On the Opioid Crisis and the Church: A National Emergency for Us All
by Amy K. Sorrells
Tracy* sat on the bed in front of me, her eyes wild and darting around the room. She looked a mess, her long dark hair in dingy kinks and knots. Sunken brown eyes and a pock-marked face made her look more like forty than the twenty-something she was. Most disturbing of all was the way she twisted and squirmed in the bed, as if fighting invisible cords threatening to tie her down.
Indeed, she was fighting something.
Before she was admitted to the hospital unit where I work, Tracy had been using over $1,000 a week of heroin, and ways she told us she’d been paying for it were unspeakable. As nurses, physicians and therapists, we were helpless in the fight to keep her pain manageable, not to mention treat the raging infection that caused her admission in the first place.
One might assume Tracy’s condition extreme, but hospitals are overflowing with opioid addicts like her whose hearts—literally and figuratively—are being destroyed. Occasionally, we hear about stories like hers in the news. We catch a headline about a dozen people overdosing outside a local shelter. The evening news reports yet another city adopting a needle exchange program because if communities can’t control the drug use, maybe they can at least save an addict from contracting Hepatitis C or HIV or both.
What we don’t hear about so much is where the church is in the midst of the opioid crisis. Despite the fact nearly 100 Americans die from opioid overdoses daily and in 2017 the opioid epidemic was declared a nationwide public health emergency, the church remains largely silent in response.
And yet people like Tracy live all around us.
Tracy is a suburban housewife who started injecting heroin when she couldn’t get any more oxycodone refills after her back surgery. She is a homeless prostitute who once was accepted to the best college in the state, until her boyfriend got her hooked. She is a teacher, a physician, a businessman. She is a baby in the NICU who screams inconsolably for weeks because her mother used opioids while she grew in the womb.
Maybe the reason the opioid crisis is not at the forefront of Christian conversation is that form of addiction is notoriously difficult to treat. But I think it’s for other reasons, reasons exemplified in Mark 5, in which Jesus calls demons out of a crazed man, sends them into a herd of pigs, and the pigs go squealing off the side of the cliffs to their demise. It’s a familiar story, but one that provides us with three key parallels of why Christians are hesitant to press into the battle against opioids, as well as how we might help.
First, Jesus went to the place no one wanted to go.
No one wanted to hang out around the tombs of Gerasenes. And certainly, no one wanted to approach the man living there whom Mark describes like this:
“…the man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with chains. For he had often been bound with shackles [for the feet] and with chains, and he tore apart the chains and broke the shackles into pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue and tame him. Night and day he was constantly screaming and shrieking among the tombs and on the mountains, and cutting himself with [sharp] stones.” (Mark 5:3-5, AMP)
Similarly, few of us want to meet opioid addicts where they are. Not really. The media perpetuates frightening imagery of the addicts, surrounded by syringes and deadly diseases, hanging out in seedy hotels and crime-ridden neighborhoods. If the imagery (which sometimes is the reality) isn’t deterrent enough, the stigma within the church of people being able to pray their way out of these illnesses still exists despite all the advances in mental health and addiction treatment.
Bottom line, the opioid epidemic is formidable, it is evil, and we are ill-equipped to fight it. But fear and inadequacy are never excuses when God is involved. We are called be light, to care for the sick, the poor and the needy, many of whom are in dark and dangerous places. And we are assured that wherever we go He goes before us and never leaves us alone.
Second, Jesus persists.
By the time Jesus and His disciples landed on the shore of Gerasenes, they must have been exhausted. They’d just survived an horrific storm on the sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). The easiest thing for them to do would have been to set up camp and hunker down for a good night’s sleep before crossing the lake again for more teaching and preaching. The easiest thing to do would have been to leave altogether when, in verses 7-10, the demon-possessed man screams at Jesus, “What business do we have in common with each other…?” Then the demons within the man beg Jesus repeatedly not to cast them out and send them away.
But Jesus was not deterred.
He was deliberate.
He was determined.
And He didn’t give in.
Not unlike like the demon-possessed man, addicts isolate themselves. They don’t want to be discovered. They are experts at hiding, and they would just as soon be left alone. Unless they decide they want to change on their own, confronting an addict often results in anger and bitterness. Many times the only thing loved ones can do with an addict is leave them alone until they hit rock bottom and decide for themselves that they want to change.
But as a whole, the church can and must do better for the opioid crisis. Instead of looking away, we can pray for opportunities for our churches to partner with effective addiction recovery programs. We can pray for ways to help the foster system, inundated with children being removed from the homes of addicted parents. We can be deliberate about talking about the opioid crisis in our pews and from the pulpit. And we can love those we come across, and their families, who are struggling with addiction.
Third, Jesus called the demons—and no doubt the man—by name.
The Scriptures indicate Jesus spent some time arguing with the demons within the man, and that He asked them multiple times to identify themselves.
“Tell me your name!” Jesus commands.
I wonder if Jesus asked the man to state his name just as authoritatively. All the examples throughout the New Testament of the way Jesus hones in on the heart of a broken person lead me to believe He was just as intent on reaching the man behind the demons.
Similarly, we have to separate the person from the addiction. Many people describe loved ones overcome with addiction as unreasonable, unreachable and ultimately unrecognizable from the person they once were. As a nurse, I’ve seen the struggle of addiction professionals as they try over and over again to get addicts to understand what the opioids are doing to their lives, and to realize they are not their addiction. More than anyone, Christians need to see the individuals, their hearts and their faces, veiled by the massive curtain of opioids.
My novel, Before I Saw You, is inspired in part by the work I have done as a hospital-based nurse on the front lines of the opioid crisis. In one passage, the main character, Jaycee asks her imprisoned mother why she didn’t just stop using the heroin that caused numerous tragedies in their family. Her mother responds like many of my patients: while she certainly loved her daughter, she loved heroin more.
As Christians, we must love those impacted by the opioid epidemic more.
Whether someone like Tracy, a terrified child removed from his home and addicted parents, the co-worker desperate to get rid of his severe back pain, or any of the thousands of steadily increasing examples in our communities, we need to do what Jesus did when confronted with an overwhelming legion of evil.
Jesus goes to them, seeks them out, in fact.
He doesn’t give up.
He calls evil by its name.
And He calls the human by name too.
More than that, Jesus calls the Tracys of this world precious. Saved. Redeemed.
Oh, that we might do the same.
*Name and exact circumstances have been changed to protect patient privacy.
Amy K. Sorrells has spent nearly 25 years as a registered nurse in an array of hospital-based bedside and leadership positions. Her writing has been featured in medical journals, newspapers, and her newest release, a novel called Before I Saw You, inspired by her work with newborn and adult victims of the opioid epidemic.
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