When I first saw him walk into the parish hall, I wondered if he was lost. Hat on backwards and pants slouched, he walked with the swagger of a kid who was used to demanding the respect and fear of those around him.
Since I was the one in charge of the parish event, I steeled myself and approached him.
“Hi,” I said, trying to be assertive but kind, “Are you here for the game night?”
The guy’s eyes immediately lost their hardness and he looked embarrassed. A broad smile broke across his face, “Yeah, thanks!” He sat down like a young child and eagerly watched the Uno game in progress.
I first met my friend, let’s call him Ben, at a social gathering I had organized for my parish in Oakland. He quickly revealed to me and several other regulars at the parish that he had just been released from prison. But, he assured us, when he was incarcerated he had found Jesus and had returned to his Catholic faith.
Ben was an inspiration to us all. He knew Scripture backwards and forwards. He was filled with enthusiasm, joy, and compassion for those around him. He was a gentleman who showed concerned for the elderly in our group, always asked how people were doing and opened doors for others. And he was on fire for the faith like no one I had seen his age. I wondered sometimes if he was called to be a priest.
I soon found out that Ben was raised by two parents who were addicts. He had become addicted to drugs before he was a teenager. He eventually started dealing drugs, was arrested and went to prison. In prison, Ben had a conversion experience, stopped doing drugs, and became involved in the Catholic ministry. It changed him, but his past was still there, ready to drag him down.
One day as we were driving somewhere with friends, someone asked, “Ben do you think you will ever go back to doing drugs?”
I assumed his answer would be, “Heck no!”
But he paused and in his characteristic frank way said, “I’m not sure. I really hope not.”
That moment is seared in my memory. I remember the street we were turning on. I remember the surprised look on my other friend’s face. And I remember thinking, “I don’t really know what it’s like to be Ben.”
Soon, I moved away from the Bay Area to join the convent, but I kept in touch. Ben had little support in his life and I felt like his big sister. Ben had been working and going to school but one day he told me that he felt he needed to focus on taking care of his elderly grandmother who has dementia. No one else in her life was able to care for her. I wondered if he could handle it but Ben refused to consider anything else. He gave up his job and his life became centered on his grandmother’s care.
I began to hear from him less frequently. I sent him some money in the hopes that he would come to my profession of vows but he told me things were too tight. I started to wonder what was going on. The Ben I knew would never have missed my vows if he could have helped it. A few months later I received a call.
“I have to tell you something, Theresa, and you are going to be upset. I’ve been doing drugs again,” Ben’s voice said shaking. Then he added hastily, “But I’ve stopped and I’m going to kick this.”
I froze. “What is the right thing to say in this situation?” I thought. I immediately realized how naïve I had been, sending him money, listening to his anxious, paranoid calls and trying to empathize. Why hadn’t I seen it?
Ben’s time kicking drugs cold turkey lasted a month or two at most. A few months after that he was in jail on serious charges. I wrote a letter to the judge asking him to send Ben to rehab and not to prison. Ben was not sent to rehab but he was given parole after only a few months in jail.
When he was released, a friend from the parish picked Ben up from jail and offered to bring him directly to rehab. Ben weakly declined, citing care of his grandmother. My friend told me afterward that the Ben he picked up from jail was not the same man we had known in church. He was angry, hyper, aggressive, and unable to focus. A far cry from the relentlessly positive, kind, and generous man we had known. When I heard this, I knew it would only be a matter of time before he would be in prison.
Nevertheless, I called Ben several times over the following months. Every time I talked to him, I told him that I loved him and that I wanted him to keep in touch, even if he was not going to rehab and 12-step groups. “You don’t have to be in a perfect place to reach out to me,” I insisted. Even in the haze of drugs, he heard my plea and would respond to periodic texts just to let me know he was still alive.
Then one day there was no response.
I knew he was back in jail. I looked for his name online and up popped a terrifying mug shot. There he was wearing a dirty, ripped t-shirt and he looked haggard and gaunt. His eyes were hard and cold.
I have not contacted Ben yet. I am going to send him a letter telling him that I love him and that I am praying he seeks the help he needs and has another conversion.
God did it once, he can do it again.
Sometimes, my heart feels like it is going to burst with sorrow for the life Ben has had, the cards he has been dealt, and the choices he has made. I wonder how God could possibly love Ben more than me, but I know he does and I count on it. My dear friend is buried beneath years of abuse, neglect, drug use, changed brain chemistry, and sin.
Only God can dig him out.
I wish that everyone could have had my parents, the love I have experienced, and the fire of love and faith that God lit and then later patiently relit in my heart.
I saw that fire in Ben’s heart. It was raging.
And I know God will relight it, if Ben lets him.
Please let him.
Dear God, someone I love is an addict. I know there is nothing that I can do to get through. Logic, the perfect words, even love is not always enough to break through the haze. You are the only one who can help ________ find the motivation and the hope within to break free from the chains of addiction. Lord, you came to earth to free us from our sins. Pour out your grace on this world so in need of your love, especially upon _________, whom I love so much. Amen.