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Empathy, gratitude and perspective

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

All we can hope for is to keep learning as we get older; if we learn, we grow. If we don’t, we wither.

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I did some growing of my own this year.

Some COURIER readers may recall my story and accompanying column from July 2 about Sam Dahlin, the troubled now 32-year-old Claremont High School graduate who’d made dozens of Police Blotter appearances.

The story, Sam’s and his family’s, was excruciatingly graphic. It told of his descent into drug addiction, his near-death experiences, overdoses, hospitalizations and many arrests. It documented the ripples of grief that reverberate to this day throughout Sam’s family and loved ones.

My column centered on my own culpability in trivializing that pain. I had written again and again about Sam’s frequent arrests in the Police Blotter, sometimes with flippant disregard for the impact of my reporting. Yes, Sam was a desperate criminal. He’d been accused of multiple misdemeanors and some felonies, mostly thefts designed to raise quick cash to feed his addictions. But he deserved dignity. Sam’s friends wrote to us and said so. And I agreed.

I’ve since endeavored to avoid at all costs the sin of trading on the misery of the “wounded walkers among us,” as Sam’s mother Per Dahlin put it. The lack of yuks may be missed by some, but I can sleep at night knowing I haven’t helped to make it worse for the humans I write about who are suffering from mental health crises and addiction.

Sam has been incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Men’s Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles for several months for a string of petty crimes, including breaking and entering, and possession of controlled substances and drug paraphernalia.

It’s been a brutal season, his mother Per told me, in the notoriously violent Men’s Central Jail. Sam is housed warehouse-style in a large room with 100 other men sleeping on cots. He’s been attacked by fellow inmates and suffered subsequent seizures as a result of the beatings.

He’s made a couple of court appearances, the first of which saw him looking “awful, awful, awful, filthy (Oh yea, they hardly get to shower in the mental health unit), and distraught,” his mother Per said.

But Sam’s demeanor and physical health has improved with time.

“In the second one he was physically clean, he was calm, and he was able to look at us in a loving and calm manner,” Per said.

Perhaps most importantly, Sam has been sober for the first time in many years. Prior to his latest, and longest, stint in jail, he lived mostly on the streets, addicted to heroin and methamphetamine. He largely fell off the planet as far as regular interactions with family. He’s now resumed daily communication with his parents and two siblings.

“The significant improvement in his logic and memory is the best news,” Per said. “I have hope that Sam will gain confidence from his experience because he has been so brave. He never complains. He is showing remorse for the wrongs he has done that he feels shame about.”

So maybe there’s hope for Sam. Maybe he’s grown too. Time will tell, of course, but I for one welcome the news that someone who’s been as far down as Sam has begun to pull himself back to the surface. It gives me hope for others I write about in the Blotter, that they may too find a way to regain control of their lives.

And all this hoping puts my own problems and worries in perspective. Nothing inspires gratitude like empathy.

Next week, on Wednesday, January 5, Sam will appear in Pomona Superior Court, where a judge will decide if the county will send him to a mental health diversion program or back to jail.

“And if he can’t be placed, at least they will have to say how much longer he has to be in jail, or if he would be sent to prison, which seems unlikely but could happen even though he is a completely nonviolent offender,” Per said.

I sure hope the county decides to take a chance on Sam. Jail is no place for the mentally ill, and it’s definitely no place to get help with identifying and treating the underlying causes of addiction.

Especially over this holiday season, in the midst of this apparently endless pandemic, let’s remember that we can’t know what struggles people are living through. Cut your fellow humans some slack. Tip well. Be kind. Help out where you can.

The great Mike Stinson, a master songwriter from Houston and my friend, put it pretty succinctly in “Square With the World”:

“Square with the world
That’s how I want to live
Only take what I need
Give what I can give
Find some kind of way
to pay what I owe
Square with the world
That’s how I wanna go”

Happy holidays, lucky ones.

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