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Religion and Recovery

Should religious stigmas come tumbling down?

By Heather Berry

Many addicts struggle with the idea of organized religion. And many organized religions struggle with outdated ideas of addiction. What can the recovery community and church communities do to knock down some of these walls? Is it even necessary?

What better place to explore such a volatile topic than a faith-based college campus such as Baylor University? Baylor is a conservative Baptist institution founded in 1845 in Waco, Texas. Although the university is founded on Baptist traditions, the student body is diverse. Baylor’s Beauchamp Addiction Recovery Center (BARC) faces these challenges daily.

Imagine you are a student at a university like Baylor, and consider these three addiction recovery dilemmas:

  • Let’s say you’ve been raised in a religious atmosphere where addiction is still viewed as a moral failing. You think you have a drinking problem, but you attend a conservative university with a religious foundation similar to your faith. You assume the addiction recovery center on campus also sees addiction as a moral failing. Will you walk through the doors and ask for help?
  • You’ve experienced religious abuse. You want nothing to do with organized religion, despite your parents’ heavy pressure. Yet you need help for an addiction to opioids. Do you walk through the doors of the collegiate recovery center at a faith-based university and ask for help?
  • You’ve had no religious upbringing. In your eyes, talking to someone like a minister about your drinking is foreign and uncomfortable. Do you walk through the doors?

Like all collegiate recovery professionals, Baylor faces Herculean tasks: Educate a campus full of adolescents about addiction (these same adolescents, mind you, were raised with long-held American stereotypes about drinking and college), ask this campus of adolescents to take an honest look in the mirror when it comes to their own drug and alcohol use, and create a safe and encouraging atmosphere for those needing help.

Now, let’s make the whole subject even trickier by adding religion to the conversation. Instead of buckling under the pressure, BARC serves as an example for others to follow.

Lilly Ettinger, BARC’s assistant director of wellness recovery, and Stanton Corley, BARC’s recovery support coordinator, offered their professional insights around collegiate recovery and the topic of religion.

Pathways to Recovery

BARC treads religious waters cautiously by offering students multiple pathways to recovery, including faith-based and secular approaches. Each individual meeting with a student at BARC ends with a few questions regarding the student’s religious beliefs. If a student discloses a difficult relationship with faith, secular paths to recovery are explored.

The questions have a general tone like, “Are you spiritual or religious?”

If students have a history of spiritual abuse, empathy is key. “We don’t defend anything that may have happened to them,” Ettinger says. “We’re there to empathize and agree with their past experiences.”

This isn’t to say Baylor isn’t first and foremost a faith-based institution, but, according to Ettinger, BARC allows each individual seeking help to set the religious tone.

“It is complex and complicated tackling religion and addiction recovery, in many ways,” Corley says. “It may be more complicated at a Christian university navigating multiple pathways to recovery. Many times we have to be more vocal about our nonreligious approaches rather than our religious approaches.”

Both Corley and Ettinger are seminary trained with theological educations, and both are in recovery. They see their seminary training as an asset, drawing on an ability to build a level of trust with anyone from any background.

“We’re trained to empathetically and actively listen,” Corley says. He credits this training, in part, to building trust quickly when a student walks through BARC’s doors. “We focus on empathetically entering whatever space they are in, with them,” he continues. “This kind of trust allows us to ask hard questions and, sometimes, self-disclosing our own recovery stories. That’s the nature of having a story. We can share our experience, strength and hope, then, say, ‘Hey, this works for me. It may not work for you, but that’s OK because we have a bunch of alternatives.’”

Corley acknowledges some students on campus may have preconceived ideas about addiction. Some students may associate an issue with drugs and alcohol as a moral weakness. “In the right context, I will self-disclose and tell someone my story — how it wasn’t because I was a moral failure,” Corley says. “It was because I had a substance use disorder that led me to go to treatment.”

Baylor draws on programs including SMART, Recovery Ally, 12-step programs and more for training and wellness.

Stay on the Same Page

Baylor enrolls more than 3,000 students with each freshman class. At each of the roughly 10 freshman orientations each fall, a representative from BARC speaks to parents and new students. No new freshman walks away without an understanding of all the counseling and recovery programs available on campus.

In addition, Baylor recovery professionals pay close attention to the language used on campus, drawing mainly on the DSM-V for structure around language and information. The careful language selection is meant to convey a uniformly objective, medical approach to recovery.

“Substance use disorders are a common ailment among young adults,” Ettinger says, “and students who have them shouldn’t be treated any differently than students with any other potential struggle.”

Words like “abuse” are discouraged. “No one wants to help an abuser,” she says. If a student expresses doubts or uncertainty about recovery, students are shown the DSM for clarity around a diagnosis.

Because Baylor leads many addiction recovery research programs, BARC enjoys the advantage of cross-promotion and cross-information. BARC programs are privy to relevant research, and research faculty are offered relevant recovery training.

“We’re invited often to speak at faculty trainings,” Ettinger says. “The fair amount of research done across campus is helpful to us, and some research brings a lot of money to the university.” Because Baylor makes research promotion such a priority, BARC frequently gets acclaim without even knowing it.

“My background is church work,” Ettinger says. “I’m happy to be a part of such a great campus with great faculty, great research and a great staff. I like to think we have one voice. Addiction research informs our BARC practices and beliefs about recovery, meaning we stay connected with how to best help students.”

Changing Outdated Ideas on Both Sides

How can collegiate recovery programs at faith-based schools like Baylor lead the way in terms of erasing old stigmas and misinformation around addiction recovery and religion?

“We talk about intention versus impact a lot,” Ettinger says. “There are a lot of really well-intentioned people who want to help people find recovery and wellness.” These same folks, according to Ettinger, may believe recovery is as simple as saying a prayer and showing up at church. “Showing people how recovery looks different for different people is part of what we do.”

Both Ettinger and Corley agree training programs, followed by informed discussions, for faculty and staff go a long way when it comes to dismantling old stigmas.

More than training, however, Corley sees courage on both sides as critical when it comes to knocking down the barriers between the church community and the recovery community.

“I find myself telling people how I didn’t use near as many drugs as some of my college classmates,” Corley says. “However, they were able to put it all down, graduate in four years, and have families and careers, but I ended up in treatment twice.” Corley says the response he gets from most folks still surprises him. “More times than not, they’re shocked,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to them because whoever uses more drugs is going to have a bigger issue, right?”

Corley believes the courage to share experience, strength and hope will pave the way for change. “It’s going to take humility and courage on both ends,” he says. “Religious organizations need humility to admit wrongdoing and ignorance, plus great courage to commit to do something about it.”

Corley doesn’t stop there. He sees a part for the recovery community as well. “People like Lilly and I are churchgoers, and we need to have the courage to stand up and have these same conversations with our church leaders,” he says. “Because my faith is so important to me, I want to see humility and courage on both sides. I want the recovery community to have the courage to see the importance of religious organizations and institutions and try to understand the hope and good they provide for some people.”

As for BARC, Ettinger is proud of their place on the Baylor campus. “I’ve been around since the beginning of the program,” she says. “I was a Baylor graduate student who helped start one of the first women-in-recovery meetings on campus in 2015. After graduation, Ettinger was hired with the opening of the BARC program in 2017.

For more information on BARC, visit baylor.edu/barc.

Heather Berry is an addiction recovery writer living in Asheville, North Carolina. Her writing has been featured in publications including Prevention, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and websites for various treatment centers. She has 25 years of published experience as a journalist and a lifetime of experience in the recovery community. You can see some of her work at linkedin.com/in/heather-berry-addictionrecovery-freelancewriter.

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