Alternate Histories: 5/8, 6/8


I’m a counselor myself for teenagers with addictions, and I’m concerned that my kids aren’t improving.

What are the things that get in the way of their improving?

Lack of motivation, peer pressure–and they’re at a time in their life when life isn’t too serious. It’s just the arrested development, the developmental stage of being an adolescent. Impulsivity, immaturity.

What helps people become mature?

Age. Experience–for some of them, dire and serious experiences. In my community, those who are incarcerated, for example, are at the extreme end of the bell-shaped curve. That’s not the norm.

You’ve talked a lot about what’s inside them, and about doing the work on what’s inside them, that they can control. But what about the stuff outside them that they can’t control might be getting in their way when they try to make those changes?

Oh, we can talk about poverty, we can talk about gangs. The addiction itself is a barrier. Are you saying we should work on changing those things?

I guess I’m asking about this because, if someone is sinking in quicksand, you can tell them what to do to keep themselves from making their situation worse, like don’t thrash around, spread your body out, but it also helps if you can get them a tree branch to hold onto. So what could be the tree branch?

I don’t know if there is a tree branch.



The next day, F called in sick to work and cancelled all his appointments. He drove to the park on Congdon Street, where he could look out over the city. He wore his work suit in hopes that no one would ask him what he was doing there.

F thought about the bitterness, the violence, the disgust he had not allowed into his voice when he said, “Are you saying we should work on changing those things?”

He invited all the words he had practiced never saying–never saying to his clients, never saying to his white colleagues, never saying to his white teachers, never saying to his parents even–into his mouth. They weighed on his tongue, pressed against the back of his teeth and lips. They tasted stale. He looked at the big, beluga-colored statue of Roger Williams, hands stretched out and pressing down the air over the city.

He felt what was inside his clients and himself, and what was outside them, exerting pressure on their meat and ribs and organs. F thought, I am alone with this feeling, even as he remembered that wasn’t true.

He thought, I can’t do it without them. Although his heart sank when he imagined changing the story he had been telling his clients, his kids, and asking them to say back to him, it was a different kind of sinking, toward the bottom of the wound, where the platelets start to knit themselves together.


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