Cody soon discovered that the pain pills he was prescribed worked well for other kinds of things besides pain. If he was taking his Oxy and his parents began fighting, he could just sleep through it. When he took his pain meds the stress of finals didn’t seem to bother him either. And, when his girlfriend broke up with him, those pills took all that anguish away.
After a couple months of therapy, Cody had used his entire prescription and he was not experiencing much pain any longer. Surprisingly, he still craved the Oxycodone. In fact, he couldn’t stop thinking about how to get more. Finally, he lied to his parents and his doctor by saying his knee still hurt a lot and needed more medication. The family and doctor happily obliged. This was the beginning of Cody’s addiction to opiates and this would eventually lead him to use heroin.
Once his family realized Cody had a growing problem they reached out to their pastor and he called a meeting with the family and the youth pastor. They developed a plan to help Cody overcome his addiction; he would pray more, read the bible more, and lean on Jesus more. He would also be held accountable by his youth pastor and a couple of buddies. They would check in with him weekly to see if he had given into his carnal cravings to get high.
Cody was never asked how or if he wanted or needed the help they were offering. No one ever asked him what those pills did for him functionally. They just assumed he was an impulsive, hedonic-seeking teenager looking to get high. They had no idea it served a greater purpose for him; stress and emotional management. These caring adults were only looking to address the surface issue of drug use and never considered the underlying issues driving his drug use.
It is not uncommon for the church to over-spiritualize mental health or behavioral health problems. The church tends to try to address these complex issues with overly simplistic spiritual answers.
I’m not suggesting Jesus is impotent to address such issues but we often ignore the wisdom the Spirit has provided us through conventional treatment methods. Most people do not know that all drugs of abuse mimic our endogenous endorphin system and therefore hijack and rewire the brain, making it nearly impossible for someone to just “quit cold-turkey”.
When we over-simplify the problem and the solution and our loved one’s behavior does not change we often blame them for not “being serious” or “not having enough faith”. This only adds to the shame commonly experienced by those who are drug dependent.
The church should be Good News to those caught in the grip of drug dependency.
Here are some suggestions for how the church can support those who suffer from drug dependency:
- Know your limits: The church is not an expert in all things. Trust the professionals who have studied and trained to work with substance use. Also, develop a local resource list of professionals to support the individual and family.
- Provide unconditional positive regard: Don’t deny the negative behaviors that accompany drug use but also don’t allow your thinking to diminish the individual’s value and worth. This person is still a child of God, created in the Imago Dei.
- Offer support groups: This can be anything from a 12-Step program like A.A. or N.A. or a faith-based programs like Celebrate Recovery. There are other alternatives to these groups, SMART Recovery is gaining interest across the world as a rational recovery alternative to A.A.
- Addiction is a family issue: Drug use affects the entire family system. Providing meals for families impacted by substance abuse, driving other kids to school activities, babysitting so other family members can engage in prosocial activities is really important in combating the negative impact of a loved one’s drug use.
- Talk about it publicly: Talk about addiction and mental health from the pulpit. Share about it in the newsletter or church email. The more it is talked about, the more normal it will be. The more normal it is, the less it is stigmatized. And let’s be honest, stigma kills more drug users than drugs do. It is the fear of rejection and shame that keeps people reaching out for help.
- Incarnate: When Jesus was incarnate on earth, he was regularly getting his hands dirty. Getting your hands dirty is a good sign that you are close to where God is working. This may include late nights, hard conversations, interacting with people who lie, steal, engage in high-risk sexual behavior, use drugs, or cuss. It’s ok though.
If you are worried about things getting messy as you lean in don’t worry, they will. But I leave you with this reminder:
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” - Joshua 1:9
Chris Schaffner is a certified counselor and is the founder of Conversations on the Fringe. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society. He’s been working with hurting children, teens, and adults for over 20 years.
Chris is afraid of snakes and the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz but feels right at home in the dark spaces the hurting dwell in. Through CotF, he hopes to equip others so they can also navigate those dark spaces to rescue the vulnerable among us. If you are interested in having Chris speak at your event/organization/retreat/church you can contact him at the following: firstname.lastname@example.org.