Addiction: it's an intrinsic part of our society. It's something that's overwhelmingly difficult to overcome, and it has a tendency to isolate, confine and destroy.
For the church, there is a problem of recognition—and turning a blind eye can prove fatal. A reported 15.1 million adults ages 18 and older have Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Drug overuse, too, has become a national epidemic. In Tennessee alone, there were 1,631 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. On a national scale, more than 115 Americans die every day after overdosing on opioids.
To prevent substance abuse situations, we must make an effort to understand the root of an addiction.
Last week, North Cleveland Baptist Church held an event sponsored by Cleveland-based organization The Bridge, aimed at raising awareness about addiction. Called the“The Addicted Brain,” the event featured recovered addict and recovery consultant Tim Hilton, who spoke on the science behind the disease of addiction, the dangers of addiction and the miracles of recovery.
“The disease, quite specifically, is a dysregulation of the neurotransmitter pathway system that results in a diminished flow of dopamine into the frontal lobe,” Hilton said. “The dopamine in our frontal lobe chemically forms our coping system…so when we talk about addicts and alcoholics, we are literally talking about a disease that has altered or diminished the individual’s coping system.”
Hilton continued his lecture by explaining the reality of drug use and alcoholism, relating it to the function of brain chemistry. Alcoholism, he said, breaks down the mind of an addict.
“People tend to see the alcoholism or drug use as the problem, but the real problem is deeper than that,” Hilton said. “The drug and alcohol use is something that the individual tends to use to treat or mask this problem. For the addict, this is the solution, not the cause.”
Hilton noted the lack of a coping system and the need for it in order to derail addiction.
“The problem is the addict doesn’t have a coping system,” Hilton said, “so even when you get the drugs and alcohol out of their system, if you don’t provide them with a way to cope, they’re going to go back to the drug or alcohol use.”
For this reason, somewhere around 40-60 percent of drug addicts and alcoholics will relapse from their plan of treatment, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The NIDA also concluded that addiction should be treated like any other chronic illness that affects the body and brain.
Although treatment centers and hospitals can provide treatment for physical diseases, Hilton said they rarely help patients to recover mentally or spiritually. Instead, he suggested, a spiritual awakening must occur within the addict: a rejuvenation of three different relationships that become broken with addiction.
The first relationship is that with oneself. Because active addiction occurs within a primal part of the brain, addicts often prioritize drugs and alcohol above food and water.
“Active addiction manifests physically,” Hilton said, “and because you are now reaching out with the hunger of a starving man to find drugs or alcohol, the individual will begin defying their morality to get what they feel they need.”
He expressed concern for addicts becoming “unable to recognize the stranger in the mirror,” resulting in mental illnesses such as depression. The constant battle of depression and substance abuse becomes a vicious cycle that often results in suicide.
According to the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, “More than 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from depression; have a substance abuse disorder, or both.”
The second relationship that falls victim to substance abuse, according to Hilton, is the relationship with others. Active addiction halts the proper functioning of the lymphatic system, a part of the body that's essential for experiencing moments, processing emotions and relating to surroundings and the feelings of others. According to Detox Europe, an organization focused on healing addiction, the lymphatic system works together with the cardiovascular system to protect the body from toxins. Over time with substance abuse, these toxins build up and cause the lymphatic system to shut down.
At this point, alcohol abusers have lost the physical headquarters of empathy or compassion, resulting in the loss of intimate relationships with friends and family. This emptiness they experience is often a major factor in relapsing.
The third and final broken relationship is the addict’s relationship with the Divine. Because addicts experience a vicious cycle of self-hatred, broken friendships and substance abuse, many feel as though they're beyond repair or as if they have nothing left to offer. The church, according to Hilton, can also influence an addict's inability to desire a relationship with God—by painting a picture of an intolerant God with high expectations.
“A lot of addicts think that it is better to have no God than to have one that resents them for what they are,” Hilton said. “I’m here to tell you all, though, that God is not intolerant and that you are worthy of His grace. You are not a junkie; you are a broken child of God.”
Hilton said his own experience with addiction has weighed on him and motivated him to help others bypass the mistakes he made.
“I got sober at 37 years of age, and the first time I had a conscious awareness that I might have a problem was when I was a 20-year-old college student,” he said. “I came very close to going to a treatment center then, but through peer pressure I was moved off of that path, and it took 17 more years. I cannot begin to tell you what I wouldn’t do for those 17 years of my life back.”
Hilton encouraged anyone who may be struggling with an addiction to reach out for help with an open mind, ready to give recovery an honest chance. To those who have a loved one struggling with an addiction, Hilton offered this advice: “They don't need enabling, they don’t need judgment—they need love.”
To learn more about how addiction is present within the Cleveland community and to see what is being done to end this epidemic, you can visit atsthebridge.org.