Sickness in a Bottle Part 2

How do you tell an alcoholic he's an alcoholic when he denies that there is a problem? The concluding segment of this article provides strategies for active intervention to help an alcoholic recover.

Tim Pierce pastors the Detroit Lakes Seventh-day Adventist church in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

If someone tells you that you have a tail, you laugh it off and think nothing of it. If, later that same day, someone else mentions that you have a tail, you think it a bit odd but soon forget about it. However, if everyone you meet tells you that you have a tail, sooner or later you will just have to look and see for yourself.

This old story captures the essence of intervention in the process of recovery from alcoholism. Chemical dependency is an illness entrenched in denial. Often, only the toughest kind of caring love can convince the alcoholic that he indeed "has a tail."


Simply stated, an intervention in alcoholism is a direct confrontation between the drinker and that group of people that he or she values the most.1 Naturally, the group would ideally include the spouse, immediate family, business associates, and close friends (possibly including the family pastor and/or physician). The most significant persons involved in an intervention are usually the spouse and the employer. An intervention is not an easy thing to do. It can be terrifying and heart-wrenching. But it is necessary, because there are really only two options available for the family of an alcoholic. "The family may perpetuate the illness (by putting up with the behavior) or initiate recovery (by intervening)." 2 If we understand family to include the broader context of the church, pastors may play a key role in bringing healing to the alcoholic. Ministers can help by being supportive of those planning an intervention. Ministers can also be useful by developing an awareness of community agencies that are equipped to deal with chemical dependency. Families in need often do not know where to turn for help.

The opposite of intervention is enabling. This is following the very natural inclination to "pick up the pieces" for the alcoholic. The wife who calls her husband's boss and says that "he won't be in because he has the flu" when the real problem is a hangover is an enabler. So is the friend who excuses the alcoholic's rude behavior by saying "he's just had a real bad day." And so is the pastor who says to the spouse of an alcoholic, "I'll pray that you will be able to live with the situation," instead of "I'll pray that you find courage to confront the situation."

"What's really going on? It's absolute baloney that he will wake up after the [drinking] episode and be any better off.

He's getting sicker if he's not sober. Your actions are just prolonging the agony for him . . . just putting off the day when he has to get well or die. But the longer he stays in his illness, the less chance for recovery he has. The more entrenched the illness becomes, the more a toll on his brain and body it will take. So, helping him to stay drunk [by not taking action to intervene] is helping him to get deeper into his illness." 3 Intervention is not pleasant. Most alcoholics react by fighting tooth and nail.

Fortunately, internal motivation is not necessary in the early stages of recovery. The alcoholic will probably get help only to "humor" the interveners. That is enough for now. In fact, most people who end up getting actual help do not begin on a purely voluntary basis. 4


Why does the alcoholic resist intervention? Why is he genuinely hurt when confronted by loved ones whose concern has prompted them to act? In a word, the answer is denial. Ministers familiar with grief counseling are already acquainted with the nature of denial. Indeed, the alcoholic who has been confronted with his behavior is faced with a significant grief issue. The very thought of anything threatening his love affair with the bottle is terrifying! Both consciously and subconsciously he begins to deny that he is an alcoholic, regardless of the facts. But blindness to the problem is part of the problem. This is the reason why external motivation to initiate recovery from alcoholism is almost always necessary. 5

Denial has many faces. Some of the more common ones are:

Simple denial. Susan can describe her own drinking behavior accurately. When told of another person whose behavior is identical to her own, Susan readily agrees that such a person is chemically dependent. Yet, when asked if she is chemically dependent, Susan very sincerely says No.

Minimizing. This type of denial can be seen in the man who says, "Yes, I admit that I have been drinking a little too heavily . . . but it is nowhere near as bad as you seem to think."

Blaming. Mary acknowledges the fact that she has a drinking problem, but adds, "You would too if you had a husband like mine."

Rationalising. The alcoholic willingly confesses to his behavior, but has a thousand and one "good reasons" to justify himself. One day he may drink to drown his sorrows. The next day he drinks to celebrate his good fortune.

Intellectualizing. This is an extremely complex form of denial. The person exhibiting this kind of denial agrees that a problem exists on a cognitive level, but refuses to own the problem on an affective level. This is the "calculated drinker. " For example, Bob says, "Yes, I know I am an alcoholic, but I am very careful to provide for my family and to not endanger others when I drink."

Diversion. This type of denial becomes a grand game of "let's change the subject." For instance, when Jenny is confronted by her husband about the night before, she says, "I really did get a little carried away . . . but did you hear that the Smiths are leaving town?"

Hostility. Often manifest during an intervention, this denial is characterized by shouting and threats of retaliation. The best defense is a good offense, and a confronted alcoholic can be offensive indeed. 6 Denial should be recognized for what it is and expected during an intervention. This is why an intervention should be done by several people and not just one or two. Only a combined assault will break through the wall of denial and literally force the alcoholic to take a long, hard look at himself.

How to intervene

How an intervention is conducted is of utmost importance. In the "Caring Community Series," Hazelden Foundation gives four guidelines to follow in preparation for and during an intervention. 7

First of all, the drinker should be confronted with specific factual data. Each person in turn should address the alcoholic and be able to relate in detail a past behavior that indicates alcoholism. As much as possible, the one doing the confronting should stick to the facts. For example: "Three weeks ago you came home late. You were drunk, and you slapped my face when I asked you where you had been." Emotion should be laid aside as much as possible while detailed facts are presented to the drinker. The greater the number of people intervening with specific facts, the greater the likelihood of success.

Second, the alcoholic's defenses must not be allowed to prevail. Anger and "Yeah, but... " will fill the air. When this happens, the confronter should just keep going back to the facts. To continue the above example, "Yes, I am sure you can come up with all sorts of reasons, but the facts remain that you were drunk, you were late, and you slapped me."

Blame should not enter the picture. The attitude toward the drinker should be one of concern and not one of vindictiveness. It is a good idea to tell the drinker repeatedly, "We are not concerned with how or why it happened; we just want to deal with the fact that you have a drinking problem."

Third, it is important to stress the treatable nature of alcoholism. Especially the alcoholic from a Christian background should be told time and time again that there is a source of healing and that continuing to drink is not inevitable. At this point it is also appropriate to share with the alcoholic the very encouraging success rates that modem treatment centers are achieving. Despite the bravado, alcoholics are inwardly afraid of their destructive drinking practices, so it is important to establish hope for the future.

Finally, outline a definite plan of action to the alcoholic. This plan should be formulated prior to the intervention. A reputable treatment center should be contacted and an appointment for an evaluation made beforehand. Treatment centers can be located through most social service offices. Depending on the evaluation, inpatient or outpatient treatment may be prescribed. A good treatment center will involve group therapy and recognize the central role of a "higher power" in recovery. The group aspect is important because it helps the alcoholic realize that he is not alone in his situation. The "higher power" aspect is needed because continued sobriety is highly unlikely apart from spiritual renewal. 8

Steps to recovery

After intervention, three crucial attitude changes need to take place before recovery truly begins. These changes are described in the first three steps of the traditional Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step program. Basically these three steps are New Testament Christianity in the guise of nonchurch terminology. The change of terms is employed to make the steps workable for those from a non-Christian background, and the neutral language is also necessary for many alcoholics who have had negative experiences related to a church. The neutral terminology of the twelve steps often gives such persons the freedom to risk the spiritual renewal that leads to sobriety. The need for such neutral language is often short term. Many recovering alcoholics seek church fellowship fairly early into their sobriety.

Step One: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable." 9

This is the most difficult of the steps. It is the admission of total defeat. It is the acceptance of being an alcoholic and the recognition that something is terribly wrong throughout the whole of one's life. This first step is much akin to that famous passage in Romans 3:10 that begins with the words "There is none righteous, no, not one." "Every natural instinct cries out against the idea of personal powerlessness. It is truly awful to admit that, glass in hand, we have warped our minds into such an obsession for destructive drinking that only an act of Providence can remove it from us." 10

During the first step the alcoholic is asked to share specific examples of the impact that mood-altering chemicals have had on his or her life. This serves to drive home the reality of the problem. Once the alcoholic truly sees the need, and his or her own inability to meet that need, he or she is ready for the second step.

Step Two: "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." 11

The second step that the alcoholic needs to take is a recognition that there is an ultimate power in the universe. A power so great that it can cause healing when all else has failed. At this point the alcoholic does not need to understand how or why, but must simply choose to believe. Given time, this much is possible to anyone, regardless of religious background. "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead" (Rom. 1:20). God has given ample evidence of His existence. The alcoholic in step two simply needs to begin being aware that God exists. This second step creates the all-important recovery ingredient called hope. For further insight into faith and the alcoholic, I would recommend the chapter entitled "We Agnostics" in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. 12

Step Three: "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him." 13

This is of utmost importance. All the belief in the world will not save unless it is acted upon. "As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name" (John 1:12). The force of the Greek in this passage marks an initial reception (elabon), accompanied by an ongoing trust relationship (pisteuousin). It is a great privilege to work with an alcoholic who is making this step. Tough barroom brawlers who have not set foot in a church for years are visibly trans formed by the grace of God. Victims of "secondhand religion," who have attended church because of family or habit, suddenly take a lively and personal interest in spiritual growth. The third step is simply uniting with the Source of infinite power. The alcoholic will have times of doubt and fear, but by a simple act of the will, the decision is made to "let go and let God."

It should be noted that beginning with the third step, God is called such, and the generic term "higher power" is no longer used in the remaining steps. The alcoholic who gets to the third step has found a personal relationship with God, and God will be the bedrock of his or her continued sobriety.

After the first three steps, there is still much to do for the alcoholic who wishes to remain sober. Ahead lies a lifetime of growing trust and self-awareness. As for the past, there will be much damage to repair. But day by day the alcoholic's prayer is, "Lord, help me to stay clean and sober today." 14

After the agony of intervention and the soul-searching of the initial steps to recovery, trust begins to grow. What started as clenched-teeth sobriety now begins to give way to a more relaxed, chemical-free life. For the recovering alcoholic, this freedom is not the product of human willpower or outstanding counseling technique. It ever remains the gift of a Higher Power. "Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 15:57).

1 Hazelden Foundation, The New Awareness,
The Caring Community Series (Center City,
Minn.: Hazelden Foundation, 1975), vol. 4, pp.
24, 25. ,

2 Joseph L. Kellermann, Alcoholism: A Merry-
Go-Round Named Denial (Center City, Minn.:
Hazelden Foundation, 1980), p. 18.

3 Toby Rice Drews, Getting Them Sober (South
Plainfield, N.J.: Bridge Publishing, Inc., 1980),
vol. 1, p. 107.

4 The New Awareness, vol. 4, p. 12.

5 Ibid., p. 10.

6 Ibid., vol. 6, p. 10.

7 Ibid., vol. 4, pp. 26, 27.

8 Interview with Brad Laabs, Family Freedom
Center, Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, May 5, 1984.

9 Alcoholics Anonymous World Services,
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (New York:
Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.,
1953), p. 21.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., p. 25.

12 Alcoholics Anonymous World Services,
Alcoholics Anonymous, 3d ed. (New York:
Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1976), pp. 44-57.

13 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 34.

14 Young People's Group of Denver, Day by Day
(Center City, Minn.: Hazelden Foundation,

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Tim Pierce pastors the Detroit Lakes Seventh-day Adventist church in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

March 1986

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Ministerial burnout-cause and prevention

Burnout is becoming common in the ministry because of added stress. But it is a wholly preventable and curable problem. Ministers and administrators need to work together to prevent it.

An ounce of prevention

Maintaining optimum health can be a real challenge for pastors in particular. How can you get adequate sleep, exercise, and a proper diet? And how can you fight off the germs you encounter in a day of visiting?

The key to weight control

The spas aren't doing it. The diet plans of the land fail to reduce the rotund. Discover how God's plan can help you make lasting behavior-and figure-changes.

How to break free from smoking

It's hard to break the smoking habit. Whether you yourself need to stop or are trying to help others kick the habit, you'll find this fourteen-step plan useful.

Taking stress in stride

Once you discover what your greatest causes of stress are, you can begin to deal with them and limit your stress level. Your sources of stress may lie closer to home than you imagine.

Unhealed wounded healers

Who heals the physician? Who heals the minister's wounds? Where does he turn for support? The author suggests solutions that both pastors and church administrators need to note.

The church, the courts, and the clergy

Should church administrators expect the government to examine their every hiring or firing move? In the United States, at least, the courts say the time for that has not yet come.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)