Doctors and Catholic priests share a one in three risk of becoming alcoholics. In the final part of our series on those whose lives leave them shunned by their fellow church-goers, a doctor's wife describes how she and her church dealt with alcoholism in her husband and her parish priest
IT seemed the archetypal doctor and nurse story. It was late in the autumn of 1971 and I was swept off my feet. By the summer of the following year we were married.
Eleven years and two children further on — in 1983 — I heard him ask me, through tears of self-derision, how it felt to be the wife of an alcoholic. I could have replied "the same as it did yesterday, last week, five years ago". But instead I embraced him with great optimism, assured him of my support as he embarked upon an unending voyage of recovery.
Alcoholics Anonymous, the pioneer of all self-help groups, was the life-vessel that plucked Paul from the ocean of despair which threatened to engulf him. He had been floundering there for years, but at the final point of drowning, using the last gasp of sanity to keep his head above water, he managed to utter a feeble cry for help. AA was ready to throw the life-line.
It's difficult to adjust to the term alcoholic — particularly when it is attached to a loved one. It is imbued with the "skidrow" image of a down-and-out, clutching a meths bottle, inhabiting a twilight world — in short a social pariah. The truth is very different when you're forced to learn it. Alcoholics can be found in every section of society, holding high office and none. They are by nature highly sensitive people who aspire to perfection, and are usually above average intelligence.
As a doctor my husband was in the highest risk sector for this insidious, stigmatising illness. The only other comparable group is Catholic priests — both share a one in three incidence of alcoholism. The parallels between the two vocations are so obvious as to unnecessary to be spelt out.
The suffering through alcoholism is not just confined to the alcoholic, but deeply affects all those closest to him/her. It is always a family disease. In the case of my family, I believe us to be, live years into our recovery, better, more "whole" people as a result of our trials. I thank God that through a series of "coincidences", Paul was directed to the source of help which arrested the disease, and which now continues to support him and to hold the illness in remission — a remission that will last as long as Paul maintains his self-imposed embargo on alcohol.
In addition to family support, Paul has been doubly fortunate in the priceless guidance given by his AA sponsor, a saintly man, a retired Catholic priest. In 1985 as a result of a gradual spiritual awakening, Paul, by that time a changed character, was received into the Catholic Church.
That decision brought with it the happiest years of our married lives. We changed parish and found ourselves in the pastoral care of a priest, the likes of whom, I, a "cradle Catholic" had not previously
encountered. Fr Adam was a man driven in his efforts to spread the Kingdom, humble and down to earth, attuned to his congregation and succeeding in making religion relevant to their lives.
As time passed and our parish involvement grew, we began to notice that our PP was looking tired. He was unable to deny parishoners even their smallest whim — what AA term a "people pleaser". To those like us, who are sensitive to the signs of a developing drink-problem, Fr Adam's drinking pattern became ever more apparent. The timing of an offer of help is crucial to its success, and reluctantly Paul waited with growing concern for the moment when our friend would reach rock bottom. For it would be only then that Fr Adam would be relieved to admit his problem to another.
When the opportunity arose, Paul seized it and challenged Fr Adam who admitted that he was "powerless over alcohol" and that his life was "unmanageable" as a consequence. The first step of the AA programme to recovery, that had rescued Paul had been taken by our priestly friend. We were overjoyed.
Then the bishop intervened and sent Fr Adam way to a long-established treatment centre for religious with psychological problems. The priest who was my husband's AA sponsor knew of the place. It had once been his temporary home. "That's the last place Adam needs at this stage of his recovery, he told me.
Two months into Fr Adam's "treatment", my husband visited the bishop and tried to make him understand that the best chance of a recovery lay in a return to the parish. Such a move would also have been in keeping with current medical treatment, Paul informed the bishop. His plea was ignored.
Despite our misgivings about the nature of Fr Adam's "treatment" as prescribed by the bishop, we reassured our parish priest of our continuing backing in his fight against alcoholism, and promised to keep in touch while awaiting his return. Fr Adam's own instincts were to be honest with the parish community. He resisted pressure from above to conceal the nature of his illness, and did confide in some of his parishoners. They, for their part, responded positively, pledging their support and making practical plans to assist in his eventual reintegration into the life of the local Catholic community.
Some of the parishioners even followed in Paul's footsteps and went to see the bishop to add their voices to his — and that of Fr Adam — in pleading for a return to parish life. The bishop ignored all such advice and after a period of intense pressure convinced Fr Adam to resign as our PP.
Some four months later, he left the treatment centre. Without a parish to return to he sank into a deep depression akin to a bereavement.
That was a year ago. Fr Adam has since begun attending AA meetings with Paul acting as his sponsor. We have welcomed him into our home — a change from the small room he has been allotted in a nearby prebytery. We have tried in a small way to "bear one another's burdens" and have made a start in the painstaking task of rebuilding the shattered confidence of this complex man as he struggles to find a sense of purpose in his makeshift home.
Now comes the news that the bishop is to send him to a new parish on the other side of the diocese. No doubt ecclesiastical thinking is that there no-one will know of Fr Adam's problem. There will, in reality, be the stress for him of trying again to realise the vision of parish community — single handed. We pray for his success, and
I make an impassioned plea to the bishops to avoid blanket prescriptions in dealing with the problem of alcoholic priests. People are unique, as are their circumstances. Rigid adherence to routine measures ean sometimes generate more problems than it solves.
The laity have grown up in this post-conciliar church. They see their priests as human beings — not demi-gods. They must realise that priests, because of the stresses involved in their often solitary work, have a particular predisposition to alcoholism. Then we can help as our alcoholic priests take the first teetering steps on the road to recovery, instead of simply standing by, puzzled, as the priest disappears overnight, without explanation, and the whole problem is swept under the carpet.
Wary of my earlier rejection of blanket approaches to problems, I should mention this country's one enlightened bishop whose attitude will, I hope, be contagious. He makes an announcement about the reason for Father's absence, and when the priest returns to his parish after treatment, it is the bishop who tells the people of the circumstances so that they can continue together — priest and people — on their pilgrimage of faith in a spirit of fresh understanding, encouragement and support.