Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from December 10, 2010
Wow. We were so close in high school, and now she’s doing drugs and hanging out with gangs
“Jenny” and I were the best of friends in high school. We did everything together and were more like sisters than friends. After high school, I went away to college. She never went to college, but moved to a larger city about an hour away. Although we kept in touch for the first few years, our contact dwindled. It was both of our faults. She didn’t call me much, and I didn’t call her much. There was no falling out. At this point, I haven’t seen or spoken to Jenny in four years.
I was shocked recently to find out that Jenny got her 2-year-old son taken away from her. The reason was failing drug tests and suspected gang affiliations. I also found out she is working as an exotic dancer. This is all wildly out of character for the Jenny I knew. I’m extremely concerned about her health, safety and well-being. I don’t have her current contact information, but I think with minimal effort I could get it.
My dilemma is this. I am now 29 years old and married. My husband and I own a home, and I have a steady public sector job. We are currently expecting our first child. In other words, we have a lot to lose. I am worried about making contact with a person who is a drug user and (suspected) gang member. I don’t know what type of people she associates with now. I’m worried about putting my family or my job at risk by reaching out and associating myself with her. On the other hand, I’m terrified that I’m going to pick up the newspaper one of these days and read that her body was found in a gutter. I would feel so guilty for not having tried to help.
Should I sacrifice my family’s safety to reach out and try to help a friend who was once like a sister?
Dear Guilty BFF,
It must be upsetting to hear this news about your friend. You obviously care about her and do not want to see her hurt. However, this is her life.
Her life is not an emergency. Her house is not on fire. She is not hanging from a cliff yelling for help. She is living her life, such as it is.
She probably does not have a nice clean kitchen where the two of you could sit and chat. It may be hard to make an appointment with her if she is busy getting a fix or getting bail or dealing with child protective services or managing her complex social life.
So if you want to see her, I suggest you drop in where she dances. It will give you a chance to see her without making an appointment. You might find, after seeing her dance, that you’re not really ready to call her or see her privately. It will give you a chance to feel what it’s like to be in her world, without making yourself known.
You might not like the environment. But it will help you understand what her life is like.
Her dancing may well be the high point of her life.
To you, it may seem like a pretty disgusting way to live. But this is a life your friend has chosen. It’s not a prison in which she is being held against her will.
I know that kind of life. And one thing I know about that kind of life is that when you are living that kind of life, you do not look out at all the shiny, clean people going about their orderly lives and wish your life could be like that. You have your problems, but you do not envy the straight people. You look down on them.
Such a life is not an unremitting horror. It has its ups and downs. She may occasionally be beaten and taken advantage of. She is probably exploited financially and occasionally robbed and threatened. But it’s her life and it has its rewards and its logic.
Whether by choice or not, your friend’s life is a life that many, many people in this country lead — a life of minimal income, frequent scrapes with the law, battles with social institutions, sporadic nightclub employment, frequent drug use and drinking, and association with people who have done time and are likely to do more time. In this world, violence happens with some regularity and usually has some logic to it. It arises out of personality conflicts or disputes over money or property or intimate relationships. It is something to be avoided if possible but not something that would in and of itself cause a person to flee the environment altogether. It is just something that happens, and you learn to live with it.
Think about what your friend was like when you knew her. What was her personality like? Did she have a lot of pride? Was she a passionate person? Did she like to drink when you knew her? Was she a thrill-seeker? Did she seem moody? Was she honest? Did she steal? Was she more interested in sex than you were? What kind of family did she come from? Try to connect that person you remember with the person who is dancing naked in a bar for money, who cannot pass a drug test even to keep her baby.
What do you come up with?
The most interesting thing to me in this is to ask what do you have in common? What traits do you have that might have led you into a similar life? Are there things about your friend that you used to admire, things that now you see have led her this way? Was she, for instance, a great dancer? Was she tough and stubborn and fun-loving. Were you?
If you approach her, approach her as a friend. If you can stay in touch with her, there is a chance that sometime down the road, if she reaches a true crisis, she will reach out to you for help, and you will be there. But until she asks for your help, do not assume you are there to rescue her.