Timothy King lives on a beef farm in New Hampshire. King, otherwise known as the author of Christianity Today's December 2016 cover story, considers himself an "uncle to a farm." "I get to be involved with the farm life and daily chores, but I don't have the ultimate responsibility," said King.
But it wasn't King's farming skills that got him into the pages of CT. In 2009, he suffered acute necrotizing pancreatitis. When doctors discharged him from the hospital, King returned home to learn how to eat again (he was receiving most of his food through a semi-permanent IV) and began taking pain medication to alleviate his physical discomfort. Eventually, doctors realized that King's reliance on his meds were impeding his ability to eat—and ultimately recover.
At that point, King and his doctor realized that he had become addicted to opioids, otherwise known as his pain medication. King recounted for CT his journey of recovery and articulates his convictions on how Christians can most constructively minister to the addicted. He recently caught up with assistant CT editor Morgan Lee to discuss the importance of language, community, and how his story has already positively impacted others.
How did CT end up reaching out to you about writing about your story?
A mutual friend told Katelyn Beaty (former CT print managing editor) that I had an interesting story. Katelyn asked if I would be interested in writing a testimony for CT. After I looked at the testimony's section, it didn't seem like my story would fit well. So we started talking about what parts of my story I might be interested in telling and we struck on the opioid crisis.
As it was happening, I did not experience it primarily as an addiction story. I experienced it as a medical crisis with one of the final steps overcoming a side effect of one of my medications. It wasn't until later when I started reading all the stories of how people ended up that I realized, that could have been me. It was after those moments that I felt the need to tell my story. I was hoping to inspire more empathy in readers for those who have struggled with opioid addiction and paint a picture of how someone can get started down this path.
The other hope was that it would be somewhat of a convicting piece, where readers might recognize that while they may or may not have struggled with opioids, there is something in their life that is equivalent. There is something that they have felt powerless to overcome and has shaped their choices and directions in a way that they felt overwhelmed by.
It's interesting to me that as you experienced your addiction to opioids, you didn't have the words for it. That it only happened after the fact.
This was partly due to the way my doctor handled it. He helped me see it all in the context of my medical struggle as opposed to separating it out into a different category. Having him transition me into thinking about it this way gave me the best framework I could have had to have the outcome that I did.
Since I've written the story I've heard from quite a few people who have had the opposite experience. They, through no fault of their own, ended up on some sort of opioid and then felt shamed or chastised, berated, or blamed for their addiction—and as a result, they either found another doctor or found an illegal means of obtaining the drugs.
I just had a conversation with a veteran who served in Iraq. He was so thankful that he had a doctor who had brought him through the same experience. IED shrapnel went through his face and caused all sorts of complications and infections. He was on morphine for two weeks at the hospital and his doctor warned him, "I know you don't feel a lot of pain right now but we're going to slowly bring you down." He had laughed it off and said, "Doctor, I'm not addicted, I'm fine." Within a few days, he had such terrible withdrawal side effects, he went back to the doctor and the doctor said, "Yeah, your body is addicted." They were then successfully able to slowly step down the process. If you didn't have the doctor seeing the signs at early onset of dependency, this could have become a full-blown addiction.
What was the hardest part of writing your story?
I use the term addicted. There are some medical professionals who use the word dependent because I didn't go out and engage in behaviors typically associated with addiction. I chose to use the word addicted because it accurately describes my situation. It is a term I hope other people feel less stigma about in the future to describe their own situation.
When we give the right name to something that is going on in our life, it kills its power over us. Naming something is incredibly important. Opioid addict is now tied to my name. I've had to think through that, but once again I have had a great community of support to encourage me about this story.
Every time I doubted how great my story was, I would read another story about addiction. I know a couple who recently took in foster kids whose parents had been addicts. The two-year-old wouldn't sit in a booster seat because she had been strapped into those seats while her parents were off using. Maybe there's a handful of people out there who will read this story and see early signs in a loved one and will approach the process differently after the person has surgery and comes home. I eventually came around to being excited that I could be a voice for people who had had a hard time expressing those stories.
What was the most surprising reaction that you had to the piece?
I was expecting some sort of pushback but I haven't found any of that. I want others to know that so much of that shame is inside of ourselves and the grace of a community is something that can really surprise. For those who don't have that experience, know that there are communities out there that can provide this.
Is there one positive reaction to the piece that stands out?
I got multiple Facebook and Twitter messages with people thanking me and describing very similar experiences and telling me about loved ones that they were concerned were addicted, loved ones who were good people. It was really encouraging to hear stories from others who said, "I have someone in my life that this could help. I need this to start the conversation."
Why do you think this topic is so important for Christianity Today to cover?
The church as a body and institution should have concern for our public and private life. That's always a tricky thing when it comes to engaging public policy and needs to done carefully. That said, Christians have an important voice when it comes to public policy of drugs and drug use because Christians, at the core, believe that nobody is beyond redemption. When we have a public policy system that does put people beyond redemption and does not focus on the possibility of redemption, then we have a perverted system. Christians have an important voice to speak out against that.
Further, whether deserved or not, churches are often known as epicenters for shame as opposed to as the foundation for healing. With such an obvious epidemic like the opioid crisis where people are dying every day this is a great opportunity for the church to be the church and to show exactly what it means to be a loving community of grace that lives out Christ's love in the world today. If this is a moment that passes by, where Christians are not known for being at the forefront of love, healing, acceptance, and giving grace, then it's a huge missed opportunity.
Morgan Lee is an assistant editor of Christianity Today.