The Secret Lives of Christian Pill Addicts
I never knew a drug addict—at least not one who admitted it to me. I didn't think it was possible for a Christian to be an addict. My theology, rooted in the belief that an upward trajectory of spiritual growth indicated true salvation, didn't allow for the downward spiral of addiction.
We usually associate drug abuse with hard, wild living, but the same drugs that take over the lives of celebrities could be abused by the nice dad who sits next to us at church. Addiction knows no boundaries of status, lifestyle, or even faith. I know that now, after watching my husband's slow descent into prescription drug addiction, more than a decade into treatment for debilitating migraines.
People like my husband never needed to seek a back alley fix or experiment with so-called street drugs. The medications dispensed by our local pharmacists and tucked away in medicine cabinets could be just as powerful and just as addictive.
Just think: The U.S. is the most medicated country in the world. In 2010, more than 210 million prescriptions were written for narcotics such as OxyContin/Oxycodone and Vicodin/Hydrocodone. An estimated 7 million Americans struggle with prescription drug addiction.
Not everyone who takes prescription narcotics becomes addicted, but in long-term and chronic pain management—migraines, back pain, surgery recovery—the lines get blurry as patients need more medications to ease the pain.
Add underlying anxiety, and pills can become a way to manage life, going from dependence to addiction. When a pill addict tries to stop, withdrawal kicks in: rebound headaches, flu-like symptoms—and worse—all easily mistaken for the original pain. You don't realize you are an addict until you are. And then you need help.
My husband, Dave, was a Christian school teacher, a youth pastor, and then a seminary student. I was busy with four small children. I wanted him to be present in the few hours he was home rather than in a dark room with a pillow over his head to cope with migraine pain. Pills simply helped him function.
We asked questions with each new drug he was prescribed, and the answer was always: "Don't worry. You don't fit the profile of an addict." Eventually, a new drug for pain came along, marketed as non habit-forming. These pills worked for him, but something was definitely wrong. Dave started getting more refills than insurance covered and seeing other doctors because his "couldn't get me in."
Financial strain, mood swings, missing work—the signs of addiction were all there, but my theology and my trust of the medical world reasoned it to be impossible. I oscillated between believing I needed to be a better Christian wife and grieving over his behavior. For years, I prayed, pleaded, interrogated, cried, and threatened Dave over what I decided was irresponsibility. I went through cycles of blaming myself and questioning his salvation. I even accused him of an affair.
Finally, failing seminary grades, debt, and desperation drove me to a pastor for help. The conclusion was that Dave lacked self-discipline, just as I had suspected. He needed to be responsible and lead our family. Then, after an episode of Oprah on drug addiction, I did some research online. Sure enough, Ultram/Tramadol, the "wonder drug" my husband had been prescribed five years earlier with promises it was non habit-forming, was as addictive as heroin.
When I confronted Dave, he was relieved. He'd been taking 30 pills a day, he'd lost his job, and we were deep in debt. I called his doctors and asked them to stop prescribing—they were as surprised as I was. (Though it has been on the market since 1995, Ultram/Tramadol has just this year begun to be regulated as a controlled substance.)
Dave checked into inpatient rehab for three weeks, returning with instructions to attend 90 meetings in 90 days. He tried Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, but felt lost. He was making a new start, and we wanted to tell our church, but were advised by the few who knew not to. No one will ever want Dave as a pastor if you do. Not only were the meetings inconvenient, it was difficult to attend them every day in secret. Besides, we thought God had healed him. Did he really need meetings if he had the Holy Spirit?
I didn't understand recovery at all. I believed that because Dave was repentant and clean from drugs, the nightmare was over. But freshly out of rehab and unemployed, he was vulnerable to failure. He was back to taking pills within a few months; and when he dropped out of seminary to lead a parachurch ministry full time, things got complicated.
Dave hid his drug use, but every six months I'd find out. Each revelation was a kick in the gut: debts, lies, shame. The first time I discovered his relapse, we went together to his new employer for help. Dave was asked if he had "victory over his sin," and we were told if it happened again, he'd lose his job. And once again, we were advised to keep our struggle to ourselves.
Foolishly we believed Dave could be healed if we just prayed hard enough, and I helped him through dangerous at-home detox. But every relapse eroded our relationship. Fear kept the cycle going: fear of job loss, fear of judgment. I felt so much shame, failure, anger, and grief whenever Dave relapsed—and so did he.
I searched online and found nearby Al-Anon and Narc-Anon support groups. But how could I tell strangers that my Christian-leader husband was a pill addict? What would they think of Jesus? We'd tried every Christian thing we could think of: prayer, repentance, Scripture, exorcism, laying-on of hands, counseling. Nothing seemed to help. Desperate, I turned again to a pastor, who suggested a counselor, who suggested a Christian 12-step program at another church.
For the first time, in a safe place to bare my soul, I began to release the burden of Dave's recovery. He wasn't "fixed" yet. Ultimately, his choices and return to prescription drug abuse resulted in losing ministry, income, home, and reputation all at once. The best thing that happened to Dave and me, as devastating as it was, was total exposure—our "rock bottom"—which defused the secrets of their power.
Dave is now celebrating six years clean, leads a Christ-based recovery group through our very supportive church, and he speaks freely about the addiction that nearly destroyed his life and our family. We'll both tell you: Recovery is a process, not a quick fix. Healing from addiction can be a lifelong struggle. Unfortunately, most local churches do not offer long-term recovery support for addicts or their families.
As Christians, we rejoice with people who've met their weight-loss goals and remain lifelong members of Weight Watchers, but are skeptical of someone who continues to attend recovery meetings. "A crutch," we call it, "addicted to recovery." But a former pill addict, clean for years, can be undone by a simple trip to the dentist. And for them, the consequences of failure are far more severe than gaining a few pounds.
We have found that there is very little grace in the world for pill addicts. Prescription drug addiction is fast becoming a societal plague—even celebrities are scorned for it. But the church can be a place of healing for addicts, starting with our own.
If you are concerned that you or a loved one is addicted to medication, please seek medical help as well as counseling. Do not attempt to detox without a doctor's supervision, as withdrawal from certain drugs can cause serious, life-threatening complications.
Deborah Beddoe writes about addiction, recovery, and grace at enduringandafter.com and is a fundraising and marketing writer for Christian nonprofits. She and Dave have been married for 21 years and are blessed with four marvelous children.