I have lived the greatest part of my life as someone in recovery from addiction and have spent a large part of my working life with a wonderful Derry based organisation called Northlands.
Addiction carries a huge sense of stigma with it and it is most certainly the disease that no one wants to speak of. The disease that leaves people feeling like the modern-day leper that somehow, through lifestyle choices, they have brought all the damage they suffer upon themselves.
Jesus loved the lepers in the same way that he loved others and I believe it is a challenge to us all to love those who we look upon as lesser than or damaged. It is easy to judge and to believe that we have our lives in order while looking down upon those who have lost and hurt others through addiction. But again, if we look to Jesus, we can see that he tells us to, ‘First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)
We will all want to believe that we are non-judgmental people as its not a nice trait to have, but everyday society challenges us and puts this to the test as we encounter men and women within this city who have found themselves on the street, drinking or using drugs.
If we look at the reality that no one ever sets out to become addicted, then we can move into a place of compassion for someone who finds themselves struggling with addiction rather than judging them from our place of comfort and safety. I am certain that if Jesus were in the streets of Derry today, we would find him in John Street sitting along with those on the fringes of society, cast to the margins because they do not meet our standards. Jesus would hold them, love them and accept them and that is the challenge that faces all of us as Christian people. Can we accept people where they are rather than where we believe they should be?
The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke:15 11-32) is a great parable to view addiction through as it opens the different positions that families adopt when loving someone close to them who is addicted.
The younger son going his own way with everything his father had given him, believing he knows best, squandering his life and finding that only when he reaches the place where he cannot go on living that way, decides to return to the father. There are times when those struggling with addiction get to this point and decide they do not want to live that way anymore. The response they receive is so important. Do we judge them for their behaviour, do we punish them for all they have done and believe that they should live in a place of inferiority and service for the rest of their lives? Or do we respond like the father does and open our arms, embrace the person and show them compassion and understanding?
The elder brother is angry because he has been loyal to the father and has watched his brother squander all he had been given. This again represents the other family members who have watched the person disregard family, abuse their trust and use them for their own needs. They struggle to understand how to move past the anger and the confusion as to why the father forgives, accepts and loves the younger son.
The younger son on his decision to return believes that any scraps from the father will be better than what he has and believes that he deserves nothing better. The addict desperate for recovery believes that they don t deserve forgiveness, struggle to accept this, believing that they should be punished for all they have done. If we look to Jesus, he will tell us that ‘he who is without sin can cast the first stone’ (John:8)
Part of recovery from addiction is about addressing how we have damaged our selves spiritually through addiction and can often be overlooked. In the way addicts are viewed, the addict can judge themselves harshly and believe that there is no way God can love them because of all they have done. In this place we can dismiss God and attempt to remove him from our life. It may also come from our misguided idea that God judges us rather than love us and in that belief of judgement, it’s easier to not believe than to experience that judgement.
The reality that God loves us before we have been formed, that he loves us so much that he can count the number of hairs on our head is such a difficult thing to fully accept from our human perspective. To step into the place that God knows all that we will do before we even do it and despite that He still loves us. Jesus died on the cross for us all in the knowledge of all that we would ever do, all the decisions that we would make, all the sins that we would commit and despite it all He loves us.
It blows my mind to know that despite all that happened in my addiction, in all that hurt that I caused others, in all the damage I caused to myself, I was still loved and still am loved by Jesus. That’s beyond my limited human comprehension and is a constant challenge to me to show forgiveness, compassion and understanding to anyone who struggles in their life with addiction.
I view my addiction as a cross that was given to me to carry but it does not weigh too heavy because I have allowed Jesus to help me carry it. I am grateful for my addiction as it has allowed me to do the work that I do. I believe this was part of God’s plan for me and through people who worked at Northlands when I arrived as a resident in 1996 and through the compassion, understanding and love that they showed me, I can understand that I do not need to crucify myself mentally, emotionally and spiritually for all that has gone on. I was taught to trust in a ‘power greater than me’ and that trust has led me to live a life in recovery that is beyond my wildest dreams.
Tommy is married, with three children and Head of Treatment at Northlands Addiction Treatment Centre, Derry.
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