Aiding the Addicted: Healing Hearts and Souls Through Spiritual Accompaniment

The work of the ITHIRST Initiative changes lives.

Addiction recovery should include a spiritual component for the good of body and soul.
Addiction recovery should include a spiritual component for the good of body and soul. (photo: Shutterstock)

Eric Greenwood has seen three sides of addiction: his own alcoholism, the heroin addictions of two of his three children, and now his service as an “iTHIRST Spiritual Companion” (ITSC). 

(One of his sons responded quickly to treatment, while the other was in and out several times but has been sober for two years. Greenwood stopped drinking and started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in 2019.)

After a job layoff, Father Michael Champagne with the Community of Christ Crucified in St. Martinville, Louisiana, invited Greenwood to help manage the sober-living house for three months. They strive for union with the Crucified Christ through prayer and work with the poor and have programs supporting recovery. Greenwood continues volunteering, and it was Father Champagne who encouraged him to complete iTHIRST training through the iTHIRST Initiative (The Healing Initiative: Recovery, Spirituality and Twelve Steps), a program offering spiritual accompaniment for those struggling with addictions.

“I can help people through prayer and guide them back to God through the tools I’ve learned,” Greenwood said. He is a spiritual companion to a young man who has relapsed a few times, but Greenwood stays with him. “Each time I sent him a spiritual message. First thing, I’d ask, ‘Do you mind if we pray and ask God to guide our conversation to where he wants us to be?’ He’ll call me sometimes just to pray. I’ve seen him growing.” 

“I’ve been a spiritual guide with another guy,” Greenwood explained to the Register. “He went to confession after 12 years and is still not sober yet, but I send him messages. I try to get him to pray too. I never thought I could do this, but God sends me the right words. I’ve learned a beautiful way to pray through iTHIRST, and any time someone calls me to pray, I’m here to do it.”


Betrayal and Brokenness

Addiction is not just emotional and physical, but also spiritual, according to Keaton Douglas, the executive director of the iTHIRST Initiative. Douglas is also the co-author of The Road to Hope: Responding to the Crises of Addiction.

On her 33rd birthday, when she learned her husband was leaving her for another woman, Douglas says she became addicted to anger and unforgiveness. Being a talented international singer — she had even performed at two presidential inaugural balls — did not take away the pain of abandonment. 

“I had a story of brokenness from the unexpected demise of my marriage,” she told the Register. “I was angry and vindictive. That’s the way I existed.”

Eight years after the marriage ended, due to shared custody of their son, Douglas was in a situation where she had to meet the “other woman” for the first time. Although she planned to show disdain, unexpectedly, the anger suddenly dissipated. The second wife had tearfully apologized. The two cried and hugged. “That poisonous rattlesnake of unforgiveness left me. I could not have done it myself. God did what I could not do.”

Douglas gradually made her way back to the Church and eventually began publicly sharing her story of reconciliation to Christ. A seminarian friend with the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity (also known as the Trinitarians), priests and brothers dedicated to serving the spiritually neglected and abandoned, invited Douglas to speak at the Shrine of St. Joseph in Stirling, New Jersey, in December 2014, at a retreat for 25 women suffering from addiction. 

“They were from the inner city, heroin addicts and alcoholics,” Douglas recalled. “I didn’t think I had anything they’d want to hear.” She was mistaken. When she cried, they cried. When she laughed, they laughed.

“At the end, we hugged and cried,” Douglas said. “It’s not what breaks us, it’s what we do along the journey of transformation to companion with one another.”

“I felt euphoric,” she said of the experience.


Support for Recovery

From that point on, Douglas felt called to become a part of the retreat team, and in December 2016, she became the program coordinator at the Shrine of St. Joseph’s recovery ministry. Keaton also earned an M.A. in theology from the Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University and is a Connecticut community addiction recovery coach.

When a nephew asked her to support a friend in recovery, Douglas leaned on God to impart his gifts of love and mercy simply by accompanying him on his journey. Through these experiences, one thought began to captivate Douglas: “If we believe this is a spiritual disease, what is Holy Mother Church’s response to those suffering?” 

She pointed out that Scripture calls us to love and serve one another and felt that, through prayer and training, the Church and laity could learn to see suffering souls as God sees them and to help reestablish community with them. 

Douglas was in the right place to begin this initiative. For more than 100 years, the Trinitarians have offered support and spiritual comfort to those with substance-abuse problems. They had also provided treatment for alcoholic priests for more than 50 years at St. Joseph Villa, which is now the Trinity House Retreat Center. 

With their support, Douglas created the iTHIRST Initiative, which trains dioceses, parishes, communities and individuals to become a resource and trains ITSCs. They have partnered with Seton Hall University to provide a 48-hour course that is academically certified.

iTHIRST is bilingual and focuses on education and prevention, support for those incarcerated or in treatment facilities, and aftercare and community building for people in recovery and their families. It begins with the understanding that addiction is a disease of mind, body and spirit and that the Church is in a position to provide for these spiritual needs. It includes pastoral-care strategies and spiritual healing through the “12 Steps” of AA. Spiritual companions learn how to listen and dialogue to be actively present to people in recovery and show God’s mercy and love. To date, there are more than 300 trained companions in 37 U.S. states and three countries: Ireland, Costa Rica and the United States.


‘She Sees Me Through Christ’s Eyes’

In her book, Douglas addressed those who disregard the struggle of addiction, saying it’s  addicts’ own fault. She explained that, for many, addiction began with a doctor’s prescription. Some simply made foolhardy choices, and others came from painful environments with poor examples so that substance abuse seemed a normal conclusion. Eventually, the brain needs more and more to get high and then more just to feel normal. Withdrawal ends up being overwhelmingly painful and intense, compelling the person to keep using.

“What looks like choosing a substance over a relationship is actually a reflection of a physiological need,” Douglas noted. “What makes everything even more challenging is that addiction itself is incompatible with true spiritual growth.” She explained that the substance interferes with human relationships as well as a relationship with the Lord. “All he can see is what it’s going to take to feel some semblance of his own distorted normalcy.”

“The addict is one of the loneliest spirits that walk among us, constantly seeking an abyss that hides their pain,” a recovering addict shared in the book. Reflecting on an iTHIRST retreat, he spoke of the kindness of volunteers. “I watched them speak of a God they loved so passionately. I wanted to know him.” 

Nicole Moretti first tried marijuana at 14, given to her by her mother. She later became addicted to opiates. Moretti is accompanied by Melinda Papaccio, an English professor at Seton Hall University who lost her beloved son Nunzio to addiction. In the book, Douglas noted that Nunzio’s legacy continues in his mother through being an ITSC and training others. 

“Melinda is a gift of God,” Moretti said. “She’s shown me that all that love I was searching for was with me all along. Now that I have faith, I don’t know how I lived without it. She educates me, gives me prayer cards, prays for me and sees me through Christ’s eyes.” Moretti credits the companionship of Papaccio with her spiritual awakening. “She is one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met, as is Keaton.” 

Moretti has overdosed five times in her life. “I’ve had five extra chances,” she said. “I’ve gone from asking God for things, to thanking him. I’ve opened my eyes.” 

She did relapse once and was concerned Papaccio would be disappointed. “She just reached out her hand and looked at me with love in her eyes,” Moretti recalled. “She gave me a hug and left me some prayer cards, including one for St. Michael. I prayed those prayers and felt an abundance of grace. I pray not for just those in my life now, but for everyone suffering in the world.”

LEARN MORE The iTHIRST Initiative offers training in person and virtually. Go to: IThirstInitiative.org.

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