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The church’s role in combating addiction

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Dave Druitt was 18 years old when he was sent to fight in the Vietnam War. He remembers the two-year ordeal as cataclysmic. “People were dying all around you and you could die at any minute,” Druitt said. He and the other men turned to partying with drugs and alcohol, including military-issued morphine. 

By age 22, Druitt was attending Alcoholics Anonymous. But that was only the beginning of his 23-year fight for sobriety. “I had many relapses, each time worse, each time more heartbreaking for my parents,” said Druitt. 

But his addiction didn’t win. This year, he will celebrate 18 years of sobriety. He now volunteers as a mentor to a recovering heroin addict as part of the diocesan Catholic Charites Welcome Home Re-entry Program for Ex-Offenders. 

Attendees such as Druitt shared heartfelt stories at “Seeking Hope and Healing in the Midst of the Opioid Crisis,” held at Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria Sept. 29. The daylong conference was hosted by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and diocesan Catholic Charities. 

The recurring theme throughout the day was the critical role faith plays in the healing process of an addict and his or her family. Druitt believes regaining the faith he lost in Vietnam was essential to his recovery. 

“I had seen things that didn’t fit with what people had told me God was, and so I drew the wrong conclusion that God wasn’t,” he said. “I had to rebuild my faith system. That seems to be the most important part of recovery, finding out what you believe.”

 “There is no transformation without Christ,” said Michael Horne, clinical psychologist and director of clinical services at diocesan Catholic Charities, during his keynote address. “We truly believe that God will not ignore our suffering. We believe that he will give us the strength to come together and overcome this crisis as a community, and we believe that people desire and deserve to be loved and embraced no matter what darkness or sorrow they experience in their lives.”

Horne said Bishop Burbidge had asked Catholic Charities to prioritize combating the opioid crisis and that this conference was the starting point. “With a crisis like this, the only way we can be successful is responding together. We must have many hands, many hearts and many minds working together,” said Horne. 

At the end of his talk, attendees shared their own thoughts on how to help addicts and their families. One emergency room nurse, Diana Mann of Our Lady of Angels Church in Woodbridge, said medical professionals now are being much more judicious with when and how many opioids they prescribe. 

An emergency medical responder for a large assisted living community noted that this problem affects the elderly, not just youths. “Last night I had to respond to three calls for overdoses. Folks near the end of their life sometimes feel hopeless, helplessness. At the end of their life, they may feel the need to escape. Sometimes it is genuinely a memory issue,” he said. “Check on your parents, check on your grandparents. Let them know you love them, let them know you care.” 

The mother of a recovering addict encouraged parents not to rescue their children from failure. “You’re worried they won’t get into a good school, (so when) they get in trouble with the law, you do everything in your power to prevent (the consequences). At 16, that’s exactly the time they need to make the mistake and feel the full weight of the consequences,” she said. “It wasn’t until we allowed our son to be homeless for a while and then to detox in jail and not let him out (that he began to recover).”

Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Mark Hushen, chief mission and legacy officer of Ashley Addiction Treatment in Maryland, gave a talk titled “Suffering, Addiction and the Healing Power of Jesus” based on his years working with patients in rehabilitation. Speaker Paul Niemiec with Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Greensburg, Pa., had little knowledge about the opioid crisis and few resources when his bishop asked him to start finding solutions. In 2016, there were 319 opioid-related deaths in four rural counties of the diocese. 

“(This is) a culture of life issue because people are dying unnecessarily from a preventable disease, one from which people can recover,” he said. 

His diocese has a small Catholics Charities staff, so he knew they wouldn’t be able to start in-patient treatment. But he decided what they did well was education and prayer, so they drafted a pastoral letter for Bishop Edward C. Malesic. They traveled throughout the diocese holding listening sessions.

Hundreds of people attended. One of the most meaningful parts of the sessions was the coffee and cookies afterward, said Niemiec. “People stayed and talked. They got to know treatment providers or other people who had lost a child. It was so hopeful. We were there all night.”

Now, both locally and on the diocesan level, they’ve developed productive relationships with law enforcement, rehabilitation centers and government agencies. “My office became a clearinghouse for this stuff,” Niemiec said. Even without the ability to treat patients, they’ve become a leader in the fight, and one of the few leaders from a religious organization, he said. “It’s important for the church to show up.”

A criminologist from St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., has conducted a soon to be released study that says a large majority of people in recovery believe that the first step toward sobriety was talking to a priest, minster or religious leader, said Niemiec. “That’s pretty good news to me,” he said. 

Bishop Burbidge led the closing prayer service for the more than 100 conference participants. “We are a people who never despair, for with God, all things are possible,” he said.

This story has been updated. 

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