An antidote to addiction

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I am a pastor. I don’t often like admitting that. It’s a conversation killer.

People feel they are supposed to act a certain way around pastors. They feel like they can’t be their authentic self. If a person finds out part way through a conversation that I am a pastor, they often begin to apologise for everything they have said prior to that point, swear words included. Nevertheless, I feel like a pretty normal person. I like to make new friends, get to know people, find out about their work, passions, hobbies, opinions, skills and other interesting things. But when I mention what I do for work, it often ends my ability to get to know them.

However, that was different with Andrew.

I met Andrew one week at church. We briefly chatted then I carried on with the rest of my duties. During the week I received a call from Andrew. He was stranded and needed to be picked up, so I agreed to go and get him. He was quite a distance from town, so I plugged it into my GPS and off I went. I turned onto a quiet, narrow road and then onto an even quieter, narrower farm road.

At this point I thought to myself: there is no way Andrew is out here. There’s nothing out here.

Eventually, I pulled into a gravel driveway and drove down a hill, round a few corners and then found a ramshackled collection of buildings. Sure enough, there was Andrew, looking ragged but ready to go. This is not the kind of vulnerability a person usually exposes the pastor to, yet I was happy to be there. As we drove away, Andrew began to tell how he got to be in that predicament and how uncomfortable he was sharing it with me. It involved drug-seeking, a gambling windfall, being jumped, losing the windfall, getting picked up by a friend, more drugs then finally getting stuck with no transport and no friend.

That is, except for me. So began a great friendship.

Andrew and I were from the same town and were the same age. Our upbringings were similar. He, like I, had loving parents and good siblings. He went to good schools and excelled at academics and sports. However, his dad didn’t necessarily model love in a healthy way. He loved Andrew’s achievements more than Andrew himself: achievements like making the first 15 in rugby or being named Most Valuable Player. Still, Andrew never thought of himself as a victim. He thought he had everything needed to be successful.

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But at age 11, the sexual abuse started: from an athletics coach. The very thing that brought love and affection from his father became the thing that drove Andrew toward addiction.

This coach took a particular interest in Andrew and began to groom him. What started as special attention escalated to trips to nudist camps and shared showers. Andrew didn’t share what was happening with anyone. When his grandfather died, alcohol was served at his wake. Andrew, a young teen disguising a big secret, had a few drinks. He found drinking to be a social lubricant. He could come out of his shell. He could mix with the adults. He could be funny and charming.

The escapism of the alcohol was intoxicating. From alcohol he advanced to cannabis then to LSD and benzodiazepines, until, in his early twenties, he was making homebake—the illicit combination of morphine and heroin.

Mixed into this experience were overdoses, arrests and convictions, psychosis, halluciations and a lifestyle of gambling, theft, fraud, and selling cigarettes and drugs to fund his habit. Then there was the rehab. It was a consistent pattern. He was a junkie.

It went something like this:

Screw-up (the actual word he used is stronger): the step where Andrew was in his junkie mode.

Clean-up: the step where Andrew made right, sought help, went to rehab.

Build-up: the step where Andrew applied the skills and techniques to break out from the pattern.

And then . . . the screw-up—a trigger, a moment, a reminder and the addiction came back, full-circle.

Over and over again, this has been the consistent pattern in Andrew’s life. He went to rehab 16 times. Yet during the build-up stage, he had been able to finish a degree. During the screw-up he has lost jobs, relationships, been to prison and so on.

Yet here he was in my car, battered and bruised with a black eye after trying to buy methamphetamines. He was an addict. For my part, I was doing my best to listen and be empathetic. His experience was completely foreign to me. I was the missionary kid from a Christian family. I was also a teetotaller—no alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. We’ve met many times since that first drive. We’ve played golf together, hung out, had meals, studied the Bible and shared stories from our past. One thing Andrew said that has always stuck with me was this: “The opposite of addiction is connection.”

That was a profound statement. It seemed that in my chosen career path, this is exactly what the church should excel at: providing connection to those trapped in addiction. When sober, Andrew and I shared many fantastic moments. Yet there were still other moments where once again I was faced with the fallout of his addictions. The addicted Andrew didn’t care about work, family, friends or consequences. The sober Andrew was smart, funny, an awesome uncle to his nieces and nephews, a friend, a deep thinker, competent and reliable. When sober he sought help. He enrolled in rehab. He went to therapy. He took part in support groups. That is, until inevitably the aforementioned screw-up would occur.

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I found a profound statement spoken by the writer Johann Hari during a TED Talk in 2015. Hari shared the research of Dr Bruce Alexander, which concerned rats and addiction. The experiment showed how 100 per cent of isolated rats would become addicted to drug-laced water. Dr Alexander adapted the experiment with one of his own. He created a fun and connected space for rats with other rats, things to do and food to eat; everything a rat could dream of. In this space, none of the rats succumbed to addiction.

As Johann Hari concludes: “addiction is about your cage”.

If your life is connected, your addictions become a lot less rewarding. We need relationships, work we care about, family and friends, things to do, purpose and meaning. Hari goes on to say that addiction is “not being able to bear to be present in your life”.

So how could I, the teetotaller, help?

I could be present in someone else’s life. I could help provide meaningful connections. I could point to a God who in Jeremiah 31:3 says: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you out with kindness.” I could help my church become an intentional safe space. Our church could start a 12-step program like Celebrate Recovery or we could help support a residential rehab program like Step-7. If nothing else, I could simply love like Jesus.

If the opposite of addiction is connection, then I choose to connect. After all, that is what Jesus did. If we want to help the people in our life who are struggling with addiction, perhaps we should focus more on connection. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect them to clean up first, but be there when they screw up, help them clean up, resource their build-up and do it all over again if necessary. As many times as it takes.

Andrew has just left rehab again; I’m still his friend and we are planning a guys’ trip soon. I’m hoping it’s building up to something great

Tony Parrish is a pastor, husband and dad living in Taranaki, New Zealand.

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