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Advice from an alcoholic: Never lend money to an alcoholic

I have a policy: Never lend money to an alcoholic.

I have dealt with literally thousands of alcoholics in almost 27 years of sobriety. Several well-meaning alcoholics borrowed money from me. They said they’d give it back. They would gladly repay next week or the week after or when they got back on their feet.

I believed them. They were earnest. They were coming to meetings regularly. They seemed to be on the right path. I learned the hard way that money lent to someone who has hardly drawn a sober breath does not return.

Second policy: Never lend money when you count on it coming back. Better to lend money you’re not going to miss.

I developed these attitudes early on in sobriety. A guy by the name of Elroy sought me out after a meeting one night. I must have had a year or so of sobriety. I didn’t have any money in the real sense. I could pay child support, rent, etc. I also had some spending money in my pocket for the first time in a long time. But I still wore rags. I barely had a pot to piss in.

“Twenty will get me through,” Elroy said. “I’ll pay you back next week.”

We had gotten to know each other over the course of a couple of weeks. We’d had some good discussion. Nothing in his body language or demeanor said anything but that he was honest. I had my bills paid and it would be a week before I needed groceries. So, I gave him the money.

Next week came, and then the week after that, and so on until I realized that Elroy wasn’t ever going to come back. Twenty bucks, well, that wiped me down to just paying the bills—and then barely.

I went through this with several alcoholics, each time I smarted from my financial loss. I had a big heart. I knew that they needed money, every alcoholic does. The AA manual says that one alcoholic can give another some financial assistance, as long as that giving doesn’t cut into the necessities of the home budget. I decided that I would refrain from lending others money until I could do without the money I was lending.

These days, when I give someone money, I plan on it disappearing. Virginia and I have lent money to people on several occasions. We would have been neglectful if we didn’t want the loans to be repaid. At the same time, we would be remiss if we ever expected that lent money to come back.

Let me tell you how I know:

Sometimes lending money doesn’t mean money but goods, especially, in the case of alcoholics, cars.

In one instance, we gave a car to a couple who was having a rough go of it. They had been problem drinkers but seem to have gotten things under control. The car was a good car, too, a 1996 Dodge Intrepid that we just invested something like $2,000 to fix the suspension just a year and a half before we gave it to them. They said they’d pay us back the $1,500 we wanted for the car at $200 a month. Cool. That’s great. Eight months.

We got payments for a couple of months. Now, over ten years later, we had yet received the other $1,100.

We owned a Chevy Astrovan we bought from a neighbor for $1,300. It wasn’t a beater, but it wasn’t first-class transportation. It was just reliable. We put a lot of miles on that van, and it kept running and running. The steering was a little loose but as long as you got used to it, that van was a dream to drive.

Along came an alcoholic by the name of Greg. He was just out of jail and needed a hand up. We gave him the van on the caveat that he pay $800 in monthly installments of $100.

We gave him the keys and never saw him again.

The point is that newly sober alcoholics have to get their own shit together. The miracle doesn’t happen overnight or to everyone. If they are like me, they have depended on the good graces of others most of their drinking lives. People gave those alcoholics breaks emotionally and financially that let them continue on the path to dissolution. We didn’t do the couple to whom we gave the Intrepid any favors. We damn sure didn’t do Greg any good. They all had transportation, and as far as we knew, they used what they didn’t spend on cars on alcohol. Or, at the very least, they were able to keep some bad habits they developed during their drinking.

I have lent untold sums to people over the years. Most times it comes back, but I have never had an alcoholic on the mend repay me. I don’t make a fuss over it. I have seen more acquisitive friends of mine lose friendships and sacrifice relationships over money. I have one friend who will literally spend 99.5 cents to save a dollar. I don’t get it. One half a percent just isn’t worth the time and energy. I wonder many times if 99.5 percent is worth it. I refuse to put relationships to peril over money.

I also refuse to let other people continue to hurt themselves with bad behaviors that my money allowed them to keep. I have to keep my drinking days in mind. When I was a drinker, I was a bad risk. I used other people’s funds to keep right on drinking. That I became reliable right after I ceased drinking had to do with my effort to become honest, which is next to fairness the greatest human virtue.

Today, I don’t like money much, except that it gives me freedom from people—bill collectors, creditors, utilities, etc. I’d rather give the money away. And while we give enormous amounts of money away, I would like to devote my life to giving money away. If I have any ambitions to wealth, it is so that I can make it disappear. It would be a great job for me. Since I’m in the market, kind of, for a job these days, one giving someone else’s money away may just be what I should be looking for.

An alcoholic touched me for some money for a utility bill the other day. I told him to contact an agency that is set up to fund people who need a one-time bail out. What you don’t need, I told him, was to owe someone and still be in the same position as before.

To my surprise, he said he heard of the agency from another social service agency he had visited. He was trying to get his shit together. He wanted no ties to another person, another debt on top of all the others he had accumulated in years of alcoholism. He is on the road to real recovery, I think, in that he understands that true independence depends on being dependent on oneself.

And, to no one’s surprise, he’s just the kind of alcoholic I’ve lent money to. But I won’t do it. I’d rather see him pull his life together on his own. He’s going to appreciate that more, in the end, than if I were to lessen his burden. If he doesn’t make it, he won’t have me to blame.

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