The Rev. Caroline Pyle, an Episcopal priest and former high school teacher, always knew about alcoholism. Her mother and father were alcoholics. Many students at the suburban high schools where she'd taught used drugs and drank heavily after school and on weekends. Pyle thought she was aware of the problems of substance abuse and addiction.
Then, last summer, Pyle discovered her 17-year-old son was an alcoholic and drug addict.
Pyle and her son, Howard, talked about living the reality of drug abuse and addiction at a forum held this week in the Washington Cathedral to introduce clergy and lay members to "The Hidden Drug Problem in Ward Three."
"In this area, people are able to handle their drug problem in a private way," said the Rev. Canon Kwasi Thornell of the cathedral. "People think that since we don't have violence in the streets and we don't have drugs on the streets, we don't have a problem. But we know that is not the case."
In the five-hour forum, recovering addicts, their relatives, physicians and social workers discussed drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, and how clergy members can help with the problem.
Panelists answered questions about why they turned to drugs and alcohol and how friends, relatives and their faith helped in their recovery. The meeting was sponsored by the Interfaith Conference, which includes Moslems, Jews, Mormons, Protestants, Catholics and Sikhs.
Ward 3 was the focus because middle- and upper-class communities often are ignored in the media's coverage of the drug problem, said Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the Interfaith Conference.
"Kids here can have as much alcohol as could ever be available," said Pyle, who lives in Ward 3. Often, they get alcohol from their parents, she said.
"Parents think their kids are drinking a few beers when actually it's a few six-packs," Pyle said.
Young people may use alcohol and drugs to escape intense pressure to achieve -- pressure that comes from their parents and teachers, said Pyle, a staff member at St. Albans School in Northwest Washington. These students have very low self-esteem, Pyle said. "They never seem to be able to do enough, get enough, please enough."
Howard Pyle agreed. "Drugs were a way for me to turn the world into what I wanted it to be," he said.
He said he started taking "downers" in the sixth grade and was an alcoholic by the eighth grade. "I also took marijuana and LSD. Last summer, I started taking crack," Pyle said. "It's prominent in this ward."
To start addressing drug and alcohol addictions in their congregations and their communities, religious leaders must stop denying that a problem exists, said the Rev. Lewis Anthony, pastor of Varick Memorial AME Zion Church in Southeast Washington.
"There is a deception that the drug problem is a black problem -- that it's reserved in certain areas," said Anthony.
"Many people in your congregations probably have a drug problem. But they never hear a sermon about the drug problem," he said.
Instead of ignoring members of the congregation who are suffering silently from addiction, Anthony said, religious leaders should deliver this message: "God's house is just like a bar. When you go to a bar everyone is welcome. The bartender will listen and makes no judgments," Anthony said.
Knowing that there is someone to turn to is important, said Christopher Simpson, a recent graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School. "There are some nights when I'd love to have a drink," said Simpson, a recovering alcoholic. "But I know that I can just call up someone in the church and just talk for hours," said the 18-year-old Mormon.
Family support and a faith in God helped her recover from a two-year addiction to prescription drugs, Shirley Pierson said.
"People are afraid. They say, 'I can't live without my sleeping pills,' " said Pierson, 56, who lives in Ward 3. She started a support group for prescription drug addicts that encourages recovery through a spiritual belief.