The Opioid Pandemic: Support for Family & Friends

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

I have written various pieces for this newspaper regarding different aspects of the opioid crisis. In this piece, I focus on family and friends of current and recovering addicts. 

They share similar experiences with families and friends of alcoholics, gamblers, etc. That is why the support systems are structured very similarly. For the family and friends of alcoholics, the program is known as Al-Anon and Alateen, for gamblers it is Gam-Anon and Gam-A-Teen and for opioid addicts it is Nar-Anon. Nar-Anon, like the others is a 12 Step Program founded by Alma B in Studio City, California back in 1968. Since 2006, Nar-Anon has tremendously grown and is known worldwide. 

The 12 Steps of Nar-Anon are nearly identical to those of Al-Anon and Gam-Anon and similar to those of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. The main similarities which are the first three steps are: 1) admitting you are powerless over the situation, 2) a higher Power greater than you will restore you and 3) surrendering your will to that higher Power. For us, as Orthodox Christians, that higher Power is indeed our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and in these steps the transition from pride to humility occurs. Recently, on the Sunday after the Elevation of the Holy Cross, we heard in the Gospel of Mark (8:34): “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.” It is the decision to seek help and join a program that becomes one’s cross. It will be an arduous journey but will lead not only to relief but salvation. The greatest expression of humility is Christ on the Cross, which is why He tells us if we want to go after Him, we must do likewise and pick up our own cross. In this season as we celebrate the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, let us look to the Cross, in Its vision and victory for hope and salvation. As we hear at the Small Entrance in the Divine Liturgy on the Feast: “Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at the footstool of His feet. Save us, O Son of God, who was crucified in the flesh.” This is precisely the transformation from pride to humility, from despair to hope and from death to life.

The programs mentioned above have similarities with each other and so do the people they benefit. Addicts, both current and recovering, have similarities with the friends and family that surround them. All have to go through that transition from pride to humility which is seeking help and applying those first three aforementioned steps. As much as one might think it is hard for an addict to realize he or she has a problem, it is just as hard if not harder for a friend or family member of that same person to do the same. This is especially true for parents of addicts, “Not my kid or he is fine, he is okay.” These expressions we hear quite often as clichés. Admitting to a problem of your own child can be a lot harder than to admit to one for yourself. It is not an easy thing and certainly a tragic and painful ordeal to be involved with. They feel they failed as parents and blame themselves for the condition of their children, burdened with an overwhelming measure of guilt. There are many circumstances on how loved ones of addicts could be affected emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually.

Nar-Anon is available for those who need it to access. However, it is specific for family and friends of addicts who are powerless over their situation and of which the addiction of their loved one has had a major impact on their life to the point that it is unbearable. Opioid addicts need the 12 step program but not all friends and family members of addicts necessarily need Nar-Anon. However, if someone who has a loved one who is an addict, it is strongly recommended that they do not handle the problem alone. Whether it is talking to a social worker or mental health professional or spiritual father, it is imperative to seek out help. Even if the situation seems manageable at first it could quickly exacerbate into a powerless situation. Whoever one seeks to help may even recommend Nar-Anon. The benefit of Nar-Anon, however, is that everyone in the group is in the same boat. They struggle just like you do, they have had similar experiences and all want the same thing you do: relief. It provides fellowship and Nar-Anon can be held at community centers, schools and churches. So it is important that our local Orthodox Churches sponsor this program. The purpose of the 12 step programs is not to become spiritual or religious but that does happen inadvertently. 

The Nar-Anon program is an option that our Greek Orthodox Community can offer. The goal is for every local parish to have one but we need to start with at least one. Every Orthodox parish throughout the United States unfortunately will have parishioners affected by this crisis. It is crucial that there is an awareness of this crisis and that we can identify those who are affected at every level. We as the Greek Orthodox faithful should make every effort to provide the resources for relief. Nar-Anon is definitely one vital option available to us and should be considered.

John Athanasatos, PharmD, MDiv, a pharmacist, attended Long Island University and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.