I can never remember his name, but I do remember his job: He’s an employment counselor for the disabled. His duties include putting the mentally retarded and psychiatrically disturbed to work, usually as cashiers. Whether he finds it especially stressful I have no idea, but every time I see him, he’s looped.
He found me for the first time in one of my apartment complex’s smoking sections. (There are three all told, and I frequent the one by the mailboxes and the laundry room, which, thank God, is only about a dozen steps down a concrete walkway from my front door.) He asked for a cigarette, and when I gave him one, he called me “brother” and thrust his hand into mine.
Since then he’s hit me up several times by the ashtrays, and once even caught me stepping out my door. I never had the heart to turn him down. His ingratiating manner helps his cause, as does his being a kid in his mid-20s with a gee-whiz, Mark Zuckerberg-ish face. For him, boozing and mooching still count, more or less, as age-appropriate behavior. Plus, by offering to pay for his cigarettes, he’s proven he has some sense of honor. When I refused money, he got me to accept a lighter and later a small stack of Camel coupons. I don’t smoke Camels, but I did appreciate the thought.
But there’s no getting around it: this is one very unhappy camper. Every time I see him, he’s alone, which makes his drinking look a lot less like a quaint holdover from his frathouse days and a lot more like a symptom of desperation. Some people wear solitude well, but not this guy. He has an air of a man starving for human sympathy — a listening ear, an exchange of fellow-feeling. At each of our meetings, I’ve always been the one to disengage, but I’m certain that if I were to invite him to unburden himself, he would — probably at excruciating length.
The last time we spoke, he hugged me. Granted, it was a one-armed hug, but I still rate it a warning sign.
For a first-worlder, I live in close proximity to a fair amount of human suffering. My next-door neighbor uses either methadone or heroin, or trades one for the other at regular intervals. Another, more distant, neighbor is clinically cuckoo and lives on SSI. But, aside from the time I tried to mediate between the junkie and someone he owed money to, I’ve never felt any obligation to help this pair solve their problems. Their problems lie too far outside my experience, never mind my expertise, and are, bluntly, too big. I’ve only got two hands.
But the young drunk? Try as I might, I can’t shake the sense that I owe him something. In him, I see myself as I was only a couple of years ago, when I was a heavy drinker. What got me into the bottle was shame — the shame of having failed of at work, at love, at life. What got me out was also shame — shame at being out of control, at acting out under the influence. Telling myself that nothing’s lower than a drunk did the trick: I quit drinking, and every day since then have taken real satisfaction in being simply a garden-variety loser.
But having traveled his road doesn’t automatically qualify me to lead him to safety. I’m not a psychologist or a substance-abuse counselor. Besides, what he seems to need most of all is a friend — a very close and constant friend — but I can’t be one for him. By my watch, that ingratiating manner of his is good for exactly five minutes. After that, it wears off, leaving behind the naked void. No, thank you — stray animals are as cute as bugs’ ears, but the needs of stray humans are just too complicated.
As this poor mug must know even better than I. Now that I think about it, he’s a mental-health professional in his own right. I’ve forgotten what his degree is in, but I think it’s in social work. What that says about the field or its nether reaches, I have no idea. There’s that old saying about the best doctors being the worst patients, but if this clown can’t at least refer himself to someone competent, what in the world could I hope to accomplish? Even if I had the training, which I don’t — growing up the son of a Kohutian psychoanalyst is nothing you’re allowed to put on a shingle — I abandoned all hope for clinical objectivity the moment I began to identify with him.
See? It’s been hours since I’ve seen him, and already I’m getting mad.
John Zmirak might have the answer. I’ve yet to read his book The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins, but the summary he offers in Aleteia really intrigues me. According to Zmirak, Thomas Aquinas, being “a good Aristotelian,” didn’t envision the cardinal virtues existing on opposite poles from the seven deadly sins. Instead, the polar opposite of sin is vice “of the sort we’d nowadays call a ‘neurosis.’” All the while, virtue, the Golden Mean, hovers above and between them, like the point of a pyramid. Chastity, for example, is the Golden mean between Lust and Frigidity.
Plugged into Zmirak’s interpretation of Aquinas, my problem might work itself out like this. For me to deny this suffering fellow-creature any help at all would be an instance of Avaritia, or Greed. I’d be hoarding my mental and emotional energy. If I were to allow him to glue himself to my hip, I’d be guilty of Prodigality, or wastefulness, since — trust me — I don’t have that much mental and emotional energy to spare. Reaching the apex of the pyramid, good old Caritas, could mean dropping a casual observation along the lines of, “You seem to be drinking an awful lot. You sure you’re okay?” And then, maybe, for good measure, inviting the guy to attend Mass with me next Sunday.
Yeah, that sounds about right. Hopefully, the mention of Mass will spook the goofy SOB to the point where he never bothers me again.