People inherit a tendency toward this disease. If they cannot control their habits, it will kill them. Before they die, they will usually alienate everyone they love.
The disease alcoholism was the topic of a pastoral-care seminar Saturday at Mountain View Hospital.
"About 12.6 percent of the population has the addictive personality," Donnis Reese, director of mental health services at Bountiful's Lakeview Hospital, said. "They can never be casual drinkers. They can stop drinking, or they can eventually die from their disease."
Seminar speakers explained the warning signs and health risks of alcoholism to the 20 area religious leaders in attendance. They also covered how to get people into treatment programs and ease re-entry into the congregation.
Reese said a strong religious community has the same problems as any other community.
"I have found the patients are representative of the area. If the community is 60 percent Baptist, so is our patient list. If the area is 40 percent Mormon, so are 40 percent of our patients."
She said, however, living in a very religious community may increase the stigma and make the alcoholic more secretive.
Reese said she had a patient once who was addicted to sleeping aid. She would never think of drinking straight alcohol, but the sleeping aid that contained alcohol was OK.
But Dr. Dean Bristow, medical supervisor of Mountain View's drug- and alcohol-abuse program, said the source of alcohol makes no difference. It all does the same damage.
"The chemical changes to the brain begin with the first drink. Most foods are broken down to usable components and absorbed through the small intestines. Alcohol enters the blood stream earlier, through the lining of the stomach. It numbs and sedates human tissue and keeps it from working."
Bristow said alcohol slows bone marrow's production of white blood cells, which increases the chance of serious infection. Drinking also destroys platelet cells, which help the blood clot.
"Three drinks will destroy all the platelets a human can make in one day," he said. "Alcoholics are much more likely to bruise easily or to bleed to death in an accident."
Alcohol also increases the cholesterol level, which increases the fat in the human liver.
"The tissue gets numb and swollen and stops working so well. The liver is a cleansing organ, so when it is impaired, the body's toxin level rises."
Bristow said when alcoholics stop drinking, the fat level will drop, but the liver may be permanently damaged by scar tissue.
Other health problems related to alcohol use include high blood pressure, ulcers, pneumonia, diabetes, hepatitis, strokes, anemia, testicle atrophy and sexual dysfunction.
"Alcohol-related diseases are the third greatest cause of death, and that doesn't even count drunken drivers who wrap their cars around trees," he said.
Reese said compulsive behavior runs in families. There is a marker on platelets that is found very often in alcoholics and their children.
"The children may not be drinkers but will have eating disorders. Or they will use drugs. They will think some substance is the key to happiness," she said. "But more often, a person abusing one substance will eventually abuse others. That is how they react to the pain of life."
She said alcoholics are out of control and should not be morally condemned or barred from re-entering society after they have stopped drinking.
"I am an uncontrollable workaholic. If I had a stress-related heart attack, would you all come to the hospital to tell me I was a bad person?"
The stigma on alcoholism can increase the family's denial, she said.
"I knew a health-care worker whose daughter came home drunk and staggering. The girl told her mother she had been hit in the head by a bowling ball, and the mother, a trained professional, believed her. It must have been very important for the mother's self-esteem to have a perfect daughter, but what was the charade costing the daughter?
"When I counsel a family, I always go to the youngest child, the one who hasn't yet learned to keep up appearances. A 3-year-old can tell you she hurts because her daddy drinks too much."
The Rev. Thomas Meersman, director of special services for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake, advised doing whatever it takes to stop someone from drinking.
"I've made people swear on bibles. I've made people swear on their mother's grave. Whatever it takes to get their attention."
He also advised approaching people on their own level.
"You can't tell an atheist God loves him and wants him to stop drinking. Use philosophy on non-believers. You have to know your customers if you want to sell your product. But never pretend you understand if you don't. An alcoholic can spot a hypocrite a mile away.
"And don't ever break a confidence. Even a knowing smile at the wrong moment can spoil someone's career. There is a special place in hell for religious leaders who betrayed a trust."
Milton Watts, a social worker for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, led a simulated confrontation session.
"If you can get the important people in an alcoholic's life to tell him how much he is hurting everyone, sometimes the alcoholic will go into treatment," he said.
The group agreed family and spiritual support greatly increases an alcoholic's chance of controlling the disease, but the Rev. Meersman said people should remember that some are not ready to be helped, so all efforts will fail.