She was sitting on a bench outside Food Lion on East Broadway in Maryville, a waif of a girl in a spaghetti-strap top and frayed jeans.
She approached as I walked toward the doors, eyes filling with tears as she recited a story that felt practiced: Her brother had died, and she needed money to get to Northeast Tennessee to be with her family. Such stories aren’t uncommon, but I don’t hear them too much in Blount County. I’m sure she might have been telling the truth, but my gut — that internal addict radar that recognizes someone so very much like me — told me different. Maybe it was the ruined teeth, or the way she folded the crooks of her arms in toward her body so I couldn’t see the potential track marks there; maybe it was the emptiness of the soul that peered at me behind those weepy eyes, reverse search lights that illuminated an inner darkness consuming everything she used to be.
She asked for money. I didn’t have any, but I told her that I would get some in the store. She started sobbing, and I offered an awkward hug, before she retreated, timid and ashamed, back to her bench. As I wandered the aisles looking for what I needed, I thought of that divide that separates those of us in recovery from those of us still out there in the wilderness of active addiction, and my heart hurt for her.
I’ve run into her kind a number of times over the years, and I know the type well because I used to be one of them. I never panhandled, but only because tourists in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where I did most of my getting high, weren’t too kind to those who begged them for a few dollars. I got my money through other means, none of which I’m proud of, and because of that, I never look down on those who seek to feed their addiction by delivering a sob story about dead relatives or something similar that’s designed to tug at the heart strings. (I once was approached by a young man in Knoxville’s Old City who claimed he was trying to get to Johnson City in time for his grandmother’s funeral; a couple of months later, while again in the Old City, he approached me with the same story. I gave him a few dollars and told him his grandmother must be pretty ripe, but he was already headed in the other direction, no doubt to either find more money or get what he needed to forget that he was reduced to begging for money on the streets.)
I know a lot of people don’t like giving money to panhandlers, and I know not everyone who asks for money on the street is an addict. But many of them are, and I often feel both pity and empathy, because I know full well the battle raging inside them. The disease of addiction is a horrible thing. You feel it inside yourself, always whispering, and when you’re caught in its grips you do exactly what it tells you. You demean and debase yourself in unimaginable ways, ways you never could have imagined when you first started dancing with the devil.
I don’t encourage anyone to give money; often, offering to buy them food or a pack of cigarettes or even a cup of coffee is a far more useful way to spend it. But know this — asking you for money is better than taking it from you, which is the next step along that path down into the abyss. I’m not saying that giving money to panhandlers will prevent them from becoming purse snatchers, only that if they’re true addicts in the sense that I was, they’re going to find a way to come up with money to get high — not because they want to inflict pain on others, but because they’re a slave to a disease that dictates every action of their lives, all of them designed to feed that disease.
They’re out doing the things they need do to survive the chaos and insanity of addiction. The person they used to be, probably not so different from you or me, has been replaced by a malevolent entity that’s slowly killing them. They’re locked away in their own minds, tangled in the vines like trapped animals, being mauled by a beast more vicious than any jungle animal I can think of.
Whether they eventually free themselves and embrace the light and salvation of recovery is up to them. As long as they live, there is hope. There is light. There is a way out of the those shadows and dark places where pain lurks. The only chance we have of making it is to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking down this long path, because every other way leads to destruction. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is to let them know that we see them — truly see them — as fellow human beings, and let them know through words or actions that they’re not just another broken soul to be stepped over and ignored.
Here's your Friday motivation, friends. Let’s be kind to one another today … and every day.