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Living sober after a substance abuse problem can be the biggest test of resolve and determination that anyone can go through. There are constant reminders and beacons of temptation in everyday life, so having a firm foundation of accountability and encouragement is key for successful sobriety. For people in the Mormon Church, the high standards of physical and spiritual purity provide a foundation where they can live a healthy and inspired lifestyle.
The idea of associating recovery with religion is the crux of how faith-based approaches to sober living go about holding people to account. According to the Substance Abuse journal, religious theology and psychology look at addiction as a flawed way of trying to fill a spiritual void. Recovery, therefore, centers around the idea of going back to God (or being “saved” by God) and using a relationship with God as the cornerstone of the principles of sobriety and clean living.
For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the emphasis on a sober lifestyle begins quite early. A deep tenet of the LDS faith is the strict and inflexible avoidance of alcohol, drugs (except in the form of prescription medication), cigarettes, and caffeine. A writer in St. Louis Today notes that the call to eschew such indulgences has the potential for souring relations between LDS members and their non-Mormon friends and family, especially in cultures where the consumption of alcohol is seen as a cultural practice.
Those who do, she says, gain a newfound sense of community and stability in their new religious practice, and can reap the spiritual benefits of avoiding temptation and being held to a higher standard of behavior than others.
How well LDS members can adhere to the Word of Wisdom is one of many ways that potential disciples are vetted for the spiritual calling in their respective temples.
Notwithstanding this high level of behavior the LDS Church expects from its followers, the church also understands that people are fallible; and when they make mistakes, the church provides a way back.
The church itself writes that the best recovery lifestyle entails an all-encompassing dedication to sobriety, to the point of “[renouncing] totally and absolutely” participating in the practices that lead to the consumption of the drugs or alcohol.
While this is a standard feature of any rehabilitation and recovery process, the LDS Church considers addiction a battle between the theological concepts of good and evil. Substance abuse is partly a war waged in a person’s mind, but is also a weapon used by Satan to control people and turn them against God. Vices (in this case, drugs and alcohol) prevent a person from achieving their full, spiritual potential and allow the body to control the mind (instead of the other way around, which is the LDS ideal, and the reasoning behind the strict rules on indulgences and pleasures).
In that context, connection to LDS wards, and the communal services they offer, is a strong foundation for the sober living that a recovering alcoholic or addict needs. For Mormons in recovery, this is greatly influenced by the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In a coincidental way that Mormonism is a form of Christian restorationism, the LDS Church’s own addiction recovery program infuses the 12 Steps with a very faith-based perspective, even more so than the overtly religious form of the 12 Steps that Bill W. designed when his conversion to Christianity empowered his newfound sobriety.
The Fix claims that the Latter-day Saint’s Addiction Recovery Program is “quite revolutionary,” partly because it comes from the church’s Word of Wisdom.
The codes of clean and healthy living, turning away from anything that might compromise physical and spiritual health, are found in the Word of Wisdom, a section of the book of Doctrine and Covenants. There is no engaging with LDS culture and community without adhering to the Word of Wisdom – no baptism, no missionary work, no school admission, and no temple admission. Violating the Word of Wisdom is not grounds for excommunication, but partaking in substances and activities to the detriment of physical and spiritual health would be considered a sin.
The Fix tells the story of Colleen Harrison, a woman whose eating disorder led her to becoming morbidly obese. A Mormon friend of hers took her to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, which was the woman’s first exposure to the 12 Steps. The program helped Colleen to manage her food addiction. Empowered, she set out to adapt the Book of Mormon to the principles of the 12 Steps. The result of her endeavor was a book of her own, published in 1991 as He Did Deliver Me From Bondage, which The Fix describes as a combination of 12 Step concepts and the LDS gospel, for Mormons and their families struggling with issues of addiction.
In 1995, a group now known as LDS Family Services used Colleen’s book as a part of what would become the “quite revolutionary” Addiction Recovery Program (ARP).
Mormons who are struggling with issues of addiction have the benefit of the ARP’s organization and resources, such as instructional videos, multilingual explanations, and ARP meetings to help members work on their sober living.
The idea is to make the church’s ARP a welcoming, safe place for people who are dealing with not only substance abuse, but a serious crisis of faith. The writer in The Fix reminds readers that the secular world goes so far as to encourage a degree of substance use, until the point where the use becomes abuse. In the Mormon world, there is no concept of degrees; an LDS member who is in violation of the Word of Wisdom has the added challenge of being held accountable by a large, but tight-knit community that shuns many ways of life that the rest of the Christian spectrum (and certainly the rest of the United States) takes for granted.
But sin happens, and the LDS Church is there for people who make mistakes. Specifically, ARP offers members a support system that can rehabilitate them back into Mormon culture and living, using the basics of Christian belief (as seen through the LDS perspective).
A familiar facet of ARP is honesty. Being open and accountable is vital in any recovery program, faith-based or secular; admitting to the “sin” of substance abuse, and talking about the temptation of relapse, can be particularly challenging to someone born and raised in the LDS way of life. What the Addiction Recovery Program does is create a safe space where struggling members (who, by their addiction, have fallen afoul of church teaching) can be honest about their experience. There is no judgment or condemnation from ARP, which The Fix says makes the Mormon Church “surprisingly ahead of the game.” The focus on listening and compassion is key to helping members plan for their recovery, and not fall into a spiral of guilt and chastisement.
One woman said that ARP helped her not just get her life back on track, but also included values that she had learned in her childhood – values that brought her to the LDS Church to begin with. Her time in ARP renewed her sense of community, and in showing her how many other people had benefitted from the program, made her feel like she was a part of a much larger movement of recovery. In a similar way that secular recovery programs will suggest that clients seek out aftercare services, the Addiction Recovery Program of the Mormon Church presents its members with a readymade group of likeminded people.
Mormon women face a particular challenge in that they are expected to maintain traditional gender roles of mothers and housewives in a world that may look down on such standards. It can lead to a self-professed secular feminist in Slate magazine being captivated by blogs written by Mormon housewives, but it can also lead to female members of LDS wards being pressured to put up a happy face when they are expected “to be perfect in everything,” according to a woman at a recovery center in Utah.
The woman told FOX13 that with more and more women turning to meth to give them the energy to run their families and social lives, the addiction recovery program offered by LDS has been a literal lifesaver. The meetings in the program are very similar to AA gatherings, but the application of Scripture helps the church members find some common ground on the path back to the sober Mormon lifestyle.
CNN reports that a prescription drug epidemic has made Utah eighth out of all the states in the country for overdose deaths. From 2004 to 2014, fatalities as a result of people overdosing on pills has increased by 400 percent. WNYC presents the numbers much more bleakly: Over 60 percent of the state’s residents are members of the LDS Church, but an average of 21 Utah residents die every month from pain medication overdoses, more than from traffic accident deaths.
The effect on the Mormon community has been “shattering,” writes WNYC, but residents are resolute, empowered to a great extent by their religious faith and the support of their church and community. The videos released by the church for 2015’s National Recovery Month have helped struggling people connect to other members of their wards who are fighting their own battles. The sense of unity and solidarity is vital in any context of recovery. Among a religion that looks down on substance use of any kind, having a forgiving and welcoming space for people who have fallen short of that ideal is a huge boost to the sober lifestyle that befits abstinence and Mormons.
Wharton started taking prescription medication at age 17, fooled into thinking that since the pills were easily obtainable from his parents’ medicine cabinet, they couldn’t be dangerous. He finally got clean six years later.
When Wharton’s rehabilitation was completed, the way of life offered by the Mormon mission promised to help him with the necessary structure to live clean and healthy. As he prepared to depart for his Alaskan mission trip, he told AZ Central that the program of recovery he found at the ranch, and in his Mormon faith, was just the beginning.