(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on August 19, 2016)
“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Last Saturday, August 13, the community of Shelby County gathered under the leadership of the Serenity Center and a collection of faith leaders to march across town. That event was called “March to Recovery.”
The occasion of the event is the current heroin epidemic that has gripped our nation. Heroin addiction in particular seems to have infected certain areas of the country and certain communities within each state more than others. Off the top of my head, I do not know where Shelby County ranks in terms of severity, but we can agree that it’s intolerable. Many of us have loved ones who have overdosed, and among those, too many have died.
As I have mentioned in previous columns, I am a person in long-term recovery from addiction. I have been sober for almost eight and a half years (3,087 days exactly on the day that this column is published). And while I very rarely mention the fact that I am a recovered alcoholic from the pulpit or in public, I am not ashamed of this and I am quick to disclose it when I believe that it will help somebody. In fact, the way that I continue to stay sober is by helping others achieve and maintain sobriety.
Which brings me to this message today. The good news about addiction is that there is a solution. There. Is. A. Solution. And the experience of those of us who are involved in one of the many 12-step recovery programs is that the solution we have found works virtually 100% of the time for those who actually follow the steps. There are two obstacles, however, that I believe work against addicts and keep our rates of recovery scandalously low as a whole. The first obstacle is the unwillingness of the addict. Addiction is a brain disease. It is not a moral failing. It is not the result of a weak will. It is not the result of bad parenting or making poor decisions. Addiction is an equal opportunity disease. It affects people regardless of age, gender, race, nationality, orientation, or income. But because it is a brain disease, it affects the addict’s thinking. The disease is cunning, baffling and powerful. It will “tell” the addict she or he doesn’t have this disease, that they can handle the drink or the drug. And therefore a number of justifications or reasons not to work the 12 steps will arise in their mind and they will not do them.
The second obstacle is social stigma. There is so much misunderstanding around addiction. People fail to see that it is a disease just like cancer or diabetes. But unlike cancer or diabetes, addicts feel an enormous amount of shame around their addiction. The loved ones of addicts feel an enormous amount of shame around addiction. And people look addicts as though they are bad people who need to repent, rather than sick people who need healing and treatment. And while there is little that any of us can do about the first obstacle. We absolutely can do something about the second: we can better understand this disease and erase the stigma and shame.
It is tragic enough that there is an epidemic of alcohol and drug addiction in our community. It is doubly tragic that there is a solution in the 12 steps of recovery that are going completely unused. Now, there are some who will claim that there are other methods of recovery (or “cures”) for addiction. Whether there are or not, I have no way to speak to them. I do not argue with other people who say they have found sobriety through other means. And for those that have, I am overjoyed. But there is only one method that I have any experience with, and it has worked for me.
The first step of 12-step recovery programs is in two parts, the first part is: “We admitted we were powerless over [the object of our addiction].” This half of the step is pretty easy to understand. To be powerless over alcohol, drugs, etc. means that once the addict is actively using the substance, she/he has no power or control. Sometimes they can stop after a few drinks or pills, but usually, they will continue to drink or use until they pass out, run out, or get locked up (or die). It means not only does the addict lose control once they begin to use the substance, it means they have little control over their behavior. Someone who had sincere intentions to go to work or come home before midnight or attend his child’s ballgame doesn’t show up, or at least doesn’t show up sober. And while this is hard for non-addicts to believe: the addict is just as frustrated and baffled as anyone else as to why they can’t do it.
So the solution is simple, right? Just don’t drink or use! Well, that brings us to the second half of the first step. It’s not that simple.
“[We admitted] that our lives had become unmanageable.” While the first half of the first step describes the reality of being under the influence, the second half describes life for the addict while they are not intoxicated. This is why addicts simply cannot stay sober without a program of recovery. And since space here does not allow, I will dedicate my next column in two weeks entirely to the second half of the first step, because it is so important.
Now, you might have noticed that this is a faith column and I am an ordained pastor. What in the world does recovery have to do with faith, or faith with recovery? Well, while the traditions of the vast majority of 12 step programs declare that they are non-religious and non-denominational, my experience is that they have everything to do with faith in a God (of one’s own understanding or “higher power”), which gives the addict the ability to recover.
In fact, there are few other issues that I feel more strongly about than my conviction that the Church has a great deal to learn from 12 step recovery programs. Not only are they the place where broken and battered people find the nonjudgmental help of God and others (what I believe a church should be), it is a place where you can literally see the power and grace of God transform lives. And a humble church would stand to benefit greatly to study how it works.
Finally, if I have kept your attention this long, I implore you to pray for our community. Pray for the addicts, for the families of addicts, and for the loved ones of those lost to this wretched disease.