Musician, writer and special education teacher Chuck Brown gets personal about recovery and caring for others.
The other day I pulled into a gas station off Highway 49 to fill up my gas tank, buy a Red Bull and some smokes. It was a hot day. I am eminently aware of the heat, as I made the poor decision to save money when buying my truck and forgo air conditioning. I lived in northern Oregon at the time and thought I’d never leave. Another lesson learned; never assume you’ll stay anywhere for the rest of you’re life.
Anyway, I opened the door of my truck and stepped out into the sun. The heat rose up from the concrete in visible waves, baking or evaporating everything that came in contact with it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an elderly woman walking toward me from the highway. She was walking slow with the swagger of one who is homeless and addicted. I turned my attention away, hoping she wouldn’t approach me to ask for, well, anything. No such luck and I knew it. She came around to the driver’s side where I was standing and made eye contact. She was old, wrinkled, and worn. She had dyed her hair a darker shade of brown, probably a month before, judging by the gray roots coming in on the sides and top. She was trembling, as addicts do when they’ve gone too long without their substance. For addicts, whatever substance they’re addicted to serves a need, it fills a void, the scratch that can’t be itched, not physical at first — although that inevitably follows — but emotional. This is something only an addict can understand. It is something I understand.
Her eyes were sad. Despair was their color and need was their message. She was thin to the point of emaciation. She carried an old purse she had probably used for years, or perhaps found, discarded by someone who had worn it through and tossed it into their weekly trash. It was filled to the brim with things I imagined to be her treasured possessions. I wondered if she had soap, a toothbrush, pictures of kids she never sees, or who have perhaps disowned her, a husband who abused her, or perhaps loved her very much, but was driven away by her addictions, her self-destructive nature, the saboteur who ruins everything whenever life starts to seem bright and hopeful. This was all supposition on my part, projections from my own experiences, what I’ve seen and known as an addict and from being the son of an addict.
I can remember hopefulness, the points in time when sobriety emerged and everyone in the family was happy — except of course my father, who now I understand could never be happy, drunk or sober. There’s a mistaken idea that people often have about addicts when they embrace sobriety. It’s the idea that everything will be better, that all the problems will disappear. The fact is, the problems only intensify without the buffer that made them seem less urgent. What becomes apparent after a few weeks of sobriety is that the problems have gone nowhere; they’re still bearing down relentlessly.
When I embraced sobriety, my wife became conflicted, not sure whether she preferred the unpredictability of life with an alcoholic husband, or the discontent and anger of a sober one. It’s a Catch-22, an unsolvable conundrum for the user. It has always been that way and the only way to make it go away is to change the way one thinks. Many in recovery will say that AA is the only method that can invoke this change of thought. I have immersed myself in my Buddhist practice; attending sangha regularly, meditating each morning, studying and trying my best to live by the Eightfold Path. In doing so, I have instinctively taken the 12 Steps and have developed the tools necessary to support my sobriety and change my wrong thought.
The woman looked at me and said, ”I’m sorry. I’m hungry. Can you spare anything so that I can buy some food?”
“Let me look in my wallet to see if I have any cash,” I replied, knowing well I had nothing. I just didn’t want to seem unwilling, or apathetic to her desperate need and plea. “I’m sorry, I have nothing to give ma’am.”
“Thank you anyway,” she said in an almost-whisper. She lowered her head, turned and walked away. I watched her as she approached the next patron, waiting to fill her tank.
Charles Bukowski, an addict and great American poet, wrote in one of his poems, “It’s not the big things that send a man to the madhouse, not the loss of a love, but the shoelace that breaks when there’s no time left.” Something about the way she lowered her head and sauntered off made me think of this line. Perhaps I had been her shoelace. What if she received the same response from her next prospect? I didn’t want to be the shoelace that breaks when there’s no time left. Not for her, or for anyone.
“Wait,” I called after her, running to catch up. “Come with me into the store. I’ll buy you what you need and put it on my credit card.” All my cards were nearly maxed. I’m a month behind with many of my bills, and fight to scrape together enough to feed my family. I am a special education teacher working at a residential institution for severely emotionally disturbed boys, married to a woman who works as a teacher’s aid in a severely handicapped special education classroom. My wife and I have dedicated our professional lives to serving others, and as most who have done so, struggle financially. I had no business spending anything on anybody else but those for whom I’m responsible. But I didn’t feel as though I could ignore this circumstance. It felt like my circumstance.
She half smiled and accepted my offer. We walked into the store together and found the deli cooler, where there were freshly made sandwiches. She picked one up. I suggested she get two.
“They come with chips,” she said in a scratchy voice.
“Good. Please get two,” I said.
She looked at me with tentative eyes, as if embarrassed to ask, “May I get a beer?” She immediately put her head down hoping to avoid a judging look, or lecture, or worse, a rejection and the loss of what little charity she was receiving.
A few seconds went by before I answered. I thought about whether or not I would be contributing to a negative aspect of her condition if I said yes. I tried putting myself in her shoes. Would I learn anything if I were denied my request? Then I thought about my faith: What would Buddha do?
“Of course,” I replied gently. It was not my place to judge her position or her needs. I’m sure many would criticize my decision and take some sort of moral stand, but I know addicts. She was going to get what she needed one way or another. She needed that beer. It was probably the only thing that would make her feel as though she could go on. Even if the thought of sobriety had crossed her mind, and it most assuredly had, probably everyday of her life, she could not just quit. It’s dangerous to stop drinking alcohol cold turkey, and besides, alcoholism must be self-diagnosed, recognized, and consciously rejected. No one can tell you that you are one, or that you should stop. You have to come to these things yourself. I knew she would eat and drink her beer and feel okay for a short time. I knew that that was all she had. For as long as she felt the warm feeling rush through her body, she would be somewhat content. Her ailments and circumstance would seem smaller and almost bearable. When you’re in that deep, it’s all you have.
“Go ahead and get one,” I told her. She still seemed embarrassed, I could tell, but she did as she was told and walked to the counter. I followed close behind, removing my credit card from my wallet. I handed it to the clerk who at first looked surprised and then unexpectedly compassionate.
After the transaction was complete, I asked the woman her name. “Jenny,” she replied.
“My name is Chuck,” I said as I extended my hand in a gesture of friendship. She ignored my hand and drew her fragile arms around me. She began to sob quietly and uncontrollably. I put my arms around her and pulled her in tight for a real hug, one that communicated care and love. She was dirty, I could see it and smell it, but I didn’t care. I wanted her to have a real hug and to hopefully know that someone genuinely cared. When she caught her breath, she told me I was a good person.
“So are you,” I told her. She looked up and her eyes seemed to say, “How could you possibly think I am a good person.” She was so ashamed, so hurt, injured by circumstances that had spiraled out of her control. She was helpless. “We have to look after each other,” I said. “It’s the way things ought to be.”
“Thank you,” she said, and walked away. I followed her out to continue with my business. The stifling heat of the day hit me again and I called after her: “Find a place in the shade to have your lunch.” Without stopping or turning around she waved and continued walking toward the highway.
Usually people feel good about themselves when they’ve just given charity, but I didn’t. I felt sad. What I had done had in no way changed Jenny’s life. Her predicament would return tomorrow, or later that evening. Had I compromised my values, my faith by buying her a beer? Had I unintentionally made Jenny’s circumstances worse? Had I practiced right mindfulness, right action? I didn’t know. I followed my instincts. I had only served Jenny’s momentary need; maybe when one, through self-imposed circumstance, is forced to live in the here and now, that is everything.