By Jerran Jackson & Kaela Taylor
Joe is a capable man. He is 6 foot 5 inches with gentle eyes. Joe works in a physical job to support his growing family. He had an accident at work that broke his leg in three places. He was given pain medication after surgery to help him get through the rough nights. Joe was supposed to be on bedrest for four to six weeks, but with his family’s financial situation he returned to work early. The medication eliminated the pain and exhaustion. Joe was able to be the provider he needed to be for his family.
Joe never intended to take pain medication for so long. Weeks turned into months, and months turned into a year. At that point Joe was both physically and mentally addicted. One day his doctor’s office called to say they would no longer prescribe this medicine. Joe started buying some off of a guy he knew at the job site. Every time he tried to taper off, the anxiety, tremors, diarrhea, and insomnia would be too much. Eventually his habit became too expensive. Joe asked his dealer if he had anything cheaper.
Joe paused here in the story, regret and pain pooling in the tears in his eyes. “I never meant for all of this to happen. I never even used any type of medication before I was 38. And here I am. This is what my life has become. I am a heroin addict.”
Chemical Addiction Changes the Brain
The brain is constantly looking for patterns—patterns of what brings joy and what causes pain. When someone overuses an addictive drug, the drug provides a shortcut to the brain’s reward system. The drug overwhelms the pleasure center of the brain with dopamine. The brain stops producing its own dopamine and craves the high it gets from being saturated with the drug. This biological pattern will repeat itself again and again, never satisfied for long, because the brain is always searching for its next high. The more that a person continues to enact this pattern, the more their brain changes.
This is a very simplified explanation of the science behind what happens in the brain when someone is inflicted with the disease of addiction. Medication, which was created to bring peace and comfort to those who suffer, can be misused. Addiction is not a moral problem. Fighting addiction is not about being “strong enough” or “righteous enough.” Addiction is a disease of the brain that distorts and overrides a person’s ability to make rational decisions and recognize the impact of their actions. However, in a greater sense, addiction is a moral problem because all that is evil and full of sorrow in this world is from the liar and manipulator (John 8:44). He whispers that he will solve problems, and then he disappears once the sufferer wakes up alone and destitute.
Jane knew what it was like to be alone. Jane’s father took off before she was born and Jane’s mother bounced from one guy to the next, looking for love in all the wrong places. One day Jane came home from school to find that her mother had left. A neighbor threatened to call child services, and Jane took off into the woods, scared to death. She lived in the woods until she was picked up for stealing and ended up being placed with her uncle. Jane’s uncle forced her to help him sell drugs out of his basement. Eventually Jane ran away. When Jane sought treatment, she had been trying to numb her soul with anything that she could get her hands on. When asked why she was seeking recovery, Jane looked her counselor in the eye and said, “I don’t want to die anymore.”
It is easy to look at a person at the end of their rope and forget to have compassion for the person behind the mask. He or she may be wearing a mask of indifference, anger, or fear. Fear is a central factor in the lives of addicted people: fear of being sick, fear of not having enough, fear of not keeping up the façade—and the deeper fear that nothing else will make them happy or solve their problems.
Answers If You Struggle with Addiction
When people find easy, temporary relief for their problems, they usually stop looking for permanent solutions. Overcoming addiction requires taking a hard look at the underlying problems that create a place in which addiction can flourish. The subconscious lie that a substance is the only way to deal with these problems is a belief deeply rooted in almost every addicted individual. Wisdom requires an honest look in the mirror, not walking away and immediately forgetting (James 1:24). Wisdom recognizes that the short-term relief of numbing these problems does not outweigh the long-term reward of developing the ability to face them.
When Phyllis’s withdrawal from alcohol caused her to shake so badly that she could not hold a coffee cup, she dropped to her knees and prayed, “Lord, please help me.” Wisdom is not living in denial and letting this disease continue to destroy life. Wisdom is actively seeking help.
Reach out to God for help to turn away from addiction.
Addiction is an age-old problem, as 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 points out—yet it also says that everyone can be washed, sanctified, and changed. God’s strength and healing can come in many ways. Scriptures like Psalm 5 can reassure a person struggling with addiction that God is powerful and he is near. A person fighting addiction may be comforted by reciting the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer. Cleo found strength from God through serving others. As he helped others, Cleo found help and healing for the pain in his soul.
Rely on the wisdom and support of Christian friends.
It is important to intentionally find people who will be honest and provide godly counsel. This may include sober support groups such as Celebrate Recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous, or Narcotics Anonymous. A support system can defeat the enemy’s attempt to isolate the sufferer. Phyllis said, “When I meet a person who is struggling, the message I try to communicate is: ‘You are not alone.’” A person’s support group cannot take over his life or boundaries, but they can pray with, listen to, stand by, and speak truth to their friend.
Seek professional help to address this disease.
Just as a person would seek treatment for any other life-threatening illness, so the disease of addiction must be met with urgency and skill. An addicted brain may need medicine to begin to heal physical brokenness. A shattered mind needs counseling to begin to restore mental and emotional wholeness.
Answers for Those Who Love an Addicted Person
If you are close to someone who is addicted, wisdom is learning to challenge lies with truth, in an effective and loving manner. “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). Wisdom is learning how to be supportive of someone without enabling them. This may begin with doing research or talking to someone who can educate on healthy boundaries. A wise person supports someone who is seeking help to deal with a chemical dependence. When people condemn those who seek medication-assisted treatment, those people speak out of fear, judgment, and a lack of understanding.
People don’t choose to develop the disease of addiction. Addiction occurs when the brain is distorted by drug overuse. It is no secret that this country is facing an addiction epidemic. However, there is hope. There is hope for individuals who face their addictions and seek help. Jesus can break the chains of addiction. Phyllis has been drug free for 21 years. Cleo has been drug free for 28 years. Joe and Jane are actively pursuing recovery.
The road to freedom is not easy. It takes work, it takes honesty, and it takes help from others. Addiction need not be a death sentence. Choosing help brings hope, and choosing God’s wisdom brings new life.
Kaela Taylor is a professional counselor who helps people pursue recovery. Jerran Jackson is a minister and Kaela’s father.