Updated: Feb 23
Andrea Clements rarely misses a call from Jason, one of the many people she and The Holy Friendship Collaborative are helping to recover from addiction.
Clements is a psychology professor and Assistant Chair of Curriculum at East Tennessee State University. As she sits in her office, Jason calls from prison. A relapse caused him to violate his probation, sending him back to the place he has spent most of his adult life. He was 10 months sober.
For over two decades, America has been gripped by an opioid crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers. As a result, they were prescribed at greater rates. This led to misuse and addiction, kicking off the opioid crisis America has today.
“We’ve lost that ability to feel bad,” said Clements. “Some things just hurt.”
Clements dedicates most of her professional and free time to faith-based programs that assist recovering opioid addicts. One of these programs, co-founded by Clements, is The Holy Friendship Collaborative, a nonprofit that mobilizes churches to address addiction across the Southern Appalachian region.
The Holy Friendship Collaborative states that its goal is to heal communities within the 22-county area of Southern Appalachia in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia from addiction. It holds collaborations among churches, believers, and community organizations, as well as sharing resources and training opportunities. At the center of The Holy Friendship Collaborative’s mission is using faith and biblical practices to reach out to those in need. It has a partnership program with Duke Divinity School’s Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative to help carry out this mission.
In 2017, Jason got involved with the program when he came to Clements’ church, Christ-Reconciled Church in Johnson City. He returned to prison in 2018; when he was released, the church helped him find housing and treatment.
Clements recalled the time he relapsed after that period of 10 months drug-free. Jason went missing, prompting a search by her and other church members going door-to-door, calling various acquaintances, and following leads. He was eventually found weeks later in a dangerous neighborhood by Clements, who described Jason as high and paranoid. She picked him up and sat with him while he detoxed in the emergency room.
The church took him in once again and fought for long-term residential addiction treatment. Sadly, it could not fight the justice system, and he was sentenced to complete the remaining 10 years of his sentence.
Clinically, Clements said 10 months not using drugs is great progress and Jason’s sentence should have been reduced. She described Jason as somebody who no longer wants to use drugs, has grown spiritually, and seeks the best for those he is around. However, the judicial system is set up to punish those who may struggle with these hurdles in their recovery, often sending them back to prison rather than offering them treatment programs. This only fuels the cycle of imprisonment and relapse even more.
“Psychologically it [opioid addiction] is so powerful a drive that it also cuts you off from people. The drug becomes the sole focus,” she said.
And as the sole focus becomes the drug, addicts become more vulnerable to turn towards crime as a means of obtaining the drugs they need.
Clements said it is important to get people to a point where they no longer demand the substances. She said opioids are a huge business, both legal and illegal, and to try to combat this there must be a decrease in their demand.
“I think because of the drug economy there’s always going to be supply and so the only real way to get a handle on it is to approach it from the demand side,” Clements said.
For the most part, Clements is not in favor of medicated-assisted treatment, but prefers more natural cures such as exercise, diet, and socialization, though she acknowledges that it is very important to present people with all options.
“Not using any substances but having enough support to prevent relapse can cure you,” she said. “We need treatments tailored to what each person needs.”
One hundred and thirty Americans die every day from opioid overdoses according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states there has been a rise in heroin and synthetic opioid overdose deaths throughout the last decade. Synthetic opioids include fentanyl and tramadol and are often illegal. In 2017, they caused 28,000 deaths in the U.S., more than any other type of opioid (information updated). The Holy Friendship Collaborative is doing everything it can to help combat this.
Clements shared the story of a woman she mentored who was close to taking her own life. As she returned from visiting her grandmother, just as she was planning on overdosing, the woman was surrounded by federal agents and arrested. When asked why she was smiling as she was hand-cuffed, she told them it was a better alternative to what she was about to do. She has not used drugs since.
Clements said the stigma surrounding addiction needs to change, particularly when it comes to funding programs, such as The Holy Friendship Collaborative.
“We have this program we think will work, but to make it sustainable we’ve got to change people’s hearts and attitudes,” she said. “A part of it is pride, but if we can get past this, we recognize that there is safety in numbers and others who understand it.”
The Holy Friendship Collaborative continues to help those in need, including Jason, who is visited in jail by Clements or another CRC member every week.