Sunday, August 7, 2016

On Back Pain, Heroin, and Kindness

I've experienced chronic back pain since I took a nose dive on some black ice when I was in junior high in New York.  I slipped on the top of our stoop, as we called it up North.  The term comes from an old Dutch word back when the Dutch owned New York, and the tidy Dutch housewives in the New World would vie with each other to see whose front steps would be the brush-cleaned brightest.

We lived on a hill in Kings Park.  If you're from Long Island, as I am, one needs to specify whether you mean Kings Park, the town or Kings Park, the State Mental Institution.  Thus, I was relieved when we moved to Stony Brook, a university town with a mill pond down the street,and only one step into the house.

Up on the stoop's first step, I had no idea that the area was covered in black ice.  My breath puffed out in a cloud in the dim early morning, still not totally light.  I slipped on the top step and went down the stairs and sidewalk on my back, landing in  heap at the curb.  I could hear the bus coming and needing to be a cool teenager, I artfully arranged  myself on the bottom step, nearly faint from pain, and sat there as if I was waiting for someone.  I waved as the bus went by.   Then, I had to crawl back up the hill.

Mostly, I am grateful that God has been with me over so many years of mostly being pain free with flare ups from time to time.  I am thankful for the 21 Navy years my husband worked under the water to ensure my medical care is extremely affordable.

However, I am in the middle of a flare up, so I faced Wednesday at work with grim determination.  I looked into our often malodorous waiting room, and saw people both sitting and standing in the too-small space.  One man stood near the door on one foot, with pain etched in his face, so I asked if he needed help.  He needed to do some business as a registered sex offender, which is what I do.

With my Sgt. sitting in the office, I  brought him in and assisted him in re-registering as required. Let's call him Mr. T.  Don't picture a big black man with bling, a Mohawk and an attitude, though, He was white, in his forties, a face showing a hard life, dressed neatly in old jeans and a nothing looking shirt that I can't recall.  He clasped his hands between his legs while I worked and my kind Sgt. assisted with looking up some information

He told me that he was in agony from back pain. I could see that this was true by just looking at him I worked as swiftly as I could, left a copy of his paperwork in his trooper's in-box, and asked if there was anything I could do to help him.

"I think I probably should go to the ER and get an MRI," he said, leaning on the door jamb.

"I think that's a good idea, " I replied.

"I don't have medical insurance," he said.

"Go anyway and you can work something out with the billing office,"

He thanked me profusely and limped out, past four people waiting for employment finger prints, squished uncomfortably next to each other on a small bench.   He wished me a blessed day.  I prayed for him as I filed the paperwork.

The next morning, I received an email from Tpr D, a dignified and accomplished law enforcement officer not given to hyperbole or wasted time.  It said simply, "Mr. T died last night from a heroin overdose.  Since you did his paperwork, I thought you would want to know."

I experienced this as a punch in my stomach.  No one who plans to end his life comes to us to register. What would be the point?  No, I imagine that he became involved in the use of street drugs as a method of self-medicating this intolerable, grinding,stabbing evil pain that I know too well. There but for the grace of God go I.

When I tell folks what I do for a living, they often recoil in horror.  However, the people that I work with aren't horrifying to me.  Sometimes they are truly evil people who have no sense of guilt. They grumble about the system being fixed.  They must be monitored carefully.

Often, they just people who made a mistake years ago and have to pay for it every single day for the rest of their lives.  As one older offender said to me, "Ma'am, if I had murdered someone, it would be easier than this."  He's right.

This whole issue illustrates the tension between personal rights and public safety.  How do we ensure that the community is safe, while at the same time not stigmatizing the person to the extent that he can't rehabilitate?  Interesting word, stigma. It comes from the Latin term stigmata, that is, Christ's wounds.

Sex offenders are the lepers of 2016; the untouchables, the irredeemables, les mserables, if you will.   If Jesus were walking the earth in human form, that's who he would be walking with. The Bible tells us that he was often in the company of tax collectors, sinners, and fallen women.  No one is beyond God's redemption.

Consider one offender who found God during a long prison sentence.  God gave him the gift of drawing and painting.  Not having any materials and no way to get them, he separated M&M's he bought from the prison commissary, crushed the shells to make his own watercolors, and painted the envelopes he sent home to friends and family with words from scripture.

Soon the prison chaplain took notice and corrections officers brought photographs of their wives and sweethearts for him to paint.  He did charcoal sketches of the life of Jesus and the chaplain sold them for him as part of his outside-the-prison ministry  Then this inmate was able to start taking courses and paying for them with his own earnings.  He was ordained in prison.

Then he was released, rented a house, and received permission to have three other offenders live there with him.   I met with two of them recently in a coffee house.  Before they left, they asked to pray for my back pain and very respectfully The Reverend laid hands on my head and prayed for me. Unredeemable?  I think not.

Remember, the Bible talks about us entertaining strangers unaware.  I once had a difficult offender who had health problems.  We would have to meet at his small apartment.  We talked about God many times.

When the local police called to tell me that he had died unattended, they advised that he was neatly tucked in bed, had not thrashed around at all, so they believed he died peacefully.  I was relieved by that

When I tried to get death information, it came to light that a man born on his birthday, with his social security number, in his home town, had died 7 years before.   Thinking I must be mistaken, I contacted our radio room, who had the same results.  Who was he?  I have no idea.  Maybe an angel sent to change my heart.

In the midst of a busy job which often causes me to work with difficult people, the unwashed, the unlovely, the smart-alecks, the liars, and the completely unrepentant, I must remember this:  I could be entertaining an angel unaware.  I may be meeting with someone on their last day on earth. Redeem the time, the Bible says.

Any of us may be encountering folks with untold grief, oppression, poor health, poverty and other issues which can make them difficult or hard to love. Try to bless them anyway:  the cranky-pants in the express lane with 21 items and a screaming toddler in the cart, the kid from another race who may scare you a little, the stressed-out husband, and the mother losing her memory.  Try a smile, try kindness, try a sincere compliment.  You may be entertaining an angel unaware.

Hebrews 13:2
Angel pic from


  1. How encouraging to read that God uses His people to love those who most would not give the time of day!

  2. This story is lovely and truly an act of God is needed in our society today. I have never been a drug addict so how can I relate to someone and judge them without knowing the path they follow. We can only continue to pray for our fellow man and encourage them; by the grace of God.