I sit in a coffee shop, across the table from Nathan, who has courageously offered to tell me — and in turn all of you — his story. In the middle of our conversation, I pause. “Nathan,” I ask, “why would you say addiction is a pro-life issue?” He looks at me and is silent, not because he is confused by my question, but because he is looking for the words. “Well,” he says slowly, “it’s a pro-life issue because it’s ending lives. It has taken so many of my friends. Addiction is killing people.” I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, maybe statistics or concrete proof, but in that moment, I realize the answer is that simple.
Sometimes Christians get so caught up with stopping abortion and protecting the unborn, that the notion of being pro-life seems limited to that issue alone. Maybe people are only willing to speak out about abortion because it’s a “safe” issue, it’s not messy — the unborn are innocent and vulnerable, they have not sinned, they have not hurt people. It’s easy and comfortable to live in this black and white world with clear cut lines and obvious morality.
Other life issues involve humans outside the womb — humans who are broken, hurting, sinning. Suddenly, when we advocate for these lives, our black and white world becomes grey and the clear cut lines become blurry. In this world, our eyes are opened to a myriad of life issues and injustices — the single mother, the poor, victims of violence, refugees, immigrants, victims of racism, and yes, even the addicted.
Every Statistic Has a Name
When you think of an addict, who do you picture? What do they look like? Maybe you think of someone who is poor, disheveled, uneducated, without work, coming from a “bad” family. But that’s the danger in stereotypes, they don’t tell the whole story, they don’t reveal truth. The truth is that addiction does not discriminate. Nathan owns his own business, received a good education, and was raised in a devout Catholic family by two wonderful parents whom I have the privilege of knowing. I want to tell Nathan’s story because when something is no longer a distant statistic, but instead, a person, it’s a lot harder to keep your heart closed off to the issue. It’s a lot harder to maintain the rigid lines of a black and white world.
His Name is Nathan
Nathan takes me back to 2009, at the height of his opioid addiction, shocked by where the time has gone. “My parents knew I was struggling, but they had no idea the scope of my problem. They had no idea the amount of money that was being spent. It’s like an 80-200 dollar-per-day habit. I moved back home with my parents and I started going to [recovery] meetings. I liked the meetings. But then a friend invited me over and offered me a drink and then a joint, and before I knew it, I was offered vicodin. And that was it, I relapsed. I was up and running again and all the problems came back. I was lying, stealing.”
He goes on to tell me about someone who was very close to him, “Billy,” who was also addicted. He thought Billy was in recovery, but then one day he found Billy on a couch, nearly dead from an overdose. That prompted Billy to go to rehab. Nathan confesses, “I should have gone with him. But I was terrified. I was so terrified to tell my parents that I had relapsed. I felt guilty and ashamed.”
At one point, Nathan reflects on how much effort went into maintaining this addiction: “You have to do this all the time. It’s so much work. You have to call people and go to strange places and dark alleys. It’s bad. But when you’re in the midst of the addiction, you just don’t care. You only care about getting what you want — what you think you need; you only care about getting high. Because if you don’t get high, you get really, really sick. It’s worse than the flu when you’re going through withdrawal.”
In April of 2011, Nathan’s parents brought him to a rehab center where he went into recovery. He smiles thinking about that time, “the summer of 2011 was probably one of the best summers of my life. I was free of drugs and alcohol. I was sober. It was the best. I stayed sober for three years. But then I relapsed. Things started spiraling out of control. At one point I looked around me — at the house I had just bought, at the customers who trusted me — and I didn’t want to lose it all. I knew I needed help.”
And this is where this story takes a beautiful, miraculous turn. Nathan decided to call Fr. Marc, our local pastor: “‘Fr. Marc,’ I said, ‘I need help. I have these addictions, I’m terrified, I need help.’ He said, ‘Come to my office.’ So I went over to his office. He prayed with me [as I renounced a list of things he gave me]. Then he told me to close my eyes as he continued praying. And I saw a miracle happen that day. I saw a white thing — an angel — fly inside me and a bad thing — an evil spirit, I guess — flew away. I opened my eyes and I was free of all of my addictions. I think maybe, the relapse, even though it was awful, was a gift from God because it brought me there. I started going to a 12-step-program again, which changed my life. In the step program I had to look at the causes and see what my role, my responsibility was in all of it. When hard things in life used to happen, the thing for me to do was get high. But now I talk to people — and I’m honest — about everything in my life. I used to never be honest. Even something as little as saying, ‘I’m fine,’ when I’m not fine. I don’t do that anymore. I admit I’m stressed from work, but I also see the stress as a gift of sobriety because it means I have work, a company, clients.”
I want to pause here and note that this story, while amazing, is unusual. In any 12-step-program, surrendering to a higher power is a critical step in achieving long-term sobriety. Although we believe in a God who is capable of the most miraculous healings, most people aren’t miraculously freed from their addiction when they visit a priest. Furthermore, while Nathan articulates being free from addiction after meeting with Fr. Marc, he also continues to take the necessary steps to maintain his sobriety. Seeing a priest, depending on God, in these moments is so good and necessary, but it needs to be done alongside therapy/rehab/support groups.
Every Statistic is a Life
The number of deaths from drug overdoses now supersedes the deaths from gun homicides and car crashes combined. Every day in America, 142 people die from drug overdoses. Just because this number is less than the number of babies who are aborted every day doesn’t mean we should care any less — in fact it means quite the opposite. Anyone who has an addiction would say it’s not their choice — that, if they could they would be free from it. Yes, they may have made certain decisions or were in situations that contributed to bringing them to this point, but the addiction? That was out of their control, which is why the American Medical Association now qualifies addiction a disease.
For those of us who live in America, a democratic nation, we are surrounded by parties that are aligned with some of these issues. If you say you’re pro-life or against abortion, people assume you’re a Republican. If you say you care about refugees, people assume you’re a Democrat. As such, people veer away from these issues, fearing the association with a particular party. But these terms prove to be divisive and polarizing.
We Are Called to Defend Life
As Catholics, we need to care about all life issues and work for the common good of all people. We can’t choose one and not the other. Indeed, that is what charity (love) is, which is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine (Deus Caritas Est). In Christ, every person becomes His face and thus, becomes an occasion to love our Savior, as He is in our brothers and sisters.
So yes, addiction is a pro-life issue because it is ending lives; and we must rise up to protect life so that everyone may come to know the dignity in which they are created. As Catholics, we are not only called to look at these people, but to see the face of Jesus in each of them — “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Matthew 25:45).