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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Ask the Matriarchs — Interventions Anonymous

Greetings to all on this first day of November (can you believe it?), All Saint's Day and, as chance would have it, the 37th anniversary of my christening. This week, we have a question that pertains to addressing problem drinking behavior faithfully:

In my quasi-well-not-really, unofficial lay ministry work I have had occasion to meet/talk to individuals with drinking issues—big drinking issues: the kind of drinking problems that involve drinking prodigious amounts at gatherings, then sneaking out to drink even more in private; carrying liquor in tote bags and travel mugs; smelling like stale liquor all the time; making preemptive verbal strikes against "controlling people," and even justifying their drinking for health reasons. ("It's good for my heart.")

My head tells me that, in the words of the 12-Steppers, the first thing these folks need to do is admit that they have a problem, and that until they do there's not a lot that I can do for them. My heart tells me that, on some level, these people do experience a diminishment of life because of their alcohol abuse, do know that something is wrong, but are afraid to acknowledge that.

I am struggling with what, apart from prayer, I can do for my friends as an individual Christian, as someone who drinks in moderation at social events and as someone who, in these people's minds, represents "the Church."

Our matriarchs seem to agree that the best course may be terribly frustrating for you because as much as our inclinations are to "save" them from destructive behavior, we may impede our own efforts if we try to push someone into treatment or therapy when the person we genuinely want to help won't or can't acknowledge that there is a problem, and that's all too common, as the first of the 12 Steps does acknowledge. "You can love them as any child of God, but you cannot fix the alcoholism until they want it to be fixed," writes Peripatetic Polar Bear. Jacque agrees: "Whatever you do, you need to let go of any idea that your action is going to stop their drinking. You can only be a witness to a better life, and a possible piece in the process of someone else hitting bottom and making a decision to get help."

But as Jan notes, "One of the things we do not do well in the church is hold each other accountable. We have lost that aspect of Christian community, replacing it with the more Western preference for individualism (you go your way, I'll go mine. But being in community with each other means knowing each other and trusting each other well enough to "admonish one another," very Colossians 3."

So how does one balance these two things in tension? Here are some thoughts from our matriarchs:

  • Attend Al-Anon meetings, or read their materials, says Ann. "They are are great group for those who want to be there for family and friends but don't know what to do. They will help you sort out your issues around alcohol and teach you how to remain engaged but detached." By being familiar, you'll be better prepared when they do start seeking help.
  • Don't drink with them. Unfortunately, trying to demonstrate how to drink responsibly on your part may be seen as a stamp of approval of their drinking. Same goes for tending them when they're unable to take care of their own needs. It's kind of tough love, but it can be ncessary. "You have to stop enabling these people in whatever way you may be enabling—whether it is caring for (rescuing) them when they've been drinking, or drinking 'socially' with them," writes Jacque.
  • Demonstrate gentle concern when the opportunity arises. You can "leave the door open for the conversation," says PPB. "For instance, if a friend says, 'I can't seem to keep a job,' you might reply with, 'Do you think your drinking is playing into that?'
  • Don't be surprised when they pull away. That really is a when. When you take those opportunities to express concern, you're probably not going to get a good response, says PPB, but it's still getting filed away in their brains. It's part of the descent to rock bottom that often is a catalyst for turning things around. "You must be ready for the person to pull away from you," says Jacque. "It is natural that when we do not want to acknowledge a problem, we avoid those who see it." When all the enablers and friends turn away, an intervention has a better chance of succeeding, for as upsetting it is for the people who care.
  • Don't abandon them, though. When they come asking for help, have the resources and information they need, says Ann. Meet with them socially and make sure you have "attractive" alternatives to alcohol available for them at functions you are involved with.
  • Talk to experienced folks. Meet with other recovering alcoholics, for instance. They may have insights that can help you handle this gracefully, says Ann. Another thing you may want to consider is talking to a therapist who can counsel you on how to do an intervention involving the family and friends of the alcoholic/addict. It's not something you should attempt alone. It might be as simple, as Jan writes, as you and another person "saying you've noticed they not only drink a lot but drink secretly (maybe you could say "privately"), and you love them and are worried."
  • Convey love, not judgment. Jan notes that this important little detail can greatly improve the conversation.

Alcoholism affects families, friends and colleagues. How do you handle this in your ministry, when it comes up? Please share with us in the comments, or consider writing a reflection in your own blog on ministering, as we Episcopalians say in our Prayers of the People, to "the sick, the friendless, and the needy"--for alcoholics can be all of these. If you do, post a link in comments below back here using this formula: <a href="your blogpost URL">what you want the link to say</a>

Housekeeping note: It's pretty quiet in the Matriarchs' inbox right now. Send us a question! The holidays are coming up, and we'd love to help you prepare for them, if you have a holiday themed question. We're at


  1. I'm really glad that someone asked this question, and I'm so grateful that you Matriarchs answered, and took it seriously. I'm finding that there are a number of clergy with major alcohol issues themselves, and as a result don't even consider this an issue. Thank you. I really appreciate you talking about this.

  2. I think this a clear and concise list of helpful ideas. I do think it is important to make clear that we cannot "save" them, and their decision to drink or not to drink is not a decision that anyone can make for them. There are, however, some ways that we can be helpful, as described here.


  3. I'm also glad this question was asked. As has already been written, until someone wants help, they won't get help. That being said, part of the realization that you have a problem is often the realization that others think you have a problem. So many times, alcoholics believe that their drinking is hidden from others. When the opportunity presents itself, we can certainly address the issue - not from a judgmental standpoint but from a standpoint of our observations of the results of the substance abuse...lost job, deterioriating relationships, etc. I know it's hard to address this kind of thing, particularly without sounding judgmental, but the church should be the safest place to hold each other accountable.

  4. I loved this question,and the answer. I have had the unfortunate task of being with friends who had what I would name as other addictions, one of which involved abuse by a person she thought loved her. The same is true in these situations-asking questions that might possibly open their eyes is very important, helping them to name it when they can't, and excercizing what i would call REAL love (and some would name as Tough Love) are vital and that is what I believe Christ calls us to.

    As their friend, you will have to make tough choices. Seek God's wisdom, and then hold onto the fact that God is with you.....even if it kind of sucks for a long while!

    May God's peace be with you on this journey.

  5. I too am glad this question was asked, and well answered by you all. As one who started her career as an addictions counselor I would affirm all that was said here. If you are in a position to do a formal intervention make sure you have professional help to prepare. This is NOT a do-it-yourself activity for the average pastor. The denial, blame and projection that characterizes addictions, whether to substances or or other things are powerful forces and can capture the unwary and derail even the best-intentioned process.

  6. Brilliant answers Matriarchs ... these questions and answers really encourage me :)

  7. Great answers...I have not had occasion to hold an intervention, but I have been able to gently ask a friend, "Do you think your drinking might be a problem?" with positive results.

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  9. Great answers!

    I can say from experience that substance abuse is a self diagnosed disease and unless a person is ready to stop using the substance of choice they will not be convinced. As a person who has been on both sides of the fence I know.

    I remember many well meaning people who tried to convince me that I had a problem and how I resented them. It had to be my choice and a gentle shove to get me into recovery more than 20 years ago.

    Now as a counselor who works with individuals with s/a, mental illness and all kinds of disabilities, I find that, in particular, with s/a and mental illness-if the individual is not ready to seek treatment, well they're just not ready.

    Good luck to all of you.

  10. I have had a few experiences where intervention has worked but I have never done them alone. I always make sure I have a colleague who is in recovery or has experience with interventions help me plan with the family and with the professionals to whom we refer the individual.

    Once, however, a good friend was having difficulty with depression. I asked casually if she was drinking more than she should. She denied it but then a couple of weeks later she called me and confessed that she was beginning to drink in the mornings--her definition of something being out of control. I told my secretary to cancel my appointments for the day, drove the 2 hrs to visit her. I called the local AA hot line and found out when the next meeting was and took her to her first meeting. I could not attend with her because it was a closed meeting. But I waited for her to be with her after the meeting.

    Every year on her aniversary, I get an email reminding me of that day. She is a special friend to have invited me into her life like that. I have always felt that it was an honor to have been there for her at that point.

    Sometimes you do need to have professional help as RevDrKate says. But other times it is just being willing to be strong enough to say "yes, you have a problem and I am willing to stand with you as you face it."


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