One night 25 years ago, Tariq Shakur caught a startling glimpse of himself after stepping into a McDonald’s on Montgomery Street in midtown Savannah after being out all night.
“I couldn’t believe the condition I was in,” Shakur said in a May 1 lunch forum on navigating adolescent addiction. “I begged for God to help me.”
He cried in a bathroom stall after seeing his gaunt frame in a mirror. The already thin man was even thinner then—by about 30 pounds.
Drugs and alcohol had taken a toll, but his faith was the main thing that helped, the Muslim man said, also mentioning a 12-step program.
Shakur was one of three panelists to speak at the gathering at Redeemer Lutheran Church on Wilmington Island.
The event drew 27 people in the latest effort by Interfaith Addiction and Recovery Coalition to help educate faith leaders on how to help people in their congregations struggling with addiction.
’...never considered safe to talk about’
Again and again, people at the forum spoke about the need to simply speak up about the sometimes shameful issue.
The second panelist, Curlin Reed Sullivan, a Savannah woman whose mother died of alcoholism at age 68, recalled her family’s treatment of the problem: Silence.
“It was never considered safe to talk about it,” she says.
Sullivan, a self-described “boat rocker” who determined to do differently than her family and speak about the problem, urges people to help others in addiction’s stronghold.
“Rush to the aid” of family members often left reeling from addiction, she said from the forum’s three-seat table in the window-lined room.
Sullivan suggests helping with food, offering to pick up children from school and sharing concern.
“What about you? Do you have support?” she advises asking when someone comes for help about a loved one who is struggling.
Sullivan wants support to spread; she wants to “put the ‘family’ back in ‘family disease.’”
“You have a lot of our neighbors who are probably suffering in silence,” she added.
Challenge kids; they can handle it
Lindsey Grovenstein, sitting at the other end of the front table, nodded her head with Sullivan’s words about suffering in silence.
Addiction can carry a lot of shame and fear, according to the event’s third panelist, a project coordinator for Beyond the Bell, a Georgia nonprofit trying to prevent alcohol and marijuana use in youth.
People talk about addiction when it becomes a big deal, but Grovenstein hopes parents talk about it before it’s a problem.
Hold short conversations with children more frequently instead of one, big dreaded talk about all taboo subjects.
That’s when parents can debunk myths such as “just one won’t hurt,” or the belief that drug and alcohol use are just what kids do as a coming-of-age experience.
Short conversations let parents set clear rules and expectations, she said.
Parents can ask their children questions like, “What would you do if your friends pressure you to use alcohol or drugs?”
“Challenge your kids,” she said. “They can handle it.”
Other advice from Grovenstein: Youth need something fun to do to release tension and have joy.
'It’s an all-out effort'
“A lot of times, we tend to spiritualize things so much,” said Ashley Randall, a pastor attending the forum who spoke up during the question-and-answer session.
The pastor of Garden City United Methodist Church, who is certified in public community health, believes drug use can stem from social, emotional and family problems.
“We tend to want to make drug use a sin instead of addressing its causes,” he said.
Randall attended the forum because he wants a healthy community, and believes faith leaders can help locals.
“The truth is successful communities raise successful people,” he says.
Another faith leader, Franklin Fletcher, pastor of Canaan United Methodist Church in Savannah, attended because of the need for addiction help in the area.
“What better place to address it than the pulpit?” he asked.
But as far as the problem being handled outside the church, the former U.S. Navy man borrowed a military term, “It’s all hands on deck… it’s an all-out effort.”
Fletcher said people have to have a belief in something a lot stronger than themselves, and that the individual plays a crucial role.
“The clinics can’t help unless you’re willing to help yourself,” he said. “It starts with you.”
Learning how to live
For Shakur, who’s been sober for 25 years, the problem and solution are varied.
Shakur’s mother worked a lot to keep a roof over their heads, “so basically, I raised myself,” he said. His addiction “started out very innocently,” he said.
He started drinking and smoking weed with his cousins he idolized at age 7. Then Shakur’s crack use led to criminal behavior.
But an eye-opening glimpse of himself in a McDonald’s mirror in 1994 sparked his change, followed by a cry to God for help and time in jail where he “had to learn how to live,” Shakur said. “I didn’t know how to live without the drugs, without the alcohol.”
Carol Pine, an organizer for the Interfaith Addiction and Recovery Coalition, called the May 1 forum “a very good start” to the group’s effort.
The group formed last year out of Trinity United Methodist Church.
“We’re just raising awareness,” she said.