My friend Jack has been sober for 36 years. A while back we were talking about the old days — the drinking days — and he told me a little story about the people he used to call friends.
“I would have laid down in front of a truck for those guys,” Jack said. “They were my best friends. My only friends.
“We’d drink together every day, get completely sloshed, and then I’d come home to my family after everyone had finished dinner and the kids were getting ready for bed. And you know what I’d do? I’d pick a fight with my wife or my kids so that I could go back to the bar and be with my real friends.
“Then, one day, I realized that if I kept on drinking I was going to lose my wife, my kids, my job, my home and everything that really mattered to me. So I stopped. It wasn’t easy. It took time. I had a lot of work to do, a lot of amends to make. I’m still doing that work now, 36 years later.”
Jack smiled with acceptance and gratitude for his sober life. “So where are my old friends, the people I called my real friends, the best friends a guy could ever have? Well, they’re still hanging out at that bar, and not one of them has ever come by to say hello or see how I’m doing. Sometimes I see them drive by my house and I know they see me but they don’t wave.”
I thought about Jack a while back when I was talking to Mark a 15-year-old gang member.
“I would die for my homies,” he said, chin jutted out, fist thumping his chest.
“If you left the gang, would your friends support you?” I asked. “Would they do everything they could to help you start a new life?”
“I’ll never leave the gang. They’re my friends for life.”
For life? I wondered, but Mark’s expression told me to back off. I had no doubt that at that moment in time he would give up his life for his homies.
I thought about Jack when I talked to Sarah, 16, one day. “I love my friends,” she said. “How can I give them up?”
Sarah had been in and out of rehab and juvenile detention since she was 11. She listed half a dozen of her favorite drugs and admitted that she was addicted to most of them.
In the last year, though, she had turned her life around. She was clean, looking for a job, going to meetings.
But her old “using” friends wouldn’t leave her alone. One day two friends stopped by to tell her they had a surprise for her. Handing her a bag of marijuana, they announced, “Time to get high!”
“I don’t do that anymore,” Sarah told them. “I’m trying to stay clean.”
“Come on,” they said. “You know you’re going to use again.”
“I’m serious,” Sarah insisted.
“You mean you won’t get high every once in a while with your friends?” They were looking at her sideways, a little hostile like, “Girl, what are you trying to prove?” Like, “Girl, who the hell do you think you are anyway?”
Sarah’s eyes filled with tears as she told the story. “I didn’t use,” she said. “But all my friends are still using and they keep telling me I’m going to use again. I feel so out of it, so alone. I don’t know how much longer I can stay clean.”
I thought about Jack when Jessica, 16, told me that marijuana was her best friend. “My Mary Jane,” she said, suddenly shy, tongue-tied, as if she were describing the love of her life. “I’d do anything for Mary Jane. She’s my whole world.”
When people with drug problems go to treatment, they hear this advice, repeated over and over again: You can’t go back to your old life and your old friends. You have to make new friends. You have to build a new life.
But if that task is difficult for adults, imagine how much harder it is for adolescents, whose friends are often their whole world.
“If I give up my friends,” Joe, 17, said, “I’ll have nothing left.”
I thought about Jack when I asked several teenagers how they would describe a true friend.
“Somebody who’s not two-faced,” Ron said.
“Somebody who thinks about you every day and calls or writes you when you’re in trouble,” said Vanessa.
“Somebody who is always there for you, no matter what,” said Chris.
“No matter what?” April asked. A moment passed. “Then I guess I don’t have any true friends.”