Why do people become alcoholics? Is addiction a sin? Is it a disease? Why can’t alcoholics see their problem and help themselves? Why do family members frequently become as sick as the alcoholic? What about the role of Alcoholics Anonymous, treatment centers, and healing services?
One out of every ten drinkers are alcoholics. These people are from all walks of life. Their level of education, their profession, their ethnicity, their gender, their sexual preference, all have nothing to do with whether they cannot control their drinking. Many have jobs, a house, a wife, some degree of normal life. They get promoted, discover new diseases, fight crime as officers, save lives as paramedics, operate on brains as neurosurgeons. Some even teach our children in school or serve as den mothers at girl scouts. A recent news story reported on a chief of police who left a preliminary hearing in full uniform, driving a police cruiser, who was pulled over by state police and booked on DUI charges. He had a blood alcohol level of two times the legal limit.
Only five percent of alcoholics are what we call skid row bums. The rest are our neighbors. Some are born to alcoholic mothers. Alcohol abuse while pregnant is one of the most common causes of birth defects in the United States. Sadly, neither doctors, mental health professionals nor clergy are equipped to handle this growing problem of alcohol addiction. The average physician prescribes medication for anxiety or depression for his alcoholic patients. Psychiatrists and psychologists go to great lengths to uncover childhood traumas and Freudian alibis. Alcoholics gratefully accept any explanation that justifies their need for a drink. Why do some people become alcoholics while others are able to drink socially and not develop a problem? Obviously, not everyone who drinks alcohol is adversely affected. So the blame does not lie with the beverage itself.
Social drinkers, it is said, exercise self-control; alcoholics suffer from weakness of will. The average person will almost always say of an alcoholic, “I would never let myself go that far. What’s wrong with him?” Well perhaps the explanation lies with how the alcohol abuser was raised. Several factors can contribute to alcoholism. First, if excessive alcohol consumption was the norm in the home during the alcoholic’s formative years, he or she is more likely to abuse alcohol. Second, if the culture in which the alcoholic was raised did not look down on the consumption of alcohol, it is more common that the individual will abuse alcohol. Alcoholics seem more dependent, more anxious, more childish, more oral, more self-centered, and less self-controlled than non alcoholics.
The average social drinker, we have learned, develops a one-in-ten chance of developing an addiction to alcohol. With an alcoholic in the family tree, social drinking takes on a resemblance to Russian roulette. Alcoholism is an unconscious drift toward addiction. By the time the genetically susceptible drinker is aware that he is in trouble, it is too late. He is caught up in an addiction from which he cannot return without help. When we consider the subtle nature of addiction and the infinite value of every human life, uniquely created by God for his special purpose, those of us who drink and have alcoholism in our family tree must ask a sensible question: Is it worth it?
What separates cultures with high rates of alcoholism from those with low rates? The most important factor is intolerance for public drunkenness. When we examine American culture in light of this factor, the news is not encouraging. Americans habitually drink outside of meals and tolerate “party drunkenness” to such a degree that it is difficult to distinguish heavy drinkers from alcoholics. The connection between heavy drinking and addiction has profound implications not just for our society, but for each one of us individually.
The alcoholic is an individual who cannot predict when he will drink or how much he will drink. The alcoholic addict is no longer in control of his own will. His internal center for decision-making and free choice has been captured by alcohol and he is unable to choose not to drink. This fits with the concept in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that alcoholics lose the ability to choose. There comes a point when the drink chooses for him. It is tempting to dismiss alcoholism as a problem unique to weak-willed people, but the truth is that strong determination is no defense against addiction. Know this, that strong-willed alcoholics pursue their drinking with more aggressive methods. The euphoria that compels a heavy drinker to risk embarrassment serious accident is only a distant memory for the alcoholic. The constant physical agitation produced by his craving for alcohol combines with a paralyzing guilt and self-hatred to trap the alcoholic into a chronic state of mental anguish. The alcoholic, whether he consciously chooses to drink or not, inevitably finds himself intoxicated.
Alcoholism leads to a sickness of the mind and emotions. Very early in the addictive process, the alcoholic moves from anticipation to preoccupation with drinking. He no longer simply looks forward to drinking; he thinks about it all the time. His mental and emotional energies are almost completely directed at protecting his right to drink. He becomes irritable and defensive, and his mood can change from jubilant to euphoric to angry suspicion in a matter of minutes.
This brings me to an interesting point in the discussion. It is tempting to dismiss Christian alcoholics as hypocrites, but the guilt and shame they feel are far removed from the arrogant self-complacency condemned by Jesus. The spiritual anguish of the alcoholic is seldom redemptive. He may have repented from alcohol abuse more times than he can remember, but he cannot imagine life without alcohol. His confession, therefor, never leads to a changed life. His spiritual beliefs only increase his sense of condemnation and compel him to adopt increasingly extreme denial measures. This happened to me. Not only was I professing to be born-again, and therefor set free from the bondage of addiction, l was also teaching Bible study at the county prison. I spoke on deliverance and healing, but continued taking opiates.
There is no known cure for alcohol addiction. Alcoholism, like diabetes, is a progressive chronic disorder which can be controlled or arrested, but seldom cured. The fact that alcoholism is incurable is a stumbling block for some Christians. Members of AA who are Christians will often tell their Christian friends that they are a recovering alcoholic, only to be told that that is a “bad confession.” They try to convince the Christian alcoholic that he is not recovering, rather that he is healed. The Christian alcoholic needs to remember that he has been healed from the burning compulsion to consume alcohol, but he will always be one drink away from a drunk. Instant healing from addiction is no more common than instant healing from cancer, heart disease or diabetes.
Christian alcoholics have no trouble understanding the “Higher Power” as being Jesus Christ. AA will not damage a Christian’s faith. I heard it said once that AA won’t get you in to heaven, nor will it keep you out of hell. But it can keep you sober long enough to make up your own mind. Truly, a person first must be sober before he can hear or practice the Gospel. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous were careful to emphasize that they were operating only a “spiritual kindergarten.” Christians in recovery need to make sure they do not mistake the rescue boat for dry land. For the Christian, AA is an effective means to an end, and that end is not merely a program of recovery or fellowship with other alcoholics, but a sober life lived to the glory of God.