The young man reads his hastily scrawled words from a spiral notebook. He has soulful eyes, a short, hard body, and bad teeth. In his story he is high and drunk and stealing and crashing two trucks. While he reads he reaches beneath the table to pet Strawberry, the lab mix therapy dog curled up at his feet.
“I was scared and went to the only safe place I could think of—my grandmother’s house,” he reads. “It was there I was arrested for the theft of two vehicles and DUI and a bunch of other stuff I was too messed up to hear.”
The writing prompt I’d asked him to incorporate into his story: “grandmother’s house.” Is that how you would have used it? Not me.
But this is not my milieu. This young man is now out of prison and doing a stint at the Canton-Potsdam Chemical Dependency Unit in Potsdam, NY, where yesterday I gave my “Healing Through Writing” workshop. Previously I’ve given this workshop at libraries and writers’ groups and bereavement groups. None of which bandied about words like: Addiction. Prison. Court-ordered rehab. Heroin. Cocaine. Relapse. Escape.
I tried to pretend this was just another workshop. "Healing Through Writing" has always worked its magic before, and I prayed it would do so again. But somewhere deep inside I felt I was crossing enemy lines. For a good eight years after my first husband Ron committed suicide, I’d explain gently to my children (and anyone else who would ask) that Daddy was sick with a disease that had eaten him up from the inside out. I was speaking from my head, through the filter of obtained knowledge. Even my heart wanted to jump on board. But inside my muscles and bones, I held tight to my anger that he would choose alcohol over our children and me. I released that anger, slowly, through my writing.
In any other setting, I would have been afraid of this young man, who told me he writes so that he won’t beat up on people with his fists. Except here in Potsdam workshop, there's a difference: during the break he came up to show me his poetry. It contained sweet, sensitive, insightful musings on life and death—the same kind of stuff I like to write about. I told him his writing moved me. "You have to do something to pass the time in prison," he said, telling me that when he wasn't writing he was reading and re-reading books obtained through the black market.
He told me he writes as if speaking to his best friend, who was killed in a car crash by an erratic driver three years ago. The young man was to pick up his friend that night; instead, he went to get high. This odd fact may have saved his life, and he has some survivor guilt. “But he’s always with me,” the young man said. He shyly rotated his forearm to show me his friend’s name, tattooed on the white vulnerable skin of his forearm.
I asked him if he had hope. Without missing a beat, he said, “Every day. And I’m going to work on my poetry even more when I get to the halfway house.”
Everyone has a story, and if willing to share it, you can find common ground. That’s what I love about these workshops.
I’ll share more about this amazing experience in my next post. For now, I’ll leave you with this:
Maybe Google knew something I didn’t. Maybe I was right where I belonged.