At Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, there is a phrase we use for someone who repeatedly starts down the path to sobriety but then relapses. We say, “It’s a shame they couldn’t get it.” Most often you’ll hear that when news comes that one of our friends died from the disease of substance abuse.
I recently attend a viewing for a young lady who died from an overdose. Her name is Lauren Hice. I can use her name because her parents bravely announced in Lauren’s obituary that Lauren, age 26, “ … passed away Wednesday, February 27, 2013, after losing her long-fought battle with addiction.”
I am so grateful her parents told the truth about Lauren and their pain.
We’re used to hearing and reading about someone’s death after a long-fought or a courageous battle with cancer or some other chronic illness. But addiction?
To add to Lauren’s story, she also was a Christian. And that can be a real head-scratcher. Can a Christian struggle with addiction? Can a Christian die with a needle in his arm?
After 13 years of recovery ministry, the question still emotionally strikes me, especially during times like these when I hear, once again, that someone who calls out for the help of Jesus to save her life goes with her prayer unanswered – at least unanswered in the way we would want.
Can a Christian die with a needle in her arm or a bottle in his hand? The answer is yes.
The church has always been a bit skittish about embracing the disease concept of substance abuse. It’s as if when we call addiction a disease, we’re letting people off the hook for their behavior.
It’s tempting to see substance abuse as a moral failure when our “Uncle Joe” won’t get sober. After years of trying to help him, pray for him or provide for him with no results, we wear out emotionally and wash our hands of him, believing his drinking is his own fault. Digging a little deeper, we may even discover that we feel like the failure for not doing enough to keep Uncle Joe sober.
But consider the idea that Uncle Joe actually has a disease and cannot get sober without proper treatment. Even though modern medicine can trace the pathway of addiction through the action and inaction of neurotransmitters in the human brain – and even though the disease of alcoholism follows a predictable path, just like diabetes or hypertension – the church and our society still resist fully embracing addiction as a disease.
Instead, we surround substance abuse with such stigma and judgment that parents fear the gossip and shame that would surround their child’s death if it were known that she died after a long battle with addiction. And so, too often parents suffer the grief of their dead child in shame and isolation.
I’m not saying that addicts and alcoholics are just saintly victims of their disease. When a person with high blood pressure ignores his low-salt diet, or a diabetic indulges in excessive carbohydrates, there are personal, physical consequences, and, by extension, society suffers as well from increased medical expenses and lost productivity.
In a similar way, when an addict ignores her treatment and returns to using again, there are terrible consequences to them personally and to society. However, unlike diabetics, an addict in relapse might just break into your house or boost something from Walmart to get the money to feed his disease. Like any other chronic illness, addicts and alcoholics must be responsible to treat their disease once they know they have it.
But this moral, or sinful, component of addiction does not negate the oppressive aspect of the disease of substance abuse. Most addicts and alcoholics don’t want to be addicts or alcoholics. But for some, no matter how hard they try, their physical body gives out before they get to that place where they can fully make the moral decision to embrace life. It becomes too late for them to follow the necessary lifelong regimen of abstinence and service to others, so they die from the disease of addiction.
Jesus loves the helpless, the hopeless and the outcast. Jesus described his own mission when he said, “The spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This week we remember Jesus’ passion to embrace the cross, and by doing so, he showed his passion for the lost and the oppressed
Perhaps during Holy Week you can engage in a new spiritual discipline, not only to abstain from something, but also to engage in something.
Can you reach out to love and support that mom or dad or spouse whose loved one is chemically dependent? Can you withhold judgment and let them know that you and God are passionate about their struggles and shame?
Just ask them how it’s going with their son or daughter, and if they trust you, just listen to them and pray with them.
This Lent may you proclaim the good news to someone by letting them know that God hears the prayers of the broken-hearted and wants to set the captives free.
The Rev. Robert Hedges is executive director of Resurrection Power of Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.