I’m speechless. I feel helpless. What do I do?
I’ve been working with this client for the better half of a year, and never did I think it would come to this. Never did he think it would come to this. But he was always cautiously optimistic. Perhaps I should’ve been too. Despite all of the positive thinking I had about this situation, never in a million years did I think he’d be facing what he is.
What a tragedy. What a loss. And not just on a personal level. Sure, I have loved seeing him in therapy as he has been one of my favorites. One of those, when I see him on my schedule, there’s just a brighter spot in my day because I know how much he values therapy and enjoys coming in to get things off of his chest. Now, some people may say they don’t have favorites, but let’s just be honest. That’s not true. And if you don’t, I either a) envy you that you have a caseload full of all your favorites; or b) feel bad for you because you don’t like any of your clients.
I digress. I was talking about what a loss and tragedy this entire situation is. Here you have a young man ready to start his life, just starting his life. He had a wife, a dream job he had always wanted working with kids in the school system. Coaching really was his passion, teaching was a means to get there. And now all of that is gone.
It has been four years since the ordeal began. It started with an accusal. That resulted in an investigation, followed by freedom; followed by his home being ransacked by the police; being taken into custody for several months with no evidence of any wrongdoing; followed by ‘freedom’ in the form of being able to live at home with a ankle monitoring system; followed by his spouse leaving him due to the trauma of the entire situation; followed by ultimately, him going to jail for a minimum of 10 years.
Now before I go into more depth about how we even got to that point, let me discuss how he even came to me. Let’s rewind back to the day when his mom called. She was terrified for her son, felt helpless for the state of mind he was in, and reaching out to a mental health professional to help him through whatever he was going through was the only thing, in fact, the last thing she could think of. If she wasn’t crying when she called, she certainly had sadness, hurt, pain, and confusion in her voice. And fortunately at that time, I could get him into therapy in the next week.
He came in. He was a grown man, older than I suspected since his mom was the one who called. But he also wasn’t the first who came into my office this exact same way – a mom calling to get her adult son help due to being in the legal system now. And the theme for both was that the sons would never seek therapy before this, but were both open to it due to needing a sense of hope in their lives. This was no different.
He sat on my couch and immediately declared “this is not me. I would never be in therapy and talk to someone about what’s going on with me. But I don’t know what else to do and I need someone to talk to.” I heard him, thanked him for his honesty. I saw the pain, fear, and most importantly, exhaustion written all over his face. At that point, he had been in the ‘system’ for over three years.
He next stated that he vowed to be “open and honest,” because that was the only way he knew he could help himself through this taxing situation. He stated that whatever interventions, techniques, tools I used, he was fair game to any of them. I thanked him for his vulnerability. He was desperate to feel something, well, different.
What was so different about coming in to therapy for him was that he initially began coping with the stress of everything through drug usage. That was the only way he could get to sleep at night as he grappled with the ‘what if’s’ of how this case could end up for him. That was also the only way he could numb himself to all of the confusion and betrayal he felt. Betrayal by the parent who initially accused him of wrongdoing; betrayal by this system that he thought was designed to protect one’s innocence before calling them guilty prior to any sort of trial. And then one day, after being confronted by his wife about his drug usage, he discontinued. Stopped. Went cold turkey.
That was the person I was dealing with. Someone who, once he put his mind to something, would commit and follow through. And that’s the person I was seeing in therapy – he was always there for his appointment times on time, and if there was an inkling that he may be late or have to miss for unforeseen circumstances, would let me know way in advance and with ample warning.
I introduced him to such modalities as EFT/tapping, meditation, mindfulness, amongst other things. And all of these he soaked up, used, applied, and would come back and report on the impact of them on his functioning – both in and outside of the therapy room. I gave him books to read, and he would pick out the nuggets of wisdom and helpfulness he could from these, and then bring the book back. He was forever grateful and thankful for our work together, mainly because it gave him an outlet to express his many worries, concerns instead of being imprisoned to his home for fear of being seen out in public, let alone, for fear of violating his ankle monitoring bracelet and thus appearing to be in direct defiance of a judge’s and court’s order.
The last day I saw this young man in my office was actually not for a planned session. Rather, it was to have him sign a release of information giving me permission to talk to his parents while he is incarcerated in order to first and foremost, get any relevant updates on how he is doing, where he is, and what they are doing to help him through this ordeal.
He also gave me permission to talk about him – whether to the public, media, lawyers, in a book or blog – whatever way I can to spread the word about his case and how this system is designed to break people down to the point of exhaustion, until they simply give in to the lesser of evil options they are often given. Sure, he could’ve gone to trial, but after extensive advice from his lawyer, it appeared as though even if he were proven innocent or 74 of the 75 charges, he still could have ended up with a 25-30 year sentence. To quote him, “How can you risk 30 years of life when you know you’re innocent?” A plea deal is often the only choice some are left with.
What was amazing about this last meeting, which lasted about an hour, was that his attitude was one in which he consistently expressed that he is trying to understand that he is going through this situation for a reason. While he doesn’t fully understand it, he does know that he is here to help others. Even if nothing is done for his own case and freedom, he would like to help others who may not have the same voice or platform as he does, being a white male coming from a family of privilege and money.
When he was locked up for six months prior to us meeting, he spoke about the people he met in jail during that time. They were good people, mostly there because they didn’t have to the money to post bail. They were simply too poor to play along in this system and be afforded (pun intended) the luxuries that those with money are.
At some point during this last meeting, he became excited and energized. Not because of where he was going in three days. No. It was because of the serendipities of how we even met. Being a man of faith and belief (though it waxed and waned during this time period, understandably so), he was beginning to realize that we were brought together for a reason. The timing of everything. How his mom found out about me. How I had room on my schedule to see him. How I simultaneously while seeing him had someone else on my caseload going through a very similar situation. How I have an interest in working with the prison population, and how I have already worked with adjudicated youth in the past. How I have been impacted by someone currently in the prison system, and how I have gone through the process of forgiveness by talking to the man who murdered my sister. How I have a friend in DC who is a lawyer (public defender) and we’ve spoken for a while now about doing a book together talking about the legal system and psychology somehow, someway.
He was blown away. His mind began racing. So did mine. I told him about a book I read written from two perspectives. One was that of a young man diagnosed with schizophrenia at young age, dealing with how that mental illness impacts him on a regular basis. The other part of the book is written from the point of view of his father, seeing his son go through this mental illness, and all the ups and downs it entails. Every other chapter was from each of their perspectives. I posed the idea that we may even write a book utilizing that same format. He wants to do so.
There really are a lot of options and opportunities to spread the word and let his story be heard. But first and foremost, it’s about highlighting how our legal system is deeply flawed, and how it has a real, tangible impact on not only the person in the system, but their entire families.
His entire family is split. Cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, and even his spouse – people with whom he was once close, now have separated themselves from him, and him from them for fear of how they may now perceive him.
Is a period of four years really fulfilling his right to a ‘fair and speedy trial?’ I think not. If those who prosecute people would ever have a family member of their own in the system, would they be ok with that time frame? I highly doubt it.
It also brings up the fact that this is about appearances, politically at least. It is an election season. Perhaps local politicians want to look tough on crime. So what better way than to make an example of someone who has been accused of something where there is nothing more than circumstantial evidence. It really is troubling to think that some politicians will do whatever they can to uphold a certain image to their constituents. And their constituents often buy into the optics without ever truly knowing the full story.
I had a nightmare about my client the day I had to say goodbye to him. I worry about him and his safety. I worry about his persistence, his resilience, his strength and fortitude. I know who he is at his core, and understand that he possesses all of these traits and factors. However, I don’t know what jail does to someone. I don’t know how it can break them down. But I have heard stories. I have seen stories. Kalief Browder’s story stands out as one of them. One’s psyche can only take so much before crumbling. Yet it is my hope that he holds on until he can get out and talk about his story. It needs to be heard. We need to bring these darknesses to light so that we can begin to deal with them properly and appropriately.
The meeting ended by us first reaching to shake hands like we would normally do at the beginning and end of each session. But both of us realizing the bond that had been created through this hardship, we immediately embraced each other in a hug. It reminded me of when I met with Kevin, the man who murdered my sister. When we wrapped up our meeting, I didn’t know if I’d shake his hand, hug him, or do nothing. Well, after seeing my mom go in for the hug, I did too. We connected on a very different level. On a human level. There were no more labels. Just people relating to each other as, well, people. And that’s how I felt with this client. It was no longer me as the psychologist and him as the client. It was two people who have grown to get to know each other over the course of several months; two people who have learned from each other; and two people who saw and felt hurt, pain, sadness and helplessness; and at the same time, two people who, if just for a minute, are holding out hope for a better and brighter future.