“Tough love and brutal truth from strangers are far more valuable than Band-Aids and half-truths from invested friends, who don’t want to see you suffer any more than you have.” – Shannon Alder
I met Jon in person for the first time at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. It was the week of March Madness and I was meeting a group of guys for a bachelor party. Jon is a childhood friend of Andy–one of my closest friends–who I got sober with and happens to be the bachelor we were celebrating. We were in the same fantasy football league and developed a rivalry despite never meeting in person. I knew he was a drug addict and alcoholic from all the stories I heard and incoherent message board comments. From all the other people involved, it was said to be a miracle he even got on the plane to Vegas.
When we finally shook hands at baggage claim (we were on the same flight but to reach full rivalry potential, I went out of my way not to find him) I was able to make my first impression.
The man looked lost.
He was red-haired like myself, roughly 5’7, weighing 150 pounds soaking wet and was sporting a Red Sox jersey. We laughed at the fact that we finally met in person, and then he abruptly left to smoke a cigarette before getting his luggage. His brother and I wondered if we’d see him again. He looked like he was already drunk and as he walked away I wondered if his cargo shorts were filled with weights by the way he moved.
We weren’t in the Uber 5 minutes when he asked the driver for cocaine. We all laughed that awkward laugh when you someone is serious but you’re not sure the other person does. Jon is a degenerate gambler and the lights of the strip appeared to make him drunker as they paved the way to our hotel.
It wasn’t long into the trip before I decided I really liked Jon. But there’s no other way I can describe him other than saying he’s a ghost of a person. He’s the closest thing to Frank from Shameless that I’ve ever seen. On that three day trip, he had to have lost 2,000 dollars, drifting through the casino in that same Red Sox shirt, thinking that every loss was a curse from the gambling gods. I never saw him eat food, and the one time that we ordered room service, he passed out on the bed, leaving his $25 hamburger and fries untouched. The moment that encapsulates the whole trip for Jon was when we walked out of the Cosmopolitan Hotel and he said, “These fuckin’ assholes [at the hotel] blasting’ up the heat! Yah think they’d have enough of my money to turn on the AC!”
“Jon,” I said disbelievingly, “we’re outside.”
The question that comes from this is how do you handle a person like this? Where is the line between enabling someone and letting them go?
The issue for the addiction bystanders is the fear that if you completely cut them out, that he/she will die without your support. There’s fear and guilt at play in these situations, and typically, the addict uses this weakness to his advantage. The other side of the paradox is caring for these people in such a way that we allow them to keep running themselves into the ground, time after time.
Take comedian Artie Lange for example. The guy is the quintessential, likable addict. He’s written books about his struggles and is transparent about his frequent relapses. Fans flock to his side constantly. “It’s ok Artie, we love you!” they write as he continues to get offers for roles like his newest one in HBO’s Crashing. He cancels standup shows and continues to be unreliable, hiding behind the mirage of a lovable guy who just can’t catch a break. No, Artie, you don’t look great. You look 25 years older than you are.
I can only speak on the effectiveness of my own experience. And from my experience, I believe that the people involved with the Jon and Artie’s of the world need to let them go. In my short three day stint with Jon, I too fell into the trap I’m advising against. We all knew there was somebody else underneath that drunken mask but we let him keep it on anyways.
Maybe people reach a sad point of acceptance with these people but the reality is this: Jon should not have been welcome on that trip.
There needs to be a collective understanding and plan with the people surrounding the addict. That plan should make it abundantly clear that anything and everything will be done when that phone call or plea is made, asking for help. If they ask for money, you should provide the things that they need. If it’s food or a jacket, you give them the food or the jacket but not the money for it. If they need shelter, you give them one chance and if they screw it up, they’re out. By letting them go, you allow them the chance to freely drink and use drugs as they want. There are no barriers. And when there’s no barriers, it’s only a matter of time before they run out of options. It forces their hand, and hopefully, they can recover in spite of themselves before they end up dead or in jail.
It’s a bleak reality.
Seven years ago I showed up drunk in my parents house. It was one of the last straws for my father, who said I didn’t have the balls to live out of my car when I drunkenly insinuated I was running away. My mother, on the other hand, was terrified. I’m not sure if she knew, but I can tell you with 100% honesty that I was prepared to do it. At that stage of my drinking, my plan was to get a few handles of vodka and sleep in my car. Nothing else really mattered. I had about $2,000 in my bank account and the school year was over. That is how narrow my paradigm had become. So I say all of this, to Jon, and to all the other people suffering, as someone who has lived the sad-ghost life. I can find enormous empathy within myself, having looked in the mirror in 2010, seeing eyes that were windows into an empty soul.
And I can say this to the people on the other side, that it’s not only OK to let go, but that it may be the best thing to do.