When it comes to issues that would highly benefit from pastoral counseling, helping the families of addicts is near the top of the list. I subscribe to the following definition of addiction, which is the disease model that I learned in Prof. Mikita’s substance abuse course: addiction is a primary (not caused by a previous disease, injury, event), progressive (it will worsen), chronic (it is not curable), and fatal (if left untreated) disease. The disease model takes into account that there are genetic dispositions, neurochemical changes, and biological, psychological, and spiritual components when it comes to addiction. Other models, such as behavioral, social, medical, and moral models, each leave out certain components that perhaps are involved in the etiology, progression, and effects of the disease.
The only treatment available for addiction is abstinence, which should be coupled with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA: the 12 steps) and a therapeutic program. Recovery from addiction is a process of humility. After addicts admit that they are powerless over alcohol (step 1), step 2 states that they “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” This step helps addicts acknowledge that the process has begun and they need something greater than themselves to overcome addiction.
Many addicts believe that they are the masters of their own universe and in control of their lives. For most addicts, either they themselves or alcohol itself is their higher power. Step 2 is the acknowledgement that they are in fact not in control and this has usually been proven time after time when their own power has not been able to keep them from drinking. These failed attempts to quit represent the insanity in their lives (“doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results”). It is “unnatural” for addicts to give up things that are so integral to being a human, such as food, shelter, parenting, work, and sex. Because this dysfunctional behavior goes against our human nature, nothing “natural” is going to save them; they must tap into the supernatural for the graces necessary to overcome their disease.
For families who struggle with an addict, this idea of addiction as a disease might be hard to accept. They want their spouse/sibling/child to simply choose not to hurt themselves and their family; they pray ceaselessly, asking God to work a miracle. In Loving the Addict, Hating the Addiction, Kecia C. Sims questions: “How then do we deal with such a powerful strong hold? What do we do for loved ones as we watch them slowly kill themselves? How do we remain sane when our loved ones are stealing from us and lying to us to get more and more drugs? What do we do when we pray and the situation stays the same? Does God hear us? Does God care? Why is God allowing this to happen to my family?”
If someone you love is an addict, these questions probably sound very familiar. For most of us, it is hard to accept painful situations that are completely out of our control. The bottom line is that addiction is a family disease; the family itself becomes addicted to control in order to maintain the status quo. In fact, the family members may develop (or already have had) codependency, thus mirroring the delusional thinking of the addicts themselves. The recovery process for family members is just as important as that of the addict. Al-Anon (where friends/families of addicts can find support) is a good place to start. Like AA, it has the same 12 steps for the families and friends to follow. Why? Because they too must learn to give up control, depend on God, and start to take care of themselves.
In Codependent No More, Melody Beattie says this about codependents: “Codependents appear to be depended upon, but they are dependent. They look strong but feel helpless. They appear controlling, but in reality are controlled themselves, sometimes by an illness such as alcoholism.” Through their own process of recovery, family and friends usually realize that they are just as powerless over their loved one’s addiction as the addict is and come to see how distorted their own thinking has become. They have probably relied on self-sufficiency and have the habit of acting as caretaker, doing things for the addict that they considered to be selfless, only to finally realize how they rationalized these behaviors (which were to get something they selfishly wanted).
Seeking pastoral counseling for your own healing is a great tool to use. Unlike clinical counseling, pastoral counseling will not only examine one’s behaviors, but more importantly, it will help the person find God’s place and meaning throughout the struggle. While your recovery will not involve “saving the addict,” it will help you, by accepting God’s control of the situation, save yourself. The recovery will be a process, but it will ultimately bring peace as you learn to own your God-given power to think, feel, and act. As one Al-Anon member said, “Any time I am in resentment, I am not taking care of myself. I am blaming someone else for something I need to do.” YOU are responsible for YOU; NOT for other people’s happiness. Change can only come from a place of acceptance, so face your fears, turn to God, and let Him do the job that you have tirelessly tried to do.
While I am excited to become a licensed clinical counselor, I see much value in pastoral counseling. I believe pastoral counselors in the Catholic tradition can be both religious persons or lay people, with or without psychological training, who are able to help people make meaning through the transitions and struggles in their lives, while drawing on Jesus’ life and other spiritual resources. The spiritual resources available to pastoral counselors are usually missing in the clinical setting, especially if the client is from a different faith tradition. Spiritual resources like prayer, sacraments, and scripture are vital to the spiritual well-being of clients. While some problems are strictly psychological and would need psychiatric attention, the bottom line is that it is all connected.