A Black Hole in His Soul

He was wedded, not to wife and children, but to drugs. He could no more abandon his habit than they could abandon him.

He was killing himself and he knew it, slowly, inexorably, intentionally, consuming vast quantities of alcohol and prescription drugs, indifferent to his failing health, to the pleas of his wife and children, colleagues and friends, siblings, aging parents, rabbi. Nothing mattered any longer but the fatal embrace of his twin addictions, the soaring amphetamine rush followed by the cocktail tranquility of twelve-year-old Scotch-a cycle repeated dozens of times each day in a desperate effort to keep from tumbling into the black hole of terminal despair that had dogged him since early adulthood. Oscillating from high-wired jolt to jolt without a net, he believed he had no alternative but to dance or die.

To the doctors, relatives, and friends fearing for his life, he gave the same disturbingly blithe response: "I've been drunk and I've been sober…and drunk is better." Even if it meant destroying his liver, they asked, overtaxing his heart, damaging his brain and central nervous system, alienating his wife and children, his friends, shortening his life? Yes, he insisted, living without drugs was no longer an option. That's when they knew that the damage had already been done: he was no longer able to reason cogently about something as basic as self-preservation. They would have to act as his conscience, his guardian, his chastened will.

And so, on the eve of the High Holy Days, fourteen of the people he held most dear gathered in his living room hoping to interpose themselves between him and his demons. Surely, during this season of reflection and repentance, expressions of love, demonstrations of concern, carefully reasoned explanations of the dangers he faced, and allusions to the traditions he had once observed, to the God to whom he had once prayed, would break the stranglehold of his malevolent keeper and begin the process of setting him free. They truly believed in the power of the human spirit to redress its own failings, aided by community, prayer, and personal resolve. In the past the Days of Awe had always succeeded in wresting him from his worst impulses, reminding him of his youthful dreams and reconnecting him to a benevolent God. He would emerge from these periods of introspection determined to live more for others than himself; and for a time, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, he would interact with the world as though partnered with God, the wisdom of his ancestors impelling selfless deeds, subduing self-destructive inclinations.

And, indeed, their first day together he was wracked with guilt, apologetic, brought to tears by their willingness to drop everything and travel thousands of miles on his behalf. But by day two, guilt had given way to self-justification and paranoid accusation. Cold-eyed and condemnatory, he declared himself unwilling to change.

Drugs and alcohol were not the problem, he said-life was. His every blessing was dwarfed by the yawning emptiness that threatened to overwhelm him each waking moment. They had no idea how much effort it required just to face the day. The God that had once companioned him in his search for significance, that had tutored him in self-restraint and sober fulfillments, had been eclipsed by an expedient nihilism. Where God once spoke to him, chaos now reigned. Only self-medication could prevent a complete collapse. He was saving his own life.

No, he was destroying his life to save it, they replied.

Then so be it, he countered.

Reluctantly, they left him in the care of his addictions and returned to their own lives, determined to try again, unwilling to accept such a Godless landscape. They contemplated forcibly committing him to rehabilitation, knowing that coerced hospitalizations rarely succeeded. They wrote him long letters, made anguished phone calls in which they evoked the God and traditions of his past, reminded him of his best intentions, warned that every morning brought him one day closer to catastrophe. He deflected their concerns with the offhand observation that they were all one day closer to death, God or no God. Why subject himself to the dangers of detoxification if he would awaken to the same shattering void that drove him to drink in the first place?

Then he turned their apprehensions into condemnations of his own: what about their so-called social drinking, their chronic use of pain-killers, their overeating, their obsession with weight, with fitness, with high-stress occupations? Say what they would, he was still overseeing his obligations, however circumscribed, still running errands, paying bills, attending social functions. Yes, he was erratic, but who wasn't; yes, his days were saturated in lies, but so were the lives of most doctors, lawyers, and businessmen; yes, it was probably best that he not get behind the wheel, but his elderly parents posed just as great a threat. He hadn't embezzled funds, murdered a neighbor, cheated on his wife, beaten his children; and as for any supposed emotional abuse, what parent wasn't guilty of that! He was still a loving, caring, financially responsible father, and was available to his children more than most. So leave him alone!

But they couldn't concede to hopelessness, not where human will was concerned. As the weeks and months passed, they considered draconian measures: his wife should leave him, his children and siblings reject him, his parents disown him. If they imposed sanctions for irresponsible behavior, he would be compelled to choose between addiction and family, oblivion and accountability. They understood, and accepted, the limits of faith: the body would follow its mortal trajectory regardless of prayer and the practiced hand of medicine. But the mind, the seat of belief and hope and change, was always capable of transcendence. There true healing resided.

But he had already made his choice. And despite their anger and anxiety, they could not reject him, not simply because of their longstanding love, but because they knew he was wedded, first and foremost, not to wife and children, but to drugs. He could no more abandon his habit than they could abandon him. They, not he, were the ones being forced to make the tough choices, to compromise their beliefs, question their certainties, accept the status quo.

Gradually, the unified front they had attempted to maintain began to crumble. Some wheeled away in angry frustration. Others, unable to accept their powerlessness, intensified contact, hoping to gain greater leverage. But nothing they said or did altered his behavior.

In the end it all came down to will and to something as basic and elusive as gratitude. There were those who had the strength of character to make the simple binary choice, yes or no, and to hold fast to their resolve, despite suffering and setback, grateful for whatever life and strength remained to them. But he was not one of them. He had never possessed great stores of either gratitude or will power. Where others glimpsed light, he saw enveloping darkness. He had tried to change, but at the first obstacle he retreated, unable to adhere to any resolution that ran counter to native impulse. Life simply weighed too heavily upon his slender frame.

Still, the resolute among them refused to abandon hope, determined to be as enduring as his demons, as dedicated as their God. They would be there, ready to catch him the moment he fell, even if only to witness his return to addiction once the crisis passed, or-God forbid-to care for his family in his absence, or-God willing-to welcome him back to a life of struggle and disappointment, achievement and satisfaction, and the gratitude born of nothing more than a beating heart.