Creating Safe Spaces: Preventing Addiction?

3D Full Spectrum Unity Holding Hands Conceptphoto © 2007 Scott Maxwell | more info (via: Wylio)Life is filled with hard issues.  Every day we are confronted with feelings of grief, anger, sadness, guilt, shame and disappointment.  This week I have been dealing with a lot of grief and anger over the loss of my nephew.  One of the hardest lessons in life is learning how to deal with negative emotions in healthy ways.  Some of us develop good coping skills that help us excel in life and others of us adopt coping strategies that actually handicap us or inflict harm over the long haul.

I shared in my post “Making Sense of the Senseless” that the vast majority of the pain and heartache I see is caused by substance abuse.  I shared that if I could wave a magic wand I would eradicate substances from the face of the earth.  However, as I have been praying about that statement, I realized that the substances are not the issue.

I realized that most of the people I know who have become addicts, abuse substances as a coping mechanism.  The substances are not the issue; it is the lack of coping skills that is at the root of the issue.  This is not true for every addict and there is no one size fits all cure for any complex issue.  However, I think there is enough evidence to support this as a significant contributor to addiction.

Many of the addicts I know who have managed to maintain their sobriety have shared that the most powerful coping strategy they have found involves surrounding themselves with safe people who can help them process negative emotion.  This is why AA and NA are so powerful.    When we isolate ourselves and try to process our emotions alone, we are often hurting too much to rationally work through the issue.  Many turn to drugs or other destructive behaviors to numb out the pain.   Sometimes we have a distorted view of the issue and come to conclusions that are harmful.  However, when we have safe people in our lives that we can share our pain with, they can help us discern truth from lies and help us move forward in a way that brings healing.

Janie, our Embrace Program Director, shared with me a beautiful story about our community gathering this past week.  She created space in our regular gathering for people to share where they saw God this Christmas or anything else they wanted to share about their holiday experience.  Everyone shared openly and honestly about their Christmas holiday.  Most shared stories of gratitude and joy-filled times with family while others shared that spending time with family was actually hard for them.  The group laughed together and cried together but everyone shared how grateful they were to have a supportive place to share their stories.

After the meeting one of the participants stayed behind and shared that he had a very difficult Christmas and had fallen into a severe depression.  Janie spent time just listening to him share his pain and watched as he became visibly unburdened.  He thanked her and expressed his gratitude for Embrace’s presence in the community.

In my previous post, I shared that Embrace was not directly addressing issues of substance abuse in our communities. I realized this week that by creating safe space and filling it with safe people, we are getting at the root of the issue and helping people find healthier ways to deal with the hard things in life.  One truth about impoverished communities is that there is not only a material poverty but also a social poverty.  Our friends are surrounded by unsafe people so they often isolate which leads to depression and often destructive behaviors.

I think much of the addiction we see in our society could be prevented if we did a better job of creating safe spaces for people to process emotions.  I am sad to say that often the church is seen as one of the most unsafe places in our society for those dealing with negative emotions.  Too many Christians see negative emotions as “un-Godly” and something to be avoided.  I have blogged extensively on this site about the value of lament but God keeps revealing to me over and over again the importance of creating that spaces for people to lament.

This past week as I have dealt with my own grief, I am so thankful to have so many safe people in my life who let me process my pain without trying to “fix it.”  There have been seasons in my life were I was not so lucky; times when the Christians said unhelpful things like “God is in control, just let go and let God” or “You just need to have more faith” or “Maybe God is trying to teach you something through this.”  I know those all sound like helpful remarks, but these kinds of statements made me feel like I was to blame for the pain or that my negative emotion made me less of a Christian. A more helpful response would be a listening ear, a hug, a word of encouragement, or a promise to pray.

I think if I could wave a magic wand and and change anything, I would create more safe spaces for people to share life together. I don’t see negative emotions as something to be avoided because I know that it is through the hard things in life that we grow and mature.  Somehow those hard times aren’t so hard when we come together and journey through them as the family of God.  Thank you all for your love and support during this difficult season in my life.

So, what do you think?

Do you think creating safe spaces for people to share life’s ups and downs can actually prevent addiction?

Who are the safe people in your life?

Have you had seasons where you lacked a safe place to share your negative emotions?

How effective do you think the church is in creating this kind of space?


Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

2 responses to “Creating Safe Spaces: Preventing Addiction?

  1. Joyce Rodgers

    I really think the church, in this instance, manifests the world that we come from. Of course we have different words and phrases to use. I think we are often taught to avoid unpleasant situations and feel a need to “make it better” when we are forced to deal with it. This leads so many people to share these unhelpful platitudes with, I am supposing, the best intentions. I know that it is hard for me to reach out to people who are in pain and suffering. It’s hard to know what is the “right thing” to do or say. I have also been on the other side where I have had my concerns and worries brushed aside (very recently as a matter of fact) with statements like “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. I think the greatest area of growth that we can have is to learn to “Be still” and to listen and sometimes just be present and to share space with someone who hurts. I think it makes sense to, in the moment, as God to lead you and your choice of words. The Holy Spirit is so derned powerful and is unfailing in providing just the right response at the right time. God will lead you to reach out with a hug or prompt you just to be.

    I am so sorry for your struggle Wendy. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts, experiences and insights as you move through life day to day.

  2. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Church is traditionally the best place for what you describe. Simply put, too many of those who need to deal with negative emotions and talk with someone feel as if they will be judged there, and often for good reason. Addiction is not completely understood by many, and the example of the depressed man you wrote about here would be considered “enabling” by some. I understand that the bottom line is that he either talks to someone he trusts, in a safe environment, or he partakes in negative behaviors because he has not been able to cope. I do believe that creating safe places can help with addiction, and depression, the two of which are often dog and tail. I have had winters of discontent in my life, and I am very lucky that I did not turn to drugs. I could have, but something drove me to writing instead. I am very blessed in that sense.

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