If you are concerned about or negatively impacted by the drinking habits of a family member or friend and want to get advice about what to do, I highly recommend joining an Al-Anon group. This mutual-help organization is a fellowship of ordinary, everyday people who experience distress with someone else’s drinking. Meetings are not run by mental health professionals or addictions counselors, because this group is about grassroots—about people with first-hand experience helping others like themselves. It’s a highly effective way of building trust.
Al-Anon is based upon Alcoholics Anonymous, the first 12-Step group in the United States. Al-Anon is for adults, and Alateen is for youth who are impacted by the alcoholism of relatives or friends. Many who come to Al-Anon/Alateen are feeling concerned, frustrated, and hopeless that circumstances might never change. Members share their experience , strength , and hope for better relationships and improved quality of life.
In this blog, I focus on Al-Anon, because I have personal experience with it. When my former husband’s drinking became a big problem in 2013, I felt bewildered, mortified, anxious, angry, and overwhelmed. The experience was such an emotional upheaval that a colleague encouraged me to attend an Al-Anon group. I’m so glad I did! I hope my experiences and insights, which I describe below, might inspire you in some way to take positive action for yourself.
MUCH TO CELEBRATE, DESPITE THE PAIN
At every Al-Anon meeting, the group secretary asks a specific question to start the evening’s conversation: “Are there any anniversaries of a year or more that we can help celebrate?” In December of 2022, I proudly announced my nine-year Al-Anon Anniversary as the group members all clapped and congratulated me. For the uninitiated, this may not seem like a very big deal. For me, it was a reminder of where I started and how far I had come. With every passing year, I continue to grow in my recovery. Here are nine things I have learned through the nine-year experience and through the strength and hope of many people in the Al-Anon program.
1.) I AM NOT ALONE.
I can still remember my first Al-Anon meeting like it was yesterday. It was almost 8 pm on a Friday night in mid-December 2013 when I pulled into the parking lot of the church where the meeting was being held. I parked and sat in my car, terrified and curious at the same time. Would anyone recognize me? What would they think? Would they think any less of me personally and professionally? What would I say to them about my being here? Could this program possibly help me? I took a deep breath and walked in. I saw chairs set up in a circle and about ten people were already in the room. Many of them seemed to know each other. They were smiling and laughing! I did not understand that: nothing about alcoholism seemed very funny to me. Three of the women I met that night are still part of my life today. They shared their phone numbers with me and encouraged me to “keep coming back.” They gave me a Newcomer’s Packet that had pamphlets and a bookmark in it. For the first time in a long time, I did not feel alone: there were other spouses and family members of alcoholics who were struggling.
2.) I AM NOT JUDGED.
Before Al-Anon, I thought that no one could possibly understand the circumstances of life with an alcoholic. For many meetings, I was afraid to share my problems for fear of being judged, pitied, or blamed. Over time, I realized that many others had experienced similar feelings, thoughts, and circumstances as me. Nobody was there to judge me. Members of Al-Anon do not give advice or try to fix another person’s problems. Instead, they keep the focus on themselves and how they use the tools of Al-Anon in their own lives. What a precious gift–to speak freely, knowing that you will not be criticized or judged but welcomed and accepted! Today I am less judgmental about other people I encounter in my daily life, and this is a direct result of the acceptance I was given in Al-Anon.
3.) I HAVE A HIGHER POWER WORKING IN MY LIFE.
At the core of Al-Anon and other 12-Step programs are spiritual processes of recovery. I was raised Catholic and have always believed in God, so I am comfortable with the word “spiritual.” However, if you are a person who is not comfortable with spirituality, think about the word energy. Al-Anon helps you become aware of and take control of your own energy—the part of you that is curious, passionate, and longing for a better life.
Medications, mental health therapy, and social interventions are extremely useful for many people but cannot substitute for conscious contact with one’s own Higher Power or energetic core. In Al-Anon, I learned that I can have a personal relationship with a Higher Power of my own understanding. A Higher Power (or HP, as it’s commonly referred to in Al-Anon) is a force or being that is bigger than me but also an essential part of me, deep within the recesses of my soul. HP is a source of wisdom, guidance, and right living. Prayer and meditation are the two most common ways to connect with my HP. Throughout the last nine years, I have learned what to pray for and what to meditate on: knowledge of His will for me and the power to carry that out. As I connect more closely to my HP and recognize His work in my life, my recovery improves.
4.) I HAVE CHOICES.
For many years living with an alcoholic husband, I felt stuck (see “Dangerous Hope vs. Daring Hope”. I had a thousand excuses. I couldn’t leave because my children were too young. I did not want to be divorced and alone. I did not want to sell the house and move to a new neighborhood. I even rationalized staying with the alcoholic because “at least there would be somebody to walk the dog.” One of the most important things I learned in Al-Anon is that I have choices. I no longer have to tolerate unacceptable behavior. I can set healthy boundaries. I can make decisions that benefit me, and when necessary, I can change my mind and make new decisions. Big changes in my life did not occur overnight, but the realization that I have choices has completely transformed my life for the better. I assure you that small, incremental changes over time are essential to the process, just as much as the big changes.