Alliance: What led you to help people overcome addictions?
Phil: My parents, like most good parents, wanted to protect me and taught me to avoid “those people.” However, as I grew in age and faith, God put an unquenchable burden in my heart for the outcast. I had my own journey simultaneously overcoming addiction and growing in my faith in Christ. My brother also was a 30-year-plus active addict and eventually became a heroin addict on the streets.
Despite the burden God had placed on me for addicts, He had to drag me me kicking and screaming into working with them. No matter how hard I would try to go in a different direction, He would always lead me back to ministering to those that others seemed to have forgotten—directing them toward Him and His restoration.
Alliance: How can families recognize when their loved ones are addicted to drugs or any number of other things?
P: I think many families do recognize it; they just don’t know how to respond. Others are in such deep denial that they won’t see it.
Typically, families are in denial when the person is addicted to alcohol or prescription drugs. For some reason, people sometimes base morality on what is legal, and those don’t necessarily go together. There are things that are legal that aren’t moral or beneficial, so just because a medication was prescribed doesn’t mean that a person has not become addicted.
If you look at it from a strictly spiritual context, has the substance become an idol?
There’s also the physical dependence piece. In the church sometimes we miss that. We look at addiction as a sin issue and forget the actual physical and psychological components of it.
It might not be the best thing for a person to stop using immediately. He or she could have medical issues by stopping use. Sometimes there is the need for actual medical care to help a person wean off the substance.
Alliance: What should families do to help loved ones recognize that something needs to change in their lives?
P: Most often what I see is that the family needs to work on their side of the street. Typically, when I get a phone call from family members, it’s, “Here’s the problem. Please fix it.” They’re unwilling to look at their own role in the problem. They need to get some counseling from someone who understands addiction so they know where to set boundaries.
If someone is dependent on substances, fear can take over the family. We end up enabling them rather than setting strong boundaries. Think about the story of the prodigal son. When the prodigal son squandered everything on wild living, the Scripture is quite interesting. Luke 15:16–17 says, “He longed to fill his stomach . . . but no one gave him anything. . . . he came to his senses.”
I use the analogy of how my son loves to climb trees quite often. One time when he was maybe six, he climbed to the top of a tree, jumping from branch to branch pridefully. I kept warning him, and as he was climbing down, I saw that he was going to miss a branch. I decided to let him fall because he was only six feet up or so. He got bruised and hurt, but I wanted him to have the lesson from 6 feet rather than 30 feet. As soon as we can allow them to fall and hurt, the better.
Alliance: How can families help support addicts on their way to recovery?
P: If their loved one is involved in a recovery-based program, they will understand what their loved one is supposed to be doing. They will be able to hold the addict accountable on some level and understand the lingo.
They’ll also have to give their loved one some flexibility. There will be times when people in early recovery will need to miss a birthday party or other family gatherings because they have a meeting. It’s important for families to have flexibility and understand that their loved one’s primary goal is to stay sober and not give into temptation. Families have to allow them the grace to do that.
Alliance: Do you have a word of encouragement for those struggling to help a loved one overcome addiction?
P: Absolutely. What I would say is, “You’re not alone.” The statistics today are astounding. We’re at epidemic levels. The number one cause of death for Millennials is substance abuse. It’s not just Millennials, but we’re seeing more deaths from substance abuse among all generations than from car accidents and guns. It doesn’t discriminate. People who love the Lord struggle with addiction, too, so you’re not alone.
The church needs to encourage a culture of openness. Church leaders could benefit from taking a few moments to thoughtfully examine their theology of addiction and bring the topic to light through sermons and small group lessons. The sooner we speak openly about this in our churches rather than deny it’s taking place, the faster we can find healing in our communities.