One time I took a group of people in the drug rehab program to the local zoo. Most of our group had been to prison – some for years. Most were felons. Most of the women had been prostitutes as well as addicts. Most of them had been homeless, had lengthy criminal records and had, as a group, used virtually every drug; heroin, meth, crack cocaine – and had used every deception, scam or theft to acquire their drug. In short, they had been desperate in ways – and to a degree most of us could never imagine. If you think a hungry man will commit extreme acts for food to keep from starving, an addict will commit acts a hundred times more extreme. There are few acts an addict will not do.
And yet, few of these former addicts had ever been to a zoo.
One of these people, a woman in her mid-forties couldn’t contain her excitement as we walked into sight of the resident animals. She shrieked and ran from exhibit to exhibit. Until she saw the elephants. We happened to catch the trainer as he was giving a little question and answer time. This woman had endless, little kid type questions about how elephants ate, slept, how they lived and where they came from.
We could hardly pull her away.
But once we did, she shrieked and ran from exhibit to exhibit all over again. She was like an eight year old – she wanted to see everything. And in the petting zoo, she had to touch every animal. It was as if she was trying to reclaim some semblance of a normal childhood. She became frantic, perhaps even obsessive as she moved among the actual children and the petting zoo animals. She reached out to every duck, goat, lamb and whatever else there was that day.
As her excitement peaked, I was feeling more and more sad. I suddenly saw, in a tangible sense, her desperate hunger for companionship, belonging, connection – with anything – anyone. I couldn’t imagine what a horrific vacuum her childhood must have been.
This woman, who had been a prostitute for many years, had a loneliness, an emptiness of such immensity that I could see it, like a gloomy possessive presence over her. She had what we had come to call “man hunger” – and each man in her life had, with her assistance, dug her ever deeper into her own version of hell.
She, and who knows how many men, had spent years, decades perhaps, creating this vast weight of emptiness that hovered over her like an eternal, impenetrable darkness.
When it was finally time to leave, I drove the van, and she sat in the back, like an exhausted child. She slept most of the way back.