A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend an Al-Anon meeting with a family member. Alcoholism and substance abuse are equal opportunity diseases — they impact families from all backgrounds. While I’ve recommended Al-Anon to scores of patients over the years, I had never actually attended a meeting myself.
Al-Anon is a 12-step program, fashioned after Alcoholics Anonymous, that supports family members of alcoholics. Its goal is to help participants find “peace and serenity” in the face of alcoholism and addiction. Family members can easily fall into co-dependency, where they take responsibility for their family member’s addiction. They end up on the roller coaster ride of addiction with their loved one. As a result, their lives become unmanageable. It’s a painful place to be.
At my meeting, there were participants from all walks of life and a wide variety of ages. There were older adults who had children who were alcoholics. There were younger men and women with spouses who were addicts. There were several adults who had parents, children and partners who were alcoholics. Their journey to greater peace had taken many years of work on themselves.
My family members and I were newcomers, as were several of the participants. After listening to the basic rules of Al-Anon, the 12 steps and reciting the serenity prayer, participants went around the room to introduce themselves. “My name is Paul” — I said. The group chorused — “Hello, Paul.” I saw warmth in their eyes. I felt welcome.
The theme of this meeting was acceptance, which is a key step in Al-Anon and a core component of finding serenity. The Serenity Prayer asks: “God give me the wisdom to accept those things that I cannot change; courage to change the things that I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s important to accept that the alcoholic or drug addict in our lives has a disease, which we are not responsible for, which we cannot change and which is outside of our control.
One of the members was responsible for leading the meeting and had participants read selected passages from one of Al-Anon’s “Daily Readers,” which has a short narrative for each day of the year on one of the important elements of recovery. Each person read a selected narrative, shared their story and how they connected to the theme.
I was moved hearing the stories of pain, distress and then — through each person’s involvement in Al-Anon — their journey to greater peace and serenity.
Some people have trouble with Al-Anon and AA’s strong spiritual base. For me, it’s consistent with my beliefs. But for those without any religious or spiritual background, it can be a challenge. Letting go of “my will’ and connecting to a higher power, as each person understands this idea, enables us to experience ourselves as part of something larger.
Being part of a community of seekers is also an important component of Al-Anon. We are not alone in the search for peace and serenity. Helping each other along the path is integral to the healing process. It takes a village to be a whole person.
I loved the whole experience and was very glad that I attended a meeting. It was healing for me and my family member. This is a wholesome path for family members whose relatives struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction.
If you have a family member who is an alcoholic or a drug addict, attend a meeting. Try several different meetings and give it a chance. It’s not necessary to connect with everything you hear for you to find help. Set aside whatever doesn’t make sense to you. It may become meaningful to you sometime in the future.
Dr. Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.