DEALING WITH ADDICTIONS IN RURAL AND SMALL-TOWN AREAS
Once in a private counseling session with an addict, he said to me in tears, “I stole $12,000 from my parents, and I would walk the streets to see which house I could break into and steal money or goods in order to buy my next fix. I am so broken. I am so bad. I don’t know if I can be helped; is it possible?” Can you imagine how that person’s parents and family members feel? Lies, stealing, broken promises, sleepless nights, jail bonds, rehab, only to get out and return to addiction. Is there hope amid addictions?
According to Farm Bureau statistics, 75 percent of the people living in rural communities have experienced the drug epidemic in some way. Families have a parent and/or child that is addicted, a relative who is addicted, work associates addicted, or have endured some form of crime because of the drug epidemic. Addictions affect the whole person spiritually, physically, and mentally. It is important to understand all these ramifications in order to help and give hope to a person walking in the midst of addictions.
Spiritually, the addicted person is empty. The government paints addiction as a disease, but addiction is an idolatry, a misplaced lordship issue. These idols (addictive substances) promise the world but enslave the addicted person to the grave. The addicted person may sacrifice anything and anybody to pursue his addiction. Since we are born with original sin, sin in our nature drives us in the wrong direction.
Consequently, the addicted person may not attend church for the following reasons: generally, pastors don’t know much about handling an addicted person; the addicted person may feel judged; he may feel that church is only for good people and he is bad, and he may believe God can’t forgive him. In response to this, the Christian counselor or pastor can give hope in the message of the Gospel that God shows no favoritism. We all fall short of the glory of God, yet God in Christ Jesus forgives all sins, remembering them no more. If the addicted person is baptized, the pastor can direct him to God’s promises in Baptism. Then the pastor can give guidance from Scripture on how to walk as a recovering child of God, with eyes fixed on Jesus.
Understanding the addicted person
Physically, addictions are very hard to overcome. For instance, if alcohol is the substance of choice, its euphoric effect gives positive reinforcement to the addict. The action is repeated, and the brain adapts to the constant overload of alcohol by releasing depressant chemicals. Consequently, it takes more and more alcohol to reach that euphoric feeling. The person becomes dependent upon the substance in order to manage life. When he wants to abstain, there is withdrawal: shakes, sweating, nausea, panic attacks, etc. In order to overcome the withdrawal symptoms, the addict drinks to feel better. Now the person is hooked on the negative reinforcement aspect of alcoholism.
Similarly, a substance like meth acts as artificial dopamine. The artificial dopamine blocks the natural dopamine receptors in the receiving cells, thus flooding the synapse between the cells, causing the euphoric high. The brain shuts down the manufacture of normal dopamine because there is too much. Consequently, a meth addict will be awake for days, make erratic body motions, excessively lick lips with the tongue, etc. When the artificial dopamine has finally been absorbed by the body, the brain is still not producing an adequate supply of dopamine, so the meth addict crashes and sleeps for days. When he awakes, he feels terrible, like he has the flu. The hippocampus in the brain remembers feeling better with meth, and the amygdala in the brain reminds him how good it felt. It’s not long until he is searching for more. Thus, the addiction and its cravings.
Eyes fixed on Jesus
How can a pastor give hope amid these physical struggles? He can point out that Jesus gives abundant life through faith in Him, while the idol of addictive substances only leads to death. He can read passages from Scripture on freedom from slavery to sin and on the fruits of the Spirit, which give peace, joy, self-control, patience, and more. As the pastor helps to direct the addict’s life, it is important to keep running with endurance, with eyes fixed on Jesus.
Mentally, addicted people have low self-esteem. They are guilt-ridden and carry with them false beliefs such as “I am always a failure,” “My relapse proves I will always be a failure,” etc. The pastor must help to question this false belief by asking, “Are you always a failure?” and then pointing out times and places where they have been successful. The pastor can direct the addicted person to read in Philippians, where Paul tells us to think about what is good and admirable, pleasant, and true.
Meth, opioids, and heroin also create paranoid thoughts. This is why meth addicts often scratch themselves. They feel as if bugs are crawling on them, so they scratch sores on their body and keep scratching. If the person had tendencies toward mental diseases, those are magnified. As they become freed from addictive substances, some paranoia will dissipate. The pastor can reassure them from Scripture, pointing out how Jesus healed the demon-possessed man. Just so, God can heal their addictions.
If the addicted person continues to run with endurance, his eyes fixed on Jesus, he can be victorious and see better days. I have seen it happen in recovering addicts who endured with eyes fixed on Jesus. All glory and praise is given to God in Christ. Praise the Lord.
Contributed through the LCMS Rural & Small Town Mission monthly newsletter by the Rev. Gary Griffin, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Lockwood, Mo.