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Adult Children of Alcoholism and Drug addiction
By Father Andrew Harrison

When I was serving as the Priest of St. Herman’s mission parish in California I was also employed by the Veteran’s Administration as an addiction therapist. During the 19 years as the Priest of St. Luke, I was able to utilize the skills I acquired at the VA on mission trips to Romania, Africa and Alaska speaking on alcoholism and drug addiction. In October, I was invited to speak to the Colorado Clergy Association by Fr. Seraphim Gisetti. Fr. Seraphim and his wife have established a treatment program in Denver for Drug and other addictions. They utilize the 12 step program of Alcoholic Anonymous and Orthodox Christian principles.

Through various research studies, it has been shown that all members of a family are affected when a parent is suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction.(1) Members of a family can become as psychologically sick as the parent. Based on the statistics of families in the United States with alcoholism and drug addiction, there are over 70 million people in danger of severe psychological problems. Research has shown that even children of the second or third generation, without any presence of alcoholism in the family are still at risk. The risk is connected to genetics and the roles each family member is forced to play in reaction to the chaos caused by the drug addicted member. Unknowingly they become enablers through denial or cover up. Even the larger circle of relationships can become supporters of the addiction. Doctors may avoid asking pertinent questions about injuries and sickness which may be directly related to the addiction and support the addiction by prescribing psychoactive drugs. Clergy tend to pacify the family by words of empathy and forgiveness. Many see alcoholism as a moral weakness rather than a disease affecting body soul and spirit. The words of Christ come to mind, “this kind, referring to demonic possession, can be cured only through prayer and fasting”(2) Prayer is part of treatment but fasting or abstinence is critical to recovery. Many clergy are not prepared to give the proper spiritual direction because of their own issues with alcoholism in their families of origin.

The one who enables the most may be the spouse who maintains the supply of the drug. It could be by directly purchasing and or by taking over the duties of the addicted parent. They become financial supporters as well as caregivers for the children. They take over the leadership responsibilities as the addict descends into his/her addiction. They may have tried methods to cut the supply but give up under pressure. The only choices they have are either to leave or maintain the status quo while the addiction becomes the central organizing principle of the family. This can continue even until the addict dies. The enabler may not know or deny the role they played in the demise of their spouse. If they do decide to leave and they are not treated for their mental health, the chances are high that they will marry another alcoholic.

All addiction counselors instruct those classified as enablers to stop enabling. They need to recognize the problem and take steps to make the addict “come to himself.” The story of the prodigal Son from the bible is a good example(3). The father let his son go. This is also good an example for a family with an addicted child. Doctors and clergy should ask the right questions not avoiding the reality of the addiction. For the enabling spouse or parent, they need to seek help. The process of curtailing the enabling behavior takes time, effort and a lot of risk. It can even be physically dangerous. Organizations like ALANON, CODA and Tough Love are available to help. The priest can give encouragement to both the spouse and the addict to seek help but the priest must recognize that he may not be qualified to confront this issue as Jesus told his apostles. “This kind requires prayer and fasting”

As was stated above, alcoholism or drug addiction effects each member of the family beginning with the spouse but the children are hurt the worst. They become the victims as they mature into adult life. Research has shown that each child take the roles learned growing up in a family with an alcoholic or drug addicted parent into their adult life. These roles in adult life have been labeled as the family hero, placator, adjuster, or rebellious child. Each adult child can express this role behavior individually or they are combined together and come out at different phases of adult life.

The first born can be described as the family Hero. They become obsessed in saving the family name. They may become obsessed leaders driven to success who try to maintain control because as children they were forced into adults roles. Studies have shown that children raised in alcoholic, drug addicted families are prominent in the helping professions such as doctors, lawyers, psychologists, nurses and clergy. They become so driven in their need for control and self-acceptance they develop stress which can set them up for some other addictions. They may turn to drug addiction or be repulsed by it and seek to self-medicate with addictions such as work, gambling, eating disorders, sexual/ pornography. When they excel in their work they tend to have difficulty accepting success and unknowingly create situations which cause failure. They become more lonely and depressed. They are unable to share feelings. They cannot relax; they become more and more inflexible and defensive. They take on bigger and bigger projects with more responsibility which makes them even more insecure, “compulsively feeding the very fire she is trying to put out.”

The second child is labeled as the Placater or Helper child. They try to diminish the hurts and feelings of others. They develop an ability to pick up signals of anger, resentments, and sadness. They try to smooth things over in their adult life. They attract needy people because of their unselfish giving and compassion. They apologize endlessly. They have a good listening ear and make compassionate counselors but they refuse to seek personal help. They judge relationships on their ability to give to others. They have trouble sharing feelings. They become the family clown by turning difficulties into jokes. They have learned to defuse anger or violence with well-placed humor.

The third child is labeled the Adjuster child. Because of the chaotic environment of an addicted family, they tend to be shy, apathetic, paralyzed by fears, and a sense of inadequacy. They tend to do nothing. They do not even leave an impression on others. In adult life they “slip through the cracks.” They see themselves as powerless, lacking direction, and emotionally detached. They marry people who can create the same chaos they grew up with while still being lonely and despairing.

The fourth child is labeled as the Rebellious Child. They are seen as the family problem child becoming the scape goat. They have difficulty with authority while seeking negative attention. You might say they run with the wild crowd which is composed of others of low self-esteem. Drinking and experimenting with harder drugs is prevalent during teen years. They enter adulthood with chip on their shoulder. They are usually high school drop outs. They make poor decisions by having illegitimate children or marrying early. They are plagued with financial problems and debts they cannot pay. They get involved in violent and illegal acts.

Eventually life catches up with all of the maladjusted family members. They meet people who cannot be manipulated or placated. Adjusting and jokes do not work anymore. The get caught in their lies and pay a high price for their delinquent behavior. They begin to see the problems in their emotional development. This can lead to a period of crisis which can threaten career, marriage, sanity and ultimately his/her life. It can lead to suicide. Alcoholics and drug addicts have a four times higher rate of suicide than the average. Since this is a hidden and opportunistic illness, crisis can appear late in life even in retirement.

For those who “come to themselves” and seek help, the process never ends. Just like an alcoholic, adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) must realize how they have been affected by their alcoholic family. Just knowing that something is wrong with you is the beginning of recovery. Even a suspicion is enough to begin the process. ACOA’s can search for individual therapy and/or self-help groups like Adult Children of Alcoholics ACOA. They can begin looking at their family realistically tracing the effects of alcoholism through the generations by doing a family tree. This way they begin to disengage and eventually, through a long process, reach forgiveness of their parent and of themselves. They can follow the same twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The church can also be helpful if it is a healthy family (If it is as dysfunctional as any alcoholic family it should be avoided like the plague). Relationships with ideal individual and family role models can be developed. The sacrament of Confession can help in the healing process. Seek out a priest for counseling who understands the disease. Books and pamphlets such as Do not Resent by Metropolitan Jonah, Steps of Transformation by Fr. Meletios Weber are of great help. These will help express repressed emotions of fear, anger and hurt. The hidden rules of silence, rigidity, isolation and denial which lead to fear, anger, rage, deep grief and resentment need to be addressed. All this emotional pain must be released. This discharge can take place at ACOA meetings, in therapy or confession.

Once the discharge has taken place, learning how to think in a new healthy way can begin. It can start with healthy communication, like “I messages” which express your feelings which help in new ways to resolve conflicts, with listening skills which help to negotiate with others, thought patterns like “ how am I supposed to behave?” are replaced with affirmations. Start taking care of yourself by developing a healthy life style, eating healthy food, exercise and surrounding yourself with healthy people who love you for who your are not what you had become by be raised in a drug addicted family.

1. Lawson Ann, Lawson Gary, Alcoholism and the Family, Pro-Ed 8700 Shoal Creek Blvd. Austin Texas 1998
2. Matthew 17:21
3. Luke 15:11-32

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