Q & A with Sr. Mary Ellen Merrick, addiction counselor

by Dawn Araujo-Hawkins

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In 1983, after overcoming her own struggles with alcohol, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Mary Ellen Merrick became an addiction counselor. Today, she is the executive director of women's services at Guest House, a residential addiction treatment facility in Lake Orion, Michigan, for priests and religious.

Earlier this fall, Merrick talked to Global Sisters Report about her personal story and why it's important for women religious to be educated about addiction in all its forms.

GSR: You became an addiction counselor after getting treatment for your own alcoholism. Can you tell me more about that?

Merrick: In my first 15 years of ministry, I taught seventh and eighth grade. Midway through there, I started using alcohol and didn't realize my whole family's disposition set me up for developing alcoholism. And I did very quickly. So I have a history of about eight or 10 years with it.

I finally approached my community — not because of any virtue, but because of how awful I felt — and I asked for help. So I went to an away treatment center in Blairstown, New Jersey — Alina Lodge, an excellent, excellent facility. At the time, there was nothing for sisters, as far as treatment was concerned. I was there for three months and learned just so much — not just about the illness of addiction, but also about myself personally. I was fortunate in that I was only 28 years old, so I had really the rest of my life to spend in recovery, and it really changed the course of what I did professionally.

My community had plans for me to get a master's degree in school administration to become a full-time principal, and I just felt pulled in another direction. That started a dialogue between myself and my leadership, and I said, 'I will become a principal, but I don't want to go to school for it, because that's not where I see myself continuing.' I requested to go to school for addiction training and full counseling training. Much to my surprise, after about two years, they granted me a full year of study at Loyola College of Maryland in the clinical pastoral counseling program.

You often talk about addiction as being a spiritual problem. Why do you see it that way?

If we go back into some of the early documents of the [Alcoholics Anonymous] founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob [Smith], they talked about the progression of addiction and how pervasive it is in making inroads in a person's life. They said it starts with the spiritual, then proceeds to the emotional life and, lastly, it starts to show up physically.

The thing that separates us from the rest of God's creation is that spiritual core. I believe we come from God's heart, and our whole journey on Earth is the journey back to God's heart. That should be our focus, and addiction gets people fully off-track. So they start to lose their relational life with themselves, with others and with their God. Recovery is putting all of that back together again. But full recovery doesn't really happen unless whatever is spiritual — not religious — in the person comes to life again. 

Do you think it's harder for religious and clergy to talk about addiction? I mean, they're often held to such a high standard of holiness, I think it would perhaps be harder for them to publicly admit they are struggling.

I think it certainly makes it more challenging in the sense of facing it. Clergy and religious are probably held to one of the highest standards that exists because there's this tremendous misperception that somehow we're supposed to have it all together, that our humanness isn't affected in the same way as everybody else's — even that our relationship with our God can be affected. But it happens all the time.

What the addiction did in my life was kind of numb me to my relationship with my God — to the point that before I got help, I was starting to question whether or not I had made the right life choice or not. But had I left at that point, it would have been a tremendous mistake. I know that today. But I couldn't find God anymore because of the alcohol. But in the lay treatment center, the other women would say to me, when they would be talking about their difficulty with God, 'But this doesn't affect you. This isn't your issue.' And I was too embarrassed to say, 'Yes, it is. It's my issue, too.'

That's why here, in a treatment center like Guest House, where the priests and the brothers and the sisters can freely talk about these concerns without being judged or people being shocked, it's freeing for them to say, 'I talk about God to people, but I am just as lost as some of the people I'm talking to.' It boils down to being a human being before anything else. They're human beings and they can have the same struggles and the same periods of darkness that anybody else has.

We read about the saints having what we refer to as 'dark nights of the soul.' That's what we're talking about here; there are periods where people are affected by different things, but addiction is the leading cause of people losing sight. They stop praying, they stop doing all the personal things that would enhance any relationship, but especially their relationship with their God.

What types of addiction do you treat at Guest House?

We do two types: substance, which is ingested, and process, which is external. So, substance abuse would be certainly alcohol and other drugs. Also food. What we're seeing a rising tendency in is prescription pain medicine. A lot of people get into prescription pain medicine and feel it's perfectly fine because the doctor has ordered it.

The process addictions that we're looking at are gambling, Internet, spending — which includes credit cards — and shopping. Also cluttering and hoarding. Hoarding is becoming a concern of a lot of communities, both for the men and the women. For example, we had a woman a couple months ago who had thousands and thousands of greeting cards. Thousands. And all of them were important to her, and we had to work with her to kind of sort out which ones do you want to keep and which ones can we get rid of. Because she had boxes of them, and the boxes were taking over other rooms in the convent. 

Now, a lot of these activities excite the same area of the brain that the substances do — the pleasure center. Think of a person who's lonely and watches QVC all the time and just orders things. The adrenaline starts and people buy things and then, the next day, they take them back. They don't even need them. But it's that momentary, 'I feel good once I've done this.' And then there's a letdown.

Maybe this is a silly question, but how does someone who lives in community hide a shopping or spending addiction?

You would wonder, right? It happens with sisters, priests and brothers who live singly, and it happens with those who live with others in a communal situation. You could be in a house and not know what's going on with the people you're living with. However, it could also be that the only person who knows what's going on is the treasurer for the house, although it may take a while. Because if I'm not in healthy shape, I can cushion my budget and request money masked as other things. And this is where the addiction can take over the person's ability to be honest with himself or herself and with the community.

What does treatment at Guest House look like?

We first do an assessment of the person because we don't assume that we're the right place for everybody. We look at them physically, we look at them spiritually and we look at them psychologically. We also want to see if there's been trauma of any kind that is unresolved. We want to see if there's any mental health issues that might be contributing — a lot of people are depressed and are using alcohol to feel better. Sometimes that's alcoholism, and sometimes it's just self-medicating.

We look at nutrition because typically people are not eating very well. We do some psych testing, and if they're on any psychotropic medicines, they will see our consultant psychiatrist. Because sometimes they've been on medications for years and years and it's not doing them a bit of good at this point, because they have plateaued. At the end of the assessment, we put all of that together and say to the person and his or her leadership, 'This is what it looks like to us. And based on this, this is what we would recommend, XYZ.'

If we recommend Guest House, our program involves lectures and therapy group. There's a spirituality group once a week. There are also individual counseling sessions. We have yoga and tai chi, and we also have physical therapy right here on the campus. They go out to 12-step meetings — any variety of 12-step meetings, depending on the issue. So it's a busy schedule. Mass is part of our schedule, but it's optional because some people have issues with their God or with their church. Some people have to work their way back into that.

And then the nutrition. We do control the nutritional intake, and they learn how to do some cooking. Our nutritionist will do some hands-on culinary things with them as well as teach them how to read labels. They'll go the grocery store and learn how to shop in a healthy way. Our dietary staff works with our nutritionist, and our menus — both in appearance and taste — are superb. We give them a disc of menus when the go home, so they can continue it if they want to.

We have a capacity at this point for 16 to 18 men and 10 to 14 women, and our men and women can stay as long as they need to stay. The average stay for the women is five months, which is a luxury. 

What can congregations do to support brothers or sisters with addiction?

Leadership is elected for lots of reasons, but knowledge about addictive illness is usually not on the criteria list. We have a workshop that we have been doing more than 20 years called 'Walking with the Wounded,' and we offer it free of charge to women's leadership.

It's a three-day educational experience right here on the campus of Guest House. The only responsibility that the women leaders have is their transportation. If they fly into Detroit, we'll pick them up and take them back. They stay in the Scripps Mansion, and they're in the milieu with us. They're eating with the clients and talking about the experience. Many times, by the end of the three days, the women are saying, 'We had no idea about this.'

We try to give them the background information so they will pay attention when they hear certain things, because usually somebody in the congregation will go to leadership and say, 'I have a concern about so and so.' We want them to call Guest House if they're asking, 'Could this be? Could this be?' Because we want to get assistance to their women faster.

Guest House also has online courses on addiction, right?

We have courses through Essential Learning that people can take. Depending on what you're looking for, there's a nominal fee, and they're about an hour in length. We're only going to keep them perhaps for another year, because we're paying to provide them, but we're not getting a lot of response.

Why do you think the courses haven't been more popular?

People don't think about addiction until it enters their life or the life of someone they are concerned about. It's the country's number-one health problem, and yet it's one of the things that people shy away from.

What advice would you give to men and women religious who either think they may have an addiction or that someone they know has an addiction?

If you have a question or concern or wonderment about yourself, call some place like Guest House or St. Luke Institute — someplace that deals with addiction. You can do that anonymously. Usually, when a question like that arises in a person, it's because it's coming from someplace. I think their inner self is trying to say, 'Hey, there's something going on here. Pay attention here.'

Addiction illness is a primary illness; it's not secondary to anything else. It's progressive — it only gets worse. If it's truly an addictive illness, it's chronic, it's not acute. It doesn't have a distinct beginning, middle and end. And if not intervened upon, it's fatal just like other primary, progressive, chronic potentially fatal illnesses. But this one, perhaps, has the best prognosis of all of them once a person gets in touch with what's going on and has a strategy for dealing with it.

In this year of consecrated life, I am telling groups that clergy and religious need to be as healthy as possible. Not only as individuals, but also as communities. And if anything is going to get in the way of that, addictive illness will. 

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is staff writer for Global Sisters Report, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter: @dawn_cherie.]