Andy was drinking again. But this time was worse…perhaps the worst yet. He was waving around a .44 magnum (yeah, the “Do you feel lucky, punk?” model) that he had gotten God-knows-where. In his drunken stupor he even showed me that is was fully loaded.
“I’m sick of my shitty life!” he yelled. “I’m sick of a goulish God who let me get this way…and I’m sick of cocky Christians like you who don’t give a rat’s ass” he slurred as he recklessly pointed the weapon in my direction.
Andy had been my roommate, along with Bob and Brian, for the past couple years. We knew when he joined us that he had some severe difficulties, but we agreed to help him work through them…but I never thought it would come to this.
I met him at a church singles picnic. Because of his severe facial disfigurement, he was being pretty much universally ignored by the over 100 in attendance, including me. After about an hour of interacting with many others--but watching him out of the corner of my eye---my guilt, as well as my curiosity, got the best of me.
After introducing myself, I asked him if he liked softball and if he’d like to join in a pick-up game. Despite the fact that he had been chain-smoking the entire time, he turned out to be a pretty decent athlete. When the game was completed, I grabbed a couple of 7-Ups and we sat down away from the rest of the group.
It was odd, but I felt the same resolve in looking directly at him that I had when I was bold enough to ask out the prettiest girl at Wheaton College, the incomparable Lisa Avis. She absolutely melted me and every other guy on campus with her eyes. She was the hottest freshman in the whole school, and that was agreed-upon by any red-blooded male. But I boldly asked her out over the phone, and vowed that I would not veer my gaze away from hers on that first lunch date. I determined to do the same now with Andy.
The entire left side of his face was caved-in and discolored from numerous surgeries. He was missing many of the teeth on that side of his mouth, and his lips contorted in such a way that when he spoke, it was often difficult to understand him initially. The pinkish surgical scars also ran from behind his left ear down his neck and under what was left of his chin. I’ve often felt that when there is an elephant in the room, you might as well talk about it instead of trying to act as if it didn’t exist. “If you don’t mind me asking, Andy, what happened to your face?”
A sly smile came over him, and there was a twinkle in his eye. “I’ve been coming to this church for three weeks now…and you’re the first person who has actually asked me,” he laughed. He paused to light another in the non-stop parade of Marlboro Reds. Taking a long drag, he stared off, exhaled, and began his sad tale.
Andy came from a well-to-do family in Glenview, in Chicago’s wealthy northern suburbs. In his teens he got mixed up with the wrong crowd, and began coking and drinking heavily. He felt that getting loaded made him feel wittier with his friends, and helped assuage the pain he felt from his dysfunctional home. But what initially was an escape had evolved into addiction, and as he grew angry and unstable with his condition, his social circle began to avoid him. Suicidal thoughts started to surface.
One night, during a particularly nasty binge, he got his father’s shotgun, managed to wedge it under his jaw, and pulled the trigger. The blast didn’t wake anyone in the house because he usually was playing insanely loud music in his soundproofed room, and it must’ve blended-in with the thumping.
Andy took another long pull on his cigarette, “You know the weirdest thing, Mark? I was so screwed-up from booze and who knows what else I inhaled that night that I had lousy aim, or at least was off by just a few inches. I could barely feel what I had done. Most anyone would’ve been knocked out, but I was wide awake. Blood was everywhere, and I immediately knew I was in serious trouble. I stumbled up the stairs at 1 AM and burst into my parent’s room incomprehensibly screaming, with half of my face hanging off, some remnants of facial muscles keeping what was left of my jaw in place. I was rushed to the hospital, where they operated on me for six hours. Over the next week, there were several more surgeries. Most doctors felt I wasn’t going to make it.”
Between puffs on his cig, Andy would intermittently look at me, I suppose wondering when I would check out and make some lame excuse and get up to leave. But I was determined to look at him squarely, and to keep listening---you know, the Lisa Avis resolve and all.
That crooked, knowing smile that I would come to know well came over his face again, and he continued. I could tell this was good for him—he didn’t get to share this very often, and he told me so. Over the next month in that hospital ICU he prayed that God would let him die numerous times. He recalled one woman who stopped by to visit and pray with him. He didn’t know her from Eve. But she gave him a Bible, and out of sheer boredom one long evening, he started reading it, thinking maybe he needed to try and understand God a little better before getting out of the hospital and finally finishing the job he had so poorly started.
But something happened one dark night of the soul as he cried out in his pain and loneliness to Jesus. He began to feel strangely warmed and accepted. Without anyone else’s prompting, he decided to give his life over to God.
None of his “friends” came to visit him. His family felt ashamed and awkward because of what he had done to himself, and Andy knew he was gonna be on his own—at least psychologically. Being sober for a month while in that hospital brought back his love for reading, and he voraciously devoured the scriptures as well as other Christian books. His parents were agnostics, and while they were glad that Andy was finding some peace, he thought they were embarrassed and angry that they were going to have to shoulder what was going to become a costly ordeal in his recovery.
Months segued into years. At least a dozen more surgeries were performed trying to rebuild Andy’s dental work, jaw, and various skin grafts. I can’t begin to imagine how painful this was for him physically, but even more so, emotionally and spiritually. He grew tremendously in his faith, yet, due to his appearance, he lacked confidence in trying to mix socially. He admitted that he sometimes would fall off the wagon, and drink heavily, trying to self medicate his emotional pain. One of those instances got his license revoked for driving under the influence. But he had built a small house painting business, and his employees would meet him each morning, and they would drive to each job in his van.
Several times each year he would try to enter into fellowship, but those he met in churches tended to avoid him…make him feel unwanted. But he would regroup after each cycle of feeling alienated, and try again.
So, here it was eight years after his suicide attempt. Our conversation lasted deep into the afternoon. Most everyone was leaving the picnic when we realized how long we had been talking. I told Andy about the small bible study group I helped lead, and asked if he would like to come. Taking a final puff, he dropped the butt at his feet and began snuffing the ember out with his shoe. “Really? I mean…really?” There was awful apprehension in his voice. He didn’t want to feel rejected yet again.
“Sure,” I replied.
I picked him up that Wednesday. That began a great relationship. Andy became a regular in that small support group. Eventually, as Brian and Bob got to know Andy as well, we decided to ask him to move into the spare room in the basement. It would be the first time he ever lived outside of his parent’s home.
Andy blossomed in this new environment. He launched into redecorating what was once a dingy laundry room into a cool domicile. Turns out he was a pretty good cook, too. And because he had read so much in his self-imposed reclusion over the years, he was a great conversationalist on any number of topics. He had been a good athlete in his high school days, and had kept himself in good shape with lots of sit-ups and push-ups. So sometimes we would work out together, as well as playing some baseball and basketball. When you get to know someone, you get used to everything about them. It got to the point where I never even noticed his scars.
When Andy put his mind to something, he was amazing. He decided to start investing in the stock market, and got fairly good at it. I remember one evening when he had timed a buy and turnaround just perfectly, and had made thousands of dollars in a matter of hours. He celebrated by preparing an amazing feast for the rest of us of prime rib, au gratin potatoes, and steamed avocadoes in melted butter.
Another time, he decided he wanted to learn to play piano, so he bought a beat up baby grand that had been covered in green house paint, and refurbished it completely on his own. The refinished wood alone looked amazing. When it came time to put the legs back on it, he couldn’t wait for the other three of us to get home from work, so he somehow managed to lift the 500-pound instrument on his own and get all three legs screwed into place. I still have no idea how he did it. He then proceeded to self-teach, and became proficient.
When Andy moved in, we all knew there would be risks. He openly admitted that he would still sometimes get drunk. We agreed to rid the house of any alcohol, and that we would do everything in our power to help him stay clean and sober. Despite our best efforts, every few months, Andy would somehow get a hold of some whisky, and get plastered. Normally, he was a quiet drunk, and we could help him mellow out over the course of a day or two, and then he would refocus and move onward. Sometimes he would get pretty angry about his predicament, and launch into diatribes about wanting to “off himself.”
Over the years, Andy had begun reading many of the “prosperity gospel” teachings by people like Ken Hagen, Robert Tilton, Oral Roberts, Kenneth Copeland, and that ilk. These scoundrels have somehow managed to take selective portions of the Bible and twist them to appear that God wants everyone to be wealthy and healthy all the time. This warped teaching postulates that if anyone is not rich and is suffering from some ailment, then there must be a lack of faith on their part compromising God’s promises. That shortcoming can only be overcome by giving a “faith gift” to God (usually in the form of a big donation to their particular ministry) that will prove to God that you are serious. Only by giving sacrificially will God be willing to give you all the desires of your heart. If there is some lack in your life, then you simply haven’t sewn enough faith into it, and need to give more. It’s a vicious and evil cycle that is an insult to everything that Christ taught and exemplified…and has led to great financial and spiritual ruin for nearly everyone that I have seen enter into it. Fortunately, most people see the fault in it (and in themselves for being drawn to it) eventually—but there is usually some deep anguish along the way.
Andy and I would have some pretty strong discussions---even arguments---about this. My involvement with Christians who were desperately poor in the developing world had clearly shown me that this uniquely American upper-middle class aberration of scripture was just plain wrong-headed. God loves us all, no matter what our condition. He isn’t embarrassed or emasculated somehow if we aren’t always living in prosperity. If anything, it is our wrestling with pain and difficulty that produces character, and allows God to teach us so much more about life.
But the ache and scars of Andy’s poor decision 8 years before were often overwhelming. He felt such tremendous remorse, and the proof of it stared him in the mirror every morning. In his most delusional moments, he would tell me that God had indeed healed him, but that it just hadn’t been manifested yet. With each passing day, that realization would haunt him…even taunt him further.
So, here we were on a stormy Saturday night. Brian was home visiting with his family in central Illinois, and Bob had gone hunting in Wisconsin. It was just me, Andy, and his massive handgun that he was waving about recklessly. His temper would begin to rage at times, and he would actually cock the hammer, and place it to his temple saying, “No more jackin' around. I’m gonna fuckin’ do it right this time!” Then he would laugh, or point the gun at me, accusing me of trying to sabotage his faith…that I was making him feel like a dirt bag before God.
I’ve come to discover over the years that reasoning with a drunk or someone who is stoned is like trying to negotiate with a petulant three-year-old. I have little time for it, and yet, here I was again, dealing with someone who was not in their right mind. I say ‘again,’ because I had to deal with my acid-tripping brother sometimes, or my alcoholic grandfather. The latter had ruined his family over many years of gambling and booze. The impact of his problems was far-reaching for years afterwards. As a result, my mother had no tolerance whatsoever for anything that even hinted of alcohol, and I guess it got passed along to me. I helped clean Grandpa up on several occasions, and it sickened me. But he never improved, and I was the one that found him dead in his apartment bathroom floor from a drunken binge that had led to a massive heart attack.
Andy was really plastered, and he kept sipping from a bottle of Jim Beam, all the while keeping a firm grip on the weapon. Between rants, he would sit across from me, and I would try to help him think through all that he had accomplished, all that God had helped him with. A few times the tears would begin to well up, and he would admit to his own responsibility. But then he would begin agonizing over his shame, his frustration with God for allowing it to happen, for Jesus not healing him, and the anger would swell again. This went on for three hours, with each round getting worse. I was getting concerned that he was at a true breaking point.
Praying for guidance in the midst of a situation like this can be hard. But eventually I recalled a particular episode of M.A.S.H. I had seen the year before where Colonel Potter had an intense confrontation with a drunken, suicidal soldier who was recovering from wounds that were going to leave him crippled for life. Could I have the guts to try what I saw on that TV show? Another couple cycles of Andy’s rage and remorse convinced me that I had to give it a try—things might take a much uglier turn if I didn’t do something.
Andy had just had the gun in his mouth and was babbling about what his brains might look like blown all over the ceiling. As he finally let the gun down, and began taking another draw from his bottle, I lunged across the table. I had completely caught him off guard, and yanked the heavy handgun away from him while wrestling him to the floor.
I was straddled across his chest, with my left arm across his throat. Taking the pistol, I held it to his temple and yelled, “You know, I’m sick of this B.S., Andy! If you want to die so badly, let me take the pressure off and do it for you! I’m going to blow your decrepit brains out. I won’t be accused of murder, because I could claim self defense from your drunken tirade!” Andy was choking, and struggling, and started to protest.
“I’m as serious as a fuckin’ siezure, Andy! If you want to end it, I will gladly pull this trigger! You wanna die so badly; let me help you…let’s quit screwin’ around!”
I pressed the barrel firmly against his skull. “You ready? ‘Cause here goes!”
Andy was squirming wildly, and began screaming, “I don’t wanna die! I don’t wanna die! Don’t kill me!”
“Why should I believe you?!” I yelled. “You keep pulling this horse crap on yourself and the rest of us. I don’t want to deprive you of your sick sense of self-loathing. It’s getting way too old, and it’s time for your stupid life to come to an end!” I put even more pressure on his neck and pulled the hammer back with my thumb.
As he heard that ominous click, Andy began sobbing, “Please don’t kill me! I don’t wanna die!”
“What do you want to do, then?!” I demanded.
“I wanna live…I don’t wanna die,” he choked between gasps, gurgling tears and snot.
I let the pressure off the hammer, and slid the gun into the kitchen along the floor. I eased off his chest, leaning against the wall, and pulled Andy up as he cried deeply. He slumped against me, and I put my arm around him. Between his heaving shudders, he wrapped his arms around me, and sobbed heavily into my shoulder. I rocked him gently. He was nearly passed out from the ordeal. I don’t think I’ve ever felt someone weeping so intensely.
After a few minutes, I asked if he wanted to sober up. He agreed, and I helped lead him up the stairs to the bathroom, where I stood him in the shower and ran lukewarm water over him in his whisky-stenched clothes. He started to vomit, so I sat him down in the tub, and helped him purge.
Later, after changing him into some dry clothes and serving him several strong cups of coffee, I negotiated him into his bed.
I removed the bullets from the heavy handgun and tossed them down a sewer, then wrapped the pistol in some old rags, and threw it into one of the dumpsters out back.
The next morning, Andy had a horrible case of the D.T.’s, and threw up a few more times. Eventually he got a bit of an appetite, and we went out to eat, where he began to speak of how he was going to be even more determined on trying to get past his drinking, and his self-destructive tendencies. But we also talked with much accomplishment about how far he had come, and where he was headed.
As the months moved forward, Andy began weaning himself from the “name it and claim it” teachings that did little more than make him feel inadequate.
Andy and I never spoke of the gun incident again. We didn’t have to.
I eventually relocated to Nashville, and Andy helped with the move. He came to visit several times. Whenever I would head back to Chicago, I looked forward to seeing him there, too. We shared many long phone calls--sometimes even when he was drunk on occasion—such is the pernicious disease of alcoholism. But I never heard him talk about ending his life ever again since that dark night. He was a fighter. And despite the self-inflicted burden he carried, Andy moved on with his life with God’s help, forgiveness, and a big supply of hope.
For more info about "Embracing the Gray: A Wing, A Prayer, and A Doubter's Resolve" go here: