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Losing a friend

I didn’t set healthy boundaries with Joseph, a man who had lived his life in a climate of abuse, manipulation, and dysfunction

Losing a friend

(Robert Alexander / Getty Images)

I had a friend, whom I shall call Joseph. I say “had” because we are no longer friends. Our friendship fell apart about a week before Thanksgiving, after I had invited him to celebrate Thanksgiving with me and some friends. 

A little background history on Joseph: Joseph is a crack addict who had been homeless for 36 years. He slept on cardboard mattresses in Skid Row, and sang for food and drugs. In a way, Joseph didn’t have many chances in life: He was born to an addict, raised by an addict, stuck with addicts. When I met him, he was on a rocky path towards sobriety, and later, we celebrated his one-year sober-anniversary together with chocolate cake and candles. Though I had at first met him as a journalist for an interview, I enjoyed him as a person—his humor, his wisdom, his uproarious laughter, his enthusiasm to use his new life for good—and we became friends. 

We never got the chance to celebrate his second sober-anniversary, because several months after the first celebration, he called and said he had relapsed. He promised he would check into a rehab facility and said he was in contact with a local service provider who would connect him to various services, including housing. Our communication then became sporadic, with him messaging me or my fiancé whenever he needed some kind of help—usually petty cash for food or gas money. He always promised to pay us back but never did. 

I finally told Joseph I was uncomfortable giving him money anymore, so he changed his requests to food. He would ask for very specific things—a large Meat Lovers pizza with Pepsi and wings and triple-chocolate brownies from Pizza Hut, for instance—and ask them to be delivered to a certain address, wherever he was staying at the time, usually in his van. I knew he was struggling and had no income at the time, so I did it for him, but I struggled internally over what was the right thing to do: Shouldn’t I as a good Christian neighbor feed the hungry? Yet how do I trust an addict? How do I know I’m not just enabling his addiction? 

For a while, Joseph dropped out of communication. When I texted him, he never responded. Then one day, out of the blue, I received a Facebook message from him saying he had a new phone number. He was doing well, he told me. He found low-income housing at a neighborhood by Los Angeles. He said he was going to support group meetings several times a week and taking classes in drug counseling. He asked if we could do a movie night with my fiancé again, as we used to do before he relapsed. 

I was happy that Joseph seemed to be getting back on track—until he sent me a panicked message saying he was at risk of losing his first apartment ever, because he was short $75 in rent. He sent me pictures of his three-day notice and invoice from his landlord as proof. “Sophia, I am sorry. But I need help bad,” he said.

What was I to do? “We can’t keep bailing him out,” my fiancé told me. “He already owes me more than $100 that he never paid back.” 

“But the guy is about to be homeless again!” I exclaimed. 

Somehow, I felt like the burden of Joseph being housed or homeless fell entirely on me. I knew Joseph didn’t have much of a family or social support network, and I knew I had enough resources to help. I simply didn’t know how to say no, so I sent him $75 after making him promise he would pay me back. It wasn’t just about the money—I wanted him to be financially responsible, especially because I knew by that point he had some income from social security checks, and that a nonprofit was already helping him with his rent. 

I was pleasantly surprised when Joseph did pay me back after he got his next paycheck. It made me trust him a little more. Then he asked for money again. He needed food, he said. I sent him money. This time, he didn’t pay it back. 

Come Thanksgiving, I remembered Joseph and wondered what he was doing for Thanksgiving. He told me he was spending Thanksgiving alone, so I invited him to spend Thanksgiving with us. 

“Ooh, I gotta go to Goodwill and buy something nice to get dolled up!” he exclaimed, making me laugh. He talked about his grandmother’s candied yams, his longing for collard greens and pumpkin pie. He sounded excited.

Then he asked me to pay for his food again, this time a bucket of fried chicken. He had already chosen what he wanted on Postmates, and he wanted me to pay the $25 for it. There was nothing in his house, but he would have money the next day and would pay me back then, he promised. 

I felt a dead weight in my gut. I just didn’t feel right about it. We needed to set some kind of boundaries. So I told him, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can keep giving you money or paying for food anymore. I just think it’s not healthy for our friendship to have so many money loans involved. It gets messy and I can’t keep doing that for you, and it’s not good for you to have us as a safety net like that. I hope you understand.”

I could hear the disappointment in his voice. “Oh. OK, I understand, Sophia,” he said, and we hung up on what I thought was friendly terms.

Several minutes later, I received an essay-long text from him. He told me he was going to have to go back out on the streets to sing for money. He said when he relapsed, all his “so-called friends” who called themselves Christians dropped him, when friends are supposed to “build each other up.” He quoted Scriptures saying liars don’t make it to the kingdom of heaven, that Jesus called us to forgive our brothers seventy times seven times. He then disinvited himself from Thanksgiving dinner and said he hoped never to hear from me or my fiancé ever again. His last text to me: “God bless you because with friends like you guys, don’t need enemies, got enough of those.” 

I cried. The whole incident deeply upset me, not just because I lost someone I called a friend, but because I couldn’t help feeling guilt—guilt that perhaps I wasn’t a good Christian, a good friend, that I wasn’t empathetic or compassionate enough to his situation. I also felt hurt: After all that my fiancé and I did for him, how could he treat us this way?

My fiancé told me I did the right thing: “Notice that the one time you say no to him, he lashes out. I think that reveals a lot. You can’t help everybody.” 

Honestly, it took several weeks for me to get over it. But it was good, because it made me seriously pray and process through what happened and reevaluate my relationship with Joseph. The Bible is very clear about being openhanded to the poor, about carrying each other’s burdens, to give to those who ask, to sell our possessions and give to the poor, etc. But it also talks a lot about wisdom—and I wonder whether I could have acted with more wisdom in terms of setting healthy boundaries with someone whom I knew struggled with addiction and a history of abuse, manipulation, and dysfunction.

Loving and caring for someone who is as complex as Joseph is just as complex and messy. I wish there was a booklet that lays out exact steps on how best to care for a person according to his unique personality and situation and backstory. No such perfect guide exists, but I do have the Bible and the Spirit in me to guide and correct and encourage me through situations such as this. In the meantime, thank God, for His grace is sufficient for us.

Comments

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  • BLW
    Posted: Fri, 02/14/2020 09:48 pm

    Great article on the struggle for wise compassion and true lasting help.

  • BP
    Posted: Sat, 02/15/2020 04:30 am

    Sophia, your journalism works for me on many levels.  I appreciate the way in which you explore truth and grace, mind and heart and everyone who is impacted by those realities, including yourself.  I usually see myself in your stories both as the one seeking God’s wisdom and as the fool who has gone his own way.

  • HJM
    Posted: Sat, 02/15/2020 07:09 am

    Sophia, if you haven't read or seen Beautiful Boy, you should.  Everything you describe here is portrayed in that movie, only in the context of the relationship between a father and a son.  When drugs are involved, most of the time it is best not to give money no matter how sincere and desperate a person sounds. That money is not going toward food, rent, or gas; it is going towards the drugs.  Even though your friend may be able to care about you when sober, when on drugs the addiction takes over and demands he use anyone he can to get what the addiction craves most.  The worst part is that feeding that addiction is ultimately a death sentence for the one you care about, but not feeding the addiction (through financial support) is often a death sentence, at least temporarily, for your relationship.  

    One line from David Sheff's book that captures the feeling of trying desperately to help someone addicted that struck a chord for me: "I became addicted to my son's addiction." There is a fine line between caring and saving...only God can save and it is vital we allow Him to carry that burden.  It is impossible for us to carry that without destroying ourselves. But caring, that is no less painful, it is simply more trustful. God give you the grace to continue to care and the wisdom to know how best to do that.

  • Martin Brook
    Posted: Sat, 02/15/2020 10:01 am

    Thank you for facing these real, hard-life issues with heart and honesty. Journalling your struggles helps me in wrestling through such issues. Thank you for putting heart into all of it!

  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Tue, 02/18/2020 05:18 pm

    When your friend started throwing Scripture at you, it reminded me of Satan in the Garden of Eden, confusing God's word with trying to get you to do something you know isn't right.  Actually purchasing the food or gas or paying the rent directly to the landlord would have been better, but still enabling.  Sometimes the best thing to do is to step back and pray.