(My Addiction and Recovery column from the Times Herald-Record, Oct. 30.)
By Bob Gaydos
“For 49 years, I thought I knew what alcoholism was. When I finally found my way into the doors of Al-Anon, I quickly discovered I was mistaken about everything I ever thought I knew about alcoholism.”
The speaker, “J,” an Al-Anon member from the mid-Hudson, is not unique. In fact, pretty much the norm. Or used to be. For the past four years, J. has been getting a detailed and continuing education in what alcoholism is and, more importantly, how people live with active alcoholics in their lives, or their past. It has been a life changer for J. and millions of other men and women who have discovered the companion 12-step group to Alcoholics Anonymous.
“It seems to me,” J. says, “that people with long-term recovery in A.A. operate on a different level from others. They’re calmer, wiser. It’s like they have a college degree in dealing with life. Al-Anon is like a Ph. D.”
That assessment is shared by many others. Unfortunately, especially given the extent of the damage it causes, there remains an appalling lack of awareness or understanding of the disease of alcoholism in society. But there is even less understanding of the damage the disease visits on people who live with and love alcoholics, and too little awareness of the help available to them from groups like Al-Anon. That’s because the focus is pretty much always on the alcoholic, the one making all the trouble, the one with the problem. The one with the disease.
In Al-Anon, new members learn -- or at least hear -- crucial lessons early on: They cannot control the behavior of the alcoholic in their lives. Step One. They are not responsible for the behavior of alcoholics who used to be in their lives. They, too, suffered from significant emotional ills as a result of living with an active alcoholic. The best thing -- perhaps even the only thing at the time -- is for them to focus on getting themselves healthy and then learning about the disease of alcoholism and how to co-exist with it. Or not.
People usually come to Al-Anon in despair, full of fear. They can’t figure out how to get the alcoholic to stop drinking. He or she won’t even admit to being an alcoholic even though all the signs are there. He’s throwing our money away. She’s ignoring the kids. He’s so selfish, so angry, so cruel, etc.
What members say they find quickly is hope. Other members tell of their experiences with alcoholics, what they did about it and what their lives are like now. The message is clear: If you focus on dealing with your own illness -- alcoholism is truly a family disease -- you will get healthier, learn to make healthy choices for yourself, feel better about yourself and be able to lead a healthier life, even if the alcoholic keeps drinking. Don’t worry; we have tools you can use to do this. Believe that it worked for us and that it can work for you. Not overnight, but if you follow the suggestions to the best of your ability, you will get better a day at a time.
Like J., most Al-Anon members with a bit of time to practice what they have learned, swear by the approach. They may still try, in different ways from before, to help the alcoholic to find help, but if they have followed the suggested 12 steps, they focus on living healthier lives themselves, more confident and less fearful, more hopeful than shame-filled, in charge of their lives and no one else’s.For a listing of Al-Anon meetings in the area, phone numbers and addresses, and more information about Al-Anon, go to www.al-anonny.org. You can also call: 1-888-425-2666.
* * *Al-Anon has many pamphlets with useful information. Following are a few questions from a pamphlet aimed at those who grew up with a problem drinker:`Do you constantly seek approval and affirmation?
- Do you fear criticism?
- Do you have a need for perfection?
- Do you care for others easily, yet find it difficult to care for yourself?
- Do you isolate yourself from other people?
- Do you have trouble with intimate relationships?
- Do you attract and/or seek people who tend to be compulsive and/or abusive?
- Do you often mistrust your own feelings and the feelings expressed by others?
- Do you think parental drinking may have affected you?