Mount Vernon, 2007

Not an intentionally grim space, but time and budget restrictions have made it so. The buzzing fluorescent lights, the unmoving air, the murky windows straining for what little light a Washington winter provides, the unsynchronized breathing of 30-odd social workers. The folding tables are old; the veener is peeling away to reveal the pressboard underneath, raw from twenty years of restless hands picking at every minor scar.

The presenter is talking about meth, the ways it works, the diminishing returns of the high, how quickly the body incorporates regular usage into its daily functioning. “Anhedonia,” she says: the loss of pleasure. Detoxing brains do not produce their own pleasure at even basic things like eating or drinking. Food doesn’t taste bad, it tastes like nothing at all. Forget the complex joys and pains of neurotic humanity, the simple animal satisfactions are gone; evaporated into yellow mist, a perfect ring of thwarted experience. “Relapse,” she says, “is not a pursuit of the initial high, but rather the simple desperation for any sensation.”

Later, during a break, they swap war stories, the clients that died, the ones that disappeared, the ones that clawed open a counselors face accidentally, trying to pick off some invisible, mobile mass only they could see. They talk pragmatically about putting the client’s seat on the far side of the room from the door, so that the desk is there to stop them long enough for the counselor to escape. They are not frightened, or angry: life deals a bad hand, sometimes, and all you can do is plan for the worst.