Living with Alcoholism
1. Understanding The Alcoholic|| 1.1 Introduction|| 1.2 Denial || Deeper Study Box 1: Implications Of Believing That God Sees And Knows All Things || 1.3 Some Medical Aspects || Deeper Study Box 2: Implications Of Believing Human Beings Were Created By God || 1.4 Guilt || 1.5 The Nature Of Sin And Temptation || 2. Understanding Your Response || 2.1 Introduction || 2.2 Denial || 2.3 Helping or Enabling? || 2.4 Detachment ||  2.5 Patience And Forgiveness || Deeper Study Box 3: Repentance And Forgiveness ||  3. The Biblical Answer || 3.1 Introduction || 3.2 Transparency And Conviction || Deeper Study Box 4: Truth: A Biblical Analysis || 3.3 Repentance || 3.4 The New Life ||  4. After The Victory


Appendix: The Alcoholic Family

Alcoholism is a disease which affects not only the alcoholic. In most cases, the alcoholic lives in a family, and one or more people in that family enable him or her. They lie for him [we’ll call the alcoholic ‘him’ and the enabler ‘her’ to make things easier, but that’s by no means a typical situation]. The other family members learn to cope with the situation in their own ways. The whole family gets caught up in the denial and untruth, the lives of secrecy and deception. They sometimes deny that the family woes are really all because of alcohol, and tend to be untruthful about the extent to which they enable the alcoholic’s behaviour and ‘getting away with it’ time and again. Although it’s often impossible, counselling of the individual alcoholic is often not enough- the entire immediate family need counselling. Sharon Wegscheider(1) has powerfully explained how the feelings of the alcoholic become transferred to the family members, through their wrong responses to his manipulative behaviour:


Alcoholic’s feeling

Alcoholic’s behaviour

Feelings of the alcoholic’s family members

Guilt, self-hatred

Self-righteousness, blaming

Guilt, self-hatred


Aggression, anger



Controlling of others





Loneliness, rejection


Loneliness, rejection

Low self-worth

Grandiosity, criticalness

Low self-worth


Because alcoholism is in this sense a disease which affects the whole family, it tends to recur even after the death of the alcoholic. This is my explanation for why alcoholism appears to repeat throughout the generations of some families. This is nothing to do with genes- no alcoholic gene has ever been isolated. It’s to do with family dysfunction affecting the next generation.

The various family members will react in different ways to the alcoholic, whilst sharing the same basic feelings as explained above. And yet the family find it very hard to express their true feelings; they soon learnt that spontaneous expression of feelings gets them into trouble, and so they don’t do it. And of course they remain out of touch not only with their own feelings but those of the others in the family network. We are seeking to reveal to those people involved that love, freedom, risk, choice, surrender to God and His Son… are to be our true dreams. Not success, money, power, comfort, dwelling on old hurts. To expose our feelings and our real selves is of course to risk… but alcoholic families have no choice but to take that risk, or face destruction. It was Einstein who said: “The minute you begin to live your life according to your choices, it’s really a new kind of life”. It can help in therapy to get the family to role play each other. This is a very powerful and instructive thing for them… although the problem is usually in getting the family as a family into therapy together. Some members will perceive themselves as the hero / heroine, much praised by those outside the family, feeling that the family depends upon them alone… others will become the scapegoat, or develop a sense of humour, constant joking, lack of seriousness… others retreat into themselves, occupying themselves with computer games, the internet, addiction to study or chemical addictions, including alcohol. Withdrawal within oneself, being a ‘lost person’, is often observable in children born after the parent has become alcoholic. They as it were missed out on the earlier part of the plot; they were born into a situation where denial and all the other alcoholic-family feelings and  behaviours were already well established, and bewildered, took up their part in the plot. And yet again and again I can’t help but comment… that inner solitude, that withdrawal from the world, that isolation from others is fertile ground for personal spirituality to develop. The alcoholic family is just waiting for Christ to enter. But so many stumble at the second of the 12 steps: “To believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity”. Sadly people confuse their need for Christ with their recollections and perceptions of religion; so often they confuse spirituality with mere church-going. So often, religion and churches have brought with them the same feelings of guilt, hurt, shame, delusion, anger etc. from which they need to escape. Too often, what passes for Christianity has been about compulsive behaviour, whereas the true call of Christ is to embrace the ultimate freedom of choice… Which is why I counsel people to learn the Gospel of grace and be baptized into the Lord Jesus, rather than ‘getting religion’ in a more formal way.

Whatever role the individual family members adopt, they come to see them as essential to survival, and they act out those roles with the same denial, compulsion and self-delusion which characterize the alcoholic. The role of the closest partner, e.g. the alcoholic’s wife, is often crucial. She has to be father as well as mother to the family, take charge of finances and purchases, takes charge of the family affairs, and regularly berates and criticizes the alcoholic for drinking- whilst actually enabling him to continue. She lives in constant fear of what the future may hold [will the alcoholic lose his job, will the family survive, will he do physical damage to the children or herself whilst drunk…]. And above all, the enabler becomes characterized by anger and an inability to express her own feelings. Survival becomes the one value, the one aim. The myriad unseen things she does for the suffering family often become seen by her as some kind of works of righteousness, some kind of virtue which is its own reward. Caring for others’ needs to ones’ own detriment is the classic lead up to burnout syndrome. The grace based believer will know that works cannot save… it is an acceptance of God’s free gift which takes away all valuing of our own hard work.


If she’s a Christian, she may take refuge in the hope that somehow God will work a miracle and change things. And yet this is often merely an excuse for not facing up to her role as an enabler. We have written here from the assumption that the alcoholic is a male, and a husband. So often this isn’t the case. In the case of an alcoholic or drug addicted child, the parent will feel even stronger self-blame and shame- for society tends to hold parents as responsible for their children. All these feelings which we have discussed can become transformed by an acceptance of grace; and by allowing the Bible to convict us of true guilt for our actual sins, and releasing us from all the false guilt which society and the alcoholic place upon us. And yet so obsessive is the whole alcohol problem that the family members, especially the enabler, find no time or energy to develop their social, mental or spiritual potentials. Good, solid advice for such people is to encourage them to focus upon regular Bible reading, even study, personal prayer, some course of secular study, and deeper social interaction e.g. in the church setting. These things will begin to free them from the web of control and obsession which the alcoholic is dragging them into. And above all, they should provide the enabler with the motivation and ability to themselves go for counselling. The alcoholic himself is usually so self-absorbed, so in denial and deluded, that he rarely goes to seek help alone. He needs, desperately, the help of his family to get into that counselling room. The family members, especially the one playing the enabling role for the alcoholic, have to realize their helplessness. Those who have grown up with a works-based theology find this so hard. It’s so hard for the family to accept that they have a part in the alcoholic’s problem. The anger, self-righteousness and self-pity which the enabler and other family members feel is often one of the biggest barriers to healing the alcoholic family; and yet these are the very characteristics which the Spirit of God, through His word, can remove and replace.


It often happens that an alcoholic may quit drinking, but he moves from one addiction to another, anything from gambling to aggressive and fanatic religious behaviour, and the family members remain playing out the roles which his addictive behaviour decrees. It’s even been stated that quitting drinking is only 10% of the way towards full recovery. The fact the whole family are locked into their positions, their roles, the scripts they have to live out, explains why up to 80% of partners of alcoholics re-marry alcoholics, when their partner either quits drinking, dies, or they divorce. Therefore the goal of alcoholism counselling is not to restore the family to where it was at before alcoholism set in. This is not only impossible, but it is not the way to true healing. When the alcoholic stops drinking, a whole range of feelings come online- fear, fear that the alcoholic will start drinking again, fear of loss of control of the family; hurt and anger; loss of focus and loss of roles; resentment at having to open ranks and accept the alcoholic back, and to grant them the respect and even authority which they may now deserve. So very often, this isn’t achieved, feelings still can’t be expressed, truth and transparency still don’t flourish, and the negative feelings unleashed lead to the destruction of the family unit. Therapy needs to empower the family members to get in touch with what they are really feeling, to identify and name the feelings, and replace them with healthy ones. This is why AA so rightly speak of a ‘dry’ alcoholic as a recovering alcoholic rather than a recovered one. For the process of healing and growth continues for a lifetime.

Biblical Answer

A key weapon in the battle against alcohol in the family is the concept of grace. That God will forgive us and cleanse us and save us as a pure gift, with no demand nor manipulation… and if we believe this, we won’t be passive, we will actively respond in lives of gratitude and kindness and truthfulness to others. The death of the Lord Jesus is portrayed as a guilt offering. The cross is therefore the place to take our guilt. We are not to deal with our guilt by attacking others, repressing it and feeling awful about ourselves… but to believe that our personal guilt is real and actual, but has been taken away in Christ. Think of the classic behaviours of the alcoholic:

He blames [“If you cared about me, I wouldn’t have to drink”]

Threatens [“Don’t raise it with me again or else…”]

Alibis [“I didn’t drink too much, just some guy spiked my drinks”]

Boasts [“I work harder than all the other guys. Why can’t I relax?”]

Avoids [“If you’re so righteous you can’t let a guy have a drink, I think you’re just a hypocrite”].

All of these attitudes and behaviours can be affected by grasping the reality of God’s grace. Alcoholics deal with their guilt by repressing it, numbing their feelings; and also by projecting their guilt onto others by blaming and accusing them. The ultimate way to deal with guilt is through the guilt offering of the Lord Jesus. There, all guilt was dealt with in the only way which has ultimate power and meaning. A valid experience of Christ will lead to the ability to express feelings, or at least to get in touch with them without repressing them. All the behaviours of the alcoholic- alibis, threats, boasts, avoiding etc, all have their effect upon his family. He threatens, the family feel afraid; he blames, they feel hurt or guilty; he uses alibis, and they feel distrust. But for them too, serious acceptance of God’s grace empowers them to feel their own feelings, to not take false guilt, to assess situations and relationships realistically. And they too will be empowered to have genuine feelings again, feelings of their own, feelings guided by God’s spirit, rather than by the manipulative web of the family alcoholic. In dysfunctional families, the person who holds the power makes the rules. He produces a family system after his own dysfunctional image. Dysfunction means that the system functions, it doesn’t stop operating, but it operates in a deformed and harmful way. By being filled with God’s Spirit and an acceptance of His grace, the family become formed after God’s image and not that of the alcoholic. Because for them, God is the ultimate power broker, and not the alcoholic. Dysfunctional alcoholic families are based around rules- unconsciously, of course. These include:

Alcohol isn’t the real cause of the family’s problems

The alcoholic isn’t ultimately responsible

The status quo must be maintained at all costs

Nobody must discuss with anyone within nor outside the family what is going on

No body must say what they are really feeling.

These rules have to be broken and replaced.


The ultimate effect of knowing Christ is to know our freedom of choice, to chose life or death by choosing to accept or reject Him, the only ultimate source of life and freedom. And yet as alcoholism progresses, less and less of life is a matter of choice. Everything comes down to the choice of continuing to drink or quitting. This ends up a choice between life and death. Yet the choice of accepting Christ is one between life and death- and there are very few people who perceive the life: death choice that clearly. The alcoholic stands at the ideal point from which to decide for Christ. This is why I encourage alcoholics to study the Gospel and be baptized, having perceived the choice they face. Deciding what does or doesn’t have value is essentially a spiritual function- and this is why only the acceptance of a “higher power”, for me, the Christ in ‘Christianity’, can lead to ultimate healing of the alcoholic family. Likewise a focus upon the real person of Jesus, a ‘man’, a person, now in Heaven, who was once here on earth and shall surely come again… this is the answer to the egocentric mindset of the alcoholic, a mindset which leads to him becoming ‘touchy’ with people, taking offence at the slightest provocation, and indulging in unreasonable self-pity.

Alcoholics are thus actually nearer to God than many of us. Jellinek’s classic study of alcoholism found that “In many addicts, approximately 60%, some vague religious desires develop as the rationalizations become weaker”(2). What we seek to do is to make use of this by putting the alcoholic in touch with the ‘religious’ message of grace which there is in the Lord Jesus. In my extensive experience of preaching Christ in Europe, it’s rationality which keeps at least the European mind from coming to Him. And likely this is true in other cultures in our modern world. Yet in the alcoholic this passion for rationalizing everything becomes diminished- and the Christian counsellor and family need to plug into this fact. True Christianity convicts us all of sin, of our guilt before God. It was once thought that alcoholics could only be helped if they were allowed to ‘hit rock bottom’. But the conviction of sin and the urgency of our position which an encounter with Christ should bring can create a crisis, a “high bottom” as AA call it, which demands radical change before the alcoholic has actually hit rock bottom, with all the damage this will entail.


Some Advice For Family Counsellors Of Alcoholics

-         Don’t be overly concerned with “success”. You too are powerless in this- only faith in the “higher Power” and acceptance of His ways can bring healing.

-         Don’t seek to win the alcoholic’s approval. The alcoholic, often unconsciously, will seek to pull you ‘onside’ and bring you within his web of manipulation.

-         Try not to counsel the alcoholic alone. Try by all means to get his family members or at least another alcoholic involved.

-         Try to understand the real feelings of the alcoholic and their family- otherwise you are only dealing with and relating to their defences.

-         Only total honesty from you can hope to elicit the honesty you seek from the alcoholic. Any lack of congruence between your words and actions will lead to the alcoholic feeling justified in living a life which does the same. You have to be a model of authenticity.

-         Don’t give in to the demands for easy answers.

-         Have regular sessions; don’t allow the family or the alcoholic to just call you at any hour of the night.

-         Don’t be drawn into being a judge or referee of the endless family arguments that go on within alcoholic families.

-         Don’t end up playing the role of an enabler by bailing the alcoholic out of the consequences of his or her actions.

-         Don’t hide behind false professionalism, jargon etc. It’s not a case of ‘us and them’- many alcoholics and their families are not ignorant people, and are often surprisingly aware of many principles of psychotherapy. You too will learn by the counselling experience, and you should be humble enough to say so.

-         Remember that the alcoholic and their at times impossible family are all wonderful, unique persons. Each of them is uniquely created by God, and will never ever be replicated anywhere, any time, in this entire cosmos. Treat them as they are, people in the image of God your creator.



(1) Sharon Wegscheider, Another Chance (Palo Alto, CA: Science & Behaviour Books, 1989) p. 83.

(2) R. Jellinek, The Disease Concept Of Alcoholism (New Haven, USA: College And University Press, 1960) p.130.