How the story ends

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Last September, I wrote a story on a friend’s decade-long struggle with drug abuse. Now, I feel the time has come to tell you the ending.

Julie, as I called her in the article, raised in the Episcopal Church, first got addicted to prescription meds in college, often drank excessively and later moved to meth. She was in and out of bad relationships, in and out of jail, and ultimately homeless.

When I interviewed her, she was in jail, reading the Bible and vowing to change her life. But the article contained one inaccuracy: She’d told me she was going to get help, so I assumed she had been released into treatment when she suddenly went silent right as we were going to press.

In fact, she’d made bail, left for the Cities and lost touch with her family soon after. On Thanksgiving night, I learned her fate: She’d been murdered, her body dumped in a shallow grave in a park.

School days

While on maternity leave, I was chatting with a 13-year-old from the Chicago suburbs. She knew which kids in her seventh-grade class were selling prescription drugs, and which kids were peddling street drugs. She told me about a classmate, a friend from a good Catholic family, who was addicted to marijuana and alcohol. His family life had turned into a sort of private hell; his parents did not know how to help him.

I told my cousin, and he countered with a story about a local kid smoking meth in the high school bathroom.

For the past year, friends of mine have been raising a foster child whose drug-addicted mother is in jail – just one of many, many children in an overcrowded regional foster care system.

Two days ago, I was relishing a little time to myself, shopping in Eau Claire, when a saleslady launched into a brief history of her family – her out-of-control 18-year-old daughter, who spends weekends with her boyfriend (one drug test, and they’d lose their jobs); her own teenage pregnancy, which led to a short-lived marriage; her current marriage, which sounds less than healthy; the problems of a friend who, after spending years in prison, is now struggling to acclimate to life on the outside; and on and on.

Where am I going with all of this? Well, first of all, the pleasure I was taking in my solo shopping trip was gone. Suddenly, I felt a selfish urge to retreat to the peaceful environs of our country home, away from the chaos and dysfunction of the outside world.

Then, I reflected, this is largely what we do. Christianity – God – gives us a strong moral compass, and if we follow it, we may lead lives filled with beauty and goodness, despite being faced with all the normal difficulties – illness, death and the like. Conversely, those who lack knowledge of this moral compass are disadvantaged – and from birth onward, they will struggle against a tide of temptation and troubles. These troubles – abuse of prescription and street drugs, family abuse, alcoholism, suicide, violence and more – are rooted in evil, and evil always tries to replicate. This, in a nutshell, is an argument for evangelization in our communities: If we do not try to reach others, the infection will spread, perhaps into our own families. As we’ve observed, being Christian is no guarantee that someone won’t set off on the wrong path, but it is far better than having no moral foundation.

This – even in our little villages – is, in Pope Francis’ words, the Church as “a field hospital.”

Secondly, the burden of dealing with the disorder wrought by those evils weighs disproportionately on public servants, social workers, counselors, members of the justice system, educators, health care workers – anyone with whom they come in regular contact. How can we best support these community members in their vocation of confronting, aiding or managing the most broken, damaged and dispirited among us? We should ask them.

Next, an observation: The social ills in our rural communities – drug use, alcohol abuse and mental illness, first among them – are growing problems, but where are the activists? There are marches for peace, rallies for immigrant rights and protests against abortion. These are all important issues – but while we are training our eyes on distant political victories, are we looking past what is happening in our hometowns?

Finally, a conclusion: We cannot save others, because only God saves. I could not save my friend, and although I feel great sorrow that I did not do more for her, I am also grateful for the time she spent drawing closer to God. Still, it is not enough. I wanted more for her, and I want more for my children, and others’ children, and for those children born into poverty and dysfunction. I want more for middle-schoolers who are already forced to confront the evils of adulthood, and for those teenagers who, confused by foolish trends or tempted by a desire to be deviant, are setting off on a path of lifelong suffering. Colleges shouldn’t be a breeding ground for drug use, promiscuity and alcoholism, and students taking anti-anxiety or similar meds should be warned – repeatedly, if necessary – that the first time they take their prescription one hour too soon, they could be sealing their fate.

Prayer is a powerful solution, but I really believe it must be paired with action. How can we confront these realities? I started by explaining to the saleslady why I’m glad I’m Catholic. It’s not much – and, like many Catholics, I’m not always comfortable wearing my faith on my sleeve – but it’s a start.

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