Americans are dying in record numbers from what have been called “the diseases of despair”—drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide.
The stories seem endless.
Rebecca Mitchell was 5 years old when her father deserted her family to pursue his heroin addiction. Without a dad in her life, Rebecca started to make bad choices. She began abusing pills as a teen and by age 21 was hooked on heroin.
Gene Dooley started sneaking alcohol from his parents’ parties as a young boy. By 18 he knew he had a problem. Although he kept it mostly hidden for years, his alcoholism eventually cost him his job, his family—and nearly his life when he connected a hose to the exhaust pipe of a truck, routed it into the cab and attempted suicide.
Walter Santos was only 12 or 13 when he started using hard-core drugs on the streets of New York City. He grew to be a successful musician, but his addiction took him on a downward spiral—to jail, mental health lockdown, utter hopelessness; and, like Dooley, he attempted to take his own life.
But Jesus Christ can turn a story of despair into one of triumph. Mitchell, Dooley and Santos all found healing, restoration and new life through Christ, and all three now help others to overcome addictions as well.
From 1999 to 2014, overdose deaths in the United States nearly tripled, driven largely by opioids—the class of drugs that includes commonly prescribed medicines such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, as well as heroin and the even more potent fentanyl, which was ruled to be the drug that caused the death of rock star Prince last April.
Suicides skyrocketed during that same period to the highest levels in nearly 30 years—a 24 percent increase overall, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Some of the most alarming spikes came among girls and middle-aged women: Among non-Hispanic white females, suicides rose by 240 percent for those ages 10-14 and by 80 percent for ages 45-64. An 89 percent increase was also seen among females who are non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native.
Part of the surge in suicides has been attributed to drug overdoses, which may be ruled suicide if a medical examiner or coroner believes it was intentional.
The drug epidemic no longer fits the classic stereotype of inner-city youth shooting up in back alleys. It’s everywhere, from big cities to small towns to rural areas. And it can be anyone: Middle-aged women are dying in record numbers.
Overdose deaths continued to increase throughout 2016. Will County, Ill., in suburban Chicago, reported a 42 percent increase in heroin deaths compared to 2015. The city of Baltimore saw a 65 percent increase from January through September. In Milwaukee County, Wis., fentanyl-related deaths rose 120 percent in 2016.
“The depth of addiction is causing more chaos and more despair than any other time I can remember,” says Don Holder, executive director of Hebron Colony Ministries, in Boone, N.C. “Almost on a weekly basis, a new drug hits the market, often coming out of an illegal lab somewhere.”
And it has become clear that too many doctors have prescribed too many pills for too many ailments. People become dependent on the drug, and when they can no longer refill their prescription, they beg, buy or steal other people’s pills, or they turn to heroin, which drug dealers now commonly mix with the super-potent and often deadly fentanyl.
The real problem
Some experts have suggested that one cause of the “deaths of despair” might be the stress felt by aging baby boomers who realize they have not prepared financially for retirement.
Christian counselors point to something deeper.
“We live in a fallen world,” Holder says. “All we have to do is look around to see that the moral compass in our society has gone away. We’re changing the facts. If you jump off a building, gravity tells you you’re going to hit the ground. But we jump anyway. There is no question that despair has taken over our society.”
The prevalence of addiction shows how empty people are, says Rebekah Kirschke, program coordinator at StraightWay Training Center’s Restoration City, in Hungerford, Texas. “If they were already full, they wouldn’t have to turn to those things and abuse them,” she says. “Circumstances, relationships and bad choices make people feel guilt, so then they try to drown it out or escape it by doing more and more and more. We know it’s Satan that causes that despair. And of course, Jesus has provided the remedy, which is Himself. Drugs are not the problem—it’s sin.”
But sin is deceptive, and it enslaves.
Chasing the dragon
“There was such a void in my life,” says Walter Santos. Now 67 and a certified drug and alcohol counselor, Santos serves on the board of Calvary Ranch in San Diego. “The minute I touched that substance, it zeroed right in on that part of my life that needed to feel good. And the devil is so crafty that he just fills that with this poison, and you buy into this lie that you need it to function. And then you start chasing that dragon every day. It overcomes your life.”
Ken Barun, BGEA’s chief of staff, knows firsthand what it’s like to chase the dragon, as he struggled with heroin addiction in the 1960s and ’70s.
“It’s the most all-consuming drive a person could ever imagine,” Barun says. “A power inside you takes over. And once you feel that first alluring grip of Satan, you think you can’t live without it. You soon realize you have become a slave to drugs. You can’t go anywhere to escape, you can’t keep a job, and you cannot live normally. Heroin takes control, and every bit of money and energy is going to the next dose.”
The addicted person is not the only one to experience despair and hopelessness, Rebecca Mitchell says. “The entire family goes through it. I know in my life, my family was absolutely in despair, and my mom even started drinking due to me.”
Kirschke adds: “I think what I hate about it the most is how selfish it makes people, to the point that they don’t care about the things they should care about the most when it comes to relationships and families.”
For those who realize their need to get clean, there is hope. After going through detox to become medically stabilized, the next step is a longer-term rehabilitation program to deal with the addiction.
And Bible-based, Christ-centered rehabilitation programs are some of the most effective ones, in large part because people immerse themselves in God’s Word.
Seven years after entering rehab herself, Mitchell now serves as the executive director of the Walter Hoving Home in Pasadena, Calif. “Our problem isn’t addiction,” she says. “We have a problem of not knowing God, and we have this God-shaped hole inside of us that nothing else can fill.
“If you look at the success rate of secular programs, they are pretty dismal in comparison to the Christian programs. Because God is ultimately the One who transforms and changes us.”
When a person commits their life to Christ, He fills the emptiness that he or she has been trying to fill with drugs and other things. “Christ is the All-Powerful One,” Kirschke notes, “and He gives you not only the strength, but He fills you with hope and love and joy and all the things that people search for.”
Santos spent time in eight state hospitals for his addiction before finding healing in Christ. “There’s no hope in those programs,” he said, “because you’re taught, ‘I’m going to be like this for the rest of my life. Once an addict, always an addict.’ And let me tell you something: It doesn’t work. The Lord is so beautiful—He comes in and makes all things brand new. He starts from the heart and goes to the mind. That begins the journey to learn how to live effectively, with God on the throne.”
“We offer Jesus first,” Holder says of Hebron Colony’s program. “If Jesus had thought we had a need for something other than what He taught, then I believe He would have taught it. So we only teach what He taught. That’s what He instructed us to do, and we’re not going to miss that mark.”
At Calvary Ranch in San Diego, residents study the Bible, and daily devotionals come from the Book of Proverbs each morning and the Psalms each evening. “The answers are there,” Santos says. “It’s all in the Bible. The world out there is just beating around the bush.”
Residents learn to maintain structured schedules, with devotional time, group discussions, chores and seminars.
The Restoration City program is a discipleship program, Kirschke says. “It’s a work/study program, and they really learn. In fact, in the advanced phase of our program, they’re taking Bible college courses basically.”
But why do Christian programs work so well?
“The Word of the Lord says in Romans 12:1 that our transformation comes by the renewing of the mind,” Holder says. “So we are planting the mind of God—which is the Scripture—into the mind of man. That’s where the renewing comes from, and I think transformation takes place because of it.”
Still, there is no quick fix for addiction, Mitchell says. “It takes time for some people. Families must not lose hope because of that. It’s not about being clean; it’s about being transformed. We believe in life transformation, and that can only be found in a relationship with Jesus Christ.”