I didn’t want to go. I didn’t have time to go. But I remembered what it was like to be confined, unable to even get your own Chapstick. (And in the dry heat of Colorado that can be traumatic.) In fact, as I drove on this reluctant errand, I recalled when my parents discovered that I was an alcoholic. I had hidden it for years. One Mother’s Day many years ago my mom knew – she knew she had to come find me. My marriage had ended. My children were celebrating their father’s birthday, and it was the perfect time for me to drink as much as I could, as fast as I could; curl up in my daughter’s bed (I’m not sure why I did that – maybe I felt like a little girl who desperately needed my mother to come take care of me, because I could not take care of myself any more); and I wanted to check out of a world “where the night felt longer than the day; nothing seemed right, and life seemed barely worth the pain – not worth the fight” (from “I See You,” Poor Wayfaring Stranger, Rachel Cohen).
The only reason I have a hint of the inexplicable lostness my mom felt when she found me is because I have had the privilege of finding my daughter when she lost her way. My parents took me to the hospital, began to grasp the life and death struggle I was caught in, and urged me to take the advice of the hospital staff and check in to West Pines. (It kind of sounds like one of those creepy psychiatric hospitals where the stern, starched white employees lock you up while they play checkers in the hallways). West Pines is a good treatment center and they introduced me to the world of detox. They give you hospital gowns and socks. You cannot wear shoes with shoelaces. You cannot have a phone or a purse or a comb or a tiny little tube of Chapstick. The humiliation is tempered a bit if you are intoxicated (which I was), until the next morning when you learn that you cannot have soap, a toothbrush, or toothpaste without being supervised by a staff member.
I don’t know why I remember this ridiculous random moment, but when I finally got to the head of the line to get my rationed toiletries I said, “I am a therapist,” and a very kind woman whose job was to hand out soap said, “I’m sure that you are a very good one.” I held on to those words for the next very difficult days.
Back to my errand. A brave friend had been talking to me for weeks via Skype about her problem with alcohol. A little over two weeks ago her young son unexpectedly showed up for his mother’s appointment. He told me that he had come to visit her and that she was much more ill than she had let on (which is not surprising – most of us addicts underestimate use by 65%). We talked about options, and this son who loves his mother so deeply told her that if she did not check in for treatment, he would leave and their relationship would be imperiled.
My friend and I talked a few days later after she was beginning to come out of the treacherous fog of denial that is a part of addiction. She agreed to come to Denver in just a few days to check in to one of the best treatment centers in the United States. I picked her up at the airport and asked this brilliant woman – ravaged by the betrayal of a marriage and a relapse in cancer – who had seen no other way to walk upright on the earth than by medicating herself with the traitorous comfort of alcohol if she wanted to get a cup of coffee before she checked in. Trembling, she said, “Let’s just get this over with.”
I visited her the next Sunday and she looked like a different woman. One of the paradoxes of alcoholism is that it can almost kill you, but within a few days of sobriety, life begins to take over and it oozes out of every pore. We visited, we laughed, we cried, and she asked if there was anyway that I could bring her some Chapstick. Her lips were in trauma.
That brings me to my errand. I picked up some Chapstick at Target and drove as fast as I could to the treatment center. I got out of my car and in my hurry, left the Chapstick in the car. There is only one long line of parking spaces for visitors and I was at the end of the line, of course. I hurried back and saw a man sitting in the grass at the edge of the parking spaces. I tried not to look at him because I didn’t want to see his tattered, grease-stained cargo shorts; his Led Zeppelin t-shirt (equally dirty); and his old tennis shoes – barely held together. It really wasn’t the ragged clothes I didn’t want to see – it was the ragged man. He was dirty. I could smell the cheap booze (because I only bought expensive booze, which just makes me a stupid alcoholic). He had a black canvas “fanny-pack” around his waist. For those of you who don’t know what that is. It looks something like this:
only his was not that nice. He caught me glance at him and before I could turn toward my car to get the Chapstick, he said, “I need help.” Well, that was obvious, but I wasn’t the one to help him. He moved toward me and I got out my car keys. I don’t know what I was afraid of – he couldn’t have hurt me. He looked like he weighed about 125 pounds. He had gray hair with strands of white. He looked like he was about 70 years-old, but excessive drinking has a way of stealing years. His eyes were rimmed with the red that only those of us who have drank, because we cannot stop, quickly recognize. My heart softened and I said, “I only have $2, but you can have it.”
Before I could reach into my purse he shoved his fanny pack at me. He said, “No! Look, I have $36,000! I cashed out the last of my retirement. I’m supposed to go in here,” he pointed to the treatment center. He was yelling and I could hear the affect of the alcohol he had apparently consumed on his way to treatment. (He probably had $35,990.12 – I estimated the cost of cheap booze.) But sure enough, he showed me the wad of cash he had in his bag.
I grabbed his arm, too enthusiastically, and said, “I’m going in there too to leave something for a friend. I will walk in with you.”
He pulled away from me and shook his head. He said, “I can’t go in there. Look at me,” he gestured toward his appearance – the same appearance that I had wanted to look away from as fast as I could.
“You probably won’t believe this,” he slurred, “but I was an investment banker. I had a house, and a car, and a family . . . .” He looked away. And then he looked toward the treatment center – beautiful cedar buildings, shaded by tall pine trees and surrounded by manicured gardens with benches to sit on and remember how you got there and why you never wanted to go back.
I understand pride. It kept me from being honest with my friends and family. It keeps me from asking for help. It makes me believe that I have a right to be offended when people don’t treat me like I think that I deserve to be treated. It creates a tornado of resentment that blows me straight back to the booze.
I looked at my rich friend and said, “You probably won’t believe this, but I’ve been where you are – isolated from family and friends, locked in my house, trying with all my strength to drink myself to death.” He looked right into my eyes and neither one of us looked away for a minute. Both our eyes filled with tears.
I said, “Why don’t you let me drive you to Walmart and you can use a few of those dollars to buy a new pair of jeans and a shirt. They will help you with the rest when you get into treatment.”
It felt like the craziest and sanest thing I’d ever done. I drove him to Walmart and waited by the front door. I swear he took an hour, but he came out wearing a new pair of jeans, a Denver Broncos sweatshirt, and although he had on the same tattered tennis shoes, he was wearing socks.
We drove back to the treatment center and I explained that I still needed to go in and drop off a package for my friend. I told him that I would walk in with him. When we got to the door he stopped and muttered, “I think I’ll wait here just a minute before I go in.” My heart dropped. I wasn’t going to rescue him, after all.
I went inside and dropped off the Target bag with the Chapstick in it and briefly told the man at the front desk about the reluctant patient at the door. I explained, “He has $36,000 in his fanny pack. I took him to buy clean clothes. He has everything he needs to check in.”
The man sitting at the front desk didn’t look that wise. He looked like he was in his 20’s, but he turned out to be far wiser than he looked. He told me, “He may have everything he needs, but he has to walk in the door.”
I walked out of the treatment center and told my new friend as I passed by him; “I hope you go in. It’s a wonderful place.”
When I got in my car at the end of the parking spaces, backed out, and pulled on to the street, I looked in my rearview mirror. The man with $36,000 in his wallet was still standing outside the door.
I wanted this story to end differently, and I am hopeful that when I go to visit my friend this Sunday, I will see him in the treatment center.
I drove away slowly – no longer in a hurry – after my errand turned into a parable. I began to think of all that I possess and how often I clutch to it tightly, afraid to enter into all the Grand Rescuer has to offer.
I check and re-check my bank balance, adding every possible penny I may make and have to spend – filled with fear that I might not have enough. And right inside the door is the One who promises, “I Am your security. Enter your future, with me, with joy.”
I rehearse the hurts and betrayals that I have felt and want to shut down my heart so that I won’t be hurt again. And right inside the door is the One with the wounds still on His hands and feet saying, “I Am your forgiveness. Unclasp your hand and hold mine.”
Oh, and then I really enumerate all the ways that I have failed, feared, and faltered, and I feel the shame slither around my heart. And right inside the door is the One who reminds me that, “It was your pain I carried – your disfigurements, all the things wrong with you. Your sins ripped and tore and crushed me. I took your punishment. My wounds made you whole. My bruises healed yours. I am the Lover of your sinful heart, the Lord of your shame. Now look at me. Come and rest in this great mystery!”
And finally, I start counting my $36,000 – feeling deserving of entering in. I’ve helped people. I’ve confessed my sin. I’ve loved others, tried to forgive, and worked to do my very best. And right inside the door is the One who says, “Leave your $36,000 outside. I don’t want it. Sharon, when will you believe that all I want – all I have ever wanted is you.
“Blessed are the poor . . . for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3
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