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Doctoral student examines religious, spiritual aspects of addiction recovery

By Melissa Gilstrap | Emory Report | May 2, 2017

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Having seen the destruction of addiction as a minister and in her own family, Katie Givens Kime focused her PhD research at the intersection of two of Emory's strengths: human health and religion. Emory Photo/Video

Katie Givens Kime, like so many graduates of the Laney Graduate School, had a unique pathway to Emory — from her hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she majored in communication; from New York City, where she earned her M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary, to parish ministry in New York and Atlanta after being ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

But it was Kime’s observation of addiction and its associated implications in the lives of those it touches that sparked an intense interest in addiction recovery research. 

“In parish ministry, and in my own family-of-origin, I experienced the destruction of addiction — for individuals, and for the families and communities affected by them, as well as the hope many recovery pathways offer,” Kime says.

As she began exploring PhD programs, Emory’s Laney Graduate School emerged as a natural choice. “I came to Emory knowing I wanted to delve into questions at the intersection of psychology and religion, and in the Laney Graduate School’s Graduate Division of Religion, I knew I would have an abundance of resources and freedom to do this work," she says.

Once at Emory, Kime immediately began taking advantage of the university's interdisciplinary strengths and resources, leading to her dissertation, "Higher Power, Brain Power:  An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis of the Spiritual and Religious Characteristics of 12-Step Recovery Programs in the Context of the Brain Disease Model of Addiction."

“My project investigates the religious and spiritual characteristics of addiction recovery, right at the crossing of two of Emory’s strengths: human health and religion," Kime explains. 

Spirituality and recovery 

As part of her research, Kime followed a small group of North American adults in recovery, tracking their constructions of their experiences and etiologies of addiction. Kime was surprised at the findings her research began to uncover.

“I was amazed and curious to find that an inverse relationship between spirituality and substance abuse consistently characterizes the research findings in addiction studies across medical and social scientific literature," she says.

This finding matched Kime’s observation that “Alcoholics Anonymous, and program variations derived from it, explicitly consider themselves to be spiritual fellowships and are vastly more utilized by North Americans struggling with addiction than all other treatment methods combined.”

Despite the prevalence of these recovery methods, Kime was perplexed to discover that spiritual and/or religious aspects of addiction recovery are largely absent in both national policies and addiction research, and unevenly present in public conversations.

She partially attributes this absence to the rising domination of the brain disease model of addiction in popular discourse and in research funding. 

 “No investigations have yet explored the impact of this shift on spiritual and religious characteristics of recovery," she says. "This oversight matters, because it further fragments addiction research into isolated components that too often fail to attend to the lived experiences of people living with addictions.”

Next steps

Her graduate studies behind her, Kime will soon take her research passions and the skillsets she has honed at Emory beyond the U.S. borders, as she prepares to move to Switzerland with her spouse, Haddon, and their eight-year-old daughter, Abby. She has accepted a four-year postdoctoral research and teaching position as assistant professor of religion and psychology at the University of Bern.

Kime graduates with a sense of optimism about the future.

“I cannot imagine I will ever tire of listening to the inspiring stories of people who have sustained years of recovery from addiction. All of us have so much to learn from people in recovery, however they managed to find it," she says. "Not only is addiction one of the most pressing global health crises, it also makes clear how human health is best understood when we look at economic and social factors, and through interdisciplinary insights from religion and theology, and psychoanalysis, and neuroscience.”

Indeed, Kime credits Emory as being a destination university for this kind of research.

“I don’t necessarily think we can link together medical, biological, social, psychological and religious factors like train cars, and finally find a complete picture of something as complex as addiction — it probably won’t be as orderly as that," she says. "But Emory might be the best existing research context for that kind of inquiry.” 

Kime’s graduate experience is an example of the interdisciplinary excellence that the Laney Graduate School is keen to provide. 

“At the Laney Graduate School, we always say that we are training tomorrow’s intellectual leaders today,” says Dean Lisa Tedesco. “The advanced, interdisciplinary work that Katie Givens Kime is doing is a reflection of our mission to provide broadly based, excellent graduate education that supports the research and scholarship of students, faculty and the university as a whole.”

“Katie has been an outstanding graduate student," Tedesco notes, "and I look forward to seeing where her curiosity, her optimism and her ambitions take her next.”