All I said to him was, Is this who you want to be?
’ll never know for sure why I singled Eddie out.
It was a dark and stormy night, which means it was warm and dry in the ER. We often see guys like him in such weather, unfortunately: homeless people who just need a warm place to stay until morning. So they come in with a complaint, maybe medical, maybe psychiatric, just to get inside. Sometimes they’re loud and obnoxious, sometimes they’re grateful and docile. Usually they’re intoxicated.
I say that without judgment. This is just an unfortunate reality: These people are homeless, sometimes mentally ill, always suffering deeply, and they turn to alcohol as a form of self-medication.
We get our regulars, we accept the abnormal as normal, and we usually just let them sleep it off in a corner. So why did I approach Eddie? Was it because he was new to the ER? I had never seen him before.
“Who are you?” I asked him.
He turned his bloodshot eyes to me. “Leave me alone,” he replied. “I just want a place to stay. You don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you.”
I pressed him, I’m not sure why. “I’ve never seen you here,” I said. “We get guys like you in here all the time, but you’re new.”
He didn’t say anything.
“How’d you end up like this?”
Tears welled up in his eyes. “You really wanna know?”
I sat down. “Yes. Tell me.”
Everyone has a story. I might look at a homeless drunk and see a homeless drunk, but he is a person just like I am. He came from somewhere, he has a history.
He has dreams.
The guy told me his name was Eddie. He spoke softly and haltingly; he didn’t say anything mean or nasty. He had served in the military, he told me, a fine, upstanding citizen serving his country. When he finished his service, he got into real estate property management. He had a stable income, got married, had kids. He had it all together, owned a house. He was living his dream.
Then it fell apart. His partner was doing some shady business on the side; the law came after him; Eddie was setup to take the fall. He lost all his assets. His wife left him. His kids were estranged.
Eddie was left alone, and it was devastating.
He was forced to file bankruptcy, his credit was shot, he couldn’t rebuild. He moved into a tiny apartment in a rundown part of the city, the cheapest rent he could find. Still, he couldn’t pay it. Both the lawsuit and the divorce left him with outrageous legal expenses. Eventually, he fell into a depression. With no job, no family, and no prospects, he started drinking just to pass the time. It was his only way to escape.
He’d been this way for a year. He was moving around from shelter to shelter and stated baldly that he “didn’t have anything to live for.”
What can you say to such a story?
What did I say? I couldn’t find words to make it all just go away. I couldn’t think of anything profound or inspiring. But I had to say something, so I said, “Is this who you want to be?”
Eddie looked startled; something flickered in his eyes. “No,” he said. The flicker died. “But I don’t know what else to do.”
I called the hospital social worker. “Can we do something for him?”
“Will he go into rehab?”
He said he would.
By some miracle, Eddie still had government health insurance. The social worker managed to snag a bed for him at our inpatient alcohol rehab program.
That was the last I heard of Eddie.
That’s how it works in the ER. You see patients, you do what you can, they move on, you move on.
Six months later, I ran into the grocery on my way home from work. It was pouring rain, I was soaked, it was late, I just wanted to get home already. I jammed my bottle of milk down on the counter and dropped a $5 bill beside it. But when I looked up at the cashier, he was staring at me.
“You’re the one,” he said.
“You’re the one. You saved me.”
I looked again — it was Eddie.
“You’re the one who saved my life. You saw that I was a real person, not a drunk. You talked to me — no one else talked to me. You got me into rehab.”
I stared. He was clean-shaven, wearing decent clothes.
“I went to rehab, it was tough, but I stuck it out. Then I moved to a halfway house. I go to AA meetings now. I work here, it’s nothing special, but it’s a stable job. I’m going for training so I can get back into real estate.” He couldn’t stop talking. “They found me a counselor to teach me how to repair my credit so I can start over. I’ve been reaching out to my kids; maybe one day I’ll have them back in my life.” He handed me my change and repeated, “You’re the one.”
All I had said to him was, Is this who you want to be?
It can happen in your community, too.
Someone loses his job. Finances are tight. Shalom bayis takes a blow. You see him drinking a little at a shalom zachar on Friday night. You see him drinking a little more at the kiddush Shabbos morning.
And you think to yourself, should I say something?
What can I say?
You should say something.
You can say, “Is this who you really want to be?”
You can be the one.
I didn’t really think it was going to work, that day that I walked up to Eddie and stretched out a hand. I didn’t think it was going to work, because it fails far more often than it succeeds.
But whenever I remember Eddie, it makes me want to do it all over again.
All names and identifying details have been changed. Patient profiles may be based on composite cases.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 762)
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