Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra - The Gospel Coalition

Escaping America’s opioid epidemic

Jim Quigley
Former addict Jim Quigley

In 2010, Americans—who make up less than 5 percent of the world's population—consumed 80 percent of the world's opioids and 99 percent of its hydrocodones (semi-synthetic opiates like Vicodin).

The U.S. opioid crisis, which killed 33,000 Americans in 2015, has made overdosing on drugs the most common cause of death for Americans under 50.

President Donald Trump has declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, a commission has called for better tracking of prescription data, but the Christian church's response has been something more holistic.

Freedom Farm in North Carolina is one such example.

Jim Quigley had been sober for four years and was one semester away from graduating from Bible College when his stopped car was rear-ended by someone going 50 miles an hour.

"I ended up having two artificial discs put into my spine," he said. He also ended up with a prescription for opiate painkillers.

"I was allowed to have eight pills a day if I took them like the label said," he said. "But in my mind, if I took all eight at one time but no more, I wasn't really abusing them."

A month after surgery, his prescription ran out, and he quit using. But he fell back into alcohol and drug abuse and, three years later, came back to prescription opiates.

"My last year down in Florida, I was in the hospital three different times for pneumonia related to my substance abuse," Jim said. "I was an IV drug user. I had used dirty needles, and had cellulitis [skin] infections. I almost lost my hand. I was in three crisis stabilization units for suicide attempts. One time I took so much medication that I was in a coma for four days."

Opioid addiction
is nearly
impossible to kick
physically, as it
rewires the brain.

Jim's previous church had a new pastor, and the man prayed for him, let him use the studio apartment behind his house, and gave him a job doing maintenance around the church building.

"About two weeks went by before I dishonestly found a way to get drugs delivered to me," Jim said.

Freedom Farm
Freedom Farm, where Jim Quigley helps others to kick the drug habit.

Not long after, at 35 years old, Jim overdosed on opioids and had a heart attack. The worst part: "I was found by [the pastor's] three small children, lying on the floor of his house in my underwear."

But he still couldn't get clean until his cousin found him a long-term rehab place in North Carolina. It wasn't his first run at rehab, and Jim was feeling "pretty worn down and beat up."

His first night at Freedom Farm Ministries, a local pastor told the room, "A lot of you guys have had at one time a relationship with the Lord. You think, I've gotten so far away from God, I don't know how I could ever get back to him. I need to tell you—God hasn't gone anywhere. You just need to turn from your sin."

"I said the first honest prayer I've said in years," Jim said. "There were no bolts of lightning. I just asked for help."

He would go on to graduate from the program, then work his way up to executive director. Today, he works with about 100 addicts a year. He requires that his residents read Oswald Chambers each morning, write papers on Tim Keller's Prodigal God, and take a class on theology. They learn about the medical components of addiction and how to identify triggers. They attend church twice a week, do physical labor, and get random drug tests.

"Ultimately, I can't change anybody," Jim admits. "I just continue to present the truth to them, and see God grab hold of their lives."

And God really has to do it because opioid addiction is nearly impossible to kick physically, as it rewires the brain.

Opiates (including heroin, codeine, and morphine) are drugs made from the opium poppy. When ingested, the chemicals attach to receptors in the brain, blocking it from receiving any signals of pain and replacing them with euphoria.

The brain loves this, so it rewards itself with a lot of dopamine, which produces an intense rush of pleasure and the motivation to do it again.

When someone uses opioids, his or her brain changes: it produces more opioid receptors, which feel uncomfortable when they're empty; and when the brain floods itself with dopamine during opioid hits, it stops producing its normal amount of dopamine. But the body needs that regular dopamine, which makes the craving for opioids even stronger. (The brain changes are even more stark in those younger than 25.)

At Freedom Farm, everything comes back to Jesus. When Jim was addicted, he saw Christianity as a standard of morality he'd never be able to meet, until he realized Jesus wasn't offering a rule book but a life line.

Jim Quigley at Freedom Farm
Jim Quigley (left) with one of the men from Freedom Farm

Opioid addiction is worse in middle American towns and small cities with poor, white residents, many of whom are unemployed or uninsured, according to the Center for Disease Control. West Virginia is statistically the most addicted state.

Pastor Jason McClanahan who runs a church there in Charleston, met so many heroin, meth, and prescription pain pill addicts, that he started researching the best ways to help them. The church sought advice from social workers, law enforcement, doctors and psychologists.

"Convinced that God created us diverse, complex individuals," they created Hope for Appalachia, a non-profit to help men recover from addiction and live a Christ-honoring life.

It's not easy though.

"I've been pastoring for 18 years and have never been engaged with something as consuming as this," McClanahan said. "I was naive going in. . . . Addicts absorb a lot and give back very little," he said. "But there are few things more addicting—forgive the use of that word—than seeing the work of Christ in a man who had no hope. That one life that you see transformed by the gospel [good news of Jesus] is so worth it in light of the other disappointments and discouragements. It's like a gem on a black cloth. It shines so brightly."

This article is from The Gospel Coalition website.

<< The first, most deadly virus
Changing racist hearts >>