Delivering his flock from the bottle

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Delivering his flock from the bottle

The Reverend Heo Keun, who heads a center for the treatment of alcoholism, knows the pain that alcoholics and their families feel. Father Heo was an alcoholic for 15 years.

A former marine, who developed a taste for soju while in the military, Father Heo denied his addiction even when it alienated his congregation. He argued with parishioners. He missed Mass when he was hungover.

"One day I awoke to hear that I had scuffled with a parishioner the night before and I had hurt him so badly that he had to go to the hospital. I could not remember it," says Father Heo, who heads the Catholic Alcohol Pastoral Ministry Center in central Seoul.

"Afterwards, I was afraid to face people and people avoided me. I became increasingly isolated and drank more to forget the isolation," says Father Heo, who has chronicled his experiences in "I'm an Alcoholic," which has just been published and is available in Korean-language bookstores.

Today, Father Heo works with 150 alcoholics who regularly attend counseling sessions at his ministry center. Hundreds more drop by each month for advice.

"I'm an Alcoholic" is the story of Father Heo's triumph over alcoholism and his advice for alcoholics to turn their lives around. "Alcoholism is a sort of disease," the gruff, no-nonsense Father Heo says. "If a person is predisposed to alcoholism, he can become hooked once he touches alcohol ?regardless of his will."

Father Heo, whose black hair and trim frame belie his 50 years, says he became a heavy drinker while serving as a chaplain in the Marine Corps from 1982 to 1985. "Drinking with the marines, I became steeped in their wild and tough culture," he says. "Eventually, I could drink eight bottles of soju in no time."

Completing his military service, Father Heo was sent to a parish church in Seoul. He continued to drink excessively, especially at social gatherings with his parishioners. "In Korea, drinking is regarded as an important way of making friends and reinforcing the sense of solidarity," he says. "As a result, Koreans are especially susceptible to alcoholism."

The effects of Father Heo's drinking became evident in the early 1990s. He frequently missed Mass, and when drunk, often erupted into raging frenzies. Parishioners began avoiding him, which only drove him more to drink. "The most dreadful thing that alcoholics face is isolation," Father Heo says.

One frigid winter day's dawn, he went to a restaurant for his morning tipple. "After drinking for a while, I saw the red sun in the sky and said, 'Oh, sunrise.' Then, someone sitting nearby said, 'Father, it's sunset.'"

Father Heo's mother, brothers and friends begged him to go into treatment. But he refused to admit he was an alcoholic. "I always told them I could give up drinking at anytime once I made up my mind," he says.

Today, Father Heo says it is impossible for alcoholics to stop drinking solely through willpower. "An alcoholic's intellectual, and even emotional functions are paralyzed," he says.

Father Heo recalls how his mother held his hand and pleaded that he quit drinking, tears rolling down her cheeks. "Even then, I felt so little," he says, his voice tinged with regret.

Father Heo finally decided to get treatment in early 1998 after being lectured by Bishop Kim Ok-kyun, whom Father Heo had known since he was ordained. "At that time," Bishop Kim says, "Father Heo looked really miserable." Father Heo weighed just 46 kilograms, 10 less than he weighs now.

Bishop Kim told Father Heo that he would die if he continued drinking. "'You're supposed to save souls,' Bishop Kim recalls saying, 'But you'll fail to save your own if you continue like this.'"

Father Heo entered an alcoholism treatment center in Gwangju and stayed four months. He continued with outpatient treatment until October 1998.

"The most serious torture in the hospital wasn't the physical withdrawal symptoms," he says. "It was reflecting, with a sober mind, on what I had said and done in the past. Ultimately, I chose to help other alcoholics for the rest of my life."

He drew up a proposal for a treatment center and sent it to the local diocese. A few months later, in October 1999, the church established the Catholic Alcohol Pastoral Ministry Center and designated Father Heo its director.

Father Heo says his center concentrates on alcoholics' spiritual recovery, while hospitals focus on physical treatment. At his center, alcoholics' family members participate in the program to rebuild their relationships.

The Catholic Alcohol Pastoral Ministry Center sees people of all ages and walks of life. About 70 percent recover after being treated from 9 to 18 months.

These people greatly encourage Father Heo. "One day, an executive at a large company came here with his 11-year-old son," Father Heo said. "The boy had persuaded him to see me after hearing about my experiences." At that time, the executive and his wife were on the verge of divorce. The man has now recovered and his family has regained its stability.

Now that Father Heo has recovered from alcoholism, he doesn't even drink wine as part of the Eucharist. "Even when I read Mass, I do not drink the consecrated wine, under special permission from the church authorities," Father Heo says. "There is no complete recovery. A person must give up drinking to avoid reoccurrence."

by Moon So-young

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