medication is being normalized. This is why treatment centers like Thunder Road are at risk of being closed down; it’s why places like it have already closed down, and why public officials are reaching out to the media, bemoaning the impending lack of options for at risk youth. It’s why drug treatment as it once was may be a thing of the past, except for the wealthy. It’s one of the reasons my book is a little melancholy, and just one of the reasons my reading of it might stir the nerves.

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