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How Can We Accompany Those Fighting Addiction? A Look at the iTHIRST Initiative

Addiction affects a staggering number of people in the United States, and Father Dave welcomes Keaton Douglas, founder and executive director of the iTHIRST Initiative, to offer resources from a Catholic perspective. The program focuses on spirituality in the prevention, treatment, and aftercare of those suffering from substance use disorders, while also providing support for their families. Keaton is also the co-author of a new book called, “The Road to Hope: Responding to the Crisis of Addiction.

She first describes how iTHIRST is an outreach of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity. “They are a community of priests and brothers that were founded 101 years ago by a Vincentian priest by the name of Father Thomas Augustine Judge,” Keaton says. “His charism was to serve the poor and the abandoned, but prophetically, he understood that amongst those who were poor and abandoned were those that were suffering from addictions.”

“Our goal is that you can knock on the door of any Catholic church or institution and there will be somebody trained there who can walk with you, whether you are the person who’s afflicted and seeking recovery, or you’re the family member who may not understand so much about what’s going on,” Keaton explains.

LISTEN: Catholic in Recovery: Discussing Addiction and Faith with Scott Weeman

Citing recent statistics from the United States’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Keaton stresses that this issue affects more than 100 million people, including those with substance use disorders and their families. “That number literally means that every parish has a drug and alcohol problem – every school, neighborhood, workplace; this is how pervasive it actually is,” she says. “The fact that we don’t know outwardly that somebody is suffering doesn’t mean that there aren’t people suffering.” She suggests that the Church can be a “gentle bridge” to accompany them through these struggles.

Father Dave notes, “The Church knows very well [that in] Jesus’s ministry of healing, Jesus held up for us and continues to address us when we experience brokenness of any number of different types. So even if somebody doesn’t have an addiction in their immediate family, we all can experience and have experienced brokenness, and can relate.”

While not due to substance abuse, Keaton shares that she experienced brokenness years ago when her marriage unexpectedly ended. In the aftermath, she fell away from the Church for years before finding hope and healing. Keaton then began to share her story of forgiveness with others and recalls, “I was asked to speak in front of a lot of different folks, and one of the groups that I was asked to speak in front of was a group of 25 women who were in recovery for heroin addiction.”

“It taught me the greatest lesson I’ve ever been taught; it didn’t matter what had broken us. We could walk in our mutual woundedness and be mutually healed,” she says. “I saw my suffering in them. They saw their suffering in me, and I could see Christ in them, as well as my own suffering. That helped to dispel the myth of ‘the other.’ Just because I don’t know somebody suffering from drug and alcohol addiction does not mean that I don’t know people who have experienced brokenness…We must all be part of the solution because we all have been broken.”

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Approaching addiction and brokenness from a spiritual angle is a key component of Keaton’s work. “There are clearly mental health and theological issues that have to be addressed. But the hallmarks of the disease of addiction – those feelings of isolation, despair, guilt, shame – are all part of our spiritual condition, and therefore they need a spiritual remedy,” she says. “The 12-step program is actually rooted in Sacred Scripture, primarily in the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13, and the Epistle of St. James, which gives us such a rich understanding [of] the spiritual tools that we need in order to fight this disease.”

“It’s a beautiful time, I think, in Church history, salvation history and human history for us to become more involved,” Keaton says. “I think about the parable of the Good Samaritan; it’s time for us to show the person in the street who’s bloodied and messy God’s ineffable love and mercy.”