Loving a Heroin Addict – A Prayer for Orion

Loving a Heroin Addict – A Prayer for Orion February 8, 2020

Sometimes the heroin addict is your son. Award winning author Katherine James spent many nights in front of her bay window staring up at Orion’s belt, praying for her children by name. During their growing up years, she gathered them together on her bed for cozy bedtime stories, kept the TV off and worried about ensuring they ate healthy peanut butter. She allowed them to build a fort in the garage which they named, The Chill Spot and baked apple pies with them each fall. In short, she did all the things that good mothers do, but life doesn’t come with a guarantee and one day text messages on her only son’s cell phone shattered years of parental soul tending and cultivation.

In light of her recently released book about loving her “Sweetboy” through his addiction, A Prayer for Orion (InterVarsity Press, 2020) we wondered what she would recommend to someone who finds themselves facing a similar situation.

Redbud – You state in the book, ‘I didn’t have a clue’ about the drug culture. Now that you’ve walked a long, hard path through this dark world what would you say to a mom or dad who just discovered text messages on their son or daughter’s phone suggesting their involvement with heroin?

Katherine – I would say begin your journey praying. And keep praying. There will likely be an awful lot of uncertainties—times when any decision seems as good as any other decision—so all you really have to go on is the providence of God plus his love for you and your child. My own imaginings about drugs and cities and dealers was based on my limited exposure (movies, books, etc.) to the culture, and I didn’t understand yet that drugs were everywhere, not just isolated on a few blocks in the middle of cities. God is at work everywhere drugs are. We saw him do beautiful things to save beautiful people, our son included, so regardless of what rehab or rules or community your child ends up with, God is the one who brings healing and God is the one to ask for that healing.

Redbud- There’s a poignant moment in the book where your husband Rick kisses your son on the head, rather than getting angry or lecturing him about the wrong choices he’s making. You state, ‘I think the visceral love of his father had a greater effect on Sweetboy than a lecture or rehab would have had.’ Could you say a bit more about this notion of Holy Spirit empowered visceral love as the countercultural choice in loving those who are slipping though our fingertips?

Katherine – One of my biggest frustrations when it comes to helping addicts is this idea of ‘tough love’, that if we turn away from an addict—kick them out, not allow them community, that sort of thing—they will ‘hit bottom’ and get sober. Much like the prodigal in the bible, the assumption is that they’ll find themselves hungry and eating the pig’s food and repent. I think there are a few major things wrong with this perspective; one, if we’re talking about, for example, heroin, kicking them out often means they will die. Notwithstanding very destructive behavior, I believe keeping the sheets turned down for them in the evenings (or at 3:00 in the morning) is more likely to save them.

Their greatest need is for love. In my book I call heroin ‘fake love,’ and pure, true love is in Christ, so when my husband—who was immersed in prayer for him—went to our son and kissed him on the forehead even as he was about to use, I think it was to remind him of what the real thing looked like. Addicts more than anyone need to be reminded that community and love is there waiting for them anytime they need it. Remember, the prodigal’s father never kicked him out, and at any point if his son had appeared at the end of that driveway, he would still have hiked up his robes, ran to him and hugged him, probably with tears in his eyes.

The following is an excerpt from her memoir, A Prayer for Orion (InterVarsity Press, 2020).

The language in the text was foreign; it wasn’t the way Sweetboy talked, or texted. Or the way his friends talked, and at first I thought that he’d accidentally ended up with someone else’s phone. Yo, u want me to get u some (I don’t remember what he called it). Ima go into the city tonight if you want some cheap. Gotta go the Dad’s comin. All I could think was that some greasy haired kid was in his basement with the TV on, texting everyone he knew so he could sell some smack (or whatever he called it). Maybe he had a bunch of baggies on a coffee table in front of him that he would spend an hour that night filling with some kind of powder he’d gotten after passing a wad of dirty bills through the window of some kind of dilapidated Chevy Impala or maybe a slick new Mercedes with the widows blacked out as it slowed to a stop and a guy wearing some kind of sweatshirt with some kind of hood up and half over his face would unroll the window. He’d be all pimply and pale because he didn’t have a clue how to wash his face since both of his parents were addicts and didn’t pay any attention to him growing up and he’d been hanging out on the street since he was ten. He wouldn’t bother to look up at the kid who texted Sweetboy to see if he wanted some smack or whatever he called it, he’d just take his money and maybe flip through the bills with his dirty unwashed hands before handing off the smack, or whatever he called it, to make sure there were enough bills before the Mercedes or dilapidated Impala slowly pulled away and turned the corner onto a dark street with a waste of syringes, like abandoned tampon applicators, clogging the gutters. I imagined dozens of Ziplock sandwich bags full of whatever it was the kid was buying—which I know now would have been enough dope to feed every addict in Philly for a month. I imagined half inflated CVS bags pressed into the grills of drains—heavy rains having tried, and failed, to pull them into the sewers. I know a lot more now, but back then, I didn’t have a clue.


Adapted from A Prayer for Orion by Katherine James. Copyright (c) 2019 by Katherine James. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


About Katherine James
Katherine James holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she taught undergraduate fiction and received the Felipe P. De Alba fellowship. Her novel Can You See Anything Now? was longlisted for the Doris Bakwin prize and won Christianity Today’s award for best fiction of 2018. She has taught fiction at Columbia University, Festival of Faith and Writing, Making Literature Conference, Called to Write, and elsewhere. Katherine’s poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies, and one of her short stories was a finalist for a Narrative Spring Prize. A Prayer for Orion, her memoir about her son’s heroin overdose, was recently released by Intervarsity Press. You can read more about the author here.

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