In trying to kick their habit, addicts need to focus on their physical and mental health, but there’s no escaping the need to deal with their spiritual health as well. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Faith offers a path for recovery from drug addiction

By 
  • February 25, 2017

When Max began sticking a needle into his arm to escape emotional discomfort last summer, he knew his addiction to opioids had crossed a line and only faith in a higher power could bring him back.

“To switch to intravenous use you have to have something so painful in your life that it trumps the pain of sticking a needle in your arm,” said Max, who did not want his real name used. “I had just stopped caring about my life, my health, my job, everything. That made me realize that if I’m willing to go this far and take it to this step then I am and will be forever a drug addict.”

Max, who is pushing 30 and admits to being a daily opioid user since his late teens, says his addiction to powerful pain-killing drugs has made him feel “isolated,” “helpless” and “like a junkie.”

Max is just one of tens of thousands suffering opioid addiction in Ontario, a problem that has escalated to “crisis” proportions, according to Canada’s health minister, Jane Philpott. While treatment options for addicts are numerous, experts acknowledge that faith and religion has an important role to play in recovery.

“You have to have a power greater than yourself to help yourself,” said Elanie Dombi, an addiction counsellor at Southdown Institute north of Toronto.

As Max’s opioid use intensified, he realized he needed help beyond basic replacement therapy medications like methadone or suboxone, which had failed him more than once before. But accessing such intensive care, the kind offered at most private rehabilitation centres, proved difficult.

“It was hard to get help,” he said. “I got turned away from a number of places. Nobody wanted to take me in.”

Max, desperate and fearing for his life, turned to his employer and the employee insurance policy. After satisfying a number of conditions, Max’s trip to Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ont., had financial backing.

“Homewood was my last resort,” he said. “It is a very expensive place to go. It cost thousands of dollars, something somebody could not pay for on their own if they are a drug addict.”

While in treatment at Homewood — in Max’s case, for 30 days — patients focus on recovering their physical, mental and spiritual health.

“A lot of it revolves around God,” he said. “They showed me a lot of stuff about how to stop, rewind and live your life a little bit better. Basically the program is just trying to teach you how to live your life as a normal human being because as addicts your drugs have taken over your entire life.”

A recently released report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows the number of hospital visits for opioid poisoning, or overdoses, nationwide increased 42 per cent from 2007 to 2015, to 4,800.

A November 2016 research report estimated there were 660,000 opioid users in Ontario with only just over 33,500 enrolled in replacement therapy programs in 2015.

Similarly alarming is the number of deaths caused by opioids. Between 2011 and 2015, about 3,000 deaths in Ontario alone have been linked to opioids. And with provinces like British Columbia reporting 914 opioid-related deaths in 2016 — an 80-per-cent increase over 2015 — the problem nationwide seems to only be worsening, especially since Canada is the world’s No. 2 consumer of pain killers.

Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller issued a pastoral letter on Feb. 16 calling on his parishes to address the “lethal crisis of drug overdoses,” especially fentanyl and other opioids, through education and urging the tightening of regulations on opioid manufacturing.

Philpott said in January the “opioid crisis” ranks among Canada’s top public health issues.

“We’ve never seen numbers like this before,” she said while appearing on Context with Lorna Dueck. “This is really important that we look at the opioid crisis as a public health crisis.”

Philpott, who treated numerous patients with addictions at her private medical practice as a family physician, said curbing the opioid problem requires viewing addiction as a disorder instead of a moral problem.

“It is a chronic illness and it needs to be treated as such,” she said.

That understanding of addiction and addicts comes from her faith.

“I certainly know through my faith perspective that every human is a human,” she said. “Addiction can happen to people from all walks of life.”

Having spent more than two decades with addicts, Dombi is not surprised that Max needed more than just medication to find a pathway to sobriety. Alcoholics Anonymous, a program which has seen wide success over the past 80 years, and related programs like Narcotics Anonymous (NA), are based on Christian beliefs, she said.

“There is a beautiful phrase from step three that says I came to believe that there is a higher power, that is a power greater than myself and so I turn my will and my life over to the will and care of God as I understand God to be,” she said.

She points to a number of secular institutions with research to support the power of faith, including the University of Texas and the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse in New York.

“They have absolutely research and proof that when people have a higher power … that they really no longer have that sense of isolation, they no longer are held and condemned by despair,” she said.

Luckily for many addicts, faith in God is not an entirely new concept.

“So many persons with an addiction will say that they had faith in their youth, that I believe in God but God doesn’t believe in me,” she said. “(But) they little bit by little bit begin to get a glimmer that God hasn’t lost faith in them, that they’ve lost faith in themselves.”

James Sunstrum, a 45-year-old resident of Hamilton, is living proof of that power. After an addiction of about 22 years, during which he was prescribed methadone while continuing to use illegally purchased opioids, Sunstrum’s finally clean. He credits faith in God and the DARE program at the Good Shepherd in Toronto.

“My faith is what is keeping me sober,” he said. “To have this higher power is to be able to say that somewhere down the road things will get better if I follow these principles.”

Growing up, Sunstrum said he enjoyed going to church, but with age he became a “hardcore Christian,” and “would scare people away by being too blunt after reading something.”

Having spent time in the DARE program, a 25-bed, in-patient drug and alcohol pre-treatment outreach, Sunstrum’s decided to show his faith rather than preach.

“Now I realize that if you really believe what you are reading or whatever, then put it into action, don’t talk about it,” he said. “What I was doing wasn’t putting that into action.”

For Dombi, having that sense of duty, a desire to do good, is a sign of real recovery.

“Recovery is about becoming whole and being able to make a contribution to society not just take from it (and) not just escape from it,” she said. “Recovery is about returning to reality and giving service in some way to help self or to help others.”

The recovery process is also about making sure the addict is treated humanely by the system.

“There is a lot of prejudice out there,” said Dr. Clement Sun, medical director of Addiction Centre Toronto, which operates 12 methadone clinics across Ontario. “They treat our patients as if they were these strange people from outer space.”

After transitioning into addictions about 15 years ago, Sun began evaluating the effectiveness of the methadone approach to treating addiction and discovered a disconnect between patient and practitioner which impeded recovery.

“These are human beings, they respond like human beings,” he said. “If you don’t treat them like human beings and think they’re just drug addicts … the therapy is no longer effective because they don’t see them as people.”

It has not been an easy journey for Max, who admits to straying back to drugs after his cousin died from an overdose, alone in her bathtub.

“I was really enjoying being sober,” he said, cleaning up evidence of drug use from his coffee table. “But my cousin’s dying definitely sent a shock wave through my sobriety. She passed away 30 days after I got out of treatment which sent me into a downward spiral.”

Today, Max is looking to reapply what he learned at Homewood —“a lot of things did stick” — and pick up where he left off with sobriety.

“I’m going to be fighting to not do drugs for the rest of my my life because it is just too easy to go back to it,” he said, adding that he’s re-enrolled in a methadone program. “I’m really looking forward to doing a couple (NA) groups and basically a couple one-on-one therapy sessions … to hopefully work through a lot of the grief that I’m feeling that I can’t process, something that the drug helps me ignore.

“I want to get clean, I really really do.”

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