At the Jesus Center, we serve a population whose rate of addiction—as high as 38% according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, a modest estimate in my opinion— is 25% higher than the estimated national average of 10%. Here, my staff and I hear stories from Jesus Center participants about how they first got addicted to drugs or alcohol. Here are some examples of some of the more common stories we hear:
A young woman, kicked out of her apartment by an abusive boyfriend, is assaulted while trying to sleep in a park, and decides to take a hit of meth the next night in order to stay awake and on-guard.
As a twelve-year old child, a participant was introduced to cocaine by his addicted parents and quickly discovered that it numbed the pain of abuse and neglect—and has been addicted for decades since. As one man said while sharing his story, “It’s hard to quit when your parents are your drug dealers.”
A man in his late thirties, already stressed due to being laid off, begins hearing threatening voices in his head—and discovers that heroin quiets these voices, and calms his feelings of anxiety or depression about his situation.
Whether from childhood abuse, war, or domestic violence, an individual with PTSD resorts to drinking or drugs in order to suppress painful memories, and eventually gets to the place where being sober at all is too much to bear.
What do these stories have in common?
In each case, drug or alcohol use begins as a way for someone to attempt to cope with trauma. The stereotype that an addict is an ignorant, lazy freeloader who doesn’t want to contribute to society just doesn’t hold. Addiction is not a character flaw: it is a disease. And I can’t think of any stories I’ve heard where drug abuse is not traced back to some form of pain: it is nearly always a symptom of a greater struggle.
We need go no farther into the Bible than Genesis to see that God’s word affirms trauma as a cause of substance abuse. Take a moment to imagine this: you and your immediate family are the sole survivors of a devastating flood that has destroyed everything—your home, your entire community, the only landscape you’ve ever known. How would you cope with all the loss, the change, the survivor’s guilt? In Genesis 9:18-28, we read that after the floodwaters recede, Noah plants a vineyard, gets drunk off the wine and passes out naked in his tent, at which point his youngest son Canaan accidentally discovers his unconscious father. Canaan then instructs his brothers, Shem and Japheth, to cover him up without looking at him. Upon realizing that Canaan saw him in such an exposed and vulnerable state, Noah furiously curses him and declares that he hopes Canaan will be the lowest of slaves to his brothers!
As I’ve been reading this passage this past week, it has spoken to me so much about how humans cope with pain. Even Noah, the one who obeyed God’s command to build the ark that would make him and his family the sole survivors of God’s destruction, seems to have suffered unbearable trauma as a result of his experiences, and turned to substance abuse to numb his pain before lashing out at the person who witnessed his suffering.
The Bible reminds us that behind every storm of addiction is a gut-wrenching, awe-inspiring story.
How do we heal the addictions of those experiencing homelessness? On one level, the antidote is often medical: whether its nicotine patches, alcohol aversion medications, or pills like methadone that interrupt and reduce cravings in opioid-addicted individuals. On a deeper level, the cure is structural: establishing stable housing, a steady job, and access to adequate medical care. But whether the storm that decimated a person’s life came in the form of abuse, mental illness, generational poverty, or a complex mix of all three, we in Butte County have learned firsthand that there is no recovery from a life disaster without a strong community to offer love and support.
We at the Jesus Center see and experience the devastating affects of addiction regardless of its causes. We are working with our partners to become more equipped to address addiction today and into the future. And each day, we surround every human here with services, support, care, and the love of Christ—the one key that unlocks and releases the deepest of ills. With your help, we can continue to serve as a lighthouse for all who are in the throes of whatever storm pushed them into homelessness.