putting families at risk and deteriorating small town and rural
A frustrated small business owner in a poor town in central Oklahoma said to me last week, “This business has been a good investment, but I can’t find reliable, dependable workers. Around here they’re either stoned or drunk.”
Perhaps in frustration she overstated the situation, but the reality is that addiction to methamphetamine and abuse of alcohol are eating away at communities and families in rural and small town America like termites destroying the foundation of a house.
The meth problem has been growing for the past ten years and today is at epidemic proportions. A front page article in The New York Times on Monday, July 11, documents this scourge.
It’s creating a new group of neglected children known as “meth orphans.” In the past year in Oklahoma meth addiction has resulted in a sixteen percent increase in children in state care due to meth addicted parents. One center in Tulsa authorized to care for 30 children at a time has received 90 in the recent past, according to the Times article.
The childcare workers interviewed say it’s unlikely these children will return to their families. Experience has shown that once families are broken by meth they don’t get fixed. It’s an insidious, persistent addiction that leaves physical, mental and emotional damage in its wake.
Dentists, for example, have begun to identify a condition known as “meth mouth,” in which include the teeth soften into a brownish paste, destroying enamel and killing the root structure. Even among young meth users the only option is removal because teeth can’t be restored.
Oklahoma isn’t the only state facing this scourge. In Tennessee meth labs are so common the state has created a specialized decontamination unit to deal with toxic wastes left from home cooking labs.
As the Times article notes, meth orphans have increased in Oregon, Kentucky and across the Great Plains states.
Addictions ravage other communities as well. Among urban poor blacks, crack cocaine takes its toll. Alcohol abuse has been documented among Native Peoples for too many years to count. In affluent suburban communities the highly addictive painkiller oxycontin is the drug of choice.
In each of these communities the damage to individuals and families is devastating, but the toll addictions take on the poor is not only devastating, it is rarely addressed. (I am aware of the availability of many twelve step programs. But I am also aware that these programs focus on individual behaviors and do not attempt to address the social realities that feed despair such as lack of jobs, poor education and a general lack of opportunity in small town and rural America.)
This leads to questions: What drives people to addictions that are utterly self-destructive? Is life so miserable for people living at the edge of survival that abuse of chemicals is more desirable than reality? Is it a result self-medication, as some suggest? Is it a breakdown of values? Lack of personal responsibility? The thrill of clandestine underground behavior? The intense rush and heightened sexual drive that meth in particular is said to stimulate? And what about the material culture that leaves those with economic resources engaging in addictive behavior?
No single cause sufficiently explains this much self-inflicted human suffering. And similarly, there is no single, easy solution. It’s a multifaceted problem that requires multiple pathways to resolution.
In a culture of materialism that bombards us nonstop with messages reminding us of our inadequacies and stimulating us to consume more, a deeply troubling picture emerges; one in which self-esteem is undermined and the promises of consumption are more than can be delivered.
It’s also a culture that in recent years has emphasized individual responsibility while ignoring or even denigrating the traditional value of our corporate responsibility to assist the disadvantaged and protect the vulnerable. We mock the idea that “it takes a village” to raise a child. And we see community support deteriorate.
So those who are lonely, alienated, rejected, insecure, angry or confused seek solace, escape, comfort or thrills by abusing chemicals. Addiction is more than personal weakness and irresponsibility, it’s also about lack of economic opportunity, social support, meaningful work and human dignity. These are the attributes that occur in a genuine community such as a local congregation when it is at its best.
There are churches in every county in the country. Some are places where life is affirmed and meaning is received as a gift from God. Where this hospitality is lived out, and where people move from the sanctuary to the world outside to serve, they create a different world. It’s a world where people experience something deeper than the empty promises of materialism, they experience love that transcends this scourge on the human spirit and offers hope.