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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Oaths, Threats, and Other Half-Measures

When I was in Romania, the big message we were trying to deliver is that alcoholism is a disease.  Most people there still think of it as an issue of self-will, and so the alcoholic could will himself sober but does not.

In Cluj and surrounding Transylvania, this most common 'church treatment' for alcoholism is to take a solemn 'oath' in the church.  What the alcoholic does is visit the priest and, similar to confession, kneels with the stole over his head while swearing off alcohol for a certain period (priests report this is usually a year). 

This seems to help some drinkers, but many priests seem to think it only helps heavy drinkers avoid social pressure to over-indulge (i.e. "Sorry, fellows, I've taken the oath.").  Romanians have a profound respect for the Church, and so most folks would back off pressuring a friend to drink.

Alcoholics, however, will occasionally take the oath and then, a few weeks later, return to the priest and ask for a 'dispensation' to drink at a wedding or social function.  Every priest handles this differently, but most of the priests were highly ambivalent about the whole thing altogether and usually don't argue with alcoholics who ask for a 'temporary stay' on their oaths.

Again, the assumption is the will... with an oath, an alcoholic can will to stop.  Of course, if this were true, we would not have so many alcoholics and addicts!

It appears that Russia has picked up on the disease concept of alcoholism, but their approach is is that it is strictly a physical disease, with neither a spiritual nor a mental dimension.  So, Russians want a 'treatment' no different than chemotherapy or perhaps diabetes: take a pill and make it go away.

Here's an example:

This Russian method is based on the 'old standby' in American treatment programs, Antabuse ( 

The Russian twist is that the doctor in Russia tells the patient it will kill him, whereas the American addict knows going in that disulfiram won't kill him.  In fact, most American addicts learn that if you want to overcome the effects of disulfiram, you just 'use over it'... drink until the nausea goes away with the regular effects of alcohol.

Disulfiram does not cure the underlying cause of alcoholism, though it may be helpful for a heavy drinker or someone in very early stages of developing addiction.  Clearly, it has not worked in the larger picture of alcoholism.  However, if the general Russian attitude towards alcoholism is that of a disease, then they are ready to take the next step and acknowledge that is is a spiritual disease.

Recovery from addiction is more than just not drinking, it is about being spiritually healed and united with God.  Until the alcoholic accepts this premise and embarks on his spiritual journey, he'll never begin to recover.

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