Fighting Drug Addiction with Help from a Higher Power

In some addiction recovery programs, spirituality is front and center.

On an October morning four years ago, my friend Meghan sent her son to school, downed an assortment of opiates, and died on her kitchen floor. She’s not alone. Each day, 46 Americans die from a prescription drug overdose — a number that has steadily risen over the last two decades. For every overdose death, another ten opiate abusers are admitted to treatment centers.

But it doesn’t stop there. One in 15 people who abuse prescription pain relievers will try heroin within 10 years, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. An estimated 22.5 million Americans over the age of 12 use illicit drugs.

There’s no cure for addiction, which has long been recognized as a disease of the body, mind, and soul. But what sorts of treatments can address all three areas?

“It’s possible to be in recovery, and the disease can be put in remission for the rest of their lives,” said Laila Dodson, director of market development at Transformations Treatment Center in Delray Beach, Florida. “But you’re not going to be successful if you don’t understand that there’s a power higher than you.”

Medical intervention comes in the form of detoxification coupled with treatment for the psychological issues that often accompany addictions. For instance, clients with bipolar disorder may try to manage their moods by using cocaine to feel up when they’re down and opiates to calm them through the manic phase.

The Twelve Step program, still the standard at most addiction treatment centers, leads people to turn their chaotic lives over to an undefined “higher power.” For many, that’s God — and Jesus.

Bill Wilson, who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous with Dr. Bob Smith, wrote the Twelve Steps after what he called his “hot flash” spiritual conversion in 1934. It happened during his fourth detox, during which he took controlled and medically supervised doses of belladonna, or deadly nightshade. While hallucinating as a result of alcohol withdrawal combined with this treatment, Wilson cried out, “I’ll do anything! Anything at all. If there be a God, let him show himself to me.”

Wilson said he experienced a bright light, a feeling of ecstasy, and a new serenity. It was the beginning of sobriety that lasted the rest of his life — and it was the foundation of a new movement that focused on a spiritual quest for a higher power to replace the god of addiction. In what became Wilson’s AA and spinoff Twelve Step program, individuals in recovery seek to open themselves up to “letting go and letting God.”

“Spirituality is such a huge portion of treatment,” Dodson said. “Most people in the industry believe in the Twelve Steps.”

Like a growing number of private treatment centers, Transformations offers a faith-based recovery program that incorporates Jesus into daily living. During group sessions, residents share their testimonies, learn a Christian perspective on boundaries, pray and read devotionals, learn lessons from biblical characters, and attend weekly church services. One third of the residents at Transformations choose this treatment option.

“Sometimes people in our other programs will notice something different about the ones in the Christian program, and they’re intrigued,” Dodson said. “They’ll try one of the groups, and suddenly it’s something that they’d rather do.”

Some find comfort in renewing a faith that fell by the wayside due to past hurts or feelings of guilt and shame.

“But addiction is not a sin,” Dodson said. “It’s proven to be a disease, whether or not the person made the choices to become addicted. We’re not going to be doing any judging.”

Still, people with addictions have a tendency to judge themselves and create feelings of worthlessness that put a wall between themselves and God. How others treat them doesn’t help, either.

“They have been told that they are [horrible people], that it’s all their fault,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Margaret Nagib of Timberline Knolls, a women’s residential treatment center in Lemont, Illinois. “Our girls have been wounded by significant people in their lives, and sometimes they put that on God. They have to learn to forgive those who have wounded them, and that’s the key to opening up to what God has in store for them.”

About 40 of the 150 residents at Timberline Knolls choose the Christian-based program that examines identity, shame, boundaries, and forgiveness through a Christian lens. During “process” group meetings,  residents are encouraged to ask difficult questions like “Where was God when I needed him?” or “Does God really forgive me?” Additionally, the “expressive” treatment groups help residents release anguish and feel the Holy Spirit’s presence through music and worship.

“I don’t think we do our clients a favor unless we address the underlying spiritual issues,” Nagib said. “That comes down to what’s oppressing you from being who God wants you to be. We want to reconnect them with God. It’s one thing for me to tell a girl, ‘You are worthy,’ but when they hear that from God, that’s powerful.”

She also said that it’s important for supportive loved ones to separate the addictions from the person, and see in them the image of Jesus.

“When the girls come to us, they are desperately crying out for help,” Nagib said. “They are saying, ‘I may act one way. I may frustrate you. I may be scared of your help, but deep down, I need your help, so don’t give up on me.’”

Roy Johnson Sr., an ordained minister and certified addictions counselor, is founder and president of Providence Ministries, Inc. in Dalton, Georgia. Providence has five recovery sites where Jesus is acknowledged as the healing higher power.

Johnson compared rehab to the parable of the prodigal son who lived a life of sin that led to his ruination. When he humbly returned to his father, he forgave him and welcomed him home.

“There’s grace and mercy for repentant people who want another chance, regardless of where we were,” Johnson said. “Like the Bible says, a person in Christ is a new creation. That means a new way of thinking, new lifestyles, new choices, giving up old playmates and old playthings, and replacing them with something positive, like church. God changes lives.”

Catholic Charities, Diocese of Cleveland in Ohio has outpatient and inpatient programs to treat mental health and chemical dependency. Because they receive government funding for addiction treatments, they cannot run religious programs. However, that doesn’t hinder their mission of aiding the poor and the marginalized in the spirit of Christ.

“We are reaching out to a lot of individuals who are at the bottom of their battle,” executive director Maureen Dee said. “We meet them where they are and ask that they get in touch with their spirituality and their understanding of where their higher power is, and we have respect for what it means to them. Chemical dependency treatment in and of itself is spiritual, and many who are addicted to drugs have really neglected that aspect of their lives. So there’s a lot of work to be done to communicate with that higher power in ways that they can find peace and understanding that there’s something larger that guides their life and gives them meaning. They have really been devoid of meaning while in addiction, and the drug can become their reason for living.”

Margaret J. McLaughlin is a licensed mental health therapist and certified addictions counselor in the outpatient substance abuse program at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Wilmington in Delaware. Some of her clients arrive struggling with their faith, while others say their faith sustained them through their addiction. They provide faith-based counseling if a client asks.

“We also encourage them to talk to their parish priest or minister for religious guidance,” McLaughlin said. “But the Twelve Steps naturally bring out the spiritual aspects of recovery, and that faith in a higher power gives clients the strength they need to believe that they can live a sober life.”

Treatments address forgiveness of self and others early on as a way to heal accumulated years of guilt and shame. McLaughlin reminds clients that they have a disease, one that may have resulted in behaviors they now regret.

“They are good people who got lost along the way,” McLaughlin said, “and they are working hard to find their way back.”

Image via Shutterstock.