I had called April the day before and she said that she could see me the next morning at 11am. I almost didn’t show, but I had heard that churches sometimes gave out money and lodging to the homeless. If I knew any better though, my mother had probably warned her about giving me any cash. My mother, after all, was the one who had told me to contact her.
April worked at the church that I had grown up in but must have been somewhat new there. I wouldn’t know because I hadn’t been to church in years, but I had never heard mention of her name before. I was homeless though, and my parents refused to help me. I had no one, and for good reason. I was a junkie. 19 years old and had already been shooting heroin for a few years. Bridges were burnt quick, relationships were severed, and anyone who gave me a chance quickly regretted it. I stole, I lied, I manipulated, but that is exactly what one would expect from an addict. I didn’t blame them.
I was a loner. I had slept in the hall closet of an apartment complex for a few nights in a row, and woke up dopesick every morning. The town I called home was twenty miles from the inner city where heroin was sold, which made the task of getting it daunting for someone without a vehicle, let alone money. Like any good addict, I found a way. I felt like I was running out of options though. I had run up every return policy at every nearby store, and had been seen in and out of any other stores on a daily basis. My intentions were becoming extremely obvious to the employees there when never once did I purchase anything. None of my family or friends answered my phone calls, and neither did the fellow addicts who knew that I had no money to contribute if they were to go downtown and cop. I was beyond lonely. I was a shaking miserable ball of self hatred, depression and sickness. There was no solution in sight to picking up the pieces of my life. Yet one thing got me out and going every single day, pushing and striving. That was the idea of the warm rush of heroin that would take it all away for just a night.
My bones ached through my frail skin as I walked. My body trembled with anxiety, and my stomach turned as I trudged the shoulder of the highway. I smoked cigarette after cigarette hating the taste and the dryness in my mouth, but glad that they gave me small purposeful movements in a complete void of reality. Two miles I walked to that church with just a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe I could get enough money from this pastor to feel normal again.
When I approached the large church, and pushed through the large doors into the empty hallways, I was overwhelmed. It was silent and warm, and I felt as if I didn’t belong in its confines. There was an empty hollowness that echoed through its corridors and I wanted to turn around and leave more briskly than I had came. This was the church where I had attended Sunday school, and been confirmed. I had sat here in the pews every year for Holidays, holding candles and singing “Silent Night” before going home eagerly awaiting Christmas morning gifts. I was used to these hallways being full of laughter, and the smell of coffee and donuts and old ladies perfumes as people greeted each other with handshakes and large ear to ear smiles. I had always rushed out, eager to get home and play with my friends. I craved that warmth. Only heroin could give it to me now. Now, at this moment I felt like an intruder in an empty echo chamber of my own fear.
I hesitantly wandered the hallways until I found the main office and leaned in asking for April. She arose quickly, “Daniel?” She said smiling warmly while extending her hand. I hesitantly shook hers wondering if she could feel my sickness, and if it secretly insulted her. I assumed she knew I was an addict. My mother must’ve told her, and besides how else would a young man like myself wind up homeless on the streets in this condition?
I let go of her hand and eyed her up without trying to be obvious. She was a beautiful middle aged black woman with straight shoulder length hair, soft pillowy brown eyes, and lipstick just soft enough to make me want to fall asleep in her smile. “Come into my office please”, she said turning her back on me and trailing down the hallway. Like so many other times before, my diseased mind fantasized about winning her over. Maybe, I thought, I could get her to like me. Maybe, I could stay with her. Maybe, I could get into a relationship with her. I instantly craved her warmth and strength. These insane thoughts were the survivalist in me, I looked at her like a campfire in the cold wilderness of my life and any woman was prey for these types of delusions. I tried my best to be slightly flirtatious and win her over with my eyes. Maybe, she would see something in me that I knew was there, I just couldn’t figure out how to tap into it. I had these silent wishes all of my life, that someone would see how special and important I was beneath all of the misery and pain that guarded the man I was meant to be like an angry watchdog.
To tell the truth, the conversation was anything but poignant. I mostly wrestled with my own thoughts and the sickness that was overcoming every fiber of my being. While she asked me the types of questions that a therapist would ask, my mind was anywhere but in the present conversation. But then the conversation took an interesting twist and suddenly I was jolted out of my inner dialogue.
“Well what do you think could help you the most right now?” She inquired as if she was ready to make it possible.
Almost on cue, I replied “I need money……well, money and a place to stay, or money to get a place to stay”.
She knew it was coming. She was prepared, mental rifle held and poised ready to shoot down that notion like a skeet shooter at the range. She smiled softly, and said “I’m not so sure that’s possible” as my heart exploded like a clay target for an instant and then came back together.
“I tell you what I can do for now, though” she said, as I perked up. “The church has a bunch of gift cards and certificates from local restaurants and I’m going to go grab a handful for you so that you can get food throughout the coming week”. I felt a small pang of hope. Nothing ever came easy in this world, but at least maybe I could sell these gift cards and get money to get high for the night so that I could sleep again.
“Would that be alright?” She asked. I responded as if this wasn’t a favor at all “I mean, I guess, I can use them.”
She told me to wait right there, and quickly arose from her chair and exited the room. My skin was crawling, there was no end to the misery in sight. I had to find a way out of this mental and physical prison of torture. As soon as the door clicked behind her I was on my feet searching her desk drawers. If I could find even just twenty dollars in cash I would be well on my way to reprieve from this inner hell. I rifled quickly through the drawers of her desk searching for something of value, anything. The closest thing I found to a way out was a checkbook. I ripped off the top check and stuffed it quickly into my pocket.
When she returned to the room I was sitting forward in my chair, hands clutched tightly in the front pocket of my hoodie trying to keep from freezing in the warmth of that room. She handed me an envelope of gift cards and certificates and said “Can we talk again sometime soon?” I replied, “sure” having no intention of ever seeing her again, and I never did.
I felt dirty. I felt dirtier than when I had walked to that church. A million showers couldn’t cleanse the filth on my soul, as I walked back across town. The gift certificates were a bust. I could try to make use of them on a later date but it would take a lot of work. I didn’t need them for food. Anything I needed to eat I stole from the store, but these certificates were only for five and ten dollars from the local Friendly’s and fast food restaurants and to make matters worse they had the churches name on them.
I walked a couple miles back across town dragging my aching limbs through the invisible cobwebs of heroin withdrawal every step of the way until I reached a shopping center near the building that I was sleeping in. There I set up shop beneath a payphone. Hours of misery ticked by as my body wrenched between sickness and pangs of anxiety while I smoked cigarettes that tasted like foul regret, and bummed quarters off of passerby to use the phone. It was twilight by the time I reached one of the few addicts that I knew had a car, and managed to convince him that I had eighty dollars. I told him where I was, and he told me he was picking up his girlfriend and on his way. The deal was that I had to get them both high, and put gas in his tank.
When you’re waiting for your ride to get well, minutes feel like eternity and the symptoms of your sickness begin to quickly exacerbate. The excitement of finally getting high and chasing away the misery battles aggressively with the anxiety of what could go wrong in the process of getting to the city and copping. I went insane inside as the two feelings went to war inside my body and mind. Then just before he arrived I thought of April. I thought of her missing that check. I thought of my mother calling her to help me, and me doing exactly what anyone would expect me to do, and yet even worse. This was a pastor. This was a woman who tried to help me. Is this what I did to people that try to help me? Is this really who I am? I wanted to cry but heroin had sucked my tear ducts dry. There was nothing left in this callous, soulless void that was me. In an hour I would be high and none of this would matter. My body would feel normal, my cigarettes would taste good, my insides would feel warm, and I would nod off into the abyss. Then while I was high I would go find a way to get money so that I wouldn’t have to go through this again when I was sick.
I thought of that church I had been at earlier in the day and it felt like a foggy dream. I remembered those warm Christmas Eve services, and here I was again feeling the way a child does on Christmas Eve. Yet instead of eagerly awaiting a morning of unwrapping toys, I was eagerly awaiting for this truck to arrive and take me to the city so that I could feel normal just one more night. Just to feel normal. Just to fucking feel normal.
My soul wrenched inside and I imagine it screamed out into the eternal abyss as an inner battle welled up inside of me. I was so close, he would be here any minute to whisk me away to Heaven and yet something wasn’t right. My heart was changing and I felt almost akin to the Grinch on Christmas Eve. My heart didn’t grow but it palpitated and I was nauseous at my own level of dereliction. I had done so much wrong in my life, but this was so wrong. This, I just couldn’t do. This was a pastors check…….that tried to help me! I had to do something fast. I pulled it from my pocket with shaking hands and ripped it in half before I could change my mind.
I ripped it down the middle and instantly wanted to glue it back together, but I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t if I could. Even somewhere in the deep inner recesses of the vile creature that was me was a light. There still was humanity. There still was hope. I felt good, but also felt that I had made a huge mistake. A good mistake, one that I would regret for the night, but not for eternity.
When they arrived, I pleaded with them to let me ride along with them. I promised to make it up to them if they just let me come with them and get high for the night but they refused. I embarrassedly explained to them what had happened, because they thought I had lied altogether about the potential money. Then in mid argument, I just stopped and surrendered. I put my hoody over my head and walked away in defeat. I sulked across the parking lot back towards the building that I had made my nest in, and remember hearing “fucking asshole” shouted at my back as I headed towards my sick oblivion.
That night was long and painful. I sweat, I vomited, I shook and I never slept, and those feelings carried well into the next day until I eventually found a way to get high again. However, that decision did something to my self worth. There was salvation within me. There was a tiny spark in the dismal emptiness of who I was that still glimmered. There was hope. They say that God is all knowing and my life was written long before I ever lived it, but if that’s not true then I would guess maybe that very moment was the test that proved me worthy of salvation. There was still a tiny speck of human left inside of me, and it couldn’t defy this woman that I has met who called herself a representative of God. This woman that I didn’t know, but had been put there that day to usher me a test that would affect me for the rest of my life.
I got high for a few more years, in and out of prisons, homelessness and various overdoses, but I had been stamped along the way. As unworthy as I was, God had stamped me “Keep this one around for a little while longer”, and that is exactly what he did. Now because of April, and all of the other people I harmed or influenced along the way, I give. I give of myself whenever possible. I give back to whoever and wherever I can. I give out of gratitude and purpose because that check may have been the one that brought me an overdose that I never would have woke from. I am humble enough to know that there are some checks out there that I can’t cash, and I walk through life grateful that even in the darkest times there was a glimmer of wisdom that told me to rip it up and surrender.
The fellow addict friend that was driving that truck that night is currently serving life without parole in a Florida penitentiary for murder, and the female passenger overdosed years later not long after giving birth to beautiful daughter. I don’t know why I survived, but when I think back to these pivotal moments, it is all that I can do to share. It is my duty to share. We all, no matter how lost, still have the tiniest glimmer of humanity left within us. We mustn’t let it go. This is the cycle that we MUST break.