I stepped out of the warm motel room into a cold night, processing what I had heard, seen and felt. There was a lot—poverty, addiction, hopelessness, despair. But one thing hung over it, the desperate loneliness of my friend Lara.
I wondered: How does someone heal when they are that alone? Her loneliness was not just a feeling, but a reality, her life a wreck with almost no one to care
I’d stopped to check on her. Alcohol is her struggle and she doesn’t always answer the door, often holed up alone, drinking. Tonight she answered. She was wobbly, apologizing for being drunk. Three sentences into the conversation she acknowledged her alcoholism, pointing to a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey. She didn’t look good— 50’ish, grey-skinned, gaunt, struggling to make eye-contact.
She apologized repeatedly for being drunk. She also kept thanking me, over and over, for caring enough to visit.
I asked some questions and listened to her story, “listening to addiction” as I call it. She mostly talked about how alone she is, isolated, cut off from human contact.
I asked about family. With more than 10 siblings, only one speaks to her, a brother who helps with rent and keeps her off the street. Good thing. She wouldn’t live long on the street.
Same with her kids; she has several but none speak with her.
Beyond her brother, she lives in isolation, cut off from human warmth and love. The room gave testimony to that—curtains drawn, the door rarely opened. Inside, a woman alone, drinking herself to death. Her repeated thanks for my visit, seemingly awestruck that anyone would care enough to check on her, only deepened my understanding of her loneliness.
Loneliness is crippling. Research shows that. People who have close relationships—a spouse, family, close friends, a loving community—are healthier in general. And, should a crisis hit—surgery, cancer, heart attacks—they seem to recover more quickly from it. Loneliness has the opposite effect. Health is worse and when crises hit, loneliness multiplies the damage, even leading to death. Loneliness cripples; loving community heals.
At the end of the Vietnam War, the government worried about returning vets. Twenty percent were addicted to heroin. The prospect was overwhelming. What would they do with young males, people who should be on the front end of a productive life, coming back to live the long road of addiction?
But an odd thing happened on their return. Most stopped their heroin usage overnight. That is unheard of. A few addicts can stop cold turkey; others struggle to find health; most never escape.
The numbers are striking. Roughly, for every 100 soldiers returning, 20 were heroin addicts. However, upon returning, 19 stopped overnight. Only 1 out of 100 had long-term addiction, still a tragedy but on a smaller scale.
A lot of people puzzled over this. Why were they able to stop?
The broad answer: From slogging through jungles, living in constant terror, isolated and alone, they returned to a life of meaning. That by itself helped. But think of the relational side of this. They also returned to people who they loved and who loved them, people to share community with, people to help them with their problems, people who were there for them in the transition back.
The lesson is this: They needed people to heal. So does Lara. So do we. We need relationships. We need love. On the other hand, to live isolated and alone, in the grip of long-term loneliness, does enormous damage to body, mind and spirit.
One interesting, even comical, bit of research backs that. People who are smokers—one of the most destructive things you can do to your body—but are in healthy relationships are healthier than people who don’t smoke but are desperately lonely. The lesson seems to be that if you are going to smoke, do it with friends! It will help your health.
Back to Lara, shuttered in her room, the world at bay, alone. Her chances of beating addiction on her own are almost non-existent.
She faces two problems: One, she has no one close enough to her to help on her journey, no one to turn to when trying to say no to a drink, no one to check on her.
Two, she has no one to get better for, no face of a child, spouse, friend or family member to motivate her on the days she wants to give up. Lara said it that night, “Who is there to make me want to beat this? No one cares.” Sadly true.
She has a faith in Jesus, reads an old King James Bible, and cries out to God for help. But things don’t change, a fact I see repeated among our friends. Many believe in Jesus, pray, even read the Bible a bit. But they still struggle. Seeing that has shattered some of my “Jesus only” theology. For years, working among healthier people, I used this phrase: “Until Jesus is all you have, you won’t know that Jesus is all you need.” There is a great truth in that, but I tell you that for people who live in this world—traumatized, mentally ill, addicted, poor, broken and lonely—that truth alone does not seem to work. They need more than Jesus. God designed us for community.
Lara needs friends, needs community, needs people whom she can love and who can love her. She needs help, yes, but she also needs people to live for, a reason to fight. So do our other friends. So do we, a lesson we have all learned through the pandemic.
What better solution than the Body of Christ, the Church, the Family of God? It is for us who follow Jesus to be friends of the friendless. Lacking that, healing won’t come; with it, the road will be hard but there is hope of healing, hope found only in loving relationships with others.
PS: A Request: This summer we are having a campaign to raise money for our building rehab. We are calling the campaign “A Place To Come To.” We would love to build a solid prayer team to pray for God’s favor over that. If you are interested in being a part of that prayer team, send a response to me and I will let you know details.
PPS: Details of the above story have been changed to protect the identity of our friends.