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The opioid crisis: Can spirituality help heal the wounds of addiction?

John Burger - published on 04/26/19

Addicts find help in the Twelve Steps, hard work and intense prayer, or a deeper commitment to the sacraments.

Kevin Lowry says the past five years have been some of the toughest in his family’s life. But they have also been years of rich spiritual growth.

The Lowry family saga began when 16-year-old Daniel stumbled into his parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night and slumped over the bed.

“I’m dying,” he gasped as he begged for prayers. “I can’t breathe.”

The Lowrys’ third son was overdosing on drugs. Kevin Lowry called 911, and an EMT crew and hospital staff saved Daniel from death. After that, as Lowry tells it, Daniel went through lots of different approaches to cure his addiction—counseling, physicians, treatment programs.

“But nothing really worked,” he said. “Or it was temporary.”

Through a trusted friend, the Lowrys discovered a program in Florida called Comunita Cenacolo. Founded in 1983 by an Italian nun named Elvira Petrozzi, the “Community of the Cenacle,” to use its English name, provides a structured life of work and prayer for young people who have addiction problems.

The Lowrys found something that worked. Daniel spent four years in the community, “graduated” and returned home. He is doing well, working and looking to go back to school.

About 218,000 people in the United States have not been as fortunate. That’s the number, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who have died from overdoses related to prescription opioids since 1999. And while more than 2 million Americans are thought to be addicted to opioids, there are only 4,000 U.S. physicians who are addiction specialists, says the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Treating addicts takes a variety of forms. In recent years, there’s been an increased interest in cognitive behavioral therapy, general counseling and medication-assisted treatment, said Dr. Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine.

Some treatment options, like Cenacolo, also try to address addiction-related issues in a spiritual way or through a spiritual lens.

The “12 steps,” which are the basis of Alcoholics Anonymous and many similar programs, are perhaps the best known spiritual-based treatment option.

“They provide a spiritual outlet in which one can find a relationship with a higher power to quell the cravings and surrender to a new way of life, to do God’s will,” said Scott Weeman, founder of Catholic in Recovery. The ministry draws from both the 12 steps and the sacramental life of the Church to help alcoholics and drug addicts recover. The 12 steps can help one make an inventory of oneself in seeking to know how one’s own behavior and attitude have caused misconduct, said Weeman, a recovering alcoholic.

Dr. Galanter said that until about five or 10 years ago, most treatment programs were 12 step-oriented and discussed the role of spirituality in 12-step programs. “In recent years there’s been a tendency to give it less prominence in their discussion of their programs. But still I would say that the majority of residential programs and a good half of ambulatory programs do include a significant 12-step component,” he said in an interview.

When people come to AA or Narcotics Anonymous, they tend to rely more on the mutual support the programs offer, said Galanter, author of Spirituality and the Healthy Mind. “But if they get involved for the longer term, the spiritual aspects are very prominent. So the long term members are very much oriented toward spirituality and the sense of ‘God as we understood him’ [a phrase from one of the 12 steps]. God as we understood him tends to be pretty universally thought of in a spiritual way but different people define for themselves what God as we understood him means. For some traditional people it may be Jesus Christ; for others it may just be the AA program itself. For some people it’s like a nature or aesthetically oriented spirituality.”

Not all drug addiction programs have a spiritual component, of course, but for the majority, there’s “definitely a recognition and respect of spiritual issues,” said Galanter.

For Nancy Vericker, not only did the 12 steps help with her recovery from alcoholism, it helped her recover her cradle Catholic faith.

“I found a deeper level of meaning when I entered a 12 step program,” said Vericker, author of Unchained: Our Family’s Addiction Mess is Our Message. The book, co-written with J.P. Vericker, her son, tells the story of his opioid addiction and recovery. “It’s not like it’s ‘Oh you get sober and you have spirituality.’ It’s the spirituality that leads you. You rely on your higher power to reshape your mind and thinking. … It really helped me to see the face of a loving and benevolent God. It kind of stripped me of a sense of the institutional Church and focused me to rely on a spiritual journey.”

Weeman, of Catholic in Recovery, sees parallels between the 12 steps and the Catholic sacramental life. The surrender to a higher power, he says, is like a “plunge into the waters of Baptism.” The sacrament of confession is similar to the “thorough process of reconciliation that happens within ourselves, with God and with others, starting with that fearless and searching moral inventory, … asking God to remove whatever defect of character or stain that gets in the way of us knowing and serving him, and making amends to those we have hurt.”

“From there, the process involves maintaining that spiritual awakening by continuing to take personal inventory and promptly admitting when we’re wrong,” Weeman continued. Prayer and meditation help improve “our conscious contact with God as we understand him. From a Catholic standpoint that’s most prevalent through the sacrament of the Eucharist, where we receive the body and blood of Jesus on a regular basis so that we may be filled and may know him in a way that surpasses any human understanding and that that continues to seek God as the source of healing, strength, and goodness.”

Albino Aragno, who runs the Cenacolo Community outside of St. Augustine, Florida, where Daniel Lowry lived, calls the ministry’s approach “very structural and disciplined living, I would say almost monastic.”

“People need order in their life, especially addicts,” Aragno said in an interview. “They never have any structure; they’re always going up and down, on the floor, in the situation and the emotion of the moment.”

The strict daily schedule begins with a 6:15 wake-up, followed by religious services, breakfast, a morning full of work, group prayer, and more work. After supper, there’s group conversation about the Gospel of the day, and opening up about feelings, emotions, and current situations.

“We need something more to grasp, to sustain us in life, because with our own strength we cannot do it,” said Aragno, who himself was an early member of Cenacolo in Italy. Prayer, which includes daily Mass, sacramental Confession, group recitations of the Rosary, and private meditation, “opens the conscience … and then also helps us to really develop a relationship with God,” Aragno said. “He’s the one who’s going to help us sustain ourselves outside of the community.”

In the midst of it all, said Lowry, author of How God Hauled Me Kicking and Screaming Into the Catholic Church, “there’s a sense in which there’s a character development aspect and a focus on the virtues that goes hand in hand with the spiritual development.

Lowry said that he was shocked to hear another parent whose son was in the Cenacle Community tell him that he would one day see his son’s addiction as a blessing. But his words were prophetic.

“It probably turned into one of the best things that ever happened to me spiritually and my family as well,” Lowry said. “When you have a son or daughter in community you go to monthly support meetings, because we’re really walking alongside them on the path.” Daniel’s addiction, he said, “became probably the single greatest impetus for spiritual growth for my wife and me and probably for some of our kids.”

As for Daniel, he said, “As a result of all the struggles, he’s got a really solid spiritual life and a prayer life that I would love to see in the [family’s seven] other kids.”

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