Substance Abuse from a Religious Perspective
By Fr. Michael W. Decewicz
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, far from my prayers, from the words of my cry?
O my God, I cry out by day and you answer not by night, and there is no relief for me.”
These sentiments expressed in Psalm 22:1-3 have been on the lips and in the hearts of everyone who has or is suffering from a substance abuse disorder.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” spoken by Jesus on the cross, expresses the anguish of addiction.
We have come to realize that a substance abuse disorder is a disease; a progressive, fatal disease that can be treated but not cured. However, even though intellectually we believe this, we still emotionally treat the sufferer as culpable for the disease. We still apply a moral judgment to the addict/alcoholic, which only nurtures and nourishes that sense of shame and inhibits the sufferer from seeking treatment because they are locked in a moral abyss of self-loathing. All of this diminishes a person’s sense of self-worth that can lead to despair. This is the tragedy of moralizing substance abuse disorders.
Knowing that addiction is a disease and is and can be treated on physical, mental, and emotional dimensions, it is imperative to understand that a substance abuse disorder is also a spiritual disease. The spiritual aspect of addiction must be treated to lead to remission.
I believe that shame is the manifestation of the spiritual wound that infects the person of the sufferer.
Shame shackles the sufferer in self-pity and victimhood, causing him or her to relive the past, destroying any sense of self-worth, and continuing to feed into the narcissism of the sufferer.
Shame tells the sufferer, “You are not worthy to be loved or healed; you are evil, worthless. Look at what you have done in your using life; look at the people you have hurt. You are simply worthless.” All of this noise allows addicts to maintain their position as the center of their universe, feeding their narcissism and building walls of isolation. This is the spiritual cancer that destroys the spirit.
I believe it is the obligation of religion, spirituality, and faith to combat the demon of shame that only speaks words of hate and death to the sufferer. It is faith’s job to exorcise the demon of shame so that the sufferer can live and love.
Our job as people of faith is to be an ambassador of love, not an arbiter of judgment. We are commissioned to carry the message of love to all God’s people, especially the hurting and broken. “Our Higher Power” is the essence or origin of life and love, calling us always to participate in the wonder and mystery of God’s abundant, extravagant, and unconditional love.
So to answer the theme posed for this article, “Substance Abuse from a Religious Perspective,” I would say that the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the universal prayer that comes from the very depths of the one who suffers from a substance abuse disorder and this prayer of anguish leads the sufferer who embraces recovery can also say from the depths of his or her being, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” (Psalm 22:28)
So religion, faith, and spirituality have a responsibility to embrace the sufferers, reminding them that they are sons and daughters of God, created in the Divine Image and entitled to a life that is joyful, happy, and free.