The Disease Of Addiction | A Primer For Youth Workers

Tim Balow
January 7th, 2020

Addiction is one of those topics we wish we didn’t have to know anything about in ministry. Growing up in an evangelical home, attending a bible college, starting in ministry in my early twenties, then getting a masters degree never prepared me for what was to come later.

By the age of 30, I knew more about addiction, alcoholism, and the recovery community than I ever imagined. This was because by the age of 30, I found myself in a residential treatment facility for my own issues with alcoholism. Beyond anything I could ever have imagined, alcoholism and recovery from addiction has taught me more about God, community, and the power of connection between people. What’s even more baseline, is the semi-controversal reality that addiction is not a choice, but rather a disease of choice.

From knowing nothing about the struggle of addiction, to being more immersed in it from a personal and professional experience, there’s a big deficit in the world of youth ministry on the understanding of the disease of addiction. Here’s a primer for you to jumpstart your understanding:

Addiction is a disease.

Disease is something that we hear so much, but we rarely ever stop to think about what it actually means. The disease model is fairly simple: A bodily organ is injured and causing adverse pain symptomatic to the corresponding organ that the disease is affecting. In other words, if an organ is hurt, then it’s going to cause hurt to the rest of the body (heart disease, liver disease, lung disease, etc.). In this case, addiction affects the brain to cause maligned pathways in brain activity that affect choice and consequence for what the body actually needs. In the case of an addiction, the brain is literally rewired to think that the body needs a substance more than other things for survival. Therefore, it’s a disease of choice.

Addiction is a chronic disease.

While this is debatable, in the same way that a disease may never be fully “healed” in certain conditions, addiction never disappears from the body. The gift of recovering from any disease is that a life beyond the disease is possible, and in the case of recovering from an addiction (or substance use disorder) is that you can enjoy and grow in life differently and more positively than prior to acknowledging the issue of the disease of addiction. However, never recovering from addiction will result in escalation of the addiction in one’s life and circumstance.

Addiction is a fatal disease.

This is hard. In part, because not every classification of a fatality relates directly to a physical issue related to the disease of addiction. In a way it’s easy to quantify fatalities based on overdoses; however, there are many more that are simply complications related to their condition (liver failure, heart disease, etc.). The truth is, addiction affects the whole body (physical, mental, and emotional), so the “fatalities” can take a variety of forms.

Addiction is a progressive disease.

This is simple: Left untreated, addiction will always get worse over time. Certain instances can go faster than others. In a treatment center that deals with addiction/substance use disorder, you’d encounter people that have 30+ years of struggles with addiction, or 3 years. For me, it was about 5 total years of struggle, with 2 of those being significant (nightmarish) struggle. Regardless, it progresses at the rate for a number of reasons: Genetics, frequency, bodily reactions, or physical/mental progression of other complications related to the disease.

I had a student one time who gave me the ultimate gut check after a talk I gave at youth group. He came up to me, and in all seriousness, asked “What does this have to do with anything?” From that point on, I’d always sought out ways that, whatever is spoken or taught to, tangibly deal with real life circumstances. Addiction issues (for the purpose of this article, primarily substance like drugs or alcohol) may not be an obvious problem for you personally or even in your ministry right now. However, the stats are generally pretty obvious to say that addiction on some level affects 50% of families. By “affects”, that may mean directly because of a family member struggling with an addiction, or “affects” because they are seeking recovery from the addiction. Addiction is a family disease, so if one is struggling, it means that the family is struggling.

Youth workers are typically on the front lines in relationships with families and can be key advocates for change and transformation in students’ and families’ lives. Addiction isn’t always the easiest to see from the outside, but by capturing a little more of an understanding of the handles of what makes addiction so dangerous (and consequently, recovering from addiction), you can give a student/family hope in a very dark situation.

Tim Balow

TIm Balow is has served in a variety of youth worker roles between Chicago and Minneapolis over the last 10 years. Tim currently serves with Youth Specialties working on projects focused on customer and content operations. Tim's passion is to serve the under-resourced youth worker and to encourage the next generation of students to step into a transformative relationship with Jesus.

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