Alcohol Addiction: Hope for Understanding and Recovery


Our family recently attended church in a nearby community. We enjoyed the meetings, but during the children’s activities in Primary, something happened that was interesting yet disturbing to me.

During singing time, the chorister innocently passed out a piece of candy to each child and instructed them, “This is a singing pill I’m passing out. After you all finish eating, you will be able to sing extra loud and pretty.”

Sure enough, it worked: singing time was a great success. But I worry about the subtle, unintentional lesson taught.

We live in a drug-oriented culture that has produced a host of commonly used and abused drugs—aspirin, remedies for colds and acid indigestion, nicotine, marijuana, alcohol, heroin—pills to pick us up, bring us back down, and solve all our problems. People in such cultures have come to believe that no one should suffer any pain or discomfort and that every problem in life, even learning to sing, can be solved with a few grains of powder, a drink of something, or a pill.

For an example, let’s look at some statistics for the USA which give us an idea of the dimensions of the problem for other nations.

Aspirin is consumed in enormous quantities. In 1978, Americans spent approximately $600 million for 17,000 tons of aspirin. That’s more than 25,000 tablets per minute and would require 850 huge trucks to transport. Like aspirin, most drugs have a useful and intended purpose; but when misused, they can lead to serious negative consequences.

Illegal drugs and the abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs are a serious health threat. But the greatest drug problem of all lies in alcohol consumption.

In 1979, Americans spent $83,000 per minute on alcoholic beverages. That same year, approximately $61 billion, or $116,000 per minute, was spent to pay for the damages or losses created by those who drink. These costs reflect such things as lost production, vehicle accidents, health and medical costs, crime, social programs, and fire losses.

Also in 1979, 25,000 automobile fatalities, one-third of all self-inflicted deaths, and one-half of all homicides were alcohol-related. Public drunkenness accounted for about one million arrests, and 60 percent of the people in county jails were in for alcohol-related offenses. What’s more, of the estimated 10 to 12 million American alcoholics, nearly half a million are teenagers.

These statistics only partially reflect the cost of alcohol in heartache, broken homes, and destroyed souls. Elder Milton R. Hunter summed it up well when he said, “The devil has never found a better tool in the history of the world to destroy the happiness in human beings than liquor.” (Vital Quotations, comp. Emerson Roy West, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968, p. 10.)

What does any of this have to do with members of the Church, all of whom are counseled to avoid alcohol?

Although the percentage of Church members who drink is smaller than among the general population, there are brothers and sisters who do act contrary to the Word of Wisdom and choose to drink, often to the serious detriment of themselves and their families.

In my work, I have encountered many Church members in the saddest of circumstances. One man who had a serious alcohol problem said to me, “I’ve lost my wife. After pleading with me to no avail to stop, she has divorced me and now I’m alone. No one can depend on me anymore—my business associates, my family. I’ve lost respect for myself. I’ve lost everything.”

Another said, “Even after wrecking two cars and submitting my family to extreme financial burdens because of my drinking, I wouldn’t admit that I was drinking too much and refused to go for help.”

One sister in tears reported, “I’m afraid to go home. Repeatedly, my husband has come home drunk and severely beaten me or one of the children. How much longer can we live like this? I love him and want him to get better. Please help me.”

What is the solution? Can friends, family members, or anyone else do anything helpful when drinking by a loved one begins to destroy important and meaningful relationships?

Although there is no single answer for every situation, understanding the following principles and guidelines may help.

People drink for a reason

At first a person might try alcohol for any of a dozen different reasons—curiosity, rebellion, peer pressure, or media influence, to mention just a few. However, the process that leads to habitual drinking usually includes the following steps:

1. A person discovers the short-term pleasure of alcohol use. The initial effect of alcohol on the body is usually a feeling of well-being or euphoria. It helps one to relax and alleviate tension, to be more spontaneous, uninhibited, and friendly (as perceived by the drinker). It’s a change from the routine. In this stage of addiction, the drinker might be heard to say, “How can anything so good be wrong?” or “Why didn’t someone tell me about this a long time ago?” or “Look! I made it home. No harm done. Even the headache is worth it.” Unfortunately, many of the ill effects of drinking don’t develop for some time—and herein lies the cruel deception of alcohol.

2. The person seeks the continued short-term pleasure of drinking. Alcohol is effective in creating short-term pleasurable reactions time and again; therefore, opportunities to drink are sought out. As drinking continues, the person may also discover that such emotional pains as loneliness, rejection, fear, inadequacy, or failure are temporarily lost in the sedation created by alcohol. Since these painful feelings return with soberness, the need to drink again is reinforced.

3. The drinker’s body develops a tolerance for alcohol. Eventually, one finds that one must drink more and more to create the same desired effect. At this stage, a person may openly boast about how much he can consume and how well he can hold his liquor.

4. The drinker develops a dependency on alcohol. The person now moves to the point where he or she can’t function without alcohol; activities can’t be completed unless alcohol has been consumed.

5. The drinker begins to suffer negative effects. Because of the frequency and amounts of alcohol now being consumed, the inevitable negative consequences now begin to be quite noticeable. Productivity at work may decrease. Family relationships begin to seriously suffer. Perhaps a car is wrecked, something foolish is said or done during intoxication, a jail sentence or fine is levied, or a spouse or child is abused.

6. The drinker suffers emotional or psychological pain. Because of the impact from that described above, self-esteem is lost, feelings of remorse and guilt become common, and the drinker begins to suffer intense emotional pain.

7. The person now drinks to escape the pain caused by drinking. Sadly, past drinking experiences have effectively taught him that the way to alleviate pain is to drink again, and so the pattern continues. The victim finds himself caught in a vicious cycle, spiraling downward. What began as a sense of euphoria is now a nightmare of psychological pain coupled with severe physical reactions when alcohol is not consumed. The person is frequently depressed, may think of suicide, feel total despair and hopelessness—yet, ironically, he or she continues to think of alcohol, the very cause of the problem, as the only means of escape.

Although the drinker does not readily accept help from anyone, it’s almost impossible for him to break out of this cycle until he gets help from friends, family members, and the Lord.

Some attempts to help can make the problem worse

Unfortunately, well-intentioned behavior of concerned family members, friends, employers, and others frequently contributes to the problem.

Consider, for example, the case of one Latter-day Saint couple I worked with, John and Susan.

Several years after they were married, John began to drink. Susan, because of her love for him, tried everything she could think of to make him stop. She would hide his liquor or his wallet and try to keep him away from drinking friends. Repeatedly when he came home drunk she explained away his unusual behavior to others. She would call his boss and make excuses: “John has a touch of the flu. I’m afraid he can’t come to work today.” She also began lying to the children, saying, “Dad’s just having trouble at work and is under a lot of pressure.” When John was finally jailed for drunken driving, Susan immediately ran to his aid and bailed him out, only to find that on the way home John had to stop for a drink to calm down.

The children soon realized what was going on. Because of the pressure at home they stopped bringing friends over, and they protected their father by covering up or making excuses for his behavior.

Susan was also ashamed to go to the bishop. How could she possibly tell him that John was drinking?

This story, or one similar to it, is re-enacted over and over. And a surprising number of people may get involved. The bishop may step in to provide meals and clothing when family resources are depleted. Friends at work may cover up or assume extra responsibilities so that men like John won’t lose their jobs. Employers may ignore shoddy performance or give the person repeated chances because they feel it would be unchristian to fire him: “What would happen to his family if I did?”

These behaviors usually prove to be destructive. They shield a person from the consequences of his behavior and make it convenient for him to continue drinking. After all, as John put it, “Someone will come to my rescue. Besides, if they had my problems they would drink too.”

One of the first steps in helping families like John and Susan’s is to reach Susan and the others involved and help them eliminate those elements of their supportive behavior that make the problem worse. They have to learn how to exercise “tough love,” which I define as doing what has to be done even though it hurts, or not doing something for others that they should do for themselves.

“Tough love” isn’t always easy. It isn’t easy to break the silence and confront a loved one in a firm spirit of love and helpfulness. It can be extremely painful for a woman to leave her husband all night in the chair where he passed out, and to make him clean up after himself in the morning. It’s hard for children to say to their friends, “Mom’s drunk,” instead of covering up for her.

And it’s hard to always be sure of yourself when you’re dealing with someone who has become expert at shifting responsibility to others. As a matter of survival, drinkers become expert manipulators. John, for example, manipulated Susan into believing that it was her fault that he drank. “If only I’d married someone who wasn’t such a nag,” he said. “All you do is spend money. Why can’t you ever clean up the house or have dinner on time? It’s no wonder I have to drink.”

Susan began to believe this and would go out of her way to cook the meals on time, keep the children quiet, clean the house, and be frugal so that John wouldn’t be upset. She was hurt inwardly and became more and more resentful—until she learned what he was actually doing. When it was impressed upon her that one person can’t make another become a problem drinker, she began to take control of her feelings and was thus able to avoid manipulation and the bitterness that sometimes follows such manipulation.

One way or another, a drinker must assume responsibility for (in other words, suffer the consequences of) his negative behavior before he or she can be motivated to change.

Negative attitudes about those who drink also contribute to the problem

Unfortunately, the very teachings that instruct the Saints not to drink may set the stage for our development of harmful attitudes about those who fall into the alcohol trap. Harsh opinions, injudicious labeling of the drinker, and misunderstandings about alcohol and what it does to people commonly interfere with our ability to help.

Consider the rejection John felt when he attended a Church activity and a couple nearby got up and moved because they could smell liquor on his breath. This doesn’t always happen, of course; but when it does happen, the hurt felt by a person like John can be intense. He needs to be helped, not ignored.

I have discovered that we can be helpful to another when we view the drinker as a child of God with the same eternal worth as any other person, but one who has a disease and needs appropriate help. This is a time when love, concern, and acceptance are needed more than at any other time.

Let’s compare John’s experiences with those of a Latter-day Saint teenager named David.

In open defiance and rebellion against his father, David stole the family car. Succumbing to the excitement of high speed, he failed to negotiate a turn, rolled the car several times, and was critically injured. Fortunately, those who were riding with him received only minor injuries.

The family and ward members fasted and prayed for David’s recovery. He was given a special blessing by his home teachers and was visited often in the hospital. Even the other young men in the accident and their parents visited and expressed hope for his recovery. Although David was left somewhat crippled and scarred, he recovered and everyone thanked the Lord for preserving his life.

David had made a serious mistake, but he received the support he needed at a critical time in his life. John’s experience was much different, however. When John finally acknowledged that he needed help and was admitted to a local drug and alcohol treatment center, only his wife visited him. Ward members did not fast and pray for his recovery. He was not given a special priesthood blessing. And when he returned from the center, he met with apprehension, uncertainty, and doubt that he could stay sober.

I have learned that pure love, personal fellowship, and increased understanding can bless the lives of those suffering the effects of alcohol as much as they can bless the lives of those suffering other problems.

It is critical to never give up

Perhaps the hardest part of being supportive to a problem drinker in his struggle to overcome alcoholism is learning to take relapses in stride. Recovery takes time, and usually there are setbacks and disappointments. Often there is a great temptation to simply give up—to feel that all your hopes have been wasted and that all progress has been for naught.

The difficult thing is to maintain perspective—to be able to stand back mentally and view the problem from a position of control, instead of feeling mentally trapped in narrow confines with nowhere to turn. Family members must learn to relax and to accept small improvements, always maintaining hope that this family problem can be overcome, and sharing that hope with one another. Of course, they must continually seek divine help. The Lord can bless us with insight far beyond our own, and increased testimony of the gospel can give us strength to endure.

Patience and perseverance will help the family to continue in love and encouragement after a relapse instead of being demeaning and discouraging.

This does not mean that we will always be successful in influencing a loved one to stop drinking. The principles still apply, though. And if the problem drinker is unable to solve his problem, at least our own lives will be improved.

Seeking help early is the best chance for cure

A great deal of heartache can be avoided if nondrinking family members will get early help. It is important that everyone involved take the initiative to learn all they can about alcohol, the process of addiction, and the ways in which family members and others unintentionally contribute to continued drinking.

For non-drinking family members there are (in the USA) Alanon and Alateen groups, counseling centers (both public and private), special drug and alcohol centers, and, of course, the resources of the Church. Potential resources include home teachers, quorum leaders, the bishop, and other concerned priesthood and Relief Society leaders, as well as LDS Social Services, and members who are reformed drinkers.

For the drinker, in addition to the above resources, there are Alcoholics Anonymous groups, hospital programs, special drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, detoxification centers, and other similar resources. It is vital to know that in many cases recovery without professionally conducted detoxification is virtually impossible. Help for alcohol-related problems is available in most communities if affected families seek assistance.

Application of the above guidelines, although challenging, has given many families a meaningful course to follow and has led to some beautiful experiences. Seeing a person overcome an alcohol problem and watching a family unite once again is a wonderful thing, as the following experience demonstrates:

Sam, to be part of a group, began drinking relatively early in life. As he put it, “Once alcohol got hold of me I just couldn’t control my drinking, and yet I was unwilling to admit I had a problem. After several years of rapidly deteriorating health, a couple of wrecked cars, and near financial ruin, my wife decided she had to get help. Prayer and personal discussion with others finally convinced her to help me take responsibility for my behavior and enroll in a rehabilitation program.

“Even though I took a drink to get the courage to go, I finally reported to a local drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic. My wife faithfully attended counseling and group meetings with me. Slowly I began to realize I wasn’t the only one with problems and that maybe I could lick this one. I had a couple of relapses, but now I’ve been sober for nearly fifteen years.

“I thank the Lord for a wife who had the courage to do what had to be done to make me realize the seriousness of my problem and accept help. It is special to me that she was willing to stand beside me as I struggled. We’re progressing in the gospel, and our family has been to the temple at last. I thank the Lord that I came to my senses before it was too late.”

The Lord’s declaration that “the worth of souls is great” and that “great shall be [our] joy” if we bring “save it be one soul” (D&C 18:10, 15) is certainly true of our labors with those who have alcohol addiction. With the help of the Lord, we can bless the lives of those who are affected by alcohol, offering them real hope for recovery.

[photos] Photography by Jed A. Clark