It Still Outranks Them All (Part I)

By Fr Bogdan Djurdjulov

Alcoholism / Chemical Dependency

When you hear the word drug(s), what do you think of? Take a moment before you read on and think about it. List the drugs you are familiar with or have heard about; both legal and illegal. What did you come up with? Was alcohol on your list? If it wasn’t, add it. Alcohol is as much a drug as the prescription drugs: valium, librium, codeine, and percodan or the illicit drugs, cocaine, crack, heron, ecstasy, and marijuana. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, a mind/mood altering chemical (MAC). You can get just as drunk on 3.2 beer as you can on wine, sherry or 90 proof vodka. It is estimated that the very familiar, readily available and legal drug, alcohol, causes about 90 percent of all the drug problems in the United States, either alone or in combination with other drugs. About 50 percent of all alcoholics either abuse or are dependent on other drugs other than alcohol.

Many teens in chemical dependency treatment centers say that alcohol was their first introduction to drugs and a stepping stone to other drugs. They also said that when their “drug of choice” (the drug they most prefer to use) was not available; alcohol would often serve as a substitute. Alcohol is capable of producing mood swings in the user from mild euphoria (feeling “high”), to death as a result of overdose of mixing alcohol with other drugs or drinking too much alcohol alone. Don’t be fooled; alcohol still ranks as one of the world’s most dangerous drugs. (See appendices for additional information.)

Naturally alcohol is not the only drug of concern in our country, but it will serve as the primary focus of this discussion and introduction to alcoholism and chemical dependency. First, a very brief overview of alcohol in the Bible and some historical notes regarding its use. And finally a look at alcoholism itself and the Church.

In the Bible

The Bible has more than 200 references to alcohol (wine) and other “strong drink,” as well as almost 50 references to drunkeness. The Bible describes alcohol use in numerous ways—from being used as an offering to stern warnings about the harmful effects on the user and those around him. Here are some examples. As an offering: “All the best of the oil, and all the best of the wine, and of the wheat, the firstfruits of them which they shall offer unto the Lord, them have I given thee” (Num. 18:12) and in remembrance and offering at the Last Supper (Mt 26:27 and Lk 22:17). Wine was used in celebration at the Wedding at Cana (Jn 2), Jesus Himself changed water into wine. In Gen 14:18 we read “Melchizedek, king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and was a priest of the most high.” In 1 Chronicles 16:3 we read that wine was drunk with meals: “And he dealt to every one of Israel, both man and woman, to every one a loaf of bread, and a good piece of flesh and a flagon of wine.”

The Bible also has clear warnings about the effects of alcohol. In Proverbs 20:1 it is said that “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.” In Eph 5:18 we read “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess: but be filled with the Spirit.” It was as evident in the Bible as it is today t hat there were those who drank in moderation (or didn’t drink at all), those who drank in excess, and those who just drank to get drunk. The Bible gives us sage advice on the appropriate use of alcohol including abstaining from it during pregnancy (Judges 13:7).

Codes and Canons

There is virtually no period in recorded history without references to the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The history of alcohol is also inseparable from alcohol misuse, abuse, and dependency. One of the earliest recordings of the production of alcohol is on an Egyptian Papyrus dating 3500 BC. So it has been around for awhile. The term “alcohol” itself didn’t enter European languages until the 16th century. It has only been in the past 300 years that the term alcohol has been synonymous with spirituous liquids.

We have many “codes” and “canons” from various cultures on the topic of alcohol. The most dramatic of these is perhaps from ancient Persia which banned alcohol consumption altogether. To this day, the Islamic religion maintains a total ban on the use of alcoholic beverages. The Code of Hammurabi of Babylonia (1700 BC), contains an assortment of restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol. This Code also documents the early existence of public drinking houses which were regulated by law. This law sometimes called for the execution of its offenders. The original temperance movement dates from pre-Christian times. The dynastic Egyptian tract called “Wisdom of Ani” opens with a stern command—“take not upon thyself to drink a jug of beer.” A list of consequences follows, should you disobey this warning. Around 600 BC, the Chinese Canon of History was written. It states that “men will not do without beer” and “to prohibit it and secure total abstinence from it is beyond even the power of the sages.” The Canon also goes on to provide a series of warnings about alcohol’s use with the intent of fostering moderation. The Church too, has its code of conduct to be followed by her flock contained in the Canons of the Church which were adopted by the various Councils over the centuries. For example, Canons 42 and 43 ordain that “those clergymen, including laymen as well, who occupy themselves in drunkeness and dice shall either cease or be excommunicated.”

It wasn’t until 1619 in the Virginia Colonies that the United States passed its first law against public drunkeness. In 1785 Dr Benjamin Rush wrote a pamphlet calling alcoholism an illness, titled “On the Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body.” From 1811-1933, the Temperance Movement along with the religious revival of the 19th century led to the Prohibition Amendment which was put into effect on January 16, 1920 by the Volstead Act. During the first year of Prohibition there were only 20 percent of the alcohol problems as compared to 1917. By 1929, we had 70 percent of the alcohol problems of 1917 and a whole host of new problems due to bootlegging and public and private corruption. In 1933 the 18th Amendment was repealed. Did Prohibition work? The Chinese knew the answer as early as 600 BC. No, not too well, but it was well intentioned.

The United States had its own shifts in attitudes and behaviors towards the effects of alcohol on individuals and society. From the mid-1800’s this shift was becoming more obvious. Inebriety which was later to be called alcoholism was called many other things as well, including mental and emotional illness and neurosis. During the 19th century, alcoholism was thought to be a “moral problem or weakness.” If you get the “sinner” to “take the pledge” (to abstain from all drinking, to “go on the wagon”), you could save him. In 1935 Alcoholics Anonymous was started in Akron, Ohio (Okay, New York too). In 1944 the National Council of Alcoholism was founded and finally in 1956 the American Medical Association declared alcoholism a disease that should be treated like any other medical problem. We have come a long way in a short time in recognizing the destructive effects of the active stages of the disease of alcoholism.

Alcoholism Today

Today alcoholism is recognized by all the accepted medical and health authorities as a major health problem in the United States. It is only outranked by heart disease and cancer. It is estimated that at least 1 out of 10 persons are alcoholics. Some estimate that on the average, four other persons are affected directly by the alcoholic, not counting indirect contacts or relationships.

Statistics can be read to say pretty much what you want people to hear, but even if only a fraction of the information was on target; there is serious cause for concern. There is a high mortality rate related to alcohol alone (excluding other drugs). In the United States alone there are about 400 deaths from drunk driving every week. In 1986 there were more than 2,500 documented alcohol-related deaths in New York State alone. Alcoholism cuts across every sector of society. The human suffering that comes with the active and untreated phases of this disease is beyond measure in statistical terms. How do you measure and explain the death of a child hit by a drunk driver?

What Is Alcoholism?

The disease alcoholism is also grouped under the name of chemical dependency (dependence) and drug dependence because alcohol is a mood/mind altering substance (drug). Alcoholism occurs when a person’s use of alcohol interferes with any area of his or her life; family, social, personal friendship, work or career performance, finances, physical and emotional health, driving record, spiritual life, etc. ...Some people have some of the above problems related to drinking, but it has never been pointed out to them that it was creating problem(s) and consequently they never bothered to change their drinking behavior or patterns. Some people are able to moderate their drinking and make changes when things are pointed out to them. The alcoholic, on the other hand, is not able to moderate his or her drinking. The alcoholic is powerless over alcohol and there is no predictability after the first drink that it will stop after one, two, ten, or twenty. Nothing short of abstinence works.

Alcoholism cannot be cured, but it can be treated, and people do return to very productive lives. The impact that alcohol and other drugs have upon the ability to conduct a self-directed and productive life are as different and unique as each individual. Trained counselors are available to identify, through history-taking and evaluation, patterns of behavior inherent to the disease, alcoholism/chemical dependency. Having a disease, particularly after it’s pointed out, requires that some action be taken to get the proper help and care. It requires that the person make some changes, just as a heart-diseased person must take certain precautions. No “blank check” is given for writing off inappropriate or destructive behavior. Healthy choices can be made with help. “Somewhere” along the line the person has got to want it too, or it will never work. They have to want sobriety for themselves (not for someone or something else).

Alcoholism is a disease. One way to look at alcoholism is to approach it as we do other diseases. It has its own set of symptoms which are describable and, when identified, can fairly accurately describe what stage of the disease the person is in, e.g., early, middle or late. Vern Johnson, author of the book, I’ll Quit Tomorrow, pioneered the notion of alcoholism being primary, progressive, chronic and fatal if left untreated. In this model alcoholism is:

A. A Primary Disease: It is not a secondary symptom of something else. Although there are usually other emotional and/or physical problems associated with the illness that need to be treated, active ingestion needs to stop before the rest can adequately be addressed. It is a primary disease also for the family.

B. Progressive: It gets progressively worse if left untreated.

C. Chronic: There is no cure, but people do get on the road to recovery. Like any other disease, people do relapse. There is no way for an alcoholic to drink again or use other MAC’s regularly without risking relapse.

D. Fatal: If left untreated, people do die (auto accident, physical complications, suicide, etc.). This disease can be arrested, not cured. These are better odds than for some other diseases that cannot be arrested or cured.

A Family Disease

If one member of a family is ill, it becomes a problem for all the members of a family to one degree or another. When one member of a family is in crisis, all are affected. Those who live with or are concerned about an actively drinking alcoholic develop their own ways of surviving and dealing with their own pain and suffering. Dysfunction for both the family and drinker become a way of life. In the midst of all of this, is powerlessness and unmanageability; the alcoholic over alcohol and the family over the alcoholic.

A Label is a Powerful Thing

Of all the major diseases, alcoholism is difficult for many people to understand and accept. When you hear that someone is an alcoholic; what do you “honestly” think?... honestly. A label is a powerful thing. None of the major diseases is more colored by myth, mystery and misunderstanding. One area that stands out is that, if you have a disease, you are not responsible for the things it “caused” you to do. There is a real tendency to blame the disease for your actions; like saying the “devil made me do it.” Being an alcoholic does not exempt a person from taking responsibility for his or her actions.

The person who becomes an alcoholic is not responsible for having a disease, no more than the diabetic. Neither asked for the disease, but both are responsible for doing what’s required to get well once they know they have the disease. Again, no blank check is given to write off inappropriate, abusive and destructive behavior. The 12-Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous clearly addresses the amend making process and what that really means.

Not a Moral Weakness

Many still believe that alcoholism is primarily a “moral problem” or a “moral weakness”—a weak character, or a “sin.” The moral weakness argument contends that the person “should have known better.” We generally do not say this about other diseases. We do not say to the cancer victim, “you should have known better, shape up!”, but we do often say this to an alcoholic.

Moral weakness only sees alcohol and bad behavior. It doesn’t see the “ism” of the disease. It’s an either/or proposition; either “Shape up” or “Ship out,” and doesn’t offer any help. No behavior can totally be understood outside of its context. We have to look at the big picture and not forget that people are involved and hurting, not just the alcoholic. Even if you have difficulty understanding alcoholism as a disease, wouldn’t you agree that help is still needed. Call alcoholism what you want, but still remember that there is a human being created in the image and likeness of God who needs loads of help through caring and loving (tough love) intervention.

Calling All Churches

The Church has a definite call to minister to those who suffer from alcoholism—everyone involved in the disease; the alcoholic, the family, the church family, etc. Alcoholism is clearly no respecter of rank, just like other diseases. Anyone can become an alcoholic even after years of apparent social drinking or no drinking at all. Anyone, priest, bishop, nun, monk, you and I can become an alcoholic with the same incidence as anyone else out there.

Because there are a lot of people who are Church members, a lot of people in the Church suffer from alcoholism/chemical dependency and they are in one stage or another of the disease. It is no secret that alcoholism tends to be kept “hidden” and called many other things because of the stigma attached to it. Identification is often not made because our blinders are on, or we don’t want to get involved because it might be an embarrassment. I can’t recall a case where someone died of embarrassment alone, but I know of many deaths related to alcohol and other drugs. Alcoholism affects people; the Church is full of people; therefore alcohol and drug problems should be a concern of the Church. The Church is a vital link to helping people. Often the priest is one of the first to be contacted or consulted by concerned people or the person, him or herself, looking for help and direction.

As Christians we struggle to keep God at the center of our lives. We live in a world that looks for fast answers to complex or unanswerable questions. People turn to different things for those answers; some to material possessions, some to status, some to power, and others to alcohol and other drugs. In times of hurt, pain, suffering from whatever reason, the latter may be turned to for relief. Let’s not forget the healing power of the Lord in our lives.


Our local parishes need to examine their own attitudes towards alcohol and other drugs. As a whole Church we need to work together. The Church needs to be a role model and a teacher in the understanding of what alcoholism/chemical dependency is. Without this understanding it can become very easy to picture this disease as a disease of lazy good-for-nothings, sloppy and unemployed people. (I hear this all too often.) We know this is not true. Most people do not fit this stereotype.

Resource for Spiritual Growth

The Church must be a resource for spiritual growth in the area of alcoholism/chemical dependency through education and relating clearly the Gospel message of “... as you did it to the least of these my brethren you did it unto me.” The Church is an excellent place to teach prevention and coping skills. Before a child can say “no” to drugs, a foundation must be established to stand behind that “no.” Peer pressure goes two ways; it can influence negatively and also very positively. We need an open forum to discuss what we can do. We have so much we can do in the Church to confront alcohol/drug issues directly. Our churches are filled with talent; we just need to organize it and make it “one body.” The Church cannot afford to be, as one author stated, “a sleeping giant in the fight against drug abuse.”

The other articles on this topic look at:

Signs, symptoms and identification of alcoholism / chemical dependency (Part II)

Intervention (Part III)

Spiritual aspects of the disease (Part IV)

Along with resources and information for help and what local parishes can do.

Definitions And Descriptions of Alcoholism/Chemical Dependency

American Medical Association, Manual on Alcoholism, 1967, 3rd. Ed. 1977.

“Alcoholism (a form of chemical dependency) is an illness characterized by preoccupation with alcohol and loss of control over its consumption such as to lead usually to intoxication if drinking is begun; by chronicity; by progression; and by a tendency toward relapse. It is typically associated with physical disability and impaired emotional, occupational, and/or social adjustments as a direct consequence of persistent and excessive use.”

McAuliffe, Robert and Mary. The Essentials of Chemical Dependency, 1975.

“Chemical Dependency is essentially a pathological or sick relationship of a person to a mood-altering chemical substance, a psychoactive drug, in expectation of a rewarding experience.”

Johnson, Vern. I’ll Quit Tomorrow, 1973.

“Alcoholism is a fatal disease, 100 percent fatal. Nobody survives alcoholism that remains unchecked… The disease involves the whole man: physically, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually. The most significant characteristics of the disease are that it is primary, progressive, chronic and fatal. But it can be arrested. The progress of alcoholism can be stopped, and the patient can be recovered. Not cured, but recovered.”

Statistical Abstract (1979).

An “alcoholic” is defined as one who is unable consistently to choose whether he shall drink or not, and who, if he drinks, is unable consistently to choose whether he shall stop or not. “Alcoholics with complications” are those who have developed bodily or mental disorders through prolonged excessive drinking.

Mark Keller, Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcoholism, March 1960.

Alcoholism is a chronic disease manifested by repeated implicative drinking so as to cause injury to the drinker’s health or to his social or economic functioning.

Fr Bogdan Djurdjulov is a Certified Chemical Dependency Practitioner and Health Care Management Consultant in private practice.

He is Associate Pastor of St Paul Orthodox Church in Dayton, OHand Principal of Creative Edge Consulting which is dedicated to recognizing, inspiring, and promoting optimal relationship skills.