Shepherds or white crows?

Understanding and helping people with addictions

Peter Landless, M.Med., is associate director for health ministries of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

The voice was laden with a mixture I of concern, despair, and anger. "He's started drinking again and is I surely going to lose his job; he left home early this morning, and I suspect he is across the border where he knows I will not come looking for him."

It was late Wednesday afternoon, a time to be "free" from the demands of a country family practice. I was not as smart as my colleagues, who had learned that the golf course served as a haven of rest from the relentless invasion of the telephone (in those days, mobile phones were nonexistent and pagers were not available in small towns; golf courses, though, were!).

In a response that was driven by enthusiasm to help, as well as by ignorance of the fact that unless the alcoholic acknowledges his need, intervention is futile, I soon found myself at the border post, being courteously admitted to the neighboring country, which boasted a number of beer halls and sleazy hotels. It was an ideal refuge for the relapsed alcoholic.

Thoughts, emotions, and fear raced through my mind: Where do I find him? What do I say? What if he becomes violent, abusive, or even vomits? The familiar vehicle tags and color of his car set my pulse racing. This was it!

He, after many relapses, ultimately gave up drinking, stopped smoking for a time (after laryngeal cancer therapy), and waxed and waned in his enthusiasm for spiritual renewal. His curriculum vitae: Sixty previous positions and as many different employing organizations, laryngeal cancer, an alcoholic son, and a daughter who went from one marriage to the next ... all bore testimony to the ravages of his addiction.

I often wish I could turn back the clock and have the opportunity to deal with situations with maturity instead of ignorant enthusiasm, and to be the healer instead of the facilitator. With salutary hindsight, I realize how inadequately I, and possibly others, have been trained in dealing with addictions.

Daily, the mind is bombarded with the allure of advertising. Despite attempts to regulate alcohol and tobacco advertisements, "nameless" billboards scream the message that it is cool to drink and smoke. Even when health warnings are displayed, they are over whelmed by the marketing tools. Most sports carry the banner of sponsors whose products may be disruptive and destructive to well being and health. The corporate conscience is soothed when tobacco companies donate some of their profits to cancer research and other health projects. What a sad paradox!


What is happening when it comes to sub stance abuse and addictions? Are we as informed as we should be? The media, despite their significant role in the vending and propagation of tobacco and alcohol, are replete with frightening statistics.

In Britain, underage smoking is on the increase. Ten percent of pupils ages 11-15 smoke at least one cigarette per week. Twelve percent of all girls of secondary-school age are smokers. Nearly a quarter of secondary-school pupils drink the equivalent of five pints of lager every week.

In the last decade, underage drinking has doubled in the United Kingdom; boys of 15 years who admit to regular alcohol consumption are taking more than seven pints of lager per week; of all 11 to 13-year-olds who had admitted to taking alcohol in the previous week, five percent had consumed over four pints in that period!

The direction these British statistics are taking are somewhat indicative of those to be found in similar societies and nations.

The costs

As alcohol use escalates, it is not surprising that associated crime, not to forget the latest pandemic of HIV, continue unabated in the environment of alcohol abuse. Despite compelling statistics that children are being exposed to drugs at the age of 11, the government of the United Kingdom is planning to "go soft" on cannabis.

Nearly one third of all pupils recently polled in Britain say that they have been offered cannabis. In the wake of the "softer drugs," exposure to heroin and cocaine will surely fol low, especially if government pro grams fail to curb the rising use of recreational drugs.

The statistics for the United Kingdom are reflected in the United States. In September 2001, a study released by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University, revealed that more than 50 percent of teens attend schools where drugs are available.

Educators and parents appear to be blind to the situation. Lack of strong science in the prevention programs as well as the failure to reach the majority of students have been cited as reasons for the failure of preventive efforts.

Statistics emerging from various treatment centers show an increasing demand to rehabilitate heroin addicts, especially in countries where government transitions have occurred or where political instability is present. Heroin availability has not dropped, despite the destruction of the poppy growing fields in pre-war Afghanistan. The tendency to smoke or snort hero in has led users to regard its use as less dangerous than when administered via injection. This is a dangerously false assumption.

Other addictions

There are other addictions that are also rife in our world. In the United Kingdom, an estimated 30,000 addicts are enslaved to "over-the-counter" (OTC) medications, taking up to 600 ml of codeine cough syrup on a daily basis. Commercially available OTC analgesics are heavily abused, resulting in ongoing codeine dependency as well as paracetamol-related renal failure in some cases.

Pornography addiction has been fostered by the Internet. An estimated 400 new Web sites open daily from locations such as Thailand and Russia. Pornography addiction often leads to or is a part of sex addiction. Children and adults spend much time surfing the Web and experience both wanted and unwanted exposures to pornography. The latter encounter not uncommonly leads, ultimately, to this very degrading addiction.

Then there is the chocolate addict, the food addict, and—dare we suggest in a journal for clergy?—the workaholic, or work addict! There is also the compulsive gambler, who represents another form of addiction, and this list leaves out many addictions.

Addictions within the Church . . . among clergy?

With all these varied and ubiquitous addictions afflicting the world at large, there must be a proportionately representative problem within the Church, not excluding ministers and spiritual caregivers.

Are we able to recognize these problems in our church members and admit them when we see them in our selves? Do we know where to find help? Do we recognize the enormity and potency of the problem? Do we ever preach sermons related to addictions and the dangers of not only hard drugs and habits, but also the problems of the socially acceptable habits of tobacco and alcohol use? Do we warn our flock that the genetics and mechanisms of addiction to any particular practice, habit, or substance are such that one is aware of the propensity to addiction only when already entangled, sometimes inextricably, by that addiction? Do we lend credence to these addictions by overtly or covertly practicing them ourselves?

Another crucial question is: "Who shepherds the shepherd?" Implicit in the question is the concern that if we clergy recognize an addiction in our selves, to whom do we go? Doesn't the role of the spiritual caregiver demand completeness and freedom from such problems?

Prevention and cure

We need to recognize that the problems and addictions described in this brief overview are present in the Church and sometimes in its ministers. We need to identify the problems, develop intentional means for treatment and rehabilitation, not only for the flock but the shepherds as well.

Prevention is better than the cure, sure. Yet years of clinical experience have led me to emphatically say that prevention is the cure. The topics need to be addressed from the pulpit as well as in small groups. We need to befriend our young people in the churches, prove our concern and love for them and, through positive relationships, ensure that prevention of these various addictions is, in fact, the cure.

In a recent article on the pornography addiction, Gary Hopkins and Joyce Hopp make a plea that prayer of intercession be made for those suffering this problem.1 They call for the provision of specific training for Christian counselors in Christian universities and colleges.

We need to identify the resources to provide members, nonmembers, and even clergy with a hot line they can call to request help, but with anonymity assured. Along with such a program, it is imperative to conduct research in our churches and its institutions, as well as schools and colleges so that the extent of the problem may be better understood.

The clergy, parents, and schools need to join hands in combating these problems. Ignoring them does not make them go away.

We need to pastor the pastors, a thought that's easier said then done. "A physician who treats himself," it has been said, "has a fool for a patient." Indeed, it would be more appropriate to have support groups and caregivers, professionally trained, to care for pastors when victimized by these problems.

Henri Nouwen describes the challenge so well: "But how many are there who can help their fellow men and especially, their fellow priests, in their most individual spiritual needs? Those seem to be as seldom as white crows."2

As long as there is sin, there will be addictions, for as Jesus said, he who sins is a slave to sin. Thus, as long as there are addictions there will be the need to help people fight them. The question is, Will the church be part of the solution or will it continue to add to the problem?

1 Gary L. Hopkins and Joyce W. Hopp, "The Pornography Addiction," in The Advenfist Review.

2 Henri Nouwen, Making All Things New and Other Classics (Harper Collins Pub., 2000), 154.

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Peter Landless, M.Med., is associate director for health ministries of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

March 2002

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