Have Faith: Spirituality and addiction

The spiritual care advisor at Gosnold, the Rev. Saramaria Allenby, visits Island church.

For anyone dealing with addiction, whether it is their own or that of a friend or family member, relying on some kind of faith in a higher power can be critical. Then there are also many touched by addiction who either don’t believe in God or don’t feel they need to depend on a belief system for support. A couple of Sundays ago, I went to the First Congregational Church in West Tisbury to hear the Rev. Saramaria Allenby, spiritual care advisor at Gosnold Treatment Center. I was interested in what her position means in the scope of things. I have to admit that every time I enter the West Tisbury church, I’m taken with its beautiful simplicity, and the people, who are so welcoming. This time around, I was shuffling papers, settling in and getting myself ready to take notes before the service when Pastor Allenby strode right over to shake my hand. I explained that I planned to write about my visit in the “Have Faith” column.

I could just give you my sermon,” she said. “I’m not attached to anything.”
I was already impressed by that single sentence.

The Rev. Vicky Hanjian filled in for the church’s pastor, the Rev. Cathlin Baker, who was away that weekend. Hanjian led the service, welcoming everyone and introducing Gosnold’s spiritual care advisor when it was time for the sermon.

Allenby began by talking about Jesus’s temptation in the desert, and then talked about how we’re all the same; we all face temptations. She cleared up some information commonly held about addiction.

The disease of addiction has a myriad of facets,” Allenby said. “It is a brain disease. It can be compared to any other disease a human being suffers from. Diabetes. Heart disease. Cancer. If a person has a disease, they seek treatment, and get appropriate medication. They go to the doctor or hospital. The disease of addiction is the same.”

More than anything, Allenby talked about everyone’s humanity and their ability to love and feel compassion, both things that those suffering with addiction need. We all need them.
We tend to judge those who abuse drugs or alcohol, she said, thinking that they’ve made a choice to live in their addicted state.

How we treat others with a heart of compassion can be tricky when faced with what we perceive as a choice,” she said. “When we recognize that addiction, because of the brain science, is not truly a choice, we must recognize that only with a heart of compassion is how we live as one.”

She talked about a mother she knows who has spent more than $100,000 on treatment for her son. But that mother, through her frustration and anger, still loves her son, and still wants to be supportive. Allenby told the congregation that many of those with substance abuse issues have dual diagnoses, PTSD, health problems, a history of abuse, grief, or loss.
Once the brain is addicted, the part of the brain that makes choices has been hijacked, and the person needs treatment. That’s all. Help, support, medication, education, therapy, community, compassion, spirituality, and tender loving care.”

When you love someone addicted to drugs or alcohol, or both, the level of frustration is immeasurable. You can’t understand the “why” behind the addiction, let alone fix it for them. Some people tell you to practice “tough love,” give up on the loved one before their problem takes over your own life. Like most people I know, my family has plenty of experience in this area. As much as you try to love your way through it, understanding something as complicated as another person’s addiction is a struggle.
How does spirituality fit into all of this?

Many people I work with don’t have personal faith; they are not sure what to believe at all,” Allenby wrote to me in an email. “I speak mostly to spirituality and spiritual practices, the key being practice.”

She leads groups on hope, love, connection, self-acceptance, openness, prayer, resilience, honoring the body, forgiveness, and shame, she wrote. Allenby leads something called “praying with the body,” which incorporates yoga poses and breathing work. She leads guided meditation seven times a week in order to illustrate different ways of practicing spirituality, and “finding what opens their hearts or helps them heal.”

After more than five years in her role at Gosnold, Allenby feels very blessed to do the work.
I see God in everyone, and I know the spirit of God is working through me in my daily practices and teaching, because my tiny, human, ego-based self couldn’t possibly do this work without a mystery or a universal love or presence being part of it,” Allenby wrote.
She shared her understanding, and maybe more important, her view of looking at every person through eyes filled with love. Allenby also shared a poem by Mary Oliver, titled “Wild Geese.” I’m going to share it with you here.

May those who suffer from addiction, and those who love someone who is addicted, find the compassion and love they need to heal and to help each other heal. 


Wild Geese

By Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things. 


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