Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Many of you have probably seen this story about the recent epidemic of fatal overdoses from heroin laced with fentanyl. Over 400 people have died nationwide. Some needle-exchange programs are giving addicts prescriptions for Narcan, an antidote to opiate poisoning, to try to prevent more deaths, because fentanyl kills people so quickly that paramedics often don't even have time to get them to the hospital.

Now, mind you, anybody using a needle-exchange program is already a confirmed addict. But the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy opposes distribution of Narcan, according to spokeswoman Jennifer DeVallance, because “We don’t want to send the message out that there is a safe way to use heroin."

I first read about this story on AOL News. There was an attached poll about whether people favored giving out Narcan scripts or not, and 53% of the respondents said, no, addicts shouldn't be given the overdose antidote. (I thought this week's edition of Grand Rounds might mention the controversy, but it doesn't.)

It's very difficult for me to read the AOL Poll response as anything but, "They're addicts, so who cares if they die?"

Well, some of us care, because some of us have loved addicts, or been them. Even if we don't have first-hand experience with the issue, some of us can at least imagine loving addicts and not wanting them to die. We can imagine wanting them to get better instead.

I'm not, thank God, a heroin addict, nor is anyone in my immediate family. I worked with a heroin addict once, and while she made me nervous because she was so generally twitchy and erratic, I certainly wouldn't want her to die of an overdose. I still think about and pray for her, hoping she somehow stayed alive. I know she used clean needles, because I once found a shrink-wrapped syringe in an umbrella she lent me (long story!), so I hope she's okay.

But I've been around other kinds of addiction -- a therapist friend of mine says that everybody's addicted to something -- and I take this issue very personally. Here's a homily I wrote that explains why. I've given this twice now, once in my parish and once as a guest preacher; Doubting Thomas comes around every year, right after Easter. The Gospel is John 20:19-31.

I have my mother's permission to post this homily.

* * *

The phrase “Doubting Thomas” is often used to dismiss skeptics, to imply that people who need concrete evidence of seemingly impossible events are somehow less faithful than those who trust blindly, without having seen. That’s the most common popular interpretation of the Thomas story, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. For one thing, the Gospel lesson tells us that the other disciples rejoiced only after Jesus showed them his hands and his side. They required the same proof Thomas did, and Jesus knew it. He showed them the evidence even before they’d asked for it.

We can’t blame any of Jesus’ friends for demanding evidence: resurrection is both the most essential component of the Christian faith and the hardest to believe. Jesus’ tag line, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” feels to me like something tacked on by Gospel writers who knew that Christ was no longer present in the body to show skeptics his wounds. Two thousand years after the disciples gathered in that locked room, millenia after the Ascension, where can we look for concrete evidence of resurrection?

There are some clues in the Gospel story. The first is that the disciples had locked the doors because they were afraid of the people outside. They certainly didn’t expect Jesus to come walking in. They’d given him up for dead. This story happens in a place of fear, a place without much hope.

And the second clue is that Jesus doesn’t return to his friends as the triumphant risen Christ, wearing a crown. Instead, he shows them his wounds, the marks left by the most humiliating death the Romans could devise. The formal name for Jesus’ wounds is “stigmata.” This is where we get the word “stigma,” which means shame. Jesus doesn’t flaunt his power and glory to prove his identity. He reveals his vulnerability. He shows his friends his scars.

If we’re looking for resurrection, then, we might start with a series of questions. When have I been afraid, or without hope? When have I locked my doors to new people or new ideas? When has someone considered shameful, someone stigmatized by society, come through those doors and said, “Look, here are my wounds. The world gave me up for dead, but here I am.”

My own family’s resurrection story began on a winter day in 1964, when I was three years old. My sister, who was twelve, remembers watching my mother -- who has given me permission to tell this story -- being wheeled out of the house on a gurney. My mother had been a chronic drinker for twenty years. My father had put her in fancy hospitals, and she’d tried AA a few times, but it hadn’t worked. Nothing had worked. And so my father decided to send her to the state hospital, which wasn’t fancy at all. He didn’t think she’d ever get better, and neither did anyone else in the family. Everyone thought she was dying. My sister, watching the gurney roll out of the house to the waiting ambulance, told herself that our mother was already dead.

At the state hospital, the doctors told my father that my mother’s case was hopeless. One of the doctors recommended a lobotomy. My father couldn’t bring himself to consider that idea, but he was prepared to have my mother locked inside that building for the rest of her life.

Inside the hospital, my mother got hungry one night. There was an AA meeting inside the hospital, brought there by recovering alcoholics who lived in the community. My mother knew there would be cookies at the meeting, so she decided to go.

This time, it took. No one believed it; I don’t know if she believed it herself. But she kept going to meetings, and one evening a few weeks later, a visiting AA member -- one of the people who had walked through the locked doors of the hospital -- sat down and talked to her. He learned that she was afraid of being committed for life, and that she was afraid of never seeing her children again, and that no one in her family believed that she would ever get better.

This visitor walked back out through the locked doors of the hospital. He went home, sat down at a typewriter, and wrote a letter to my father. He sent my mother a copy of the letter, and I own a copy of it now. The visitor identified himself both as a prominent businessman and as a recovering alcoholic. He told my father that he had once spent time in a hospital like the one where my mother was. He told my father that sometimes it takes many attempts to get sober. He told my father, in effect, “Here are my wounds. The world gave me up for dead, but here I am.” And he asked my father to give my mother yet another chance.

My father agreed. This time, it worked. Five months later, the hospital visitor wrote a second letter. This one, addressed to my mother, compliments her on her continued sobriety, on her new job and her new car, and on her joy at spending time with her children. Last winter, my sister and I helped her celebrate forty-one years of sobriety.

This is the resurrection story closest to me, but it isn’t the only one I know. I’m an English professor at UNR. Several years ago, one of my students, a very talented writer, told our workshop class that she had once been a homeless drug addict, living in a van with her boyfriend. They had no hope. They wanted to die. They had made a suicide pact: they planned to OD together. But as they were driving to buy enough drugs to do this, they were pulled over by the police, who made them open the locked doors of the van, and then arrested them and sent them to prison. My student used her one phone call to contact someone she knew who ran a rehab program. She has now been drug-free, working to support herself and her son, for eight years.

We stigmatize addicts, and the homeless, and people in jail. It took real courage for my student to tell her classmates that story, because she couldn’t tell the story of her resurrection without showing them her stigmata, the marks of her shame. We stigmatize alcoholics. It took real courage -- especially in 1964, when alcoholism was considered even more shameful than it is now -- for the hospital visitor to show my father his wounds. He had to tell his story to show that my mother’s story could still turn out differently, that resurrection was possible.

Resurrection is both the most essential component of the Christian faith and the hardest to believe. But I wonder if so many of us find it so hard to believe because so much of it happens in places we don’t want to look, to people we’d rather avoid: to alcoholics and addicts and convicts, the homeless and the mentally ill, the despised and rejected. To the locked out and the locked up. And I wonder how many resurrection stories we never hear, simply because the people who have come back to life aren’t willing to reveal their wounds -- to show us their shame -- for fear that our doors, and our hearts, will remain locked against them.

Gerard Hughes, in his book God of Surprises, reminds us that the resurrection was not a one-time event. “The risen Christ is continuously coming through the closed doors of our minds and imagination . . . He enters our consciousness, closed through fear of ourselves and our fear of other people, and says, ‘Peace be to you.’ The power of his resurrection gives us . . . the ability and strength to be open and vulnerable when before we could think of nothing but our own protection and security” (141). Let us pray, then, to find the strength and ability to be open and vulnerable: to tell our own resurrection stories, and to listen to the stories of others.

Peace be to all who are in this place, in the name of the risen Christ. Amen.


  1. Anonymous2:07 PM

    Thank You for sharing, too often we're taught to endure our stigmatas in silent suffering. Your homilies strike a powerful chord within, and I hope that you will continue to post them.

  2. Thank you, anon! I'll be posting them periodically (both new and old ones). I'm preaching this coming Sunday, so I'll definitely be posting one then.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. The disdain for addicts is nothing new but it is disconerting. Stigmatizing people for addiction probably has more to do with a desire to condemn people than any real concern for the effects drugs have on people's lives.

    I'm not religious but I enjoy reading your blog Susan. Blog on.

  4. Hi, Jose! Thanks for stopping by,and I hope you continue to enjoy the blog.

    My husband Gary isn't religious either -- he describes himself as a "nondenominational pagan" -- but he's always the first reader on the homilies. He's a great editor, and he's also the perfect audience: if he (as a non-Christian) can understand what I'm talking about, then everybody in the pews will be able to, too.

    He did go to church a bit as a child, and sometimes he describes himself as "lapsed Unitarian." (All together now: "How can you tell?") He has a terrific list of Unitarian jokes. Someone told me that the Unitarian Church is the only one that has an official joke site as part of its main webpage.

  5. Really enjoyed this, Susan. Wish I had time to write more.

  6. Thank you. My mother in law, God rest her soul, was an alcoholic before a massive stroke delivered her into my care. My elder brother's mother in law is an alcoholic who seems to be preparing to leave us soon. They are just ordinary people, extraordinary in their own ways, burdened in ways that only their drug of choice could help them with. Our reactions to them and all like them are fuelled by all sorts of fears. I don't believe Jesus loved them any the less for their failings, or us for our fears. Perhaps if we tried to be a little more like him we should have less to fear.

  7. Thanks, Claire and Martyn! Martyn, do you know the Richard Thompson song God Loves a Drunk? Your comment reminded me of it. I think our reactions to alcoholisms and other addictions are -- or at least can be -- fuelled by things other than fear, though; surely genuine love and concern figure in there too, at least sometimes? Addictions can and do kill, and while they often function as self-medication for other problems, I think they almost always wind up creating more problems than they relieve. I've heard non-sober alcoholics discuss this very frankly and candidly: "I drink to feel better, and it works for a little while, but then it only makes me feel worse."

    But I agree that Jesus loves none of us any the less for any of this. And certainly I'd like to be more like him. I have a long, long way to go. On my really bad days, when I snap at people and get myself into trouble, I always console myself with C.S. Lewis' observation in Mere Christianity: if you're wondering how certain obnoxious people of your acquaintance can possibly be Christians, you need to think about how much worse they'd be if they weren't.

  8. P.S. to Martyn: I meant and forgot to say that your family will be in my prayers as your elder brother's mother-in-law makes her departure. Also, you mentioned in another comment that you have a very supportive family, and I'm very glad to hear that. So many people don't!

  9. Oh Susan! Thank you so much for directing me to this post. You said so many things that need to be said...it is awful how addicts/alcoholics are treated by so many; viewed as people with moral failings or now will power. It is a disease, and often we talk in recovery about how you wouldn't treat a person with cancer as if it was their own fault!

    I'm so proud of your mom...what an amazing example her life is! I was an "everything" addict...booze, pot, pills, cocaine, heroin. I wanted whatever could get me out of my head.

    12 years sober now, and life is nothing like I expected. It is better in so many ways, and worse sometimes too, but more than anything I am grateful to be alive and for every feeling I now truly feel.

    I am so glad to have found you, Susan...I see you have so much to teach me.


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