What Took You So Long?

Not so very long ago I took a long walk on the Bennington Lake path, which looks out on the rolling hills, summer green now turned to winter brown, spread out before the snow-covered Blue Mountains. 

A friend, walking in the opposite direction, stopped to talk. For several minutes we shared news about our lives, but there was something about the look on her face, a tiny frown, or perhaps it was the sudden catch in her voice, the slight hesitations as we talked.

"Are you okay?" I asked.  

"Oh, you know," she said, looking out at the hills and the mountains.  She started to cry.  She told me a story about someone she loves who is an alcoholic.  She said she can't help him unless her friend wants help.

"He wants help," I said.  I know this is true.  I know it with all my heart, all my being, for I have talked with hundreds of people who are in trouble with alcohol or other drugs and never, not once, have I sensed that they were happy with the life they were living -- a life filled with shame and despair, with hopes of being different, with dreams destroyed, with fear, desperation and dread.  

"Really?" she said, eyes wide, cautious hope in her voice.

At that moment I thought of the story, told to me not so very long ago by my great friend, Joyce Sundin.  Joyce is an intervention specialist who works with families to educate them about addiction and give them the tools they need to help their loved ones into treatment and recovery. 

Every intervention is unique, and the unexpected is expected.  On this particular day Joyce accompanied several family members, desperate to help their 19-year-old meth-addicted son, to the trailer park where he was living.  When they knocked and no one answered, they entered the double-wide trailer to find the boy asleep on a ratty old couch.  He woke up, looked around at his mother, his father, his brother, and Joyce, a stranger.  Sitting up, he said, “Is this an intervention?”

“So you know about interventions?” Joyce said, her voice soft and kind.

He nodded his head. 

“Well, then, you know the drill,” she said.  “Your family loves you very much.  They want to share their concerns.  Are you willing to hear them out?" 

“Yeah,” he whispered. 

The boy’s mother, father, and brother read their letters, short and to the point.  We love you, we’re scared for you, we’re sick at heart, you need help.

“Are you willing to get help?” Joyce asked the boy.

He pulled his hoodie sweatshirt over his head and disappeared.  A long silence ensued.

Finally, slowly, he pushed the hoodie back, took a deep breath and said, “What took you so long?”

What took you so long?  

All too often, we wait, praying the light will shine through, hoping things will change.  We wait, believing we do not have the power to alter the trajectory of another person's life. And therein lies one of the great truths of this life.  The only life we can save is our own. 

But we do have the power to express our love and concern.  Not once, but often, over and over again we can speak out, even when we are pushed back with anger or even hatred. For addiction is like that: It fights back with bared teeth and clenched fists. 

We defeat it by not giving up -- "never, never give up," the mother of a 16-year-old who killed himself after a relapse told me with fierce intensity -- and by acting sooner rather than later.  Because the sooner we act, the greater the chance that a change will begin.  Imperceptible, perhaps, at first, but change for people struggling with addictions is like that.  It builds and grows inside, a deep gnawing sense of knowing that life holds out something better, something more meaningful.  For once upon a time life was different, perhaps not easy or simple, but different.

And the day comes when the changes taking place inside are ignited by the love of another, and the question is asked.  "What took you so long?"