We continue to publish the materials of Spas TV program My Path To God where Priest George Maximov interviews people who converted to Orthodoxy. God led Kirill Akhmedov, the guest of today’s program, away from the dark abyss of drug addiction. This journey was not easy and simple, just like any struggle with sin is never easy and simple. To overcome his drug addiction Kirill had to attend several rehabilitation programs, including the first one that was organized by Neo-Pentecostals. Nowadays, Kirill works in the Orthodox Rehabilitation Center called Neugasimaya Nadezhda (Abiding Hope), helping those suffering from drug addiction. Today you will hear about his rehabilitation experience and his path to God (for without turning to God and getting His help all attempts to fight the addiction are bound to fail). You will also learn about the philosophy and activities of the Neugasimaya Nadezhda Rehabilitation Center.
Priest George Maximov: Hello. You’re watching “My Path To God”. Today our guest is a man who went through a very difficult ordeal and overcame his drug addiction. Of course, the topic of drug addiction may be disturbing for many people. If they learn that their loved one is a drug addict, the world collapses and they feel helpless, not knowing how to help. So today’s interview with Kirill Vyacheslavovich Akhmedov would be very useful for such people, because they will hear the true story of a man who found a way to overcome his addiction.
Kirill Vyacheslavovich, let’s start from the very beginning. How did you enter the world of drugs and how did the addiction develop?
Kirill Akhmedov: Speaking about the reasons for developing my addiction, we should probably mention the spiritual vacuum. I felt this vacuum from the very beginning and I tried to fill it with various “values”. These values made me want to join bad companies and use drugs that were the attributes of that way of life and those micro-social environments where I believed I would be comfortable. I thought that there I would be able to find my identity and become a stronger person.
Father George: You thought you would find your place under the sun and feel accepted.
Kirill Akhmedov: Yes. In the end, this spiritual vacuum was filled by drugs. I was giving away my self-preservation instincts, all my energy and my relationships with relatives and loved ones for the sake of filling this vacuum. I kept on doing this until I was absolutely alone.
Father George: Is it true that the habit or addiction develops quickly?
Kirill Akhmedov: The addiction is developed immediately, but when people use drugs they have a long-lasting illusion that everything is OK. I was using heroin for seven years and believed that I was OK and could quit whenever I wanted. This is what I can say about hard drugs. Before that, I used light drugs, like marijuana. Perhaps this all happened because my parents spent a lot of time at work, trying to build a bright future for me and make my life comfortable. This meant that I was left to my own devices and spent most of my time in the street. That is where the drugs were offered to me. Of course, I liked it. And this addiction slowly lasted till I was 25.
Father George: As I understand, at that time you were far from being religious?
Kirill Akhmedov: Yes. My relationship with God was a difficult journey full of my misunderstandings and keeping God away from my life, because I cherished my freedom, or what I thought was freedom, so much. I cherished my happiness and means for achieving this happiness, the way I thought was right. I did not want to let God into my life. Although I always knew that He was there. This was my grandmother’s influence—she taught me a little about religion. However, even though the seeds were sown, they would blossom only decades later after I suffered through so much. I was baptized when I was 14, simply because this was a tradition. A full understanding that I needed God in my life came to me only when I hit rock bottom.
Father George: You mentioned that for a long time you thought that you could stop taking drugs anytime you wanted. When did you understand that you were no longer the master of your life and couldn’t quit? Did you start fighting your addiction at that time or later? Was it initiated by you or by your relatives?
Kirill Akhmedov: You know, I attended my first rehabilitation program when I was 18. It was initiated by my parents. I thought that I was okay and that I could handle it. I simply didn’t understand why they were taking me there. I did not understand my disease and the complexity of my problem. I thought that since I was young and healthy I had enough strength to overcome it. Not everything was lost yet, so I had to hurry and live rather than waste my time in a rehabilitation center. Nevertheless, they took me to this center that was set up by a Neo-Pentecostal sect. It was chosen by my parents and they were far from being religious at that time. We even got our first icon only after my mother saw punctures in my veins. It is very symbolic, because I think that when a person realizes that nothing in this world can help him, that person turns to God. This helped my parents. Now they are gradually starting to lead the church-based life.
So, I got to the sectarian rehabilitation center and spent some time there. However, since I didn’t understand the complexity of my disease, I rejected everything I heard there. I wouldn’t say that I got to know Christ there or got to experience some spiritual world – everything simply went past me. I just followed the rules that were established there. So when I left the center, I started doing drugs again. I did not learn anything there, I simply spent some time without taking drugs. There were other reasons why I rejected everything there… My grandmother told me that I have to pray standing before icons and gave me the text of the Lord’s Prayer. I will come back to this prayer later, it helped me very much at one point. All they had in that center was fake smiles and strum-along songs or “praising the Lord” as they called it. This did not suit my mentality. Maybe that was the reason why everything went past me. In the end, I had another relapse. I was living in Tomsk at that time. I was born in Kemerovo, but my parents sent me to Tomsk so I would be far from my friends, my social circle and that way of life. So that I could start from a clean slate, so to say.
Father George: This seems logical.
Father George: Did you go there on your own initiative or…?
Kirill Akhmedov: Well, it was fifty percent the will of my parents and fifty percent my own will. I already understood that I couldn’t quit on my own. My parents really wanted me to go to that center. It was very symbolic that when we got the center, they were reading the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. We went into the church and everybody was on their knees. My pride, however, would not let me kneel. I thought, “I wish my father wouldn’t kneel, otherwise if I don’t kneel I’d stick out like a sore thumb.” But my father kneeled and I had to kneel too. This was the moment when I overcame my pride. It was my moment of humbleness before Christ. Maybe this was humbleness on the outside only, but I remembered it nevertheless.
While staying in Father Dionysius’s center, I partook of the Sacraments. I spend half a year there. I developed a certain rhythm of spiritual life and thought that I was ready to return to the society. However here too I was simply playing by the rules. My soul wasn’t touched.
Father George: Everything was on the outside only?
Kirill Akhmedov: I thought that by observing rituals and following certain rules I would trigger some kind of mechanism and everything would work. But I didn’t have Christ in my heart, so when I left the center, I started using drugs again. I was very mad at God then. I thought, “How can it be?! I do everything You tell me to do. Why is it happening again?” I didn’t think that I might not have lived to attend the second or even the first rehabilitation program. I didn’t think that He was saving for some reason. On my path to God, there were many such fateful moments. I overdosed several times, when I was alone and came to on my own. This happens very rarely, but it happened to me for some reason. And I thought, “Why, God?” I was already communicating with God, rather than thinking in a secular way. I thought, “God, why do you save me, even though I do many evil things. Why? What is my mission in this world?” Many young people die soon after they start using drugs. I buried many friends. So, I was thinking, “God, why do you keep saving me?"
After I left Father Dionysius’s center, I stopped partaking of the Sacraments right away, because all this was not natural for me. I was just living according to their rules. Eventually, I had a big crisis. I had a very bad row with my parents. My father stopped believing in me. He even told me, “If you die, we’d cry once, but won’t really mourn. We see you die every day and it is very hard for us.” I am thankful to him for these words and for being strict with me when he closed the doors before me. I was left alone with my problem. And when everybody turned away, I understood that nobody in this world could help me.
I already knew where to look for help and applied to another rehabilitation center. I was looking for an Orthodox one, because some relationship with Christ was already formed. The seeds were sown. So I went to this new center fully aware of the responsibility. I thought, “I need to work on all areas that are affected by my addiction, including social, biological and psychological aspects. But most of my time I have to dedicate to getting closer to God, for the closer I am to God, the farther away I am from the evil one and my addiction.”
Kirill Akhmedov: Yes, in this center it worked. I attended the rehabilitation program for a year. When they said that I could go back to the society, I thought that it was not enough. I understood that the fact that I got to know Christ will keep me sober, but I still yearned for more. I did experience His grace and wanted to lead a fuller church-based life. So I went to the St. George’s church in Ivanovskaya Province where rehabilitation programs were managed by monks. Abbot Methodius (now he is a bishop) and Fr. Silouan helped me change my understanding of freedom and happiness. I used to think that freedom was doing what you want, but this lead me to…
Father George: Lack of freedom. Addiction is the ultimate lack of freedom.
Kirill Akhmedov: Yes, drugs really started to control my life. I thought that I was free, but everything turned out to be different. I personally experienced these consequences of sin and disease. At some point, I understood that there were only two ways—the way to salvation and the way to perdition. There was no third option that I was always looking for, trying to find a way to be saved without God. But my last rehabilitation program and my experience of living in a monastery showed me how long the path you take with God is. It seems narrow only in the beginning, but later you encounter many things that make you feel joyous, helping you to be happy and enjoy the surrounding reality.
Father George: And give you freedom from sin and addiction. You mentioned that the Lord’s prayer helped you in a special way.
Kirill Akhmedov: Yes, of course. My grandmother once wrote it down for me on a piece of paper. I always carried it with me, I don’t know why. In difficult situations, I would read this prayer. I would open up that piece of paper and read. I even memorized it. So, this is what happened to me once. I was living in Tomsk, using drugs and leading a sinful way of life. You need to earn money to be able to afford drugs and typically, I would earn the money through crime. With my friend and fellow drug addict, we made many enemies. Once two cars cut us off. The young men in the cars told us to follow them. I was very scared. My hands started shaking because I understood that most likely they were going to kill us. Considering our actions and people whose paths we might have crossed, they were quite likely to kill us. I understood that nobody in this world could help me now. Nothing could happen to change the way the things were going. They took one of the guys from our car. I started praying. The Lord’s Prayer was the only prayer I knew. I started reciting it incessantly. I thought, “I will pray until something happens.” Time suddenly stopped. There was some kind of silence that made me feel safe. How will it all end? They will probably take us to some deserted area behind the garages or in the forest and kill us. But in the end, the guy who they took from the car came back laughing and said that that they simply took us for somebody else. I understood then that only God could have interfered to prevent the inevitable. It could not have been anybody else. There were many miracles like that in my life.
These miracles include my getting this job at the Neugasimaya Nadezhda Rehabilitation Center and meeting the manager of the center. I believe that these were the miracles that God sent to me. Thank God that I learned how to be thankful to Him for them.
Father George: How did you come to the decision to start working in the Rehabilitation Center? The way you describe your recovery is very familiar to other Christians. Blessed Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Indeed, many people who live according to their wishes feel inner emptiness and try to fill it with something else. Not necessarily with drugs. Some do shopping, which is also an addiction. Some have recourse to alcoholism, some succumb to fornication, some to lust for power. This is what people do to try to fill the emptiness in their hearts. But until they meet the Living God and start living their lives in Christ, their hearts remain empty and restless. You found your way, your life changed and gave you something that you could never even dream of. Why not keep it to yourself and enjoy your life? What moved you to start working with those who are only on the way to recovery?
Kirill Akhmedov: You know, after attending several rehabilitation programs I understood why many people couldn’t find the solution to their problem. Even during the rehabilitation, they do not understand what the most important thing in the program is. So they complete the program and then start doing drugs again. That was what happened to me. Who can explain it to them better than a person who actually experienced it? Rehabilitation experience is an important aspect, because the clients of our center trust us. They know that when I say something, I didn’t read about it in books. I lived through it all and felt it all. That is why I can understand them. I understand how they feel and what values they need in their lives, so I can tell them about the values that help me in my life and how I overcome certain obstacles. This is very important because personal experience or personal example is the path to success and a good remission.
You mentioned fornication, lust for wealth… You know, there are people who even during the rehabilitation program won’t let God into their hearts, but instead think that they have to make it in this life… I call this a “non-resource goal”. For example, you want an expensive car, so you complete the rehabilitation program and do everything to buy such a car, or get a good job or marry a beautiful girl. And when you achieve this goal, there’s nothing left for you in this world. While the path to Jesus Christ is a never-ending journey of self-improvement; it is the value that will be with you all your life, no matter what. Even if you’re left alone, God will protect you. And if you understand that, you will definitely be happy.
Father George: You mentioned that you attended a program in a Protestant Neo-Pentecostal center. I know that they had a rehabilitation program for drug addicts. I’m not sure if it is still active and if those centers still exist, but at some point they caused quite a stir with this program. Can you compare it to the Orthodox rehabilitation in your center and other Orthodox centers? What is the difference?
Kirill Akhmedov: You know, I think that Neo-Pentecostals put more efforts into preparing missionaries, so that you can use words effectively and think that you got a quote from the Scripture for every occasion. Naturally, everything is geared toward things that are beneficial for the Protestants. In Orthodox centers, the senior rehabilitation specialist is God our Lord, while we are just co-workers who simply show the way to recovery. By the way, the Orthodox Church developed a very good church-based rehabilitation and social adaptation program for drug addicts. It was developed by Bishop Methodius. This program helps many people to not only get rid of addiction, but also find God, improve their moral image and their quality of life, acquire new values and become better. It is important to note that the program is not lifeless and formalistic. I don’t know of any sect offering such a program.
Father George: What is the success rate in the center where you currently work? I understand that different people follow different paths, but to what extent do people achieve their goals in your center?
Kirill Akhmedov: If they follow our recommendations, they stay sober. However, another thing is more important: No matter how deep they studied their addiction, how many hours they spent with a psychologist or how detailed was the drug counsel’s explanation of their addiction, once they return to the society, all that understanding is gone very quickly. So if you don’t let Christ into your heart and strengthen that internal backbone that allows you to survive in this frenzied society, you will start using drugs again. Our goal is to help people find God, because if they find Him, it will be good for them and their family. Of course, there are people who want to complete the rehabilitation program and forget about everything: the addiction and all its sinful consequences. They want to forget everything, including rehabilitation, cross everything out and start from a clean slate. This is wrong. They should be grateful to the One that saved them. I think it would be correct and fair, because He saved them not only this time, He will keep saving them in the future. Moreover, He not only saves people, but also shows them a new way of life.
Father George: A new meaning.
Kirill Akhmedov: Yes. That is why we are trying to get our clients to partake of the Sacraments. Here personal experience plays an important role, because the people who spent more time in the rehabilitation program gain certain authority and the newcomers listen to them. So when the older guys tell them, “Try going to confession and communion. We tried it and it helped us. Maybe it will help you too”, they believe that they should do it too. Not fully understanding the profoundness of the Sacrament of Eucharist, they try it because of this advice. Many people then develop a certain rhythm of spiritual life and this helps them to rehabilitate. We also have people who are in a really bad shape. But if they work on themselves, trying to get better and create favorable environment for their recovery and recovery of their brothers, the success is guaranteed.
Father George: I think our viewers would like to know if Orthodox centers accept only those who call themselves Orthodox? Or will you also accept people who are far from being religious, but want to get better and are willing to follow the rules of the center?
Kirill Akhmedov: When people come to us, they want to quit using drugs. They don’t even know about God. They read that this is an Orthodox Center and think, “Well, it is good that it is Orthodox”. They think that their main objective is to overcome addiction, so that they don’t use drugs and feel better. Later, we explain to such people that to live a normal and happy life they need to let God in. And to let God in they need to repent, and this repentance will change their way of thinking. A certain personal effort and a moral aspect are important. All of this changes the person. As a rule, on the initial stage the motivation is simply to prevent drug-related deaths. That is why our program is broken down into several phases. The first phase is called “Find Yourself”. On this stage, the people evaluate themselves to see what kind of people they actually are, for many of their character traits are developed by the sinful way of life, i.e. by active use of drugs. They become ill-tempered and develop certain behavioral stereotypes, such as manipulation and dishonesty. All this has to be gradually removed, so the people can see themselves for who they really are.
The second phase of the program is called “Come to God”. On this stage, people start building their relationship with God and participating in the church life. Many people serve as sextons or readers and help in many other ways. For all great feasts, we try to bring our guys to church, because they need to understand that this is what will eventually make them happy and drug-free.
Father George: I think it is very important to emphasize that you did not succeed at first. Many people struggling with either drug or alcohol addiction give up if their first attempt to quit fails. Your example demonstrates that even if rehabilitation failed once or even twice, this doesn’t mean that you’ll fail if you continue fighting. You probably know other examples when people had a relapse after the first rehabilitation program but were cured with God’s help when they pulled themselves together and continued fighting.
Kirill Akhmedov: Your comment about giving up is correct. Usually a drug addict either considers himself or herself hopeless and thinks, “That’s it, I will continue using drugs until I die because nothing can help me.” or unreasonably hopes for some supernatural force, as in “I will continue using drugs until some unknown force gets me out of it.” These two thoughts justify the addiction in the affected person’s mind. When such people come to us, we try to bring these psychological barriers down. People should not live in sin. They can hope for the better, and here and now they must receive treatment, improve the quality of their lives and rejoice. God doesn’t want us to grieve all the time. On the contrary, he tells us, “Rejoice!” (cf. Matthew, 28:9).
Father George: Here it is worth to remember the words of St. Athanasios the Great who said, “God created us without us, but He cannot save us without us.” This means that for our salvation from sins we need to make efforts to demonstrate that our desire to get rid of the sinful addiction is serious. It’s this principle: Unless we fight for it, we won’t be able to maintain the results of our victory. Easy come, easy go. Of course, it is God who saves us, but we have to make efforts to show that we are willing to change ourselves. That is when the divine succor is given. And if you don’t do anything yourself, then you basically reject the divine succor.
Kirill Akhmedov: Yes. Sometimes, people leave our center and say, “No, I don’t need God.” But after a while, their addiction and all its consequences push such people against the wall so hard, that they come back and gradually start reading the Law of God. This relapse motivates them to understand their mistakes. It is a moment of repentance and recognizing your own helplessness. Only when people realize that they can’t handle it on their own, they start asking for help. As it is said, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. (James, 4:6). So, to build your relationship with God you need to humble yourself a bit.
Father George: God doesn’t force Himself upon anybody. He gave us freedom. When people use this freedom for sinful purposes, God does not interfere. People think, “We will decide what we need. We will handle everything ourselves and we can achieve everything ourselves. We do not need God.” And God says, “Well, if you want to do it yourselves, that is fine.” So, following in that direction, people finally reach a dead end and realize that in reality they do not control anything and that they are enslaved by sin. If at that point instead of choosing despair people choose humbleness, they find the way of…
Kirill Akhmedov: Repentance.
Father George: Yes, repentance. What would you recommend to friends and relatives of drug addicts? What is the correct way to behave with them?
Kirill Akhmedov: They can pray for their children and relatives. However, if they are not competent in the issue, it is better to let the professionals deal with it. That is, friends and relatives should only pray. Let the Orthodox Centers deal with the problem, ask the priests for help. Nowadays, many priests know where to refer people with such problems. I am happy to see the Church being more and more involved in the rehabilitation programs and getting fairly successful results.
Father George: Is it easy to be admitted in your center, for example? Do you accept everybody, or is there a waiting list?
Father George: I remember several years ago there were scandals with some secular rehabilitation centers where the people were allegedly held against their will. Do you practice this in your center?
Kirill Akhmedov: No, Orthodox centers do not use this method. God respects people’s choices and we have no right to decide the fate of a person using physical methods. We can only recommend. If you want to leave the center, we don’t stop you. If you want to go the way that leads to perdition, we will warn you about the consequences and try to work on your motivation. But the choice—to stay in the center or leave—is up to you. There are centers in Russia where people are held against their will, but they are not Orthodox. I can’t say whether they are useful or not. Maybe some people do need this kind of treatment. But I personally believe that staying in the center should be a personal choice. Why keep somebody against their will? I know this based on my own experience. When I was with Neo-Pentecostals, I didn’t absorb any external information. The situation with such centers will be the same, the people would just spend time behind the fence without understand anything and would start using drugs again after completing the program. God is love and we treat our clients with love. This is a key moment. The feelings of family, trust and compassion are the feelings that we try to cultivate among the people in our community.
Father George: Thank you very much for your story. I remind our viewers [in Russia] that if—God forbid—they have the problem we discussed today, they can call the Neugasimaya Nadezhda Center. Keep it in mind it and call, if necessary. God save you!