Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing stories of people’s church experiences—some inspiring, some frustrating, some encouraging, some heartbreaking. (Read Jessica Goudeau's church story: "Being the Change We Seek.") Today’s post comes to us from Rebecca Howard.* Rebecca is committed to the Church and passionate about calling the people of God into deeper community with each other and those around them. Professionally, she researches adolescence, trauma and faith and how they intersect. Her story today is about how well-intentioned Christians responded poorly to her brother’s addiction.
I’m not sure when my brother died.
It’s tricky because while in some ways he’s very much alive – he breathes, eats, sleeps and has temporal mass –in others he is a walking ghost.
For at least the last decade and arguably several years longer, my baby brother has been an addict. Alcohol, women, opiates – he dabbles in many vices. All of them destructive. All of them expensive in myriads of ways. All of them symptoms of larger problems no professional can seem to accurately assess, diagnose or cure.
Before you ask, yes, there have been professionals. Therapists and learning specialists dotted the landscape of his troubled adolescence. As we, his family, felt the sweet sensitive boy of his childhood slip through our fingers we gladly prostrated ourselves at the altar of anyone who claimed wisdom—first and foremost our local evangelical congregation (more on that later).
But as his high school experience slammed to a close in a series of disrupted celebrations, we began to face the inevitable: drug addiction.
For many years we lived in denial. It’s easy to do – how can you accuse someone you love of being one of “those people”? You convince yourself it’s only a phase, only one party, only a short span of time. As addicts are expert liars, the line between casual experimentation during adolescence and full-blown addiction often sweeps by unnoticed. We were a good family who made good decisions and lived upstanding lives – surely our youngest was not caught up in that world. But the last months of his high school years brought many events which convinced us this was all beyond our control. We began to grapple with the reality that the little boy we had watched grow up was dead and something new was living in my brother’s body. AddictBrother was a lot different than RealBrother, and we were not quite sure how to get RealBrother back.
After several confrontations, ultimatums and interventions, he chose to go to a 90-day, residential treatment facility in a far-away state. When he emerged from that program seemingly sober, we thought for sure our nightmare was over. Instead it would continue over the next several years – ruining his college experience and possibly damaging his future as an adult. Deception, followed by brief honesty, followed by residential facility, followed by further deception marked the rhythms of the next few years of our lives. As I type this, he is in the process of transitioning from residential facility number six to halfway house number two. He has been kicked out of facilities, relapsed several times and spent a weekend as a homeless beggar. While he has finally reached the point of desired sobriety, his inner angels seem to be constantly shouted down by his greater demons. We are continuously walking the tightrope of trying to help him make good choices and trying to keep him safe and alive. Trust me, the moment where you have the choice of letting your baby brother be homeless or going to rescue him is not one anyone should have to have.
As he makes this transition, we cling to hope. We have accepted the death of the boy we once knew and are eagerly anticipating getting to know the NewBrother who will be resurrected out of the destruction.
I could regale you with stories of the past few years: things I never thought I would have to know but do, like the street value of OxyContin or the smell of a detox facility. However, I want to share something especially painful: the reaction of the church towards our family crisis.
We are a faith-based family. I have attended church services since I was in the womb and have been in leadership positions in various congregations since I was 11.
We are not a periphery family. My parents were close friends with much of our pastoral staff at the church I grew up in. In the past decade I have been a youth worker at several churches, worked at various faith-based nonprofits, served as a missionary and was a seminary student. The faith community is central to the bedrock of our family.
And yet people of faith have routinely sucked.
I have been told his addiction is my fault, my parent’s fault, Satan’s fault. I have been told I am simply not praying hard enough or I simply do not have enough faith. I have been told my life is too stressful for someone to be in community with me. I have been accused of being a bad youth worker since I couldn’t even keep my brother out of trouble. I have been told this is God’s plan for our family and if we just keep persevering, God’s glory will be known and it will all be worth it. I have been told that my suffering at my brother’s choice is simply “my cross to bear.”
None of that was helpful.
None of that was loving.
None of it was the correct response.
His addiction is not my fault. Nor is it my parents’ fault. Nor is it Satan’s fault. My brother’s addiction is a horrible mixture of choices and biology, but those choices are his own and are not a reflection on my parents or myself ,and especially not my abilities as a youth worker. I have prayed and wept and fasted and screamed for God to intervene. And to be honest, I do not care how much God deserves glory – if the last decade of my life was just for that purpose, I have no desire to serve, love or worship that god.
I needed to be held as I cried.
I needed to be told that someone else knew life was hell and they were sorry.
I needed to be reminded it was not. my. fault.
Really, what it boils down to is that I never needed platitudes and I always needed to be loved. I never needed to hear the casual, flippant response of "well, I’m praying for you" at the conclusion of the conversation. While I understand that is the only programmed response within Christendom to crisis, it is faulty. I never needed to be told that I was enabling my brother with the ways in which we were trying to help him find life. If you do not have professional degrees, do not diagnose people or situations. It helps no one and could serve to damage further.
Throughout the years I have found people who have trudged the battlefield with me. Who have driven me to visit him in facilities and helped me hide from dealers to whom he owed money. Who have fixed me meals when I could not muster the energy to press a microwave button and who have forced me to laugh when I forgot what joy felt like in my soul. I cherish those people and hopefully they know how much. They have mostly been people of deep and abiding faith and I am indebted to them for helping me find glimpses of heaven in the midst of hell.
Community is necessary in crisis.
How can the church be present in crisis?
By being present.
The holiest thing anyone has ever told me is “I am so very sorry” and meant it.
You can tell when someone is deeply sorry and when someone is trying desperately to end the conversation because they’re uncomfortable. It should tell you something that after ten years of this garbage, I am still shocked when someone looks me straight in the eyes and expresses their sorrow over my pain. It’s like a breath of fresh air and honors me more than those people probably know.
So I suppose that’s my call to the Church: be present, be loving and join in their brokenness. Fix food and run errands, but most of all, provide a safe place for them to feel validated in their pain. Provide glimpses of hope in the tension of suffering and don’t offer answers you don’t have.
Love requires patience and often patience requires the willingness to sit in the brokenness of humanity and groan along with it.
May you find the strength to do that and in turn provide that strength to others.
Above all, may you learn the holiness of “I am so very sorry.”
*name changed to protect family privacy