By Nicholas Perkins
I am a recovering alcoholic and addict. I understand how my seven-year addiction to tequila and benzodiazepines created unspeakable craziness. The addictive cycle was so intense that I believed the insanity of it was normal; it involved a wanton disregard for responsibilities and participation in risky behaviors. There are moments of my life that remain lost in the haze of blackout drinking.
I began to recover when I surrendered my will to the care of God, which means I gave my addictions to a power greater than myself. Through a solid support system and active involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous, I practice daily spiritual disciplines. Although God and the 12 steps have cleared away the wreckage of the past, a descent into insanity is right around the corner if I ever take another drink or non-prescribed drug. I know today that my sobriety is contingent upon my spiritual condition.
My drinking and using had three phases — fun, fun and problems, and problems. My first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting ruined my addiction because afterward I tried to control it. The energy that I used to convince myself that I could still drink and use – when I knew that I could not – was tortuous. I learned that normal drinkers do not have to manage or count their drinks. I, on the other hand, loved it so much that I could not control it, and I controlled it so much that I could not love it.
I spent six months in a treatment facility after I finished my first year of theology at Catholic University of America. I saw how fellow clients minimized the impact of alcohol and drugs on their lives. Even in a facility that was established to help Catholic clergy, some clients denied and justified the painful effects of their addictions.
I was faced with a very important decision: I could deny my addictions or I could surrender to them. This meant that I had to change everything about my life, especially how I viewed myself and my relationships. If I was going to restructure my sick thinking one day at a time, I had to identify ill-fated character defects and coping mechanisms. These are difficult choices for some alcoholics and addicts to make, because they can want to recover but, at the same time, stay enmeshed in relapse. I did not realize it then, but when I chose to surrender to my addictions, God did something for me that I could have never done for myself. I experienced in that divinely inspired moment a freedom that was comparable to both Paul’s conversion on his way to Damascus and Peter’s breakdown after his denial of Jesus.
The daily inventory that is a part of my sober regimen makes me think about my own recovery, and about the opioid crisis that has gripped the nation — which is a symptom of an economic, social, and spiritual problem. In some cases, physicians overprescribe opioids due to a misdiagnosis and patients’ incorrect rating of pain. In other scenarios, individuals, through no fault of their own, become addicted to opioids to alleviate the discomfort that is associated with a legitimate health problem. We have to remember that people use opioids to ease sadness, escape hardship, and numb emotional and physical distress. Based on 20 years of sobriety, the odds of recovering from any addiction increase when one identifies why he or she has abused a drug. It is important to regard the opioid crisis as a nationwide public-health emergency, rather than a moral failure.
A spiritual response means we respect how those who battle addiction are created in the image of God. Because we are created in the image of God, an addiction is only one part of a person’s makeup; it does not define their totality. The people whom Jesus healed had a new attitude after they met him. Jesus, instead of just healing the ailment, touched their core. I believe that approach is important for chaplains and other professionals. We acknowledge the problem, but we do not let it undermine the dignity of the person.
The opioid crisis does not discriminate; it affects one socioeconomic class as much as it does another. It ruins the person who has never worked a day in his life; it kills teachers, athletes, pilots, physicians, students, and counselors. It also damages the harmony of body, mind, and soul. The fatigue and nausea of withdrawal can keep one entrenched in addiction for years, while the impaired judgment that follows can change how the person perceives relationships and the world.
Opioid addiction also harms our unique, God-given spirit, which keeps us longing for something that is bigger and more expressive than ourselves. An addiction destroys how the spirit is attracted to the meaningful because it keeps the addict stuck in fixed behaviors. Some addicts have told me how their addiction to opioids destroyed their spirit by locking them in unchangeable behavior patterns. This significant admission recognizes how an addict’s spiritual emptiness has to be healed by a higher power of their own understanding rather than by a substance.
For spiritual care providers who do not grapple with addiction, it is important to listen to the patients who do. Furthermore, it is necessary to understand that this crisis affects family members as much as addicts. Because addiction is a family illness, please consider how codependent and enabling behaviors complicate the problem. Compile a list of healthcare professionals in the area who specialize in treating opioid addiction. Also, ask open-ended questions when you minister to an addict: How does your addiction make your life unmanageable? What concerns you about your use of opioids? What are some of the things that you like about heroin or fentanyl or opioids?
These questions glean crucial information without coming across as judgmental or making the patient feel as if it is an interview. If there is addiction in your family of origin, be open to how you could be triggered when you minister to an addict; the effects of unexplored grief can shift the energy and focus of any encounter. Instead of believing that an addict is a bad person, consider that he or she is sick and has the potential to get healthy.
Nicholas Perkins, BCC, is a chaplain at Franciscan Health in Dyer, IN.