I was only 19 when I became a bike messenger. I didn’t know anything about what I was doing, or the other people who I worked with, but the lifestyle and the conmunity were fascinating. Everyone was so radically different from each other, but still they were bonded together through the experience of doing such a weird, hard, adrenaline-inducing job. There was a haunting among them though, that I was still too innocent to understand.
In defense of my naivete, I had little experience with the power of addiction. In my suburban middle class life, I know people struggled with it, but never publicly. Occasionally someone’s parents would freak and they would disappear from school. Rumors would be whispered, but the official story would usually be something about boarding school, or visiting an aunt’s house. But being a messenger exposed me to people who were desperately lost in their addiction, who didn’t have the stigma caused by class, and who were to abused by the world to care about what I thought of them.
Working as a messenger was different than an average working class job. Most companies hire you as an independent contractor, meaning you’re free to accept work or not, and you can call out hungover without getting fired. Because you work on a voluntary basis, the job attracts as many drug addicts and alcoholics as it does thrill seekers and cyclists, although for many I knew, these categories overlapped. Instead of hiding the truth or being embarrassed about their drug and alcohol use, it was a safe place to flaunt it. Everyone was just as drunk as you, so a night of bad behavior would be something to laugh at the next morning and not a mirror to reflect the truth about your habits.
What I realized in time was that wherever addicts gather in community, tragedy follows. There was always somebody or something to worry about- a person in jail, an injury that might not heal, or someone living on the street because their girlfriend dumped them. Messengers die all the time, but not from getting hit by cars, or from drug overdose, as my parents assumed. Some die from being poor, having treatable conditions that they can’t afford to get proper care for. But more often they die from the side effects of addiction- usually chronic health conditions like cirrhosis, seizures, and cancer. Sometimes the cause is a tragic, intoxicated accident. The first funeral I remember was for a boy that lost his life in a drunk bar fight, he hit his head funny as he stumbled around, and died in the hospital a few days later. Since then, about a dozen people have passed away, at least one for every year I’ve been sober, making my own sobriety feel bittersweet.
Losing friends makes me angry. While we can always do a better job of educating youth for prevention, many addicts already know that drugs and alcohol are bad. Most sober stories begin with that very sentence, “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but…” People usually know the consequences of their actions, but they do it anyway. Meanwhile those around them, who have been making an effort to act responsibly, are left bitterly carrying the burden. Addiction is a mental illness, but if you haven’t suffered from it, or watched a loved one try to break free, it’s hard to find compassion.
Between the lost productivity, the health care costs, and the criminal justice fees, we spend an estimated $520.5 billion dollars because of people’s addictions (That’s just drugs and alcohol. I won’t even go there about smoking.) Although, the real pain is more than the money wasted; it’s the destruction of our neighborhoods, the broken families, and the trauma it influcts on our children.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and that includes addiction. It’s not a purposeful descent into madness to wreak havoc on the rest of us, even though it can feel that way to outsiders. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains,
“Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to.”
So even if we’re cutting them off financially or emotionally, they still need encouragement to find real help. Currently, out of the 20 million people suffering from addiction, less than 3 million will actually seek treatment, which is pathetic.
Substance abuse has always been a problem in our country, but lately trends show that it’s getting worse, and the consequences have become deadly. It’s not just my friends that are dying. Overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, largely to the opioid epidemic. Overdose is the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing deaths by car accidents, guns and AIDS at its peak.
These statistics are horrifying, but they are only half the story. Like my friends, people die twice as often from the long term damage of substance abuse. According to the CDC, the rate of alcohol related deaths is about about 88,000 people a year, and this article in the Washington Post cites research showing that this rate is at a 35 year high.
The other reason it’s important to talk about substance abuse during Mental Health Month is that many people who are addicts have a dual diagnosis of another mental health issue, like depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. When we’re scratching our head in anger, wondering why someone made the choice to abuse a drug, even though they knew better, this is often why. It’s hard to determine an exact percentage of how many people are self medicating, but according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2014 (p. 32), at least 8 million people have co-occurring disorders. In my experience that’s a low estimate, many addicts don’t even fully realize they’re self-medicating until they’re sober, and others are unable to stay sober because they don’t realize they’re only addressing half their problem.
It’s hard to know where and how a person can fight against it, because what feels like helping an addict is often enabling them, and what’s actually helping they will insist is ruining their life. These are enormous problems, with roots that spread twice as far as the branches and trying to solve them, for even one person, feels like trying to rid your yard of dandelions. It seems like this evil is winning, that we are not powerful enough to fight against it, but we are not that way.
Pray. “...We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”(Ephesians 6:12) This is addiction. It’s undiluted evil, and it’s a spiritual battle for an person to break free. I am stunned about how few people are publicly praying on behalf of addicts, especially when you consider that almost everyone knows and loves someone who is struggling. We can pray for addicts seeking treatment, that they will find the support they need to get clean, and we can pray for the families that are broken and suffering in silent isolation. The people surrounding them need our prayers, too. Churches need resources for outreach; therapists and counselors need wisdom to diagnose; people running treatment centers need strength and patience. Also, the police, the first responders, jails, local leaders, and elected officers who are overseeing community efforts to fight addiction are understaffed and underfunded.
Pray for this evil to be crushed, but also pray about how you can fight against it. As I mentioned in my last post, there are grandparents now raising their grandchildren who need babysitters. There is a nationwide shortage of foster parents. Rehab centers have waiting lists and need beds, money and volunteers. Mentors are needed to teach people in recovery life skills, like how to budget or write a resume. Support a newly sober person by offering them a job or a second chance at friendship. Reach out to someone whose child or spouse is suffering. Sit with them at the hospital and teach them they have nothing to be ashamed ofa. Many families have no idea where to look for help or answers, and they may need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to pray with them.
Educate. I’m amazed at the people who have been caught off guard by the power of addiction and the drugs on the market today. Heroin is a problem today is because people had no idea that oxycodone was almost the same thing in a perscription. And how many people would have avoided their addiction altogether if they had known they were suffering from a mental disorder? The more we know about substance abuse, the stronger our communities will be against its influence. The more we know about the warning signs of what addiction looks like, the less we will enable people to continue in it. If we were an educated community, we would offer more support to the parents and relatives who feel isolated. Substance abuse is all over the news if you look for it. Make an effort to research and read about what’s happening in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and in your own state too. Don’t ignore this problem because you don’t see it happening to you.
Speak. Lawmakers don’t tend to fund research for addiction recovery because it’s not on the lips or the minds of their constituents, so the cause gets shorted compared to other medical research, even though addiction is a major killer. There are no big 10K races or silicone bracelets sold to raise money for research on subtance abuse disorder. But if we speak out, if we make this a major issue, lawmakers will fund more treatment centers. Advancements will be made to understand what addiction does to your brain and how we can counter those effects to help people find effective treatment. Teenagers may be more aware of the risks involved. So share articles you find that are important on social media. Talk to people in your church and community about what can be done for outreach. Speak out and make other people aware of what’s going on around you.
In addition to being a voice for legislation and action, you will also be a voice for people who still need help. One reason the number of people seeking recovery is so small is because of the stigma surrounding it. Every single sober person can help to end that, by coming forward with their own recovery stories. People who have never struggled can help by listening, and not judging those who have been through it. Sadly, stigma doesn’t end with addicts themselves, for the families that surround them are often ashamed to ask for help too. In Portsmouth, Ohio (a town plagued by overdose), it took almost eight years of living with epidemic heroin use before the parents were willing to confess what was happening in their homes and form a support group. Don’t let that be your town. If you’ve recovered or have supported someone who has, tell your story. Hiding it compounds the consequences. People who are struggling are listening whether you realize it or not, and they need encouragement, so speak out.
Faces & Voices of Recovery is an organization dedicated to lobbying on behalf of recovery and ending the stigma, because its not just an issue for vagrants and rock stars. Respected people everywhere- leaders, politicians, businessmen, athletes, etc. are in recovery too. To share your story on social media use #ourstorieshavepower or #recoverymatters or go to their website http://facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/get-involved/ to learn more about joining their movement.
Substance Abuse is a scourge, not just an epidemic, but as a church we don’t treat it this way. When we first moved out here, we visited different churches for a year before I heard someone praying for recovery, or that had a program that was actively pursuing people who needed support. Spirituality, finding the higher power, is the second step to any recovery, but only a small minority of Christians were acknowledging this, usually the ones that had experienced the pain of addiction personally.
People even within our congregations are dying, kids are being raised by grandparents and towns across the country are crumbling under the cost. Spiritually speaking, how can we ignore that? Address it in your churches and with your friends. Pray about it and talk about what’s happening, because evil grows in the presence of our apathy, anger, and resignation. Refuse to believe that the fight against addiction is hopeless, either for yourself, a loved one, or your community. This is your problem, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Everyone is involved somehow, because 1 in 10 people have a problem which means no community is unscathed. So pray, educate, speak and step up to fight the scourge.