The Opioid Pandemic: Current and Recovering Addicts

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(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

As I have written in this newspaper previously, the opioid pandemic was an introduction describing how the opioid crisis became a pandemic, who is affected by it and what the Greek Orthodox faithful could do to help alleviate this problem. I mentioned we need to categorize those affected by it into three groups: 1) current and recovering addicts; 2) family/friends of addicts/recovering addicts; and 3) healthcare professionals who engage with the former and the latter. In this article, I address specifically the first group of people: the addicts and those in recovery.

For those who are addicts but have not sought help yet, they are in a vulnerable state that unfortunately could cost them their life. We hope by God’s Grace they will come to realize that they have a problem and will seek help. Yet, because of the difficulty of this addiction they might want help but perhaps out of embarrassment, pride, fear, or denial, they are not seeking help.

This is an opportunity for friends and family who interact with such individuals to have the courage in a loving, caring Christian way to approach that person and offer them a solution.

For recovering addicts, half the battle has been won. They have at least identified that they have a problem and have sought help. Yet, they are still vulnerable but very much in remission and hopefully with the proper support will fully overcome their addiction and restore their lives. In both cases, there is a possible solution: 12-Step Program, Narcotics Anonymous. The first 12-Step Program, Alcoholics Anonymous, was founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith in Akron, OH. Narcotics Anonymous started years later and was founded by Jimmy Kinnon in 1953 in California. It is also a 12-Step Program that employs the 12 Steps, 12 Traditions, the same like AA and other addiction recovery groups. Although completion of all 12 Steps and Traditions is the goal, the first 3 Steps are the most essential, critical and possibly hardest.

At the First Step, persons acknowledge that they are powerless over their addiction and their lives have become unmanageable. At the Second Step, addicts realize that a power greater than themselves will restore them to sanity. And at the Third Step, addicts acknowledge that they made a decision to turn their will and lives over to the care of God, as they understand Him to be. These steps are powerful and certainly aligned with Orthodox Tradition. The message of the Third Step we hear in the 12 Gospel readings on Holy Thursday evening: “Into Thy hands I commit my Spirit. (Lk 23: 46 NKJV)Jesus, the Son said this to the Father on the Cross just before he died. We also recite something similar in our evening prayers before bed: into Your hands I commend my soul and body. Bless me, have mercy on me, and grant me life eternal. Amen.”

So at the First Step, pride is crushed and humility is obtained. At the Second Step, addicts’ humility allows them to acknowledge a higher power, for us as Orthodox Christians it is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the realization to seek Him for help because only He can restore. At the Third Step, the addict starts to say those immortal words: “into Thy hands I commit my Spirit” or “Thy will be done,” which we hear as part of the Lord’s Prayer. Now the addict is ready to ascend through the rest of the 12 steps. Thus, the goal with all 12 Step/Tradition Programs is to obtain sobriety. It is not to become religious or spiritual, however that usually happens inadvertently. It is usual once addicts acquire and maintain sobriety that they also acquire a stronger spirituality. Even once addicts achieve sobriety it is crucial that they continue to attend meetings in order to keep spiritually strong and keep free of any addictive substance that once nearly claimed their lives.

So, for how long must one attend? When have they fully overcome their addiction? The answer: “until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4:19 NKJV). That is the ultimate goal.

Perhaps one of the greatest parables from the Bible an addict has as an example is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which we hear on the second Sunday of Triodion. A man had two sons and the younger one decided one day that he wanted his inheritance in advance. Shortly after the father gave it to him, he journeyed far away and wasted his inheritance on reckless living until all his money was gone. A famine arose in that land and he became hungry, so hungry that he would even eat the pods that the swine ate but even that was not offered to him. In those days, in Semitic culture it was taboo for a Jew to go anywhere near swine, never mind feed them or want their food. Obviously the son was extremely desperate.At that precise time, the son’s pride started to breakdown and humility started to manifest. He started to realize that even his father’s servants had it better than what he had. So, he decided to return back to his father and ask for his forgiveness and to take him back, even as one of his servants. While still a distance away, the father saw him, had compassion on him and ran to him, embraced him and kissed him. Instead of punishing his son for what he did, he ordered his servants to clothe the son with the best robe available and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. The father put together a great feast to honor his son’s return, which offended the other son, who was obedient and loyal to the father. The father responded to the other son: “your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found”(Lk 15:32 NKJV).

Likewise, once addicts acknowledge their addiction and humble themselves to know that they are powerless and turn to Christ for restoration, He is gladly waiting for their return. Indeed, those persons who were dead are now alive, who were lost are now found.

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