Stephen jumped to his death from the top of the parking lot of the hospital that housed the locked mental health ward he frequented subsequent to my collusion in his recruitment into the mass of the chronically mentally ill. I was doing noble work, intervening in the lives of chemically dependent people who, according to the orthodoxy, were doomed to a tragic life of institutionalization and premature death if they did not receive our intervention. Twenty-odd years later, having endured many diagnoses in many institutions, Stephen took back his life in an odd act of grace.
We were young and eager when we met, young in different ways, and eager in different ways. He was in his second year of college feeling the emerging power of discovering a life apart from his family. I was in my forties, finding a new life in a new job, and meeting new people. I was starting what was to become a twenty-year career as an addictions specialist. I joined a team of coworkers who took comfort in preaching the then emerging truth that addiction to mood altering chemicals is a progressive disease, and denial of the disease is one of its definitive symptoms. The centrality of denial was a pivotal issue in distinguishing between enlightened and unenlightened models of addiction and approaches to its treatment. Advocates of the disease model were finding and celebrating high-ground in the fight for the right to treat chemically dependent people who were doomed to progressive degradation if they did not receive enlightened treatment designed to open their eyes to the blight of their affliction and the light of recovery. I saw beauty and folly in our enthusiasm. Had I expressed the folly to the extent I saw it, Stephen might have been deprived of his odd act of grace.
The beauty of our enthusiasm lay in the basic truths contained within the 12-Steps, which served as a guiding light for the vision we sought to impart to our clients. The beauty of our enthusiasm also lay in the rejuvenation, serenity and joy experienced by many of the people we served. The counselors and clients often shared a joyful sense of relieving ourselves of our sour thoughts.
The folly of our enthusiasm lay in the manner in which we believed and proselytized our truths. Our team undertook the mission of saving the lives of chemically dependent people, and anyone who did not see the rightness of our mission was in denial, uneducated or evil. We thereby disregarded colleagues and clients whose beliefs were dissonant with ours.
Stephen came to us with a belief which was, by definition, pathological. He told us he was not chemically dependent. His truth was that other people were interfering with his life because they did not want him to smoke marijuana. The eyes of the law were on Stephen, as were the eyes of treatment professionals and his family; yet he would not quit using marijuana. We held out — he had to quit using. He held out — he was doing fine save for our caring intervention. The stage was set for his odd act of grace.
Stephen’s first involuntary stay at a state mental hospital occurred prior to his showing the initial signs of debilitating problems with thought and mood management that underlie diagnoses leading to chronic hospitalization. Upon leaving our care, he was sent to an addictions unit that served criminal justice offenders who are given an option of inpatient treatment in lieu of more punitive incarceration. He did not yet meet criteria for what are termed major mental disorders, but he was deemed in need of care well beyond the level available on an outpatient basis.
I saw Stephen shortly after he completed that first episode of heavy-duty mental health treatment. He had returned home and was in jail for some offense related to his continued marijuana use. I entered the jail in the guise of a mental health professional doing something useful, and therefore sanctioned by the goodwill of the criminal justice system. I sat at a table with Stephen, and we talked, his mind still fully intact. He told me that some of the attendants at the state hospital were unnecessarily rough. He told me they had hurt him a couple of times. He looked in my eyes and assured me “It was ok”. At some point, toward the end of our conversation, he asked me, “Why are they treating me this way? I’m not a bad kid”.
He was by now over twenty-one. He was in jail. He had been locked up in a state hospital. Prime years of growth and discovery were taken from him. And he asked me why they were hurting a good kid. I told him he was not a kid any more and it is what it is. When I left I felt I could see the remainder of Stephen’s life. But I did not envision the odd act of grace that terminated it.
What could I have done and why didn’t I do it? It was hard for me to tell my team that the invocation of denial helps some people, but does not help others. I feared the familiar, dizzying trap of feeling inferior and superior.
It was hard for me to tell the team that I appreciated and loved the beauty of their vision, but their belief that they had captured a truth that transcends their need to believe and tell their truths was naïve. I knew better. They didn’t.
I did not say: Feel his pain. He wants to believe that his enthusiasm is right and enlightened, just as we want to believe our enthusiasm is right and enlightened. Yes, his refusal to stop smoking marijuana may be indicative of an inability to use marijuana or other drugs without a devastating loss of control. Maybe the quality of his life is bound to be impaired if he uses marijuana or other drugs. But we don’t know, and the impact of our good services may be hurting this precious, striving young man.
I did not say: Stephen is neither chemically dependent nor is he chemically independent. People are more than our beliefs about them. Stephen lives and walks in his hopes and his fears beyond our thoughts and our visions of what he is, beyond the truths that feed us. It does not matter whether chemical dependency is or is not a progressive disease. What matters is whether or not believing in that truth helps or hurts Stephen.
I did not say: The quality of Stephen’s life is more important than the numbing satisfaction of our orthodoxy.
I did not say: I am afraid we are colluding in taking Stephen’s life away from him.
When I parted from Stephen in jail, I believed he was doomed to a life of institutional care; and so he was. I know I do not know the truth of Stephen, and that truth resides in me with a weight that does not so burden the members of the team I sought to join for mutual support thirty years ago. I believe Stephen gave his life to the service of other people’s truths, and he took back his life in an odd act of grace.
We were young and eager when we met, each young and eager in his own way. Time has passed, yet I am still drawn to stand where Stephen stood as he took back his life; I yearn for mine, and I receive the gift of his grace: I am afraid. I am hurt by the wrong of my right. I am not a bad kid. Nobody understands. I want my life back.