Take me to the alley
Take me to the afflicted ones
Take me to the lonely ones that
somehow lost their way
— from Gregory Porter’s 2016 CD, “Take Me to the Alley”
We live in an imperfect world of disease and disability where nonprofit organizations are dedicated to promoting understanding, advocating for treatment and finding cures. But no one truly comprehends the underlying psychological and emotional causes of the invisible disability of addiction — how it brings the brightest down and crushes the fragile promise of happiness. And most importantly, how it can happen to anyone, even those closest to us.
I learned today it happened to someone who I once thought was invincible. Not only were we close, in our early twenties we talked of marriage — but our lives took different directions.
Growing up she was a bright, happy, uplifting presence. Her smile and laughter lightened the mood of everyone around her. She was strong, pretty, talented and steadfast, grounded in her own confidence and her family’s faith in God. She grew into a brilliant pianist whose music moved hearts and engendered joy. At the age of 25 she married an older man, respected and powerful, had two precious sons and lived an idyllic life in an upscale community.
And yet, something was, apparently, not right. It might have been a mysterious unmet need that gradually bled off her sense of contentment in her world. It may have been an emotional wound that festered in the quiet of night. Perhaps it was the strangling tyranny of great expectations that slowly closed off her future. Or the loneliness brought on by the success of her husband. Maybe it was all of these things. Or none of them. Maybe, beneath the smile and laughter, she was secretly becoming lonely and sad, yet no one had eyes to see it.
The high school homecoming queen who never touched alcohol started drinking at some point. While her husband traveled widely on business, she raised their boys in an environment of unfettered opportunity, yet they began to display symptoms of discontent. One drank heavily; the other became addicted to heroin. Maybe she blamed herself and guilt took root. Maybe that is how — contrary to the bright promise that lit her way from the beginning — she herself became an alcoholic.
And then came the slow but inevitable decline that took years, perhaps decades. Looking back, the real tragedy for those of us who shared our youthful lives with her was that we knew nothing of her struggle in later life.
No matter the cause of her decline, no one could have predicted what I learned about her today, so many years later — how she degenerated from alcohol to something worse, until, at 72, she died on the street of a heroin overdose, homeless. Sad, shocking, unthinkable.
Neither the details of her death nor my speculation on what might have led up to it were included in her obituary, and rightly so. But the absence of the whole truth in those final words — as painful as it is — exposes an escalating failing in our national culture that is larger than any single life: denial is consuming us.