In the morning, Monday, I saw another kid, a kid of indeterminate gender, in CPEP. The kid was skinny, about a hundred pounds and five-foot-three-inches tall, with scraps of red hair visible under a black headscarf. The kid was wearing some black clothes, gang colors, and had a stud in one pierced ear, and a medical wrapping on the right wrist. The kid had TOUGH written all over—a street-kid full of fire and defiance.
Eddie and the kid were sitting at the table and Eddie, four times the size of the kid, was badgering the kid into arm-wrestling with him. The kid was not some suburban teenager putting up a tough front. This truly was a tough kid and the kid nearly took on Eddie, despite the wrist being wrapped. In the end, the kid dropped it, but Eddie didn’t. No staff were around.
Eddie was taunting the kid. The kid spun on him, violent fire, and yelled at him, “MY MOM’S DEAD! DON’T TALK ABOUT HER THAT WAY! MY MOM’S DEAD!”
I got with the kid and asked for a name. “Tam,” was the answer. “Tammy. My mom named me Tamantha.” Tam tells a standard story for a kid in psychiatric care, a story about unmarried parents from different cultures or races, siblings and half-siblings kicked from parent to parent to grandparent to foster care to group homes—except that Tam and her brother are not in a group home. They live on the streets, sleep in doorways or stairways. Tam hurt her wrist when she fell down one of these stairways running from someone. Tam is seventeen, and trying to raise her kid brother as her father told her to before he died or disappeared.
Tam is waiting for the CPEP breakfast—coffee and juice, bagels and cereal. She accepts my offer to spread the cream cheese on her bagel when it comes out of the toaster. We are sitting with Al in the tiny alcove that is crammed with a television, two loveseats and two chairs. I say something to Tam, using the word “fuck.” She flies in fury at me—I am not to use curse words with her! Despite her bandaged wrist, she won’t let me help her with her bagel. I have lost the right to participate in her life; she will be treated with respect!
I pause, humbled, trying to think why I used the word “fuck” with her. “Tam,” I say quietly, “I was talking with Al, and I just fell into using the language he uses. I’m sorry.” I turn to Al and tell him we will both mind our manners better now. Tam is less hostile, but not forgiving. In her world, you do not trust strangers regardless of polite words, but she knows Al from the streets and guesses I might be making sense.
Later, I am elsewhere. Tam is next to the television and Eddie is blocking her exit from the alcove. He is harassing her, as he did me the day before.
There is one round table, large enough for four people, in CPEP. Seated there are Eddie, the Stupid Woman and I. The Stupid Woman, maybe named Dianna, has been married twenty-five years. She and her husband got drunk and had a fight. He tore the phone out of the wall; she did some clinically minor cutting on her wrists. They live out of the city; a state trooper brought her into CPEP. Now she is sober, has bad breath, and no makeup—and has just begun to realize how really stupid she is.
I coach her for the psychiatric interview she will have to go through in order to get out of CPEP.
“Have you ever been in the mental health system before?”
“That’s good; that’ll help. You’ll have to convince them that you’re neither suicidal nor homicidal—are you gonna try to hurt yourself again, or go after your husband?”
“You got any kids?”
Yes, some grown and away from home, a sixteen-year-old at home.
“That’s bad. You’re putting a minor at risk. You’ve gotta deal with that.” I run the standard interview questions for her, ending with questions about what she will do next.
She says she’ll call her husband to come get her. I tell her that her best bet is to go stay with one of her adult kids for a few days while things calm down, then get into therapy. I don’t care what her issues are; if she wants out of CPEP, she’s got to make a serious commitment to marital counseling with her husband to break this dangerous cycle. Every time she complains about not having a comb, or looks upset about her surroundings, I cheerfully remind her that she got herself into this mess by doing something really stupid. (To be continued)