I knew it as soon as he sat down in the seat next to me on the plane.
His head was buried deep in his thick, dark-colored hoodie. His earbuds were firmly implanted muting the world around him.
But, what really gave it away were his eyes. I had never seen eyes sunk that deep into someone’s skull.
I knew something was terribly wrong.
What happened in the hours after we landed shook me in a way I had not previously experienced. I discovered he was not only struggling through life. He was dying.
I had never witnessed life seeping out of someone. The will to live, the desire to experience tomorrow, the hope that fuels each of our internal engines; they were all almost completely gone from this young man.
I was terrified.
For years I had been one of this young man’s youth leaders at our church. Through a long sequence of events I now realize were not coincidental he had come to work for our company and was accompanying me on a business trip.
In the first 24 hours of our trip I noticed he did not eat. At a restaurant we stopped in he struggled to sip down one small spoonful of the soup he ordered. As we left that restaurant this young man sat in the passenger seat next to me, hunched over leaning against the car window, his body badly shaking.
I asked him what was wrong. He said he was getting over a sickness. I decided to no longer buy the lies he had steadily sold me over the years. “You’re not sick. You’re body is shutting down, isn’t it,” I asked. “Yes,” he offered with no elaboration. “You can’t live like this,” I said firmly. “I know. It’s not good,” he said.
As we drove to where we stayed that night we uttered few other words as I struggled to determine how hard to push. As I layed in bed that night I felt the fate of this young man’s life had been put in my hands. I could not sleep. I was not his parent. Not even an uncle. Yet, as I considered the unusual circumstances that had brought me to this place at this time with this young man I had the unmistakable impression it was all by design. This moment was no accident. The responsibility was now mine to fulfill the role I had been assigned.
In the hours of that long night I had the distinct impression this 19-year-old young man needed to be removed from society for a while so he could turn his entire attention to battle the addiction that was destroying his life. I decided to use our three hour drive from San Antonio to Houston the next day to try to convince him that the moment had come to quit his job, give up his full-ride scholarship to an honors college, and say goodbye to his family and friends for an extended period of time.
I will never forget that car ride across Texas. Or handing him my cell phone in the company apartment we stayed in so he could talk to the rehab center counselor I had arranged to be on the line. I left him alone in a bedroom of that apartment, closed the door, and stood outside the room and prayed something would change on that call. The call seemed to last forever. I wondered what could be happening. Finally, the door slowly swung open.
I will never forget the tears in that young man’s eyes as he handed me back my phone and surrendered his future.
I knew his humility and willingness to change his life might not last long so I rushed to get him back to Arizona to say goodbye to his friends and family so we could board yet another plane to head to another state where I had arranged for him to enter a facility where I hoped his life would forever change. He said he wanted to go but how long would he be willing? The clock was the enemy.
He surrendered his phone, his bank account, his car keys, his laptop, and the passwords to his email and social media accounts. I backed up his contact list onto my computer and then deleted it from every device he owned. In one keystroke I deleted the records he had of every one he had ever met.
Late that night I sat in my car outside his mother’s home in Arizona. He had gone inside to do two things: say goodbye to his mom for a while and bring me his box of drug paraphernalia. The image of him walking out of that small one-story home on the corner carrying that box and closing the door after saying goodbye to his mom is engrained in my mind. We drove to a nearby dumpster where he threw the box of bongs.
He slept in the playroom at our home that night. I guarded the door. The next day after saying goodbye to his father, siblings, and grandparents we boarded another plane. We climbed into a rental car and ate lunch a few miles from the rehab facility he had never seen but was now going to be living in for weeks if not months.
As we drove to “The Ranch” he asked me to crank up the stereo and play The Cave from Mumford & Sons. At full blast the words blared through the speakers, “I won’t let you choke on the noose around your neck.” He asked me to keep driving as he played the song again. And again. And again.
He was angry. Angry at the world that had lied to him. The world that ignored his cries for help at a young age. The world that demanded so much from him but gave him so little in return. The world that somehow had discovered the worst in him and exploited it.
He yelled the lyrics of the song as I drove and the music blared. “I’ll find strengthen in pain. I will change my ways. I’ll know my name as it’s called again.”
Eventually he pushed pause on my phone and the music ended. And I pulled into “The Ranch.” He grabbed his suitcase. And we walked inside. After filling out a few forms I was asked to leave. The young man followed me outside the front door. We hugged on the steps outside and said goodbye.
He walked back in, the door closed, and I sobbed.
The drive back to the airport was quiet. And lonely. The airport was virtually empty. The quiet and stillness of a normally busy terminal were a tender mercy in my moment of raw emotion.
I sat alone in a row of seats on the plane ride home worrying about that young man’s future. And about my bold actions of less than a week’s time.
It’s been two years since that plane ride back to Arizona.
The journey for that young man in those two years has been anything but easy. There have been mistakes made but the stretch of sobriety he has created is an amazing accomplishment. All who know him are incredibly proud of what he has and is overcoming and becoming.
So many people played a role in his journey.
Each step I took with that young man’s life that week before he entered “The Ranch” was driven by faith. Faith that I was acting on impressions received from a higher power. Never before had I made such bold, urgent, and life-altering moves based entirely on impressions.
One of the things I’ve learned in my life is that acting on the impressions I receive increases the number of impressions that come. I used to debate in my mind if the impressions were inspired or self-conceived. I now simply act.
I believe God is testing us to see who will act as His hands. To those He has learned to trust He uses more.
I am grateful for the people who have acted on impressions they have received and thus blessed my life immeasurably.
I’m also grateful, that after reading these words, this young man granted me permission to share this with you.