How the church can walk beside recovering addicts

I am learning from a new friend who is serving God by showing up weekly and walking beside women recovering from various addictions. Our conversation started with a few questions about how to help those who are struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. What started as a conversation ended in this blog post. Thank you, Sally, for writing this so that we can all have a better understanding of how to help others. My prayer is that God will keep using you and us to love each other well. 

Those People: How the church can walk beside recovering addicts

If it’s Wednesday, I’m in rehab.

I don’t go alone. A bookkeeper, a housekeeper, a horse trainer, and a nurse go with me. Usually we drive separately, then meet in the dark dirt lot in front of the sun-weary blue flat-roofed building so we can enter together. One of us grabs the clipboard from the nail on the wall to sign all of us in. (For some reason, we sign in, but don’t sign out.)

Inside the room to left  are two sets of  bunk beds. A menagerie of bedding and personal items clutter the space. (But, the rules state to keep personal space clean and tidy, or something like that.) There’s another sleeping room, then on the right is the meeting room, or the Black Sofa Room, as I call it. Six 8-foot long sink-in-deep black pleather (plastic leather) couches surround the room, like they’re guarding the walls. They’re cold in the winter and slippery in the summer.

There’s no carpet.

Sometimes, when we enter the “sofa room”, women are gathered in the room already. Sometimes, we sit alone, waiting to see who will join us. Through the picture frame windows we watch the people traffic pass by and by. Will they come in?

In time, the door will open. One will come in. Another will follow. Another will follow.

Introductions.

Handshakes.

Hugs.

They’re hungry and thirsty, so we start.

But, first we open in a thanksgiving prayer to Jesus for making a way for my friends and I to bring a study of God’s Word into this house, to nourish those who come to be fed.

I Don’t Know What to Do Either

Wednesday night is Bible Study Night in this home to women residing here temporarily while they work to overcome their addictions to drugs and/or alcohol. Some come here from jail. Some are brought here. Some walk many miles to get here. All are here by choice. They have a lot on the line: their lives, their children, their marriages, their jobs, their homes….That perspective makes it pretty easy for my ministry partners and I to give an hour or two of our time each week to bring hope to those who are searching for it. What we do is not a big deal, really. But, I’ve learned some people (Christians, mostly) think it is.

My ears have caught cast-out comments like:

“I wouldn’t know what to do,”

“That’s quite a ministry you have” and

“I’m glad you are reaching out to those people,”

Is there an invisible barrier between “us and them”? I wonder, is there a wall that separates “Christians” from “those people”?

Those People

Those people? Naively, I never considered the women (and young children) living at the home as different from me. I never considered that stepping into their lives would draw attention–or not. All I knew when I joined 3 other women was that those struggling to overcome addictions are

Someone’s daughter

Someone’s mother

Someone’s wife

Someone’s sister

Someone’s granddaughter

Someone’s friend

They’re hurting

They’re lonely

They’re scared

They’re lost

That’s about all we know when we show up on Wednesday night. That’s really all I need to know because God knows and He says He equips us for what He calls us to. I believe that. Do you?

My only hope in writing this post is that I am able to give you just enough courage to reach out to women just like you who got hurt, then got lost. This is not a how-to post; it’s more about bringing some understanding to who “those people” are so you can ask God what, if anything, He asks of you.

Let me share insights I’ve gleaned over the years of walking beside women in recovery, working to overcome addictions:

Be A Safe Person

Trust is earned and addicts trust slowly because they’ve been burned by so many. Remember we’re all wounded; some of us just show it more than others. Maybe you can relate. But, you do not need to know what to do or say in every situation. Just let them know (by showing not telling) that you’re a safe person so they can be honest with you.

Practice listening and reserve judgement.

Be Available.

This doesn’t mean you need to meet every single request yourself. (Read ahead to the part about boundaries.) A little goes a long way. There are several little things you can do to help women in recovery build a bridge back into mainstream life:

  • Invite her to church, if she doesn’t have transportation or doesn’t want to go alone. Encourage her into a safe body of believers where she can enter into a supportive community and find fellowship. (We all need that.)
  • Invite her to an event.
  • Ask casually if she needs anything. (Anything practical!)
  • Always pray with her and for her.

Walk with Her

Bringing a new friend with you to church or an event attracts attention. Trust me. People are curious and they want to know who’s with you. When asked, I try to help her protect her privacy by simply saying “this is my friend so-and-so (first name only).” I think it’s important that each woman is seen as my “friend” and not labeled as a resident of the local drug and alcohol recovery facility. If they want to volunteer that information, they can.

Keep Clearly Defined Boundaries

Just so you know, addicts usually don’t have clear boundaries, particularly if they were born into a family of addicts where there were no boundaries. So you need to establish a few, in love. There’s nothing fancy needed here, simply “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Keep roles and responsibilities defined. You’re the grown up in the relationship. It’s OK to say no.

One word of caution: If you’re a people-pleaser, rescuer, co-dependent or enabler personality, you may want to support a recovering addict from a distance. The path in and out of addiction is often writhe with lies and manipulation. If you have trouble with boundaries you might get tangled in a web of manipulation while thinking you’re just being helpful. Know thyself.

Speak the Truth in Love

No matter the conversation or situation, love conquerors all. Speak the truth in love. Addicts have lived a life of lies. They need Truth and they need Love. Just like all of us. Bring strength, not pity. Bring encouragement, not condemnation. Be supportive, not enabling.

Keep It Simple

Our human nature is to complicate things. But, God’s way is simple

In the Book of Matthew, Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)]

I know God cares deeply for the the lost and hurting and He rejoices when we care too. So, as you’re praying about what God is calling you to do, please pray about:

Who is God to you?

How does God see “those people”?

Then you will know what to do.

If you enjoyed reading this post, please share it with your friends.

Disclaimer: I am a layperson. I do not have a formal theological degree or training, I’m not a counselor, psychiatrist, psychologist, or ‘ologist of any kind. I am not a specialist or have any formal training about drug and alcohol addiction. This post is written from my personal experience and insights. Nothing more.

Sally Olson is a writer, blogger, wife, and battle-­proven homeschooling mom to sons. God, good words, good coffee and honest country living refresh her soul. She blogs about apples and country life at Garden Valley Homestead.