It’s good to know where you stop and someone else begins. To understand what’s yours and what belongs to someone else. People who have built identities as helpers sometimes blur the line between walking alongside someone who needs support or assistance and carrying them someplace they don’t want to go. We’ve all known a person who, having defined themselves as a helper, tends to cross lines, leaving the other person feeling incapable, powerless, disrespected or just plain stupid. This was me early on in my career in social services.

It was during my time working in the field of addiction that I learned a lesson I have carried with me ever since.  My boss Jack was a Lutheran minister, and one of the best men I have ever known. He was the director of an outreach, detox and treatment center in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood—before it was gentrified. Uptown was a mish-mash of many cultures, lots of recent immigrants, addicts and the mentally ill, all living in rundown apartment buildings or single-room occupancy “hotels,” which were rented by the night and were really just rooms divided into 6’ x 8’ sections with chicken wire separating the cubicles. And there were a lot of people who lived on the street. The one thing everyone had in common was poverty.

One day Jack asked that I go check on a group of men—all long-term alcoholics or drug addicts– for whom he had found housing at a YMCA in downtown Chicago. He gave me a bunch of food vouchers and bus passes and asked me to give them to the men. He had called one of them and told him I was coming, requesting that he and the others meet me in the cafeteria the next morning, where I would buy them breakfast with funds Jack provided. I walked into the cafeteria and saw the men, about six or seven of them, and realized they were all still drinking, and a few of them were clearly stoned. I was suddenly conflicted about giving them vouchers and bus passes they could sell to fund their next high. After all the trouble Jack had gone to for them!

I reluctantly did as Jack asked anyway, and then hurried back to the office, where I promptly found Jack and told him all his efforts were for nothing. They were all still drinking, and I had just provided them with what they needed to stay drunk for another twenty-four hours. I told him I felt awful because his generosity was not going to help any of those men. Jack just smiled at me and told me I was confusing my job with theirs. I asked him to explain. “Alexis, our job is to give, to support, to provide a path if they want to take it. What you do is between you and God. How they use what you give is between them and God. Your job ended as soon as you gave them the vouchers and the passes.”

It took me a few days to figure out that, had I decided to withhold the vouchers and passes in order to control their addiction, I also would have been foreclosing the possibility that one of them might not have traded our help for money to buy booze or crack. One of them might have used that bus pass to get to the VA and into a treatment program. One of them might get a decent meal and not die of malnutrition. And I realized that the gift Jack was giving wasn’t bus passes and food vouchers. It was a chance to make a better choice. Whatever they did had to be their decision, and they had to have an opportunity to make it. Otherwise, it was meaningless.

I have never felt the need to control someone else’s decisions again, unless they were in immediate danger or were a child. And never again did I make a client feel guilty because he or she didn’t live up to my expectations. That was a choice I made, and it freed me.