Alcoholism is a primary, chronic, progressive disease. It affects at least 10 percent of the population and, in a hideous way, destroys both family and individual lives. No other fatal illness is marked by the sense of shame and embarrassment; no other incurable disease is so characterized by humiliation and silence as alcohol/drug addiction. If you have cancer or coronary heart disease, you get on the church’s prayer list. But if you’re an alcoholic, people talk in a voice tinged with disapproval and anger.
For over 50 years, the American Medical Association has recognized alcoholism as a medical disease, not a social flaw or a personal failure. We Episcopalians are bright, intelligent people, but on this issue we haven’t made much progress in the last century. We still look upon the addicted person as a social pariah, morally flawed and a family embarrassment.
But it is a treatable illness and like most diseases, the earlier the treatment, the less damage – both personal and physical – is done. In my 40 years of parish ministry, I have visited hundreds of people with cancer and every one of them without exception would have traded their treatment for that of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Regular hour-long meetings of people, who can laugh, talk and share their strength and hope…how difficult is that compared to surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation?
And the rate of success – if the 12-step program is rigorously followed – is 100 percent. No other fatal illness carries the same degree of remission rate. Yet many people choose not to do anything because denial is part and parcel of the disease. It takes a loving family, caring colleagues, and a lot of personal courage to even admit there is a problem. But once acknowledged, the recovery is remarkable. Watching someone recover carries with it the same sense of joy and hope as watching someone who has undergone chemotherapy as their hair begins to grow back. The smiles on both people are the same.
In the 38 years I have been in the program, I have never once seen someone come into AA because they wanted to. They come in because they are made to do so by spouse/family, by doctor or employer, by judge or licensing agency. People need to be told what to do because they are unable to do for themselves what needs to be done. It is a wonderful thing to save someone’s life…I know, my name is Joe Clark and I am an alcoholic.
Rev. Joseph M. Clark is a retired Rector of Church of the Ascension, Gaithersburg, Maryland and member of St. John’s Norwood in Maryland. We invite you to share your thoughts, responses, and reflections with the Diocese of Washington on Facebook.