Rebecca Sumner weaves a story together about how living intentionally in your neighborhood is not the utopia we originally assume. Originally posted here on March 22, 2017.
This is a story. It’s not a real story. It’s a collection of bits of real stories. It’s inspired by how I’ve seen things play out or not play out in the lives of neighbors. It’s not a real story. But it probably is pretty close to a real story from a person I just haven’t met yet. It’s what poverty and addiction can look like in our country.
Josh felt like he had it all. His job was hard on him. There wasn’t much job security. It didn’t pay enough to cover the bills. The hours were unreliable. But, he had a brand new son that made the hard work, low pay, and too-tiny apartment worth it. WIC helped with food. So, while things were tight, his son got the nutrition he needed and that was good enough.
His relationship with his son’s mom was getting a little rocky, like most do in the first year of becoming parents. Working so hard for not quite enough, living in a small space, trying to co-parent when you’re just learning to parent. It’s not easy. But everything was still manageable. Hard, but manageable. And in that way, Josh still felt like he had it all.
In one possible reality, Josh would sometimes join me at the public library for story time with his baby. Our kids would play together. Fight a little. Mainly learn together. As Liv does, she would probably try to kiss him. She like to kiss strangers right now…
I would be able to tell he and I lived very different lives. But he’d be my neighbor who didn’t get the work he needed that day and so took his kid to the library in hopes he might have a different future or at least that he’d have a special morning with Daddy. Our kids would grow up together. They’d go to school together. I’d talk to Josh at talent shows and science fairs. We might have very little in common, but he’d be someone I value as he seeks the best for one of Liv’s little friends.
But in another possible reality, the unthinkable – but too common – happens: one night, his son just stops breathing. Maybe Josh swaddled him wrong. Maybe he left a stuffed animal in the bedside co-sleeper when he himself was just too tired to stay on top of it all. Maybe nothing odd happened. Sometimes babies just stop breathing. It’s rare enough that most of us don’t have to deal with it, but common enough every parent dreads it. And it happens to Josh.
The crushing depression is too much for him. Josh begins to drink a little more. His sons mother can’t deal with seeing their son’s face in his. His family can’t deal with him being so tied up in his own grief that he can’t engage theirs. They are all suffering and are out of energy to deal with his drinking. As is all too common, his family is torn apart in the wake of the loss of that sweet little boy.
By now, he’d lose his job. He can’t function after losing his son, and his hourly low wage job isn’t exactly the kind of work environment that fights for people when they slip into the dark night.
No job. No home. Rejected by family. Lost his child. Trauma upon trauma. Josh just needs somewhere to take the grief.
He can’t afford counseling. He doesn’t have a TV to turn on and zone out. He can’t go buy a pulled pork sandwich to numb the pain. He doesn’t have a gym membership to try to literally lift it away for a moment. He can’t even afford to go to the bar with old friends and drink the pain away in comfort. Instead, he huddles behind a convenience store with cheap booze. And soon that isn’t enough. The trauma is snowballing and the drinking can’t contain it.
In addition to his grief, he feels shame. In addition to his grief and shame, he feels pain. His feet hurt from walking in old shoes and wet socks everywhere. He develops these blisters that just swallow his whole foot. His back hurts from carrying everything he has on his back. His bones hurt from sleep deprivation because he can’t find a safe quiet place to sleep without business owners or police waking him up and telling him to move on. Again, trauma upon trauma upon trauma.
And there is heroin. Right there. He has no one to stay clean for. He has no way to stop the hurt. His neighbors gave him dirty looks making it clear that his mere existence was unacceptable. So, when someone offers him a break from the pain, he says yes. Yes is the only syllable that makes sense. In the face of such a collection of trauma, heroin makes sense. He says yes. And he feels the first moment of relief since his son left him.
And then he needed more. And he still needs more. And his neighbors hate him for it.
And in the one reality, he and I cross paths because of our kids. I admire the doting dad.
In the other reality, I try to hide it when I walk past him with Liv, but I cringe a little, hoping he’s not volatile, hoping Liv doesn’t ask questions about why he’s there and why he’s staring so blankly. I try to hide it. I want him to feel welcome. But my subconscious is louder than my conscience. His existence – at best – makes me uncomfortable with my own privilege and luck. What might have happened to me and my husband if we had tried to live through the loss of a child and just not made it?
In one reality, I see him as a neighbor. In the other, a nuisance. But in both realities, he is my neighbor. And if my Christianity is worth the breath I proclaim it with, I ought to treat him like a sibling.
These neighbors of ours, they all have stories of how they end up sitting on the street and/or on heroin. For a lot of them, it is a series of mishaps. For some it’s a series of bad choices. And for some, it’s one really tragic event that unravels the entire thing. The one thing they all have in common is trauma. Trauma big enough – and resources to metabolize it small enough – that saying yes to heroin makes total sense.
Often, there’s not a lot we can do to keep them from getting there. There may not even be much we can do once they are there. But we can choose whether we will be a part of the story of their trauma or the story of their health.
Will we sit with them and listen? Will we smile and greet them as neighbors? Will we teach our children to greet them as neighbors? Or will we avoid eye contact? Will we know their names or call them names? Will we compare them to animals and to trash? Or will we compare them to the God in whose image they were fashioned? Will we chastise those who reach out to them and offer hospitality or will we share our resources with those seeking to love them well? Will we get angry that they pee outside or will we ask where they can safely pee?
Will we vote for measures that lean into their sobriety? Will we vote for housing and aid? Will we vote for WIC and health care that might help keep their kiddos alive and well?
Are we a part of health or harm?
We might not get to choose which reality plays out for Josh.
But we do get to choose, every day and every moment, what kind of neighbor we are to him – no matter what happens in his life.