“I'm going to California." Belinda's voice on the answering machine was scratchy. "Thanks for trying to help me." • I was both angry and relieved. Angry because she hadn't changed; relieved because she was still alive. I'd met Belinda six months ago at one of those clubs in Tampa where people go when they're trying to get and/or stay straight and sober. She had her two children with her that day, a boy about 10 and a girl, 6. Both had sad, scared looks on their faces. Belinda was very thin but pretty, with long, dull brown hair. • She was addicted to crack and wanted desperately to get off it, she said. Would I help her?
I didn't know anything about crack, but I told Belinda I was willing to help her if she was willing to be helped. I gave her my phone number. "It's a simple program," I told her, "but not an easy one. You have to want to be clean and sober more than anything else." I also told her she was going to have to ask for help from a higher power. She promised to call me the following day.
It was six weeks before Belinda called again. She was in a drug treatment program. She'd lost her kids and her home but worst of all, she'd lost more of herself. Sobbing, she told me how she'd robbed her parents' home for money to buy crack. They didn't want anything to do with her anymore and Belinda was scared. She was running out of people.
When the 28 days of treatment were up, Belinda left the hospital and moved into a halfway house. She needed a job. She talked about modeling or being a travel agent, but what she found was a job as a waiter.
She found a new boyfriend, too, and all she talked about was being "in love." He was in recovery, too. Despite strong objections from me and others, they moved into an apartment together. It would be okay, Belinda insisted. They'd made a promise to each other: no drugs. Two days later, Belinda got high and the boyfriend kept his promise — she was out on the streets.
She called me for help. I wasn't her fairy godmother, I told her. I didn't have any magic solution. But I couldn't let her sleep in a park the way she had the night before. I told her she could stay with me for a few days.
After we had coffee and talked, Belinda reminded me that my workday started before hers and she didn't have a key to the house. It was the first time I'd considered Belinda's having access to my house and all the stuff she could hock.
"You don't trust me, do you?" Belinda said, as if reading my mind.
I hesitated. "I want to trust you, Belinda," I said, handing her an extra key.
Monday morning I left a frightened Belinda at home. Her shift didn't start until 10. Later, she called me at work to tell me she was moving in with a new friend. She'd leave the key under the doormat.
"Wait a minute, Belinda. Didn't we just talk last night about your impulsiveness?"
"I know, but I'll be all right," she argued. "I won't use. I promise."
"This person you're going to live with," I asked, "is he straight?"
"Kind of," she answered. "It'll be okay, though," she insisted, "and I'll come over tonight and tell you all about it."
Two weeks later, she showed up at my door. Her long hair was even duller and unkempt and there were dark circles under her bloodshot eyes.
"I'm messed up," she said as I opened the door.
I just shook my head and led her into the kitchen, where I was fixing dinner. "Want something to eat?"
"No, no," she said, "but I need to borrow $25. It's not for drugs. I promise."
"I don't have $25." My purse was sitting on the kitchen table. I pulled out my wallet. All I had was $7 and I gave it to her.
Disappointment clouded her face as she sat down at the table. "I guess I can get the shoes anyway," she mumbled, then told me what had happened. The man she was living with had given her $25 that morning to buy a uniform and a pair of shoes for a new job. He'd threatened to kick her out if she spent the money for drugs. As soon as he left the house, she'd gone to Port Tampa.
"But I just can't live on the streets again," she cried, standing up and wringing her hands.
"You don't have to, Belinda. You can get straight," I said.
Belinda was moving quickly toward the front door. She turned and put her arms around me. "I love you," she whispered.
"You've got to start loving yourself, Belinda."
She smiled that sad, sweet smile. "I'll try," she whispered. "I'll try."
That was the last I'd heard from Belinda until the recorded message.
My anger dissolved into tears. We're taught that if we spend too much time on someone who's not ready, we might miss the opportunity to help someone who is. I'd really wanted Belinda to be ready. I'd wanted her to have a chance to live and be free. But it didn't matter what I wanted. Belinda wanted something else.
Mary Lou Protheroe, a retired legal secretary, has helped others achieve and live a sober life through Alcoholics Anonymous as a sponsor and informal counselor.