Between my 2007 visit to Romania and my 2011 visit to Kodiak, I have been thinking a lot about how to address the problems of alcoholism within villages and smaller communities. In cities, it is much easier to ‘treat’ addictions in the new ‘traditional’ sense- 12 Step groups for the addict along with professional counseling (occasionally the family participates and even goes to Al-Anon), usually begun when the addict has a scrape with the law.
What clear is that addiction has a much more catastrophic effect on smaller communities that don’t have ‘buffers’ of urban life. What I mean is that city life means settling into a neighborhood where you will likely have few relationships with anyone beyond mandatory greetings. Since addiction primarily affects our relationships, the effects of the disease are minimized by the relative isolation of the addict.
In a village or rural community, particularly one with an intact traditional culture, addiction immediately affects change on many people at once. One addict can, in a very short period of time, touch many lives.
Therefore, the individualized models for treatment in cities will not work in communities. One example of a shift in the treatment model is Alkali Lake Reservation in Canada:
The results have been primarily successful, but nothing will entirely eliminate the problem in large part because of the easy accessibility of addictive subjects (i.e. alcohol, drugs, porn, gambling, etc.). So long as we have ‘social nets’ that catch people who no longer are able to care for themselves, addicts will find someone to enable their behavior and it will continue. Local communities no longer manage their own resources, and are usually at the mercy of larger government bureaucracies which manage treatment and welfare. Local government has little sway, and traditional social structures have become ‘relics’ or memories.
Some of the problems that continue in Alkali Lake are aggravated by this bureaucratic approach:
Today, Andy Chelsea has given up his leading role in the program, and he's dismayed at the number of teenaged addicts on the Reserve. He believes that as the sobriety program became professionalized, it focused too much on individual addicts, instead of families. In short, he says, they forgot about the kids. When I ask if addiction is still a problem on the Reserve, it provokes a sardonic laugh.
Treatment in small communities requires less bureaucracy and more local control. People know what they need to do to get sober, and many times that means an end to enabling behavior from outside efforts.
But, we also need to remember that addiction harms an entire family, and so the entire family needs to be treated. In village, that means the village itself must become the treatment center, the sober living house, the group… and so the entire village must be treated.
The Romanian Orthodox Church comprehends this on an instinctual level, and so they are trying to develop both AA and Al-Anon programs at the same time. This is what I have seen beginning to flourish there.
Here in the US, my concern is that our churches don’t. We tend to put ‘youth’ in a separate box from ‘parents’ (who we usually don’t hold accountable even for their own actions, let alone how they treat their children). I think this has something to do with control: our adults in the Church are stubborn, while children are more easily herded and harangued.
Many Orthodox adults come from places with unfriendly dictatorships (be it Communism, Ottoman Turks, Arab Dictatorships, etc.) and developed a thick wall around themselves to protect their identities. But, this wall also keeps out any new information. When their children start developing addictive patterns, the parents don’t know how to respond. If aid is offered, they will smile and nod and keep moving.
That does not mean that denial is exclusively an immigrant problem. Most American Orthodox are also happy to throw their kids in ‘para-church’ programs that were, in fact, developed in America so that adults would not have to share their ‘precious moments’ with noisy kids that are constantly needy. Of course, this has shown plenty of young adults that the ‘church’ is not for them, and so they usually hit the exit door at their 18th birthday and keep running.
The problem with this approach is that by breaking up the family when it comes to important spiritual messages, we are send home two different versions which are likely never to trigger the internal dialog within the family that initiates prevention of the disease or treatment of existing problems. Families have to be treated by the Church if the Church is going to do anything to help.
The warning for Orthodox Christians is that youth groups and continent-wide programs will not effectively deal with addictions problems, particularly if you do the math: youth activities (including Sunday school) amount to probably (on average) 30 minutes per week, whereas a child spends roughly 90 hours per week in school and another 58 hours per week with parents (usually with the TV or computer on).
Church, combined with an intact family, has a healing effect on youth drug use:
A diverse group of experts such as Mark Regnerus, Glen Elder, Jerry Trusty, Richard Watts, and Lisa Pullen agree that religious practice decreases the likelihood of drug use. Barbara Yarnold of Florida International University has even said that religion is the only statistically significant factor in inhibiting adolescent cocaine use.
When the statistics for family structure and church attendance are combined, the results are even more striking. Of at-least-monthly worshipers from intact families, 8.5% have used hard drugs, but rises to 20.1% for students from broken families who worship less or not at all.
Broken families, the studies reveal, cause higher levels of drug abuse that can lead to addiction. The family is always the single-most important factor, since the family provides the context for the Church. Parents give their faith to their children.
So, education about addiction requires a family approach, just like treatment. This is something bureaucracies can’t handle, but he Church can.