Therapeutic Reflections of a Former Gang Member

Therapeutic Reflections of a Former Gang Member

by Steve Alexander, Jr.
Learn from a former gang member, now therapist, how to capitalize on hard-learned life lessons.

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A Special Niche

“What population do you work with?” is a question that often induces mild anxiety in me. It seems like a convenient excuse for therapists to exclude groups that they don't enjoy working with. As an example, I have heard several clinicians state that they refuse to treat people with personality disorders. While we have a right to choose (no one wants to be miserable at work), I think this attitude alienates those who may need our help most.

“Blasphemy!,” you might cry out, “We can't be everything to everyone.” I understand. However, I got into this profession to help people. I try my best to accept people unless I believe I am unable to help from an ethical standpoint. There is something to be said about advanced training for more complex disorders. Even so, I believe that the therapeutic alliance is what matters most.

I believe that the therapeutic alliance is what matters most
To tackle my resistance to the above question, I took a deeper look at my work over the past few years and came to realize that there is no specific population I focus on. Between private practice and a local outpatient clinic, I see clients ranging in age from five to 82 who have disorders across the mental health spectrum. If I were forced into choosing a specialty, however, it would be gang-affiliated children. I have been working with self-reported gang members since 2017, and even co-founded a clinical think tank to address their mental health needs.

another layer of complexity is that I, too, identify as a former gang member
Despite running the think tank and conducting individual psychotherapy with this population, I don't consider it a niche. Instead, I view it as working with children who struggle with a wide variety of mental health challenges—especially trauma. However, admittedly, there is a part of me that may be failing to fully “claim” this population because of its associated stigma. Therapists often mention “I don't work with those people,” or “that's not my cup of tea,” when I share my work in this area. I also sometimes get reactions from them that appear to fetishize violence. It causes me to feel alone and ashamed.

While working with gang members may not sound appealing, it has been very meaningful for me. I credit my work with these clients as the reason for most of my clinical competency. Working with children is not easy in its own right, but working with children who are marginalized due to their gang status poses an even greater challenge. Another layer of complexity is that I, too, identify as a former gang member.

I Was a Gang Member

There is a common assumption that I might have more in common with these clients than other therapists. Sometimes this is the case, but often it is not. In fact, very few of my clients are aware of my former status. Though I am a big proponent of self-disclosure when it is useful, I rarely feel the need to disclose. The main reason is that most of what they bring to sessions are age-appropriate stressors just like other children’s: video games, struggles with parents, relationship issues. Their gang membership often comes up more as a cultural identity than an area of focus. Perhaps there could also be a small part of me that does not consider myself a “real” gang-member. After all, you can't Google what I was a part of, and it neither made the news nor even extended very far beyond my local neighborhood.

Nevertheless, my past affiliation as a member (and leader) helps me to understand some of the nuanced challenges that these children face. I have experienced them myself. There are systemic barriers that are next to impossible to overcome, such as racism, oppression, and self-hate. My clients also share complicated feelings that they grapple with, such as feeling unwanted, constant fear, and pressure. Further, there is often confusion about who they really are.

At school I was viewed as a “nice” and “honest” child who showed respect to adults and completed assignments on time. I also had a side of me that could be aggressive and intimidating when I wanted to be. Was I the aggressive kid that some of my friends knew me as? Was I the nice child that aimed to please all of his teachers? This schism resulted in frustration about who I was and how I presented myself to different groups of people. My clients struggle with the same plight.

there are some strong emotional needs that are met from being gang-affiliated
As I reflect on my personal experience in working with gang-affiliated clients, I often feel conflicted. I am cognizant of the ugly side of being in a gang. I am also aware of some of its benefits. This may sound distorted, but there are some strong emotional needs that are met from being gang-affiliated. For instance, I have not been able to replicate the sense of nurturance that I felt from knowing that there were multiple people willing to stand up for me at any given moment. My clients experience something similar.

I also learned leadership skills that I would later use to lead multiple organizations in the future. For example, there are ways to utilize your tone of voice to get almost any message across. I also learned the power of “the look”—a way of looking at people that makes them feel like they are the only person that matters in that moment. I would be negligent if I did not highlight some of these positive attributes. One of my clients recently told me that he watches for how people “squinch their eyes” to get a sense of who they are as a person. It took me back to my past as well.

The conflict continues. Do I act as a salesman who cleverly convinces these children to desist from gangs? The media and law enforcement would certainly suggest it. I know this is inappropriate. Gangs have been around forever, and they aren't going anywhere; they also aren't only present in urban neighborhoods. I know that my clients would stop trusting me if I tried to dissuade them. A break in trust could result in their losing a connection with the one person who “gets” them.

I utilize my unique skill set to help promote prosocial behaviors
Instead, I utilize my unique skill set to help promote prosocial behaviors. For instance, I can convey that I am on their side. While I personally have not been able to replicate the sense of nurturance I felt while gang-involved, I try to help these particular clients realize that they can receive nurturance and loyalty outside of their gang. I offer a sense that I am willing to take on some of their emotional burden as we collaborate to figure things out together. I can read body language to get a sense of how I am affecting them. I can utilize self-disclosure in a manner that brings me closer to them.

The big question is, does it work?

I can only use my own experience and those of the clinicians in our think tank (it is next to impossible to find therapists that positively affirm that they work with these children). If we are using the metric of “getting kids out of gangs,” then no. However, when considering helping these children to open up, look at their lives more critically, and feel accepted in a society that is intolerant of them, then yes.

Some of the things I have heard recently from my clients are: “You're one of two people that I feel like I can talk to,” “Talking to you eases my pain,” and even “I love you.” This is significant, considering that most of my gang-affiliated clients are impacted by stereotypical masculinity.

The Case of Jay

Jay is a thirteen-year old African American boy who struggles with symptoms associated with ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Up until this point, he has been living with his mother and two siblings. However, due to his “attitude” and problematic interactions with his older sister, he was recently sent to live with his godmother, who lives nearby. He is engaged in school but has been declining academically. Some of his interests include playing basketball and internet gaming. While Jay has a difficult time opening up to people and is very easily agitated, he comes across as bored, disengaged, and angry.

Jay was described in the notes I received as “non-communicative” and “guarded”
I began working with Jay in 2018. During the first session, he sat slumped in his chair and sucked his teeth for most of the time (I later learned that Jay had a long list of therapists he didn’t like). Jay was described in the notes I received as “non-communicative” and “guarded.”

At the time of that first meeting, I was freshly out of graduate school and desperate to do a good job. “How are you?” I asked. Jay gave me a look of exasperation and continued staring off into space. Uncomfortable with silence, I proceeded to introduce myself and explained that I had been assigned to work with him (dumb move, but it helped to ease some of my anxiety). Jay didn’t budge.

This went on for the majority of the first session and the next. Anything I asked was either dismissed with one-word responses or ignored entirely. Somewhat desperate, I decided to do something unorthodox towards the end of the second session. I noticed he had been wearing some trendy sneakers that matched the rest of his outfit.

If I was going to get anywhere with this client, I had to relate with him. The only issue was that I had an unwritten, self-imposed, rule that I didn’t want to sound like some kind of camp counselor (I had some insecurities about being called a “counselor,” as it can easily be confused with a non-clinical role). I was there to be a clinician. I told myself, “Forget it!” (replace “forget” with an expletive) and went with my gut.

“I see you like to get fresh”
“I see you like to get fresh,” I noted while nodding my head and pointing at his sneakers. Something interesting happened.

“You like my drip?” (slang for nice outfit), Jay replied with a slight smile, and gave me a handshake. It was progress. I felt like a fool. Why hadn’t I tried this earlier?

Fast forward a bit. Although subsequent sessions remained generally anti-climactic, Jay did begin arriving to them a little earlier. Nothing dramatic occurred, and to an outsider, it may have appeared like wasted time. Jay insisted on telling me about the latest games he had been playing and eventually started challenging me to play him as well.

Once I felt like a strong rapport had been developed, I casually asked Jay why he thought he was in counseling. He revealed that he had been in counseling for several years before and that his family did not “like” him. He mentioned his perception of how he was disciplined more harshly than his other siblings.

Now we were getting somewhere. As time went on, the sessions oscillated between video games and minor disclosures about how upset he was with his family. “I don’t care” was one of Jay’s favorite responses.

One day I asked him to draw a picture of his family. It was not a specific intervention. I just knew, by this point, that it was one of the activities that younger kids enjoyed doing. The drawing looked like a few beetles, with his mother being slightly larger than the rest. He took the picture home with him without saying anything further.

During the following session, Jay revealed how drawing the picture helped him to realize how much he did care about his family. I was annoyed. Really? After all the sophisticated interventions I learned in graduate school, this is what stuck? I was happy with the small progress but was distressed by how random the occurrence seemed to be. Was this something that could be replicated with other clients? I soon learned that this was not necessarily the case; every client was different. Jay helped me to learn that.

a big milestone for us occurred when Jay asked if he could visit with me twice weekly
A big milestone for us occurred when Jay asked if he could visit with me twice weekly at the clinic. This was not possible due to insurance restrictions, but it suggested that I had been doing something right. He became much more talkative about his life and what mattered to him.

It was not a miracle. Over time, Jay continued working well with me, but he also developed habits such as daily marijuana usage and decreased engagement in school. His mother also complained about his being “influenced” by the wrong crowd. He was no longer fighting with his older sister, but he also was not actively speaking to her either.

I could relate with his feelings of being excluded by most peers but included by other teens in his neighborhood. I told him this. Jay continued working with me as he realized I was not much different from him. I “got” him.

No Fairy-Tale Ending

This case does not have a fairy-tale ending. Due to scheduling conflicts, Jay was no longer able to work with me. Admittedly, he mentioned also becoming tired with counseling, as he had been working with therapists since he was ten. I respected it.

Jay mentioned that though he no longer wanted to continue therapy, he refused to work with anyone else (his mother was insistent upon his staying). One of the things he mentioned during our last few sessions was “you helped me control my anger,” and “now I know how to ignore people” in lieu of lashing out.

most of what I learned in graduate school did not help me connect with him
As I reflect on my work with Jay, I realized that most of what I learned in graduate school did not help me connect with him. He appreciated me for being real, being on his side (when the world—including other therapists—seemed to be against him) and disclosing parts of my life when it was relevant (i.e., the fact that I often felt unwanted in many social settings as a teen).

Further, and most importantly, I approached him as a child (now teenager) before a gang member.

I am still apprehensive when asked what population I work with. However, it is getting easier, as I remind myself of the gifts that these clients have brought to me as a clinician. My work with gang-affiliated clients has made me a much stronger clinician. I know what it is like to connect with “treatment-resistant” people. That has made me much better at connecting with clients overall.


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Bios
Steve Alexander, Jr. Steve Alexander, Jr., LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor in New York who has worked in multiple psychiatric settings and who is currently in private practice at nywellness.com. He is the author of Speak: A Simple Guide to Public Speaking and Shawn’s Show and Tell Tale. Steve also co-founded a clinical think tank in New York and Denver to help gang-affiliated children.