By Stacey Lefever
Many of us have heard the news on television or in print about the ongoing opioid epidemic. Yet, many people don't realize that they can make a difference in confronting the crisis. Your fellowship and friendship are the best ways of reaching someone with addiction, and can help an addict recover from the disease. By showing support and love, not judgment and indifference, faith communities can be a source of inspiration and hope to people on their journey to recovery. Addiction creates isolation for many, and stigma perpetuates this cycle. A supportive, loving community, open to listening and learning, eases the move toward healing, and it also invaluable to families who have a loved one with addiction.
The statistics are staggering. Nearly 1 in 8 Americans have addiction, and more than 100 die each day from overdoses. Yet stigma against those with addiction has led many to believe that addiction cannot and will not happen to them or those they love. When I began my career in social work, I was living in Pittsburgh and working at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. I had limited knowledge of addiction prior to beginning this work, so I immediately set about trying to “change” the addict, oblivious that they were more than just their addiction. I realized quickly that addiction effects every demographic, age, and culture; including those in the Jewish community. In fact, 70% percent of people who use drugs are employed; and they live in your community, go to your temple, or even live in your home.
It took several years working in the field to begin to understand the addictive process and learn that addiction was not something I could “change” for my clients. So, I began to listen, as opposed to lecturing about all the things I had learned in my studies. I also began to see the transformative effect that faith had on those with addiction. Twelve Step programs (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) have integrated faith and spirituality into their programs, and it is easy to understand why. It works. However, I also began to understand that recovery is a unique journey for every individual affected, including the loved ones of those with addiction, and so I became intensely interested in the ways the faith community itself can help those with addiction, and how it was particularly suited to combat stigma.
One of the most important changes in addiction treatment in recent years has been the integration of resources in addiction treatment. This includes law enforcement, the government, and faith communities and establishments. These institutions all have a role to play in helping those with addiction recover from their disease. Kevin Hoffman, who studies the effect of addiction in the faith communities in Ohio, has explained that is it “important to remember that addiction (and recovery) are shaped by the environment, they do not occur in a vacuum.” In his home state, which has been devastated by the opioid crisis, they are taking dramatic steps to counteract drug abuse. He emphasizes that it is important for the faith community to be trained in recognizing the signs of addiction. Temples are resources for those in the faith community, and having addiction resources and referral sources available to those seeking help is an essential tool in combatting the addiction cycle. Every synagogue should consider having pamphlets for rehabilitation centers and addiction doctors, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting lists. Faith communities are unique in that they offer redemption and reflection to those who seek it. Offering an ear to listen, as well as knowledgeable advice, is so important to those looking for help.
Many of those who suffer are simply looking for someone to walk with them on their journey. It is not important that we live this journey with them, but rather that we “meet them where they are” in their recovery. Monty Burks, who works with the faith communities in his home State of Tennessee to battle addiction, points out that we need to “move beyond the language of moral failing.” In other words, understanding that addiction is not a choice, but a disease, and that those who are addicted are not bad people, but rather people who have an illness. Most important, we must recognize that addiction is a treatable disease, but like many diseases, it may require more than one go around of treatment before someone is well.
If you have any feedback or suggestions, feel free to contact me via email or phone. I also would like to have a “Recovery Day” celebration at Sinai. If you are interested in participating or sponsoring this event, please let me know. Thank you!
Stacey Lefever, LCSW, is the Kesher social worker at Temple Sinai. Kesher is the congregational outreach program of Jewish Family Service of Rhode Island, funded by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-428-4084.