Three helpful things I learned while writing a book about addiction

Addiction is a tricky subject to talk about. Unless we’re talking about a celebrity — and sometimes even then — our culture tends to keep the volume on low when someone’s struggle with drugs or alcohol comes up. Often, we’re not really sure what to say: Did the afflicted person make a bad choice for which she should remain responsible? Is there really anything an outsider can do if that person doesn’t want help? Hopefully we at least say a prayer for that person before getting back to the immediate concerns of our own lives.

This is where I was before I co-wrote “The Road to Hope: Responding to the Crisis of Addiction” with Keaton Douglas, founder and executive director of the iTHRIST Initiative. As Keaton talked and I typed, I quickly realized I am the ideal audience for this book: I have friends and family members who have been affected by addiction to various degrees. I want to love like Christ loves, but I’m not sure where the lines are drawn in this kind of situation.

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I learned a lot more than can fit in an article (it is a full-length book, after all!), but these top three gems I learned from Keaton have changed the way I’ll address addiction going forward.

1. The way we speak about addiction matters

We were careful in the book never to refer to a person as an “addict,” an “alcoholic” or with other more derisive terms. To do so means the affliction is the main identifier; to do so is to belittle the individual’s being made in the image and likeness of God.

When we see those struggling as “other,” as not like us, as living in a way we can’t begin to imagine, we create a boundary between us and them — an imaginary boundary, but one that can be hard to cross nonetheless. Yet if we are honest, we all struggle with unruly attachments in one way or another. It’s in recognizing our shared weakness and brokenness as humans after the Fall that we can find common ground and see even those who are deep into the throes of their addictions as brothers and sisters, neighbors to whom Christ has called us to respond.

2. The suffering extends beyond the afflicted person

About 1 in 5 Americans over age 12 reported illicit drug use in 2018. Now add to that a number even as moderate as two friends or family members concerned about each individual. We are talking about thousands upon thousands of people in our communities — our apartment buildings, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, churches — who are affected by addiction on a daily basis. And far too many of these people don’t know who to talk to for help, even for simply a listening ear.

Very few think to go to their local parish for help. One of the toughest things I learned while writing this book is how many parents aren’t giving children who die from causes related to their addictions a Christian burial. There’s a sense of shame, a fear of judgment that means souls aren’t being fed, aren’t being cared for as they should be. My heart aches for them.

3. We already have everything we need to respond

By the grace of the Holy Spirit, Keaton has developed the (virtual) iTHIRST Spiritual Companionship Certification Training, which is available through Seton Hall University and is taking this work around the world. We pray that through the book, even more people will discern taking that certification. But the reality is that we already have what we need to respond to those suffering from addictions and to their families and friends. As Catholics, we know we are all sinners. We — and they — are all called to abundant life. We know what it is to be broken and made whole again. We also know that Jesus told us to reach out to the least of those among us. And right now, that means those who aren’t part of the conversation, who are glossed over in whispers, who people think they don’t know how to serve and so don’t serve at all.

Keaton and I were thrilled when we learned the book had received the nihil obstat and the imprimatur. These classifications from the Church mean that the book is, first, not objectionable on doctrinal or moral grounds and, second, declared worthy of publication. There’s so much more I wish I had room to share here: the connections to the Theology of the Body, the extensive list of sources we referred to, the saints on whose intercession we can rely, the further reading we can use to better understand addiction as a disease on physical and spiritual levels. Instead, I’ll end with gratitude to God for each thing that led to my working on this project and a prayer that many more people will recognize the call to respond to those suffering with hope.

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