Re-examining attitudes towards addiction

“Addicts are the lepers of the 21st Century.”  So said Dr. Garrett O’Connor in his keynote address at the September California Society of Addiction Medicine conference in Anaheim, California.

They are difficult. They break the law. They can be violent and dishonest. Their conduct affects everyone around them. It destroys families and relationships. Society shuns and incarcerates them. But the fact is that close to 50 years after the War on Drugs was declared, drugs are winning. We’re doing something wrong.

Dr. O’Connor’s address was entitled Recovery and Spirituality. As our nation has become more secular we have become in many ways less logical. The default response to these issues by civil society has been incarceration; the most expensive option, rather than compassion and treatment, the most sensible.

Once addiction takes hold of an individual most are helpless without spirituality and faith. Over 1,200 medical professionals listened to Dr. O’Connor’s address but the medical profession is in general skeptical of the spiritual.

However, the empirical evidence of the effect of spirituality in the treatment of illnesses including addiction is incontrovertible. Dr. Harold Koenig and others have done extensive work on understanding how stress affects the body and how many people with faith achieve significantly superior outcomes to illnesses than those without strong faith. In a study of 100 medical research papers in 2001 conducted by Dr. Koenig, 79% of those papers reported a significant positive association between religious involvement and improved well being. Dr John Graham has also written extensively on the subject.

In addiction medicine Alcoholics Anonymous and the Salvation Army’s programs are recognized as the most successful alcohol abuse treatment programs. Both recognize that the addict cannot kick their addiction on their own. It takes a higher power, which most of us call God, to  grant the strength and will and fight the pain and anxiety. And yet as a society we refuse to recognize the importance of spirituality in recovery.

Last March, Saddleback Church and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange sponsored the Gathering on Mental Health, a call to the Church to provide effective and compassionate support to those faced with the challenges of mental illness and addiction. The first person many families turn to when faced with this trauma  is often their pastor or other spiritual guide.

And yet in the high complex environment of dual or multiple diagnoses and  the spectrum of addiction and mental illnesses, education is sadly lacking. Dealing with mental illness is difficult and with addiction even more so.

The stigma isolates the individual when they most need help. This stigma must be removed if we are to successfully address these deeply complex issues.Recovery is a long term process that never ends. So why is it that if we know Joe or Sally is in recovery that we cannot have compassion when they fall?

“There are five words that are part of every addict’s vernacular.Five words that come from the darkest place imaginable. To call it defeat would oversimplify the absolute loss of humanity. This is it; the disintegration of the soul.The point at which the body has no fight left. When helpless becomes hopeless and hopeless becomes despair.This is the moment in the game when there are no more plays. No more outs. No more options. This is the place every addict eventually gets to. The thought of living our lives without addiction is unthinkable. Even worse than the thought of living our lives with it. So when we say these five words it doesn’t come from a place of fear. It doesn’t come from a place of sadness.It comes from the core of our soul, the burning hot center that has begun to go cold.The place where nothing lives but the truth. These five words are so simple. Five little words. “I wish I was dead.”

The Cleaner

The essence of the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation is the confession of sins and absolution. Both psychologically and spiritually, the penitent is given a second chance. It is that absolution and the spirit of compassion and forgiveness that allows even the greatest sinners to go forth and sin no more.

Addiction is a crisis of the soul and the mind as well as physiological and biochemical. The whole human must be healed. Medication, therapy, treatment and counseling are all parts of the solution and must be recognized as such.

The addict is perhaps the most difficult to treat. They are not sympathetic in many cases. But neither were lepers up until the last century.

So if we know empirically that spirituality works why is it not given a greater role in recovery? At that point where the addict wishes they were dead isn’t that the time for the greatest compassion? We have to go with what works.

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