How Fundamentalist Prohibitions Cause Needless Suffering and Pain

sin can make you sick

Polly’s father is almost 80 years old. In poor health, suffering from severe spinal deterioration and arthritis, Dad has decided to have a total hip replacement. While Polly and I are absolutely against him having the surgery, it’s his life and he is free to do what he wants. Dad is in constant pain and he hopes that having the hip replaced will lessen his pain. The doctor gave no guarantees and, having worked with many hip replacement patients when I worked for Allegro Medical, a Phoenix based direct medical equipment supply company, I’m worried that the surgery could make his pain worse or land him in a nursing home. It’s hard to stand by and do nothing as parents make decisions like this, but Dad and Mom are competent to make this decision, so we will do all we can to love and support them. We remind ourselves that someday we will be where they are.

By now, you are probably trying figure out how the title of this post, How Fundamentalist Prohibitions Cause Needless Suffering and Pain, fits with what I have written so far. Let me explain. Dad was always a hard worker, often able to work circles around men half his age. He and I got along well because we both had that workaholic drive, the need to constantly be busy and get things done. However, at the age of 65, Dad was in an industrial accident that injured his back and required immediate surgery.

Soon, pain became an ever-present reality. Dad, having been taught that taking narcotics could lead to addiction, refused to take anything more than Tylenol or aspirin. Later in life, Naproxen was added to the mix as was Darvocet, a drug that was later removed from the market due to serious side effects. Dad would do his best to only take what he thought he needed, often only taking half a pill or going without taking anything for several days. No matter how often I reminded him that it would be better if he took the drugs regularly and on schedule, he continued to endure the pain rather than take the drugs as the doctor ordered.  A year or so ago, Dad’s doctor gave him a prescription for Tramadol and a few weeks ago he gave him a script for Oxycontin. Finally, I thought, he will find some relief for his pain and suffering. Sadly, that was not to be the case.

You see, Dad is afraid of becoming addicted and this is one of the reasons he is having a total hip replacement. In his mind, if he has the hip replaced, perhaps the pain will lessen and he won’t need to take the Oxycontin. No addiction, and God will be happy.  I would try to explain to him the difference between addiction and dependence, but I don’t think he’d hear me. Having been a narcotic user for over a decade, I know that I am dependent; I’m not an addict. I take the drugs as prescribed. I wish that Dad could see that being dependent is no big deal and that regularly taking Oxycontin will reduce his pain and improve his quality of life.  Unfortunately, thinking drug dependence is a sin keeps Dad from getting the full benefit of the drug.

This is a perfect example of how fundamentalist prohibitions cause unneeded suffering and pain. From preaching that says addiction (dependence) is a sin to viewing pain and suffering as some sort of test from God, many fundamentalists eschew drugs and treatments that would likely improve their quality of life. Better to suffer for Jesus, the thought goes, than to become dependent on narcotics. In just a little while, Jesus is coming again…so endure until you see your Savior’s smiling face.

As an atheist, I am deeply troubled by this kind of thinking. Since I think this life is the only one we have, we should do all we can to eliminate not only our own pain and suffering, but the pain and suffering of others. Since there is no heaven and no reward in the sweet by and by, why needlessly suffer? Better to become dependent on narcotics and have some sort of pain relief and improved quality of life than to go through life suffering, only to die in the end.  While I certainly think having a chronic illness and living with unrelenting pain has made me more compassionate, I don’t wish such a life on anyone, especially those I love.

How about you? Were you taught that taking narcotics and becoming dependent on them was a sin? Please share your story in the comment section.

Note

I pastored numerous people over the years who thought taking pain medications was a sign of weakness or lack of dependence on God. I watched one man horrifically suffer from bowel cancer, unwilling to take drugs for the pain. I’ve come to see that this is the Evangelical version of the Catholic self-flagellation.

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16 Comments

  1. Karen the rock whisperer

    I am dependent on psychotropic drugs. I’m not addicted, but without them I will sink into a depression that will eventually drive me to suicide. With them, I function quite well. I consider necessary pain meds to be in the same category.

    When my mother-in-law had excruciating back pain, she was first put on codeine, then finally on time-release morphine for the pain. My husband’s first reaction, on hearing it, was “she’ll be an addict!” That made me furious (a rare event where Husband is concerned). What really happened was that Mom had surgery to fix her back, PT to get her functioning again, and a withdrawal schedule to get her off morphine without any trouble. She’s now not taking any narcotic pain meds other than an occasional half of a Tylenol and codeine tablet (maybe 1 a week or less). Addict, my ass!!!

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I think doctors are getting better when it comes to managing patient pain. Instead of worrying about addiction, how about we concern ourselves with relieving suffering. I think hospice services have really helped to change the discussion about pain and how it is treated.

      Reply
  2. Wayne Beamer

    Bruce: Like Karen, I take small doses of two antidepressants every night before bedtime. I remember telling my ex-best friend about 15 years ago that I’d finally make the move to take Prozac, and the first words out of his judgmental mouth were something like, “Why do you need THIS?” Well, if I hadn’t started taking an antidepressant, I might’ve lost my marriage, which was more important to me than anything he believed about me. And that was the beginning of the end of that friendship…

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Wayne, thanks for sharing this. Years ago, I told a close friend, who was also a pastor, that I was battling depression. He couldn’t believe it, telling me that I wasn’t trusting God and that God couldn’t use me if I was depressed. Just what I needed, eh? ?

      Reply
  3. Kenneth

    I take Lexapro for panic attacks and without it I am afraid to even leave the house or do anything without being tense and worried ALL THE TIME about pretty much nothing. My deconversion actually started when I attempted to stay off the meds for a few months (with the Godly advice from my wife). She kept saying “you don’t need it, God can take care of it if you only believe He can and pray”. As if I wasn’t? I prayed all the time but felt no different. I begged and begged God. Nothing. This wasn’t the first time I tried getting off meds either as a Christian. I mean, I HATED being dependent on a drug, but I finally accepted that it is OK to take this, because I cannot be myself otherwise (my worry and anxiety would overwhelm me). I had to lose God to get the help I truly needed and never regretted it since. So yes, God did nothing to help me but rather make things worse too.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Kenneth, thank you for sharing this.

      Reply
  4. Troy

    First I agree with your father-in-law’s decision. I’m sure I’d probably do the same thing and I’m not a fundy. I think besides pain he wants independence. Your experience in the past might no longer be relevant, since implants are improving all the time. Unless he had a physician reject him and then went doc shopping I suspect he at least has a chance for a good outcome. I think for the most part surgeons won’t do something that is detremental. I hope you’ll publish a follow up, I’m most curious if it works out for him.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Replacing the hip will do nothing to fix the back problems. He is so stooped over he’s lost 5 inches in height. There are multiple health problems in play here.

      My experiences at Allegro Medical are within the last ten years, along with my experience with elderly church members. Several other family members have raised their concern over the surgery. I know he hopes to find pain relief and that certainly is a desired objective. But, he’s already had two surgeries in the last 15 years that have resulted in increased pain.

      I think my in laws put too much faith in doctors, trusting that they will always give them the best advice. They rarely ask questions, trusting that the doctor knows best.

      There are other factors that I am not comfortable sharing. We’ve voiced our concerns and that is all we can do. It’s his life and as long as he is mentally competent he has the right to do what he wants. The bigger issue for me, and the focus of this post, is the motivation for having hip replace surgery. Not wanting to take pain medication because you fear you’ll get addicted and Jesus will be unhappy with you is NOT a good reason to have risky surgery.

      Reply
      1. Troy

        Considering your proximity to the situation and a better understanding of the nuances of your in-laws health I’m sure you are right.

        Reply
        1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

          One of the hardest things for those with elderly parents to do is to sit back and do nothing. Parents have a right to autonomy even if it is against their best interest. (as long as they are mentally competent) I try to remember that Polly and I will some day be where Mom and Dad are now. How would we want to be treated?

          Reply
  5. August Rode

    “Were you taught that taking narcotics and becoming dependent on them was a sin?” — Absolutely not but then again, I don’t come from a fundamentalist/evangelical world. As I’ve aged, I’ve become increasingly amazed that human bodies work at all given their tendencies to break down in a myriad of unfortunate ways. While I’ve never yet had to take narcotics, I do have a brother who lives with severe chronic pain. The narcotics that he takes are just about the only thing that allows him to live as “normal” a life as is possible which is not particularly normal from my perspective. How could I possibly begrudge him that? I’m glad he’s taking them and I know he’s been addicted to several of them off and on, but the addiction is manageable and it’s secondary to the pain.

    Reply
  6. KatieS

    I’m an atheist but I fear narcotics because it is so easy to become addicted and not just dependent. My ex became addicted to vicodin after back surgery and when he couldn’t get it from a doctor anymore, he got it on the street and went on to taking any painkiller he could find, oxycontin and heroin were right behind, selling things from our house, spending every cent we had and then ultimately he lost everything. No job, no wife, no family, no house, no real friends. He nearly destroyed me. He would claim his back hurt but there was no way to tell for sure.
    It’s a really hard thing to me to advocate for taking drugs because addiction destroys not only the addict but everyone around them.
    I do agree that the fear of addiction because Jesus will be unhappy is a very bad reason.
    It’s a very hard situation for anyone to be in and I hope for the best for Dad.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Most people who take narcotic drugs are not an addict. The key is to be under the care of a competent physician. That said, thanks to narcotic addicts, those who us who need the drug for pain (not getting high) are being punished. Here in Ohio, I am now required to see my doctor every two months, which I do anyway, but for those who don’t need to see their doctor every two months this makes getting their script cost prohibitive. Responsible users are treated like drug addicts. I understand the WHY of the new laws, but it does make it much harder for non-addicts to get the drugs they need to manage their pain. Another side effect of these new laws is that addicts have stopped using narcotics and moved on to heroin. Addicts will always take the drug that is most widely available.

      I understand your story. Drug addiction destroys everything it touches. My mother was a drug addict, back in the day when a person could go to numerous doctors and get “legal” drugs. She had lots of pain, both physically and mentally, and she used the drugs to take away her pain. Unfortunately, the drugs also took her away.

      Reply
  7. exrelayman

    Well now, consider fire. Properly managed, very useful in cooking food and warming houses. Improperly managed, very dangerous indeed, as the existence of fire departments attests.

    I think of drugs the same way as I do fire. Good tools, caution and proper management needed. No sense letting undue fear of them cause your life to be much more painful.

    Very sorry for the situation you shared about Polly’s father. It is a shame he suffers too much because of undue fear of painkillers. The publicity over drug abuse is hurting those with legitimate and realistic pain relief objectives.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I like your fire analogy. As with most things in life, they can be used properly or abused. Unfortunately, those who act responsibly are often punished for the bad behavior/abuse of others.

      Reply
  8. gimpi1

    I am also dependent on medication. I have rheumatoid arthritis, and I self-inject both Enbrel and Methotrexate. I don’t take them to relieve pain, exactly, I take them to control my out-of-wack immune system, and stop it from attacking my joints (and other things) causing damage. However, by minimizing the damaging inflammation, they prevent pain. It’s pretty much the same thing. Yet, since these medications don’t provide any pain-relief, just pain prevention, I don’t have to put up with the “addict” nonsense. It’s not fair or reasonable, but there it is. However, I have had people mutter darkly about “addiction” perhaps because my medication is self-injected. Needle-panic, i guess. One lady was getting a bit silly about it, until I mentioned that diabetics had injected insulin for decades, without anyone confusing it with heroin.

    I have also taken Vicodin, Darovcet and Tylenol with Codeine, before my condition was well-controlled. I put up with the constant monitoring, but found it annoying. I was fortunate that my rheumatologist was able to work with me, and do “phone consultations” rather than dragging me in and making me pay for a office call. I never took them for the “high” and was generally able to keep to minimum or sub-minimum dosages, but I was grateful for the relief. And, if I have a flair, I may need them again. Right now, I’m enjoying a fairly prolonged remission. Long may it wave!

    Reply

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