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How Bad Theology Makes the Opioid Crisis Worse

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The first time I was ever given morphine I was 25 years old. It was 2010, and I was hospitalized with acute pancreatitis. Doctors sent me home with pills of the potent opioid hydromorphone. My pain was extreme, and my doctors were concerned. The potentially life-threatening condition is rare in young people. Mine was caused by an abnormally formed bile duct with a small gallstone lodged in it—a condition made worse by a botched procedure that led to an extended stay in the ICU.

All the while, the pain, and pain medicine, increased. Occasional injections of morphine became a button I could push every 15 minutes for another release of the liquid opioid hydromorphone. As the weeks went by, doctors added a patch on my arm with a second opioid; I didn’t understand its significance at the time, as I had never heard the word “fentanyl” before.

The doctors had put my odds of survival at 50-50, and I was lucky how that coin landed. While I recovered after months in the hospital, I didn’t know that I was developing a new potentially fatal complication: an opioid addiction.

It was far from inevitable but not unusual. In 2010, the term “opioid crisis” was not common parlance, but deaths had already skyrocketed. More than 14,000 people in the United States would die that year from prescription opioid overdoses alone. Crackdowns on prescribing opioids then shifted many users to seek out illicit opioid drugs, including heroin and fentanyl, driving the death toll higher.

In 2014, when I first became aware of the scope of the problem, opioid overdoses (prescription and illicit) claimed the lives of 78 people in the United States per day. When I first told my story publicly in 2016, that number was 115. In 2017, when I started writing my book Addiction Nation, the death toll from opioids was 130 per day.

Again, I was lucky. Addiction exists along a spectrum, not a duality, and mine was caught early. My doctor was empathetic and compassionate in a way that made it easier to accept the help that I needed. I was not forced into quitting “cold turkey.” Instead, I was given time, ongoing pain treatment, and the resources I needed to step down gradually.

Even with all the support I had, the process was not easy. My Christian faith was a crucial part of that journey. I prayed and meditated. I looked to the wisdom of my tradition for hope and inspiration. A friend was making plans to start a church and picked me up every week for our meetings in his house.

Faith and spirituality have been important parts of the recovery stories of countless people. At the same time, there are beliefs that arise from my own American Protestant tradition that distort cultural and public policy views toward both addiction and drugs. The “demonization” of substances and the emphasis on complete abstinence from drugs or alcohol in recovery can hinder the most effective treatment methods, particularly for opioids. This ideology undergirds a “war on drugs” that has not only failed, but has also made our overdose crisis worse. As long as bad theology helps drive our drug policy, we will be held back from some of the most effective and life-saving ways of addressing addiction.

The American Protestant view of drugs is best traced through the most popular and widespread spread drug in human history—alcohol. Christopher Cook, psychiatrist and professor of religion and theology at the University of Durham, tackles this project in his 2006 book Alcohol, Addiction and Christian Ethics. He argues that throughout Christian history and theology, Christians have expressed caution and condemnation against drunkenness but not necessarily against the consumption of alcohol itself.

In the Hebrew Bible, wine is often referred to as a “blessing,” but warnings against drunkenness and excess are also ubiquitous. In the New Testament, the first miracle of Jesus is to make more wine for wedding guests, but elsewhere drunkenness is condemned. For the theologian Augustine, wine was a good thing but as Cook writes, “drunkenness is a result of a disordered will.” Cook argues that Thomas Aquinas in his seminal work Summa Theologica cautioned against both total abstinence and regular drunkenness as extremes to be avoided.  Read the Whole Article

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