‘We’re All Sort of Primed for Addiction’

Last August, I had a conversation with an old friend that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I have known Trevor Henderson for over a decade. Until recently, he was the director of the Nashville Metro Health Department’s overdose response program, which works with emergency medical workers and the community at large to reduce drug overdoses. With kind eyes and a rich Northern Irish brogue, Trevor speaks with the hard-won wisdom of those who’ve walked with suffering people.

He told me about his work and how as the past two years convulsed under Covid-19, there has been another health crisis in our midst. The Times reported that between April 2020 and 2021, over 100,000 Americans died of overdoses, which was “more than the toll of car crashes and gun fatalities combined,” and the highest yearly number on record. The increase in overdoses is in part due to the introduction of fentanyl, a powerful and addictive synthetic opioid.

In our conversation in August, Trevor pulled out his iPhone to show me a photo of a lethal dose of fentanyl. The photo was of an impossibly small dose of powered crystal dwarfed by a penny. I gasped, struck by how much destruction and sorrow has been wrought by something as small as bread crumbs.

Since then I have often thought about Trevor and his work. We met in church and were in a small group Bible study together for about four years. Faith communities seem to me to be uniquely positioned to respond to this crisis, offering hospitality and love to those struggling with addiction and helping to remove the stigma surrounding it that leaves people feeling isolated and alone.

I was curious, since Trevor is both an active member in his church and a leader in his local government’s response to the overdose crisis, if he could help me think about the role that religious organizations could play in caring for those who are addicted.

He graciously agreed to talk to me for this newsletter. This interview has been edited and condensed.

First, I wonder, how did we get here? How did we get this huge number of folks addicted to drugs and this huge number of overdose deaths?

We have a fatal overdose review panel here. They try to figure out, “Where did the system fail this person? Where could we have intervened earlier?” I think one of the things that becomes really clear is every single individual person has an individual story of how they got to that point. You know, whether it be some sort of traumatic event in their family that made them susceptible to addiction and chemical dependence. Maybe they had no intention of getting hooked on opioids, but they were on very strong painkillers at their doctor’s advice, and that’s where this started.

I remember being at a talk by Sam Quinones, who’s written extensively about this crisis, and I think one of his takes on this would be that we really have developed a nation that is sort of addictive in character, whether it’s our cellphones, our apps, television. We’re all sort of primed for addiction.

I was going to bring that up. This is from a 2015 Chicago Tribune article, by Dennis Byrne. He said, “Time to face it: We’ve become a nation of addicts. So many addictions it’s hard to list them all. Alcohol. Tobacco, nicotine and vaping on electronic cigarettes. Sugar, fat, junk food. Sex and pornography, the addictions of the mind, body and soul.”

What’s making us, in our culture, prone to all kinds of addiction?

It’s hard to get a read on how much more likely we are to lean towards addiction now than in any other generation before. Addiction has been there a long time. I think the current crisis we’re in is maybe a lot more obvious because of the potency of the substances that we’re dealing with. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. There are newer versions of some synthetic opioids coming on the scene, which are 50 to 100 times more powerful than fentanyl. So I think the deaths and the overdoses are becoming more and more in our face.

But how we got here? That’s a huge question. There is definitely something here to do with the fragmentation of communities and always thinking that there’s something better somewhere else. I think that really disrupts our sense of peace and joy and gratitude. It’s maybe easy to point to social media as a driver of that kind of dissatisfaction with our own lives. But there certainly seems to be something at the broad societal scale that’s maybe pushing us more and more in that direction.

Are there specific policies that you feel would help to address this crisis?

You can’t avoid talking about the war on drugs and the criminalization of drug use and addiction, in particular communities, more so than others. We’re seeing that change here in Nashville, at least. Criminalization really was not helpful at all, to say the least. If somebody is found on the street with addiction issues they need to be referred to help, not put in jail.

I also think you have to talk about how much we are paying people for lower level jobs. Are we paying a decent wage or are we stressing people out and essentially adding to fragmentation in these communities by how we treat people?

My newsletter looks at matters of faith in private and public life. I’m curious: What role could faith communities play in this crisis?

In Tennessee, there’s actually a great effort headed up by Monty Burks, who’s with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and his work is all around the faith-based initiative. He and his team have been setting up a network of recovery congregations. He’s been working with congregations to help them understand what addiction is and how to work with it, how to understand that relapse is not a moral failing, but is something to be expected, and how to work with it.

He’s been trying to work to set up communities that are a safe place for somebody who’s trying to enter into recovery to find a network of community and connection. It’s well established at this point that one of the big drivers of addiction is just a lack of connection, a lack of relationship. So you turn to other coping mechanisms. I think that’s where churches are really well placed. When churches are at their best, I think that that’s an ideal place to be a community for other people. A lot hinges there on an adequate understanding of addiction.

If people reading this think: “I care about this. I would love to see my church or my religious group get involved somehow.” But they’re not sure where to start. What are some ways they can begin to learn about and respond to this crisis in their own community?

One step is to put out a call to other people in your congregation who might be concerned — it doesn’t necessarily have to be you alone. Is anybody else interested in beginning a conversation about what you can do? A great starting point is maybe a book club on understanding addiction, understanding this crisis. It doesn’t take a lot to reach out to some local treatment organizations or host an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous group in your church.

You could reach out to your state health department or local health department to see if there are programs that you could plug in to play a supportive role.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected]

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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