Priest helps heroin addicts heal 'hole in the soul'
The Rev. Jim Swarthout uses his baldness to his advantage.
It's an example of a genetic predisposition, a hereditary problem.
Part 10Heroin has taken hold in the suburbs, and turning a blind eye to it isn't acceptable anymore. In an occasional series, the Daily Herald examines the heroin problem through the eyes of those it affects and those who are fighting it. Today, we take a look through the eyes of the Rev. Jim Swarthout, an addiction counselor and priest who invites heroin users to stop blaming themselves and find hope through faith.
Just like addiction, he says.
The example comes in handy as he ministers to people who are addicted to heroin and other destructive substances.
Having an addictive personality, a predisposition to get hooked, is "not your fault," Swarthout tells the drug users he meets with for interventions.
"Not your fault."
"I often think that with people with addiction and mental health issues, we'll see a genetic influence because of a predisposition to mental health issues or trauma issues," Swarthout said. "I look at them and I say, 'It's not your fault.' That takes the guilt and the shame away. 'You have inherited this disease by a member of your family, and it's not their fault, either.'"
When Swarthout, 60, the clergy community director for Rockford-based Rosecrance Health Network, conducts interventions for heroin users, he works to dissolve their guilt and shame so they will seek treatment, find hope, get better.
"When I hear a sense of hopelessness, I believe I'm called to respond to heal the hole in the soul, to help people find hope," he said.
Ordained nearly 30 years ago as an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Chicago, Swarthout has been working outside of any specific congregation for the past three years, called upon by his bishop to extend his ministry in addiction and mental health issues to the northern Illinois region. In that time, he has buried 14 people 40 and younger who have died from heroin overdoses.
He tries to prevent that number from growing. He conducts one or two interventions a week, working with addicts whose families are desperate to steer them clear of the worst possible fate.
Leaders at suburban Christian ongregations say they call on people like Swarthout when someone in their community seeks help for an addiction. Congregations are beginning to offer guest speakers on addiction and mental health issues, but church leaders themselves often lack the training.
Swarthout has it.
He's a social worker with a master's degree, an advanced addiction counseling license and a certification as an intervention professional.
A passage from Romans chapters seven and eight guides Swarthout as he offers hope to those who can't stop doing heroin. In the passage, Swarthout says the apostle Paul "beats himself up" for sinning, wondering why he goes against what he knows is right. But then Paul comes to a realization: "This I know, there is no condemnation in Christ."
"One of our great apostles, he struggled with 'Why do I do the things I don't want to do?'" Swarthout said. "I've never met an alcoholic or an addict who didn't say the same things to me -- 'Why do I do the things I don't want to do?'"
It's a burning question, even for a social worker and a priest.
Swarthout says he didn't originally realize that addiction is not a choice, but a confluence of a genetic predisposition and life experiences.
Now he tries to bring that realization to the families of addicts for whom he conducts "invitational interventions."
Once or twice a week, Swarthout, of Barrington, will drive to a family home somewhere in northern Illinois and attend a sit-down with a drug user's relatives. He doesn't force the addict to attend; instead, a family member calls and invites him or her to participate.
"The addicted individual always comes back to the family when they hit rock bottom," Swarthout said.
Within the setting of a concerned family gathering, Swarthout encourages drug users to step away from the stigma and guilt and step into a new phase of hope and help.
"I see the pain and the hurt of people in treatment and I try to bring joy and hope back," Swarthout said.
More than 75 percent of the people for whom Swarthout conducts interventions choose to seek treatment, he said. And while treatment isn't always successful, especially on the first try, it's a start.
Sometimes, priests at other congregations don't know where to start or how to be part of the solution to the heroin problem.
"Our clergy and communities are overwhelmed," Swarthout said.
Without any clinical knowledge of what leads to addiction or how to overcome it, religious leaders turn to outside resources when a member of their congregation needs help.
"The key thing is to recognize what we can do and what we can't do," said the Rev. David Gibbons, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Barrington Hills. "What we can't do is provide specialized help that people need at certain times, so we have a list of people in the community that we can refer people to."
Swarthout is on that list if anyone ever comes to Gibbons with a heroin addiction, he said. But Gibbons himself is pursuing a degree as a pastoral counselor from Loyola University in Chicago, learning to provide therapy for people with depression, anxiety and, to some extent, substance abuse issues.
After the initial shock of stopping use of an addictive substance, Gibbons said, people struggle to face life sober, without a familiar crutch to get them through. That's where the support of a faith community can come in, he said.
"There are a lot of things we can do. Often somebody might be looking for just a little support and someone to talk to, build a rapport with," Gibbons said. "People are looking for communities of support."
A church, at its best, can be exactly that -- "a loving community without judgment and with genuine support and acceptance," said Rev. Clint Roberts, pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church in Naperville.
The role of congregations, Roberts said, is to build relationships so no one wages the war against heroin alone.
It's mainly about "showing that you care," he said, but it also involves bringing the topic to more people's attention.
Knox plans to host an event this spring in which Dave Brouwer, an advanced health teacher at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, will speak about the collateral damage caused by heroin addiction and teen overdose deaths.
"This is a subject that is of pretty deep interest, at least to our parents," Roberts said. "I've been concerned about this for some time."
Something as simple as offering space to 12-step recovery groups such as Heroin Anonymous also is an important role religious organizations can play.
"It's easy for us to underestimate how important that is because we don't get personally involved," Gibbons said.
'Past the stigma'
Ruth Elliott's church, DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church in Naperville, is gearing up to focus more ministries on mental health issues, substance abuse or physical limitations, Rev. Tom Capo said.
The church plans to bring in a speaker about mental health problems faced by returning military members, Capo said, and there is always a lay minister at the back of the church after services to help anyone who just needs to talk.
But Elliott, whose 19-year-old son, Graham, has struggled with mental health issues and addictions to substances including heroin, says she wishes her church would do more.
A few individual church members have been supportive, she said, asking about Graham's progress through multiple rehab stints and setbacks, and truly caring about the answer.
But from the church itself she's received "not much" support in the past two years, she said. She wishes churches would form support groups for families who are enduring long-term illnesses -- whether mental or physical -- and work harder to remove the harmful stereotypes surrounding addiction.
"We've moved a long way even in the last two years to get past the stigma of mental illness and addiction as some sort of moral failing," Elliott said. "More and more, people are seeing it for what it is as an actual illness."
Swarthout, for one, sees it that way, and he's on a mission to change how others view addiction, too. He's starting with the addicts themselves, and inviting them, through the interventions he conducts, to stop blaming themselves, stop seeing addiction as a sin they committed and realize there is always hope.
Swarthout has at least one bit of proof that this shift in thinking works.
"I got a Facebook message from someone on the eighth year of sobriety who said, 'Thank you for saving my life,'" Swarthout said. "That was all I needed."
"I believe deeply in gratitude and joy," he said. "I see people come to new life every day."
• This article is part of our "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series. For more see http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries