by Dale Wolery
Substance abuse hurts people. It hurts the person who uses, and it hurts everyone who is touched by the person's addiction. The pain and power of substance abuse remain a destructive presence in every segment of our culture. Clearly we are losing the war on illegal drugs. All the efforts to reduce the supply have led to cheaper prices and higher-quality drugs. And we are losing the war on legal drugs as well. Limitations on alcohol advertising, increased education, and organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are important efforts, but the damage done by the abuse of legal drugs continues to be staggering.
Marriages continue to disintegrate, teens continue to die, and auto accidents continue to maim and kill because of the addictive power of substance abuse. Even those who would legalize the consumption of addictive drugs decry their obvious destructive power. It destroys the lives of those we love. Dysfunctional development and loss of relationships are also the heritage passed on by addicts to spouses and children. Chemical dependency hurts everyone it touches—for generations.
Unfortunately, the recovery journey in both society and the church has been misunderstood and even maligned. Historically, health care professionals and clergy alike have been in the dark about how to help addicts. As a result, many addicts and their families have suffered in silence and shame. Unfortunately, those of us who have been in a position to help have often made the problem worse rather than better.
In the early years of my pastoral ministry I was hindered by gross ignorance of the addictive process. My knowledge and instincts about how to help addicts and their families were not just unhelpful; they were counterproductive. I unwittingly and sincerely dispensed pseudo insight, pat answers and untenable solutions. Instead of helping, I hurt families who wrestled with substance abuse.
Even though I had not even read the Twelve Steps, I communicated skepticism about whether Twelve Step programs were sufficiently biblical. I increased the shame of the addict with my easy answers, judgmental attitude and ignorance. I even encouraged family members to engage in enabling behaviors that could only serve to fuel the addictive process. I was trying. I had good intentions. But my efforts in all the wrong directions did not produce meaningful recovery.
My inexperience and ignorance during those years continues, unfortunately, to be replicated today by many other pastors. Our churches, and people in our culture as a whole, still offer faulty guidance to addicts and their families.
Substance abuse hurts everyone it touches. But there is a corollary truth as well: Recovery from substance abuse helps everyone it touches. There are reasons for hope. Genuine progress and real recovery are possible. We no longer need to be ignorant about substance abuse, the addiction/recovery process or the wisest course of action for addicts and their family members. Most importantly, those among us who have experienced the recovery process have lots to share now about addiction, about life and about hope.
What are we learning? We're learning that it is important to focus on the basics: for example, on the foundational spiritual truths contained in the Twelve Steps. And we're learning something about God. At the lowest points of life our Higher Power will not abandon us. God will be there empowering us even when, perhaps especially when, we are powerless.
We are also learning that working a program works—that consistency and one-day-at-a-time courage can build a lifetime of sobriety. An old-timer in a Twelve Step group once asked me, "You know what happens to people like you who keep coming to meetings like this?" Taken aback, I stammered, "No," to which he replied, "They get better."
As people in recovery, we are also learning the value of a community of peers. In this impersonal, adrenaline-addicted society, those in recovery are stopping long enough to talk and to listen. To be sure, the talk in recovery groups is also teaching us something important about honesty and the importance of attentiveness to our internal longings and feelings. This way of relating is straightforward and goes much deeper than the rushed greetings to which we are accustomed in today's "normal" world. It is the truth-telling, liberating talk of the New Testament church.
The redemptive stories that emerge from people in chemical-addiction recovery can teach us hope. Instead of shaking our heads and wondering if anything can be done, our heads are being turned by one substantial change after another. Although not every recovery group nor every addict is a success story, we have reasons for hope.
The truths that people recovering from chemical addiction are learning and sharing are transferable. The basic spiritual disciplines that are so helpful to them can be profoundly helpful to anyone. Anyone. Addicts of all stripes can recover with hope because recovering addicts such as the founders of AA have forged new breakthroughs in addiction recovery.