Among the Tombs with Addiction

by | Nov 11, 2021 | Addiction, Blogs, Prayers, Religious Life, Spirituality, Topics

As I shake the hand of the man in front of me, I can’t help but wonder if our paths will ever cross again. The handshake is brief and firm. This isn’t a happy goodbye, but an unexpected departure, stealing at the shelter will get you fired; and it got Bobby, whose name I’ve changed, fired. A case of Red Bull was just too enticing to pass up.

Bobby is an addict and has struggled for years—burning through jobs, relationships, and homes, unable to maintain stability in any area of his life except his addiction. So this isn’t a “good” bye. For Bobby, it’s just another dead end. The unmanageability of his life, and his addiction, catching up to him one more time.

Bobby, trapped in his addiction and looking for a way out, had been offered the opportunity to live at the shelter if he was willing to work in the kitchen, an opportunity he accepted. Bobby was crass and could be difficult to work with, but I quickly realized that he had a heart of gold.

I lived at the shelter for a few weeks as part of my novitiate experience because I wanted to have the opportunity to work with people facing addiction and housing insecurity. The Jesuit novitiate offers several “experiments” or opportunities to practice being a Jesuit before taking vows, and this was one of mine. I met Bobby early in my stay. He was loud, opinionated, and foul mouthed—he could be difficult to love. But behind his hard façade was a man who knew what it was like to struggle and so looked out for those who were struggling. 

We spent hours together in the kitchen, silently at first, but as we got to know each other, we spent more time in conversation as we prepared and served meals and while cleaning afterwards. The shelter operated as a soup kitchen, feeding anyone who was willing to wait in line for a few minutes to get in. After working there for several months, Bobby discovered he had a talent for cooking, especially tomato sauce.

Meals were served at the shelter every day of the week except Sundays.  And those of us who worked in the kitchen, were allowed to eat there for free. On Sundays, when the kitchen was closed and no meals were served, food was hard to find. On my second Saturday there, Bobby surprised me with a gallon sized Ziplock bag full of his spaghetti and tomato sauce. If I had been excited about his red sauce before, I was even more so now, knowing that I would have something to eat the next day.

Before this moment, I hadn’t spent much time talking with Bobby, his personality was a little too large for me. But Bobby knew what it was like to not have anything to eat, and he certainly knew what it was like to be new and not have any money, so Bobby did what Bobby could. He couldn’t take care of himself, but he took care of me.

I have a simple, hand-stitched leather wallet. It’s a gift from Bobby. He was given a room and food at the shelter in exchange for his work in the kitchen, but he wasn’t paid. So, any money Bobby needed, he had to hustle some other way. Bobby figured out how to cut and stitch leather and make wallets he could sell. At some point he noticed that my wallet was looking rough and so he gifted to me the very first wallet he made.

These gifts, proof of Bobby’s care, compassion and kind heart, came to my mind as we said goodbye. A firm, brief handshake, no eye contact, and like that Bobby walked out the door with a box containing his few possessions. I never saw him again. I supported the shelter in their decision to fire Bobby. He needed to learn to be honest with himself and others and until he did, his life would always look like a hurricane tore through it. 

The sad part was, we couldn’t serve just one case of Red Bull. There would have been pandemonium as hundreds of guests fought over the few available cans. Instead, they probably would have ended up free for the taking for the kitchen staff. But Bobby didn’t think about this. So, when someone noticed that the donated case was missing, it wasn’t long before it was found in Bobby’s room.

A Jesuit friend of mine has spent decades working in jails, shelters and on the city streets in the Northwest, and he gave me some good advice when I told him about Bobby. “Relationships on the streets disappear,” he said, “so you have to say what’s important quickly.” I didn’t know what to say to Bobby as we said goodbye. Up to that moment, I hadn’t realized Bobby could disappear like he did. But Bobby’s disappearance wasn’t his choice, he was kidnapped by his addiction; taken against his will from his new home and new friends, robbed of a chance to make a new life for himself. 

Addiction takes you to empty and isolated places. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus finds himself among tombs as he confronts a man filled with a legion of demons. Shackles can’t keep the man safe from himself. But Jesus heals him and returns him to life, the people find the man clothed and sane, sitting with Jesus.  

This story reminds me of Bobby because he too is stuck living amongst the tombs and bones, unable to leave and so unable to fully live. Death is a part of an addict’s life; it waits around every corner. Small deaths: the death of friendships as friends are abandoned to addiction, the death of opportunity as the addiction becomes central to life and goals are forgotten, the death of dignity as anything becomes a price you’re willing to pay for just one more. And all these little deaths lead with certainty to a final, physical death as even life itself becomes a price one is willing to pay.  Like the man possessed by demons, Bobby has been living among the tombs for so long, I imagine he has forgotten what it’s like to be alive.

I wasn’t prepared for Bobby’s departure. I never got to tell Bobby thanks for looking out for me, for making sure I had something to eat, and for the wallet. He disappeared, walking out the door before I had a chance to say what was important. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I would say to Bobby if I could go back to that moment. So, I guess I’ll say it now, better late than never. Bobby, if you read this someday, know that I think about you every time I reach for my wallet and when I do, I thank God for you and I pray that you’ve found what you were searching for.


Brett Helbling, SJ   /   All posts by Brett