Exploring Theological Education as Discipleship: Counseling & Addictions

What first comes to your mind when I say the word addiction? What mental images start to formulate and what associations start to surface? Prior to enrolling in “Addictions and Counseling” last trimester, I often immediately associated addiction with the words: drugs and substance abuse. Not too far behind, images of needles and middle school health class flooded my mind, usually enough to make me a bit nauseous and squeamish. My previous education around addiction mostly included scare tactics, and, given my adverse bodily responses to the topic even today, it clearly achieved its goal: fear. I was taught that trying meant dying. Meaning, as soon as you try drugs, you will become addicted, and it will only be a matter of time before the addiction claims your life leaving you “strung-out” on the side of the road. Que more associated images with addiction. Needless to say, given my previous exposure, I was not looking forward to my required addictions course as a Master of Arts in Clinical Counseling student. The topic made me uncomfortable, and I thought I already knew the main tenants of serving this population. I could not have been more wrong. It turns out, addiction onset is more than a series of chemical reactions in the brain. Though the inner workings of neurotransmitters play a significant role in addiction, they do not have the final say.

Almost two years into my studies at Winebrenner Theological Seminary, I can confidently say “Addictions and Counseling” has been the most impactful course in my academic journey. The material covered throughout the trimester proved so relevant to my daily life that I often express to those around me my new conviction that everyone should be required to take a course on addictions throughout their education experience, regardless of professional pursuits. Why? Because everyone struggles with some form of an addiction. Augustine of Hippo, a theologian of the 4th century, wrote of this reality. He commented on the natural inclination of the human heart, concupiscence, to search for love and belonging outside of relationship with God. This futile pursuit leaves us broken and void because it is God Himself who is Love. Most notably, Augustine wrote, “Because You have made us for Yourself (O Lord) and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in You.” This was the first concept within class that revolutionized my thinking: addiction is broader than substance abuse, and addictive behaviors point to a greater need not being met within the individual presenting with addiction. Whether the addiction be work, food, social media, or another medium, it fills within the individual with a false sense of relief and escape from a greater desire not fully being met. Understanding this simple reality has drastically changed the way I interact with others and, ultimately, myself.

Johann Hari in his talk entitled, Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong, explained the importance of destigmatizing this all too often taboo topic. Societal response to addiction primarily encompasses shame and fear. This practice, however, holds no evidence-based support. The contrary, methods of love and belonging actually serve as effective data-driven techniques within addiction treatment. What does this look like? “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” These words from 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 are common in speech, but not always in practice—especially in how individuals facing addiction are treated.

Being the hands and feet of Christ start with approaching addiction with this disposition. Harm reduction techniques have immerged as a main vehicle for love and belonging within treatment. At first, in learning about these tactics, I could feel my body tense up again like in middle school health class; they contradicted everything I was taught. I encourage you, however, to research some of the proposed harm reduction measures currently being implemented across the world. My experience in “Addictions and Counseling” testifies that uncomfortable can lead to unimaginable breakthrough and freedom. In the places you seek comfort that serve as an attempt to numb the painful places of you heart: let Love in. Love has a name, and He promises you abundant life. John 10:10 recalls the words of Jesus, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Alyssa Brown, student in Master of Arts in Clinical Counseling program

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