When is the last time you were in a conversation with other Christians and heard a reference to “druggies,” “crack heads,” “winos,” or “those people”? When was the last time you had a meal with someone who is on the path of addiction recovery? Obviously, our experiences are varied when it comes to the daily struggles of substance abuse addiction. My personal experiences have opened my heart, humbled me, and educated me about those who are finding freedom from addiction.
The Birth of the Sober Living Home
In the last few years, several ladies in our church became involved in a local recovery home for women who have struggled with addiction. As they got to know them and became involved in their stories, they learned that getting sober isn’t the hard part. Building a life that makes it possible to stay sober is the challenge.
Getting sober isn’t the hard part. Building a life that makes it possible to stay sober is the challenge.
As these ladies graduated or were kicked out of their judge-appointed program in town, they faced insurmountable odds. Either they had lost all their belongings, or had been forced to place them in storage. They had to fight for the right to see their kids, who had been removed for safety. They had no money and no healthy friendships. They needed a job and a ride to work and childcare for their kids and a place to go for courage when they wanted to return to their addiction (also referred to as Substance Abuse Disorder) because it was all just too much.
So, we decided to open the church’s old parsonage, which was unoccupied. We sought non-profit status in order to have eligibility for a broader range of charitable donations. A returned missionary couple with humongous hearts of love and some ladies in the church stepped in to work many volunteer hours for the home. And the WeCare home was born.
We certainly don’t have all the answers, and there are no easy solutions for many of the situations that arise. But it has been an unbelievable gift to get to know the precious ladies who make the WeCare house their home as they rebuild their lives, a new life in Christ.
It saddens me to realize that many Christians view addicts as lazy good-for-nothings who have made poor choices and ruined their lives, as if it is a simple conclusion that they want the pleasures of sin over the holiness of God, and simply will not deny themselves and take up their cross. It is tempting to assume that if only they would surrender their lives to Jesus, He would make all things new and all their problems would be over.
While the heart is changed and made new, it is necessary to walk a difficult path of making the mind and the life new as well.
It is true that Christ forgives all and makes all things new! But the journey of learning to walk in the newness is brutal for many of these women. In some cases, it almost appears to be an impossible road to walk alone. It is true that they made many wrong choices in their journey to addiction, but their stories are not simple. And while the heart is changed and made new, it is necessary to walk a difficult path of making the mind and the life new as well.
The Paths to Addiction
Many adults who struggle with Substance Abuse Disorder learned to abuse substances at a very young age. Some were given alcohol in their baby bottles. Many dealt drugs for their parents. Most had drugs readily available from multiple places.
It doesn’t take a long time of listening to their stories of being abused, neglected, used for others’ addictions, manipulated, supplied with drugs, and so on, to realize that they were handed a very difficult set of life circumstances.
The Challenges of Staying Clean
As a result, Substance Abuse Disorder is often wired into their brains in a way that can take years to reprogram. And after they serve their time in jail, detox, and go through a recovery program…their challenges have only begun. Many times, when they are released from jail (typically just after midnight), the ones waiting to drive them away to freedom are their previous drug friends. They are plunged right back into the culture.
There are complications from the very first day out of incarceration. If they have a felony on their record, they are not eligible for things like food stamps. If they are on probation, they are often in debt from the first day out of jail. They must pay for their ankle bracelets and a very expensive recurring fee to maintain their probation and bracelet monitoring. In addition, it can be extremely difficult to get a job when you have a record. Many of them did not have good training to begin with and are at a disadvantage in job interviews. And, in addition, many of them have very difficult emotional or mental challenges which make it hard for them to maintain a good job if they do find someone who will hire them. And perhaps, worst of all, sometimes the most dangerous places for them to go while trying to stay sober is home. Their homes are often (though not always) places of dysfunction and unhealthy behavior.
What They Need to Rebuild a New Life
Recovering addicts typically need at least eight things to stay clean:
- Transportation. One of the most immediate things they need is transportation to and from their jobs.
- Money. They need help, training, and encouragement in finding and maintaining a good job.
- A safe place to live. As mentioned above, their own homes are many times not a good option. Having a warm, beautiful, safe home in which to do the hard work of recovery is a beautiful gift. And hot meals are the icing on the cake.
- Mentors (Re-parenting). Mentors take time with them in everyday life — teaching them to cook healthy meals, manage money, learn impulse control, obey house rules, deny instant gratification, and manage relationships. These are all things that should have happened in the early years of them being parented but didn’t, and now need to be trained or re-trained into their lives. The mentoring relationship is a powerful one to watch and experience. The love that is developed from walking such a difficult path together is for some much like the love of a mother and daughter. The ladies refer to their spiritual mentors with beautiful, grateful attachment . . . “My Gilbert” or “My Rachel.” My life has been enriched by getting to know these beautiful, funny, smart, big-hearted ladies.
- Emotional training. Sometimes they have very little understanding of the emotional and mental habits that drove them to addiction in the first place. Dopamine is an example of a chemical which is extremely efficient in its job of helping the brain to avoid pain. It memorizes the details of circumstances which alleviate pain or discomfort, and it reminds the body to seek out those experiences again when things get rough. This means that the brains of addicts remember and are inclined to seek comfort in the addiction, and often the addict doesn’t even understand why because it is deeply buried in the psyche. Recovering addicts need hours of conversation to process what their triggers are, why they turn to substances, and how they can find healthy coping mechanisms to replace the old ones.
- Spiritual training. It’s true, they need to attend church. But they also need to sit down with someone who loves them enough to spend time with them. They need to be able to ask questions and get answers. They need authenticity and practical Biblical life advice from someone who is not limited to clichés.
- Friendship and fellowship. If we expect them to stay away from all the bad influences in their lives, we need to be prepared to create new opportunities for fun and fellowship. Invite them to your table, your Christmas gathering, your bonfires, your game nights, your dinners out.
- Prayer. This area of addiction is one of the enemy’s strongholds. When someone bravely takes the path towards freedom, the enemy does not like it. Recovering addicts—as well as the mentors who spend hours with them—need constant prayer coverage.
What Can I Do?
Not everyone is called to this subset of ministry. Not every church has a rampant drug culture in their community and an empty parsonage available as a sober living home. But there are many things about grace, mercy, and sacrifice to be learned from working with these precious, smart, amazing women. We need to judge less. Assume less. Love more. Pay more attention. Listen more. Pray endlessly and specifically. Intercede for those who are on the front lines. Be a better friend to those we know who struggle with Substance Abuse Disorder.
Perhaps there is something in the list above that resonates with you. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has already brought someone’s face to your mind. This is an invitation for all of us to surrender our spirit of pride, distaste, apathy, and fear, and open our hearts in a new way to some of God’s most beautiful people.