Curing a 'Cancer' of the Soul

In 2011, the National Institute on Drug Abuse issued a report that more than 8.7 percent of the U.S. population had — within a month of being surveyed — abused drugs in some way.

That percentage, which translates into an estimated 22.5 million Americans over the age of 12, reflects an increase from 8.3 percent in 2002. The total number has nearly doubled since 1996 — then 13 million — and the increase is attributed to a rise in the use of marijuana. As a result, substance abuse creates $193 billion in annual costs related to productivity, health and crime.

Those are the cold statistics. The costs to human lives is another story.

Consider this fact: In 2011, 23.8 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds reported using an illicit drug in the past month, and the year before that, nearly 3,000 young adults (18 to 25) — or eight people per day — died from prescription drug overdoses.

Add to that how relationships are ripped apart by lying, breakdowns in trust, domestic violence, child neglect, impaired health and the repercussions of criminal activity, and you get a fuller understanding of the devastating effects of drug abuse in American society.

Wide-reaching damage

Mark Coffey, senior program director of clinical services at Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Wilmington, Del.

Mark Coffey, senior program director of clinical services at Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Wilmington, Del., said the damage drugs cause familes is “pervasive.”

“Families go into a survival mode and live that way for years and become used to it,” he said. “That’s how they end up lurching from one crisis to the next and losing their sensor as far as being able to express the love that they have for each other. They’ve lost trust, and the anger is so intense that communication is lost and relationships are damaged.”

Not all dioceses in the United States are staffed or accredited to run addiction treatment programs, but Coffey’s branch of Catholic Charities offers services not only to those addicted to chemical substances, but to their family members too. This treatment, he said, can be attractive for several reasons.

“Usually, the addict is reluctant to get treatment, and the family members or loved ones are providing the impetus to get it,” Coffey said. “The name Catholic Charities, or Catholic Social Services, has a certain amount of credibility and a reputation for reliability and trust that can make that first phone call a little bit easier. We have outpatient services, but we can make recommendations to detox or inpatient.”

Addiction knows no boundaries and claims people from all ages and walks of life. Working professionals, kids from good families — both groups abuse drugs and die of overdoses in what some experts call an epidemic. And, Coffey added, there’s noticeable growth in the number of people addicted to opiates — especially among young people.

Addiction for kids typically starts with someone stealing prescription drugs from the family medicine cabinet. After all, if Dad or Grandma is taking them, they must be OK, right? For adults, addiction often begins with legitimately prescribed pain medication.

“It seems harmless (at the beginning), but before you know it, addiction sets in,” Coffey said.

People “doctor shop” for prescriptions or buy pills on the streets at $1 per milligram. Because that translates into $80 for an 80 milligram OxyContin five, six or more times a day, eventually a $10 stamp bag of heroin becomes more appealing.

Path to recovery

At Catholic Charities, Coffey’s staff counsels individuals who went through detoxification or inpatient treatment and are in need of continued care to stay clean. They are taught recovery skills, and they begin to examine underlying issues that can contribute to relapse.

“One of the first steps is education about the nature of the disease of addiction — that it’s a disease with biological origins,” he said. “This hopefully reduces the sense of shame, that this is not a moral issue. There’s a misconception that addicts don’t feel shame or guilt, that they are blissfully ignorant about doing all this damage to themselves and to their families. But addiction is a disease — even though most people still think of it as a character problem or a sin. That’s not it. You’re sick and you need to get well.”

Although counselors won’t introduce faith unless a client requests it, Catholic families often expect Catholic values to be part of the treatment experience. Many non-Catholics also want some form of spirituality.

As Christians, Coffey said, we should avoid keeping people with addictions or other problems isolated, and we should reach out with compassion.

The need for addiction services is so great that the Wilmington Diocese offers a 16-week course toward state certification as an addictions counselor. The majority of students are in social services and want to expand what they can offer clients in other programs.

About 20 percent of the students are those in recovery who want to use their own experiences to help others.

Tied to mission

At Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, there exists “a very strong mission to serve the poor and the most vulnerable in our community,” said Maureen Dee, executive director.

“The work of addiction services is very much tied in with that Catholic mission,” she said. “We can lend a spiritual support to the system, and we can lend support to most of our clients who are not Catholic, but who are able to appreciate spiritual direction. We are able to link them to that aspect that is missing in their lives on a more ecumenical level. Addiction is a disease that does affect the spiritual health of individuals, and we have a strong sensitivity to that.”

The diocese’s program began in the early 1960s, when Franciscan Father Bernard Scarborough saw the need for a halfway house for alcoholics and those suffering from other addictions.

“In 1982, we were already providing mental health services for juvenile court and children’s welfare organizations,” Dee said. “When there was a need to address the alcohol and drug use in children, we added substance abuse treatment.”

Programs expanded again in 1999 when the child welfare system needed services for addicted parents — especially women — who were not able to take care of their children.

“About 70 percent of the families in the system are there because of parental drug use,” she said.

Maureen Dee
Maureen Dee, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Cleveland, OH

In addition to outpatient, intensive outpatient, assessment and case management in chemical dependency services, the Cleveland diocese operates the Matt Talbot Inn with 27 beds for men. Matt Talbot for Recovering Men has 14; Matt Talbot for Women also has 14.

The facilities are named for the Venerable Matt Talbot (1856-1925), an Irish ascetic who overcame alcoholism and became a secular Franciscan and devoted his life to prayer and good works. He is considered the patron of men and women who are struggling with drinking.

Those in-patient facilities have programs from 30 to 60 days, depending on insurance or funding, with 45 days on average.

“Thirty days is the least desirable because oftentimes they are just coming out of a fog by then, and they don’t have a stable environment to go to,” Dee said.

Dee added that clients come into services through a variety of avenues. Sometimes it’s on the advice of diocesan priests who, she said, “are very sensitized to the issues of addiction in their congregations.”

Many churches in the Cleveland diocese also host 12-step programs that may lead people in need to seek more intense paths of recovery.

“Oftentimes people come to our attention who have exhausted all resources because that’s the nature of addiction,” Dee said. “They may have a job but are in a lot of trouble with relationships, or they aren’t married anymore, or they lost their job. They might be in trouble with the law.”

That’s when Catholic Charities steps to the plate.

“We are serving individuals who are ready to make a change,” she said. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

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