The unwelcome news about the war on drugs seems to be unrelenting. Statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reveal that approximately 200,000 Americans died in 2021 from substance abuse, drugs and alcohol. That is approximately 30,000 more deaths than the total of all the wars in U.S. history, outside the Civil War and WWI and II, or one person every 2.6 minutes.
Is there any good news? Actually, there is. It is contained in the results of a landmark study on recovery completed by Harvard Medical and Massachusetts General Hospital, The National Recovery Study, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29055821. This study was completed in 2017, but has recently been given renewed attention.
This study found that approximately 75 percent of the people who self-identify as having drug and alcohol problems, wind up in recovery. That is a ray of hope for those who seem to have lost hope. One intriguing finding was of the 9.1 percent or 22.35 million in recovery, close to half, 46 percent, found recovery without going through any recovery program or twelve-step group.
In an interview, John Kelly of Harvard, an author of the study, noted that this group on average, was less likely to have been taking some of the harder drugs, started later, and had been using for a shorter time and often had more social capital, relationships, family and community support. Still, this group according to Kelly, includes many who dealt with long-term and severe addiction. It is encouraging news that three out of four people who self-identified as having drug or alcohol problems, found their way to recovery.
Other findings are more sobering, pointing toward the difficulties of recovery. Relapse is the norm, not the exception, and the process to full recovery is not normally 30, 60 or 90 days, but can take years. Perhaps, we need to rethink some of our assumptions as a society and in the Church about recovery. In the Church, our focus has often been on striving to bring people to an authentic point of repentance and surrender, a worthwhile goal. However, most people in recovery are in process, both those in the Church and those outside the Church. Acts of repentance and surrender are often the start, not the end of the journey. Perhaps we need to view long-term active support in the same light as repentance and surrender.
I am reminded of Paul’s leaving Trophimus sick in Miletus (2Tim.4:20). There is no hint here that he does not have enough faith to get well; it is simply that he is still sick and needs to let the process of recovery unfold. Bearing other’s burdens, (Gal.6:2), visiting the sick, (Matt. 25:36), seeing to their recovery, (Luke 10:30-37), are scriptural images that come to mind as we contemplate this journey together.
If those with social capital are more able to recover, the Church should see this an opportunity to be the Church. I have found that supporting the families who are supporting the one struggling, can be a needed ministry. Families active in their church have shared with me that after experiencing deaths and through illnesses, they have been almost “casseroled to death.” However, when a family member is suffering from substance abuse, too often they experienced a ringing silence. Lending support, sharing in joy, and suffering, (Rom.12:12), can be as simple as a phone call. Sponsoring recovery programs and support groups is important; but listening, sitting down with a cup of coffee, is often what a family member needs.
Church leaders need to be more vocal about expressing that substance abuse is a problem for our society and for those in faith communities. They can intertwine that awareness in sermons, prayers and educational opportunities. According to a Pew Research Study, 46 percent of Americans have a close friend or family member that is currently struggling with a substance use disorder or who has in the past. So, if you look to the left or right of you in the pew, one of those folks has likely been touched by addiction.
If three out of four people find their way to recovery, we need to find ways to keep them alive to recover. In an interview on NPR, John Kelly of Harvard, expressed his concern that the flood of fentanyl has begun to upset that equation of three out of four finding recovery. Many who would eventually find their way to recovery are dying from overdose. One injection, one pill, one mistake, can cause accidental overdose. I think people in some faith communities need to reconsider their thinking about harm reduction—harm reduction being such activities as clean needle exchange, passing out strips to detect fentanyl and distributing Naloxone/Narcan to reverse overdose. These measures can keep people alive, for God to work.
God, help us not to be like the disciples arguing over the blind man at their feet in John 9, ignoring his need, arguing about the cause of his blindness, and subsequently, the religious leaders being upset that his healing did not follow the pattern they preferred. If people are alive, they have a chance.