On Seeing A Young Drunk

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.

Read the sequel:

  • MeanLizzie

    Funny, my son came home from his p/t job today haven’t stopped off at the store and encountered a guy looking for a buck and a cigarette. He gave him both and actually hung around to smoke with him, but he came home shaken and depressed to see someone who seemed to be just clinging to the margins. Sometimes all you can do is be a fellow human for a while.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    That at least sounds like better advice than I got when discussing my depressive tendencies online – order some horse tranquiliser (ketamine) over the Internet and dose yourself up – after all, what could possibly go wrong there? :-)

  • Diane Kamer

    What a poignant, beautiful piece. And oh my gosh, I’ve said it before, but you sure can write.

  • Bridget N

    Back when I was a smoker, I would never begrudge another smoker a bummed cigarette because, truth be told, those same smokers were the ones I counted on when I ran out of smokes, money, or both. Now people who only smoked when they were drinking were a whole ‘nother story. Call me bitchy, but if my gloriously stinky little sticks of nicotine yumminess weren’t good enough for them sober, then they weren’t going to be theirs drunk.

    Another great piece, Max.

  • df

    Lazarus is everywhere, and Everyman at some time. The rich man didn’t see him; the elder brother resented him, and the Samaritan rearranged his day for him. Everyman is richer than he knows, and so sees less than he thinks; sometimes he projects his misery-bounty on the one who lived long enough to come home again, and so feels justified in condemning him; but sometimes he makes a withdrawal from his time-account (not accessible on-line), and so actually receives him. Hospitality is such a gracious word. Somewhere in the ebb and flow of our human relations, Lazarus finds a breach in the wall, and we, surprised and bewildered, maybe not quick enough to find a path around, find ourselves subdued. It is not so much that Lazarus will have his day someday, but rather that the day already belongs to him. Our only hope is in him finding us.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    The World is a Vale of Tears. I think if I saw all the unhappiness with a 1-mile radius of my house at once it would kill me.

  • Mom2Teens

    The whole story stressed me out until the very end when, it seemed to me, you had discerned the best optimal solution. I breathed a sigh of relief spiritually and literally.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

    Beautifully written, thanks.

  • Robster

    The words of the Salve Regina are quite appropriate to us all: “To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” Last week, I gave a friend a ride that involved about a hundred miles roundtrip to a healing mass. On the one hand, I was delighted at my willingness to do A Good Deed; on the other, I was annoyed that it disrupted my schedule, and involved wandering in the wilderness. Moreover, at mass,though I wanted healing just like everyone else, I was annoyed at the Ugandan priest’s spontaneous musical interpolations, which lengthen the whole thing. I have to say, I felt like a jerk. Though the whole thing was supposed to be A Good Deed, I was a most uncheerful and reluctant giver.

  • AL Key-holic

    Alcohol works. At first. You said it yourself, perhaps at it’s core is Shame, feeling “different” than as AA says: restless, irritable and discontent. At some point that “invisible line” is crossed and there is no stopping, at least by the unaided will. The alcoholic suffers from an obsession to drink, coupled with an “allergy” such that once having had that first drink (sometimes even after months, perhaps of “proving to himself” he can do without) he can’t stop. And he can’t stay stopped. At that point only a “spiritual experience” coupled with complete abstinance will help. Abstitanance alone does not equal sobriety. AA’s 12 steps do closely follow the “conversion” experience similar to catholicism, and not well known is that Bill himself gave a second “fifth step” = confession, to a Jesuit priest that visited him from St. Louis, and subsequently carried on a 20 year relationship with him. Even confession in AA is broken down to the written, oral and then there is restitution or satisfaction for harm done, even prudence enters as this is done only if we do not further injure others in the process. Humility is the foundation, and all of AA’s steps are designed to be “ego-deflation” at depth. Daily meditation and prayer are critical, and continued efforts on “defects of character” — call them virtues if you will, discovered by 10th step inventory (St. Ignatius examen). With real conversion comes the “joy of living”, but starting out it seems you must hit “your” bottom. Cured? I liken that to saying someone on the path cannot mortally sin (and hopefully not continue in it, and perhaps die in it — final impenintance). So a very catholic take on AA. “It works if you work it”. Contrary to popular opinion, AA does suggest church involvement, and even sacramental confession to a priest for those who are catholic (p74-BB). ever stop going to meetings?– why would you miss the opportunity to help others, esp. what you have been through, or “are” — so unlike Paul we don’t have to become all things to all people, we are alcoholic…just as much as we also need to remind ourselves “we’re all sinners here”. It does seem without AA the real alcoholic stands hardly a chance and never should replace “church” with AA, but should probably “get” both.
    “Goofy SOB?”…he is hurting and probably feels very alone. Mass right off- not. AA, yes. You might even be able to help him at some point, or your pride may lead you to a place where he ends up helping you some day. Bless Fr. Groeschel, he had nothing but good to say of AA.

  • Zmirak

    A moving and beautiful essay. I’m very happy that you found my analysis of the deadly sins/neuroses helpful. You applied it very aptly.


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