DEBUNKED Special Feature: Intersections Of Faith, Shame And Addiction

Nov 25, 2020

Credit Daderot

There’s no doubt faiths, and the communities surrounding them, can be profound and powerful. Faith affects our value systems and our culture. Our faith may also influence how we see ourselves and someone else. 

So how do communities of faith affect shame? Specifically, shame for those experiencing addiction and substance use disorders in the state of Utah? 

“It’s something that’s not only present, but a daily concern for people,” said Jared Bohman, a licenced clinical social worker and the clinical director for the Bear River Health Department’s counseling and substance abuse division. For Bohman, shame is one of the biggest concerns when it comes to recovery. 

“Trying to reduce addictions to a moral failing is truly tragic and it creates problems for people within communities that are trying to work on biological and neurobiological problems but yet find themselves confronting issues of faith wherein they may be taught this is a moral failing or a weakness,” Bohman said. 

It’s important to make a differentiation between shame and guilt. Bohman said guilt is a natural response when one’s behavior falls outside of one’s values and it can be helpful in changing behavior. Shame, on the other hand, is much more inimical.  

“Guilt says I did something wrong. Shame says I am bad and therefore not necessarily worth fixing, and that’s a problem,” Bohman said. “Shame is damning. From any standpoint, shame is damning. It prevents people from seeing that there is a purpose behind making change.” 

Bohman said it would be a disservice not to speak to the positive aspects of faith communities for those in recovery. Though shame can be a result of a community’s influence, Bohman said in some circumcumstances shame is brought on by a person’s perception of rectitude within a faith group. 

“It may not come specifically from individuals or groups within a faith, it may be an individual’s interpretation of their faith’s dogma,” Bohman said. 

For Gary Fisher, the executive director of the Cirque Lodge in Utah where he has worked for over 20 years, his faith group did not impose negative feelings towards substance use. 

Fisher, who was raised in a Preysbatyrian church, recently celebrated 34 years of continuous sobriety. And though he was aware of his community’s social mores and felt shame in the beginning of his recovery journey, he ultimately found his faith community to be supportive of him and his family.  

“I had shame. Did the Presybatyrian church or the Catholic church or the Mormon Church inflict that shame?” Fisher said. “No, I don’t believe that’s true.” 

Fisher, though not a social worker and speaking of his own personal and professional experiences, said institutions, or individuals for that matter, are not responsible for shame.

“To say that you had the ability to have that sort of control of my life, or that the church has that sort of control over my life, or anybody would have that control,” Fisher said. “That’s just something I would disagree with.” 

“One of the things that those 34 years has done for me is given me this perspective. You know, early in my recovery, and at the end of my using and drinking, I was the victim in everything. It was everybody else's fault but mine,” Fisher said. “The common denominator in that whole piece was me.”

Michelle Chapoose, a licenced substance use disorder counselor and a coordinator with Utah State University’s Tribal Opioid Resource Center, said shame based motivators — even those with the best of intentions — are never effective. Being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and engaging in drug and alcohol counseling herself, Chapoose said members of her faith community she knew well were very supportive. 

“Those individuals that were there that had known me forever — it was always love and acceptance. But new individuals coming in it was almost like, yeah, I felt uncomfortable,” Chapoose said.  “I’m not putting the blame on them. The uncomfortable feelings that I felt kind of put me in this mindset that, you know, I really have a choice. I don’t have to be here.” 

Chapoose said shame of addiction in communities of faith varies based on the dynamics of each group and broad generalizations are impossible.

“Substances are designed to hijack the body and they do it perfectly—they don’t care who you are. And so that moral lens, I think, is very prominent in some areas but is not in others,” Chapoose said. “I think it just varies.” 

Chapoose, Bohman and Fisher all express the need to destigmatize addiction in communities of faith while recognizing shame based motivators simply don’t work. 

“We need to make sure that we are looking at addictions as the medical problem that they are. This is a physiological, brain neurochemical problem and we need to look at it that way. It deserves treatment rather than judgement, and that people that are struggling with these issues have the right to address these problems free from shame and guilt,” Bohman said. “As far as the shame piece, we need to do a better job as a community of eliminating the shame and the stigma around having substance use disorders.”