Recovery & Faith: Intertwined by God’s grace

By Renae Kranz

A new acquaintance recently told me about a prayer she says to herself each morning.

“Dear God, get in my head before I do.”

You see, this acquaintance is a recovering alcoholic. She uses this prayer to hand the wheel of her day over to God instead of over to the temptation to drink. If God is driving, she has hope.

Those struggling with addiction and those in recovery face a battle that’s hard for the rest of us to understand. But God and faith can be their hope, too. Faith, whether from childhood or yet to be discovered, has a crucial role to play in recovery from addiction.

And faith appears to be the key to staying clean and sober for a lifetime.

Addiction is on the rise

You’ve seen the news lately. The opioid addiction crisis is reaching epidemic proportions in many areas of the country. Abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs is destroying families and lives.

According to Thomas Otten, assistant vice president of Avera Behavioral Health, statistics show up to 10 percent of people are dealing with some chemical dependency or addiction issue.

“Just do the math on that,” Otten said. “There is a huge need [for addiction care services].”

South Dakota is not immune to the ravages of addiction. There are over a dozen inpatient drug and alcohol treatment centers in the state, with a new center to open later this year. As an alternative to inpatient centers, many people work through their recovery to addiction using only outpatient services or programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

It’s a long road toward recovery and much help is required along the way.

AA ties spirituality to recovery

Perhaps the most well-known option for addiction treatment is the 12-step program created by AA in the 1930s. AA’s 12 steps are a group of principles that are spiritual in nature and offer a way for addicts to live free from the obsession to drink. The path the steps set out leads to the opportunity to live a happy and whole life.

Many Catholic priests have given time to those working through the steps, especially when it comes to the Fifth Step. This step closely resembles a very Catholic idea—that of confessing one’s wrongdoing to God, to themselves and to another person.

Fr. Timothy Smith, pastor at Holy Cross, Ipswich, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Leola, and St. Thomas, Roscoe

Father Timothy Smith, pastor at Holy Cross in Ipswich, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Leola and St. Thomas in Roscoe, has worked regularly with recovering alcoholics on this crucial step. But he says this is not merely confession for the addicted. Although it bears a resemblance to the sacrament, it’s important to recognize that the two are unique and distinct.

“The intention and goal of the Fifth Step and the program of recovery is sobriety and healing, whereas the intention of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is forgiveness of sins and salvation through Jesus Christ,” Father Smith says. “Obviously, you cannot have the latter without the first.”

Father Smith has witnessed the amazing things God does in the lives of the faithful while working the steps. But he’s also seen God’s grace transform non-Catholics.

“No one is excluded from the universal call to holiness,” he says. “This is good news for people in recovery, because it means that God has a plan for their lives. With God all things are possible, especially for those who find themselves hopelessly addicted.”

He recalled a man he met after Mass who told him he once lived on skid row and was horribly addicted to drugs. Father Smith said it was hard to believe because of his professional appearance and speech.

“He flatly declared that the Lord Jesus brought him back from the gates of insanity thanks to the recovery program and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. God did more for him than he could do for himself,” Father Smith says.

AA isn’t the only recovery program used, but the 12 steps that are the basis of it have influenced the creation of most other programs. Faith is almost always a component because the addict needs healing of body, mind and spirit to find permanent relief from their addiction.

Finding the path to recovery

The road to healing from addiction is different for everyone. For some addicts, their faith or an encounter with God knocks them out of the fog of addiction and sets them on the path to recovery. For others, the proverbial “hitting bottom” happens in various ways to finally move them to action.

However the addiction starts or ends, God and faith play a role.

Dr. Marcie Moran, clinical director for Catholic Family Services, says in her experience, many people who are addicted have lost their way with God and with everything that was meaningful to them. Alcohol or drugs become an emotional crutch they use to cover up feelings of stress or discomfort. Grief and loss can play a major role as well.

“Anytime a person feels a significant loss, they’re trying to substitute something for it,” Moran says. “They have this longing, this inability to make up for something, and alcohol or drugs become the outlet for them to find another way to get rid of their feelings of guilt or shame or anger from the grief of the loss.”

According to Janell Christenson, a local recovery coordinator at the VA Hospital in Sioux Falls, grief may not even be related to a death. It could be related to losses associated with things like opportunities, job loss, loss of vocation, divorce or loss of health.

“Grief and addiction go together in so many ways,” Christenson says.

Gretchen McLaughlin, chemical dependency counselor

In her work as a chemical dependency counselor, Gretchen McLaughlin of Sioux Falls has seen faith and God emerge early in the conversation with addicts. They became addicted usually because something happened in their life that they didn’t know how to cope with. But God often steps in to jar them out of their spiral.

“Almost everybody who comes in talks about how they had an encounter with God or they started reading the Bible,” McLaughlin says. “How well they do during recovery often depends on how much they’re willing to fill that God-shaped hole in their hearts with God and with friends who are clean and sober.”

Moran says faith sometimes helps them find their way to treatment, but for others it takes longer to grab onto their new strength found in spirituality or faith.

“It has to become a way for them to move through life and have some strength from something else,” she says. “They come to know that they’re going to need His strength as well as their own to make this recovery.”

One man knows this truth better than most. Meet Michael.

Michael’s story of discovering God

Michael, a parishioner at Holy Spirit Parish in Sioux Falls, experienced a conversion during his drinking days that saved his life.

“For me the subtraction of alcohol in my life without a conversion to Christ would have been a disaster,” he says. “I didn’t drink because I had a deficit in alcohol intake. I drank to distract me from the human heart’s normal and natural longing for Christ himself.”

Michael, whose father passed away when he was 6, started using drugs at 13 and by 16 alcohol was his drug of choice. He drank fundamentally different from the other kids he knew, passing out in the back seat or front lawn, belligerent to all around him. By the time he was in college, he was blacking out regularly.

“Alcohol made me feel whole,” Michael says. “The problem is no matter how much you drink, you always get sober again. I didn’t know how to live, with or without alcohol.”

He put himself into treatment once at 21, but that only lasted 36 hours. He felt broken. He felt like God didn’t care about people like him, an addict who took advantage of and hurt everyone around him. How could a good God love a person like that?

Michael finally met a guy at work who was working the 12-step program. He told Michael stories of others in recovery, and the idea of getting help became more and more attractive to him.

“I needed a lot of healing because when you live a life of selfishness, you keep sort of stabbing or destroying your own soul and you need healing for that,” Michael says.

At 24, Michael began going to AA meetings and working the steps. As he worked on achieving sobriety, a few key people helped him get there.

One was a priest named Father Ed Pierce who sat with Michael during his Fifth Step, listening for six hours as he unloaded everything he had ever done, the people he had hurt and everything he was ashamed of. When he was done, the priest asked him, “What’s your problem with Jesus?”

Michael was shocked. He told the priest he was struggling to get through the 164 pages of the AA program manual. How was he supposed to wade through everything in the Bible? If he couldn’t get through this small thing (AA), how could he get through that huge thing?

“His head fell in his hands and he came up and this man had a tear in his eye,” Michael says. “It was this beautiful, scary silence. He looks up at me and he goes, ‘You missed it.’”

Throughout eight years of Catholic grammar school, four years of Catholic high school, two years of Catholic college, his mom taking him to Mass, and all the sacraments, he missed the one thing that could change everything.

“Father Pierce said to me, ‘This isn’t the story of what you do for God. This is the story of what God has already done for you.’”

Michael felt himself wanting Jesus in that moment as Father Pierce told him that Jesus wanted him.
“What you’re really looking for is caught up completely, 100 percent, with nothing else outside of Him,” Michael says. “This guy who lived 2,000 years ago who wasn’t just a guy. He’s THE guy and THE God. That’s what you’re looking for.”

Michael went on to make restitution to others and finish the 12 steps. He learned to stop using other people as “pawns on his chessboard for his own self-satisfaction.” He keeps the words of Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen close to his heart now: “Love people and use things. Don’t love things and use people.”

Through his recovery, Michael says he has found only two things in life that make him feel whole: alcohol and Jesus. And only Jesus is the sustainable answer. Everything else is a distraction from the true desire of the human heart.

“What I’ve come to realize is that although alcoholism looks like a drinking disorder, really it’s the age-old ramification of the fall,” he says. “It’s a substituting something for God, anything for God.

“What AA treats is the soul. It’s essentially a contact with the God of the universe that alters the way you think about him, your own life and people within your life. And that can’t really be manufactured. That’s a bit of a miraculous experience.”

Michael has been sober now for 27 years. He’s a very active member of alcoholics anonymous, saying it’s not a hobby for him. It’s a ministry. And for him, the goal is to live in the abundance of Christ so he can give to others from that abundance.

“Suddenly Jesus does something in my heart that I can’t produce myself. And then I have no need of booze. I have no need of anything. That’s freedom, that’s pure freedom.”

God’s grace spills over

The experience many in recovery have with God’s healing grace affects those who work with them to achieve sobriety, often in a deep and lasting way. McLaughlin, who was also a FOCUS missionary in college, says her faith is the only thing that allows her to be able to do the work she does. Her faith draws her to intercessory prayer for those she counsels.

“In my own life, that helps me to acknowledge that I can’t do anything on my own because they can’t do anything on their own,” McLaughlin says. “It moves my heart to prayer so much more, not only for them, but also to recognize that I have to live out of a need, otherwise I’m living a lie.”

McLaughlin recognizes that people just beginning their recovery are often at their lowest point, and probably haven’t been received by anybody in their life. She also recognizes how unworthy she is to receive the difficult life stories her counseling patients share. She says the Holy Spirit allows her to do that in an authentic way.

“To have the opportunity to ask for the intercession of our Blessed Mother, to ask her to teach me how to be receptive to them, and show me how to love them as a mother could love them has been very motivating to my prayer and very moving to me,” she says.

Michael has experienced the same things in his work with others recovering in AA. He says watching the transformations of men with kids becoming good fathers again, women with husbands becoming good wives again, even people with jobs becoming good employees again has been a great gift to him.

“I get to walk with them through their changing and as they change, I can remember that God loves me too,” he says.

Faith and support sustain sobriety

Chaplains have a key role in recovery and sustaining sobriety. Christenson says they use chaplains regularly at the VA and she would take one every day of the week if she could because of their influence during and after treatment.

“The more I could have of him [the chaplain], the more I would take it because it’s very keenly interconnected,” Christenson says. “When people have a faith or a belief system, their chance of sustained recovery is improved.”

Dr. Marcie Moran, clinical director of Catholic Family Services

Moran says faith is the key to staying clean because it gives those in recovery a lot of assurance in social relationships. She encourages them to stay in AA or NA and groups like them so they have a group to talk to that they can relate with and feel safe among. Staying with an after-care group and building their new faith are crucial elements to staying clean.

“I’ve seen so many times that somehow faith has become a new part of their life, a new strength, a new place to go,” Moran says. “And I think that’s a wonderful thing about recovery.”

Along with faith and recovery programs, we as lay people can play a role to help those struggling with addiction. Father Smith says he and other priests often look to connect addicts with those people in parishes who have achieved sobriety so they can walk with them through recovery.

We can also be more welcoming in our parishes and seek to connect with each other. Many recovering addicts need to find a new community and a new daily structure to belong to. Their old friends or even family may be addicts they can no longer associate with. They feel alone and intimidated by the thought of finding a new community of friends and support.

“They’re like sheep without a shepherd,” McLaughlin says. “They’re used to living in order and structure and being told when to do things and how to do things while in recovery. So if you do come into contact with somebody who is in recovery, if there’s a connection there, offer to be a friend who can encourage that structure but not enable any addictive behaviors.”

McLaughlin says we should hold them to a high standard, be there when they need to talk, and don’t shy away from asking the hard questions. Many times they need someone they can trust to tell their stories to and talk about their successes in recovery.

“Just help them to recognize and acknowledge the ways that God’s grace is at work in their lives and don’t be afraid to have that conversation. Give them an opportunity to have someone to shepherd them, to walk with them in an experience that is new and unknown to them,” McLaughlin says.

Michael says there are two things we can do to help addicts recover: tell them the truth and pray for them.

“To speak the truth to them in love I think is the very best thing that people outside can do,” he says.

But prayer is the most powerful thing we can do to help. Michael’s mother’s prayers made all the difference for him. After her priest told her to stop telling her son about Jesus and start telling Jesus about her son, the power and grace of prayer did the rest.

“My mom wrote me a letter and told me that story for my six-month sobriety birthday. And she had started praying for me six months before that,” Michael says. “I think we get sober on the wings of other people’s prayers.”

Father Smith says you’ll find people in every parish who have been affected by alcoholism and addiction. Many practicing Catholics have experienced long-term recovery and found a deeper faith in the process.

“You might not know their whole story, but each of them can tell you how God did for them what they could not do for themselves,” Father Smith says. “The life of grace and the Sacraments of the Church are the means of healing and strength given to us by Jesus to help us on the path toward heaven.”

You can reach out to others in your community and parish. Learn their stories if they’re willing to tell them. And above all, pray for them to find sustained recovery and peace.

Where to get help

  • Alcoholics Anonymous – to find a meeting in South Dakota,
    go to www.area63aa.org | www.siouxfallsaa.org | (605) 339-4357
  • Avera Behavioral Health – call (605) 322-4079 for help
  • Catholic Family Services – (800) 700-7867

To read about the Avera Addiction Care Center, see more information here.