elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Saturday, 9 October 2004

all about al-anon

Now that I’ve been in Al-Anon for a little while, I’m starting to find a lot of comfort not only in the steps of the program but also in the rhythm of the meetings themselves. I find that if I go more than a week without attending one (I usually go 2-3x/week) that I can feel the difference in my mood and attitude. I was explaining to my kids this week why I go, and what we talk about, and I realized that most people don’t know…so here’s a beginner’s guide to Al-Anon meetings. I’ve not found much about meetings and what they’re like anywhere online, and I wonder sometimes if more people might be willing to go if they had a better sense of what it would be like. (The official Al-Anon site does have information for newcomers, but the information is embedded in graphics that require javascript to display, which makes them pretty inaccessible. :/ )

Al-Anon is based on the same twelve steps as Alcoholics Anonymous, and there are some similarities to the way the meetings are run. Like AA, Al-Anon groups typically meet in churches—not because there’s a Christian theme to the meetings, but because the rent tends to be inexpensive, and there are lots of them around.

Here in the Rochester area, there are over 60 meetings a week. Unlike AA, which has many groups that meet daily, most Al-Anon groups meet once a week. The meetings I attend generally have between ten and thirty attendees, although occasionally there are fewer or more at a given meeting. Each meeting tends to have a core group who attend regularly and consider it their “home” group, and others who attend occasionally. Many people in the program attend meetings when they’re away from home, so it’s not uncommon to have an out-of-town visitor at a meeting.

Chairing the meeting is a responsibility that rotates among group members (one of the twelve traditions of the program reads “Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”) Most meetings begin with the group reciting the Serenity Prayer, and the chair reading the organization’s suggested opening. Members then take turns reading the twelve steps and twelve traditions. After that, any newcomers are greeted and provided with a newcomer’s packet of literature, an up-to-date meeting list, and a phone list for the group. Then those in attendance introduce themselves by first name only (the phone list is first name only, as well). Most of the groups I attend then have a reading from one or two of the daily meditation books that Al-Anon publishes—One Day at a Time, Courage to Change, and Hope for Today (couldn’t find a link to it). The books are less expensive if you buy them at a meeting; most of the groups here sell the first two as a set for $16.

After that, if there’s a speaker for the meeting, the speaker will share their personal story, or some message of “experience, strength, and hope.” After this (or instead of it, if there’s no speaker), the meeting takes a somewhat Quaker-style approach of letting people speak as the spirit moves them. There’s an absolute rule about not interrupting or discussing while someone is sharing, and typically people don’t respond directly to each other with advice or suggestions—the sharing is a chance to talk about challenges or successes, more to air them and think about them than to ask specifically for help. Nobody has to share, either—there are a lot of people who attend meetings for months at a time without saying anything besides their name; there are others who speak regularly.

During the meeting, at some point a basket will circulate for donations to help pay rent and purchase the pamphlets that are freely available to attendees. Most people put $1 in the basket, but it’s a voluntary contribution, not a required one.

When I first started attending meetings, I assumed that attending Al-Anon—or AA—was a short-term crisis-oriented behavior, and that once we were “healed” that we wouldn’t need to go back. My assumption was that everyone attending was in crisis, so I wondered a bit at how they were able to help each other. And like many people, I started attending Al-Anon less to help myself and more to help the alchoholic in my life—to provide support and learn enough to help support their recovery.

What I found, however, was that each meeting had a mix of people whose friends and family were active alcoholics and in recovery, a mix of newcomers and those who’d been in the program for years, a mix of those dealing with spouses, with parents, with children, with siblings, with friends. When I was told early in the process that if I listened, I was sure to hear my own story, I was dubious. These people were all so different from me. How could their stories be anything like mine? But as I listened—really listened, in a way that most environments don’t foster—I began to hear people saying things that resonated with me. Behavioral patterns that sounded eerily familiar. Problems and frustrations that were echoes of my own experiences. But even better, I heard people talking about how they’d changed these negative patterns in their own lives—the tendencies to try to control people and things around them, well beyond the realistic limits of their own power. The tendency to lose themselves in other people’s emotions—“if you hurt, I hurt; if you’re happy, I’m happy.”

The more I attend meetings, the more I realize that some significant and beneficial changes are taking place inside of me. I’m becoming more tolerant of others—not just the alcoholic my life, but my family, my friends, my colleagues, and people I don’t know. I’m becoming less stressed by things around me. I’m developing a sense of serenity that used to be much more elusive for me.

I haven’t had too much trouble dealing with the first step of the program—admitting that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable. I struggle a little more with step two, which says “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” I’ve written about some of my issues with a higher power and spirituality before, and this is something that I (and a lot of other people in 12-step programs) still struggle with. But at the end of the day, all that you really need to do in order to move forward in recovery is to acknowledge that you’re not your own higher power—that it’s something outside yourself. Some people start out by seeing the Al-Anon group as their higher power. Others see their sponsor in that role. It’s about letting go of sole responsibility for making the world go ‘round, for the way other people live their lives. It’s not a denial of personal responsibility. I’m still responsible for my own actions (and inactions, and reactions). But I’m not responsible for the behavior of the people around me—which is both a relief and a frustration.

One of the things we learn in Al-Anon meetings is that what we’re giving up is not control—it’s the illusion of control. At a meeting a few months ago, a woman whose experiences always seem to resonate with mine was sharing about her tendency to want to fix behaviors and situations for other people. She said that now when she finds that urge taking over she asks herself “And how’s that been working for you?” Everyone in the room laughed in recognition. We’ve all been there…trying to change the people around us, and failing completely.

At the close of the meeting (which lasts an hour), the chair reads a suggested closing, and then the group forms a circle, holds hands, and recites the Lord’s Prayer. For the first several months I stood in the circle, but didn’t recite the prayer—I’m not Christian, and it felt inappropriate. But I finally decided that I could recite it in the same way that I’d sing a Christmas carol…for the sense of connection to others and good spirit that it’s intended to foster in that context. After the meeting is over, members tend to stick around for 15-20 minutes to chat, follow up on things they heard that struck a chord with them, etc.

If the drinking in someone else’s life troubles you—whether it’s occurring now, or happened in the past—think about attending a meeting. In fact, think about attending more than one, because it sometimes takes a couple of different meetings to find one where you feel at home, where you’re hearing your stories. As the third tradition says, “The only requirement for membership is that there be a problem of alcoholism in a relative or friend.” Nobody checks your credentials at the door, or decides whether or not you “belong.” And while it doesn’t work for everyone, it’s an amazingly effective tool for many. My life is less unmanageable than it was, my sanity is real and much less fragile. And for that I’m very grateful.

Posted at 4:18 PM in: recovery

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference all about al-anon:

What is an Al-Anon meeting like? from Learning The Lessons of Nixon on October 9, 2004 5:19 PM
Excerpt: Lots of people are afraid to go to a support group meeting. I mean, what if it's freaky, right? Liz Lawley has a post on what Al Anon meetings are like. My take: You don't have to be scared. You don't have anything to lose except an hour of you...
Can Al-Anon Help You? from Modulator on October 13, 2004 5:33 PM
Excerpt: Just in case you've been wondering about this Liz Rawley offers some help:If the drinking in someone elseÝs life troubles youˇwhether itÝs occurring now, or happened in the pastˇthink about attending a meeting.Or as one of the commenters to this post s...
Liz on Al-Anon from Joho the Blog on October 17, 2004 11:41 PM
Excerpt: Liz has a helpful post about what actually goes on at an Al-Anon meeting: "I wonder sometimes if more people might be willing to go if they had a better sense of what it would be like." She gives a straightforward description that is likely to help som...
Comment from Paul Hoffman on October 9, 2004 7:03 PM (Permalink to Comment)

The Christmas carol analogy is great. No need to hold out just because you aren't believing it like you think you're supposed to believe it.

That's also how many people make it through the second step (accepting that there is a higher power). Even if everyone else in the room uses "God" for that, you don't have to, and you don't have to avoid using the word "God" just because you think that your version is different than everyone else's.

Comment from LiL on October 10, 2004 1:58 AM (Permalink to Comment)

Is there any way you can tell that someone you know is an alcoholic? I mean, sometimes the signs are very clear, with very frequent alcohol-related blackouts or slugging listerine all the time (swallowing it, that is) and so on - with the attendant emotional problems. But if it's someone you see every day but never see drink much, quite, but something makes you think... Likely the emotional things. I can't quite define it, and was wondering if there are signs and behaviours that most reasonably indicate alcoholism.

This is such an odd question, I know - and I don't know how to ask it well either.

I also want to tell you that this is a wonderful post.

Comment from Liz Lawley on October 10, 2004 10:53 AM (Permalink to Comment)

Lil, I've always felt that the label of "alcoholic" isn't particularly meaningful in the context of Al-Anon. If someone else's drinking makes you uncomfortable, or you think it's causing problems, that's enough for Al-Anon to be helpful.

Many people with drinking problems are extremely adept at hiding those problems, so if you wait for obvious signs of drinking you may have to wait for a long time. In the case of the alcholic that spurred my decision to go into Al-Anon, everyone involved was *shocked* by the revelation of his alcoholism. (Except maybe me...despite my denial, I'd seen enough of the behavioral signs that the revelation helped me make sense of a lot of things.)

There are a lot of behavioral patterns that are typical in people with drinking problems, and I'm not really qualified to enumerate them here. One thing to consider is going to an open AA meeting, and listening to some of the stories there. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you've identified their problem as alcoholism; you won't be able to change their behavior. Al-Anon works for many of us whether or not the alcoholic is actively drinking.

Comment from LiL on October 11, 2004 1:16 AM (Permalink to Comment)

Liz - thanks so much for your response. I think that what I need now is not to get sucked into this person's problems anymore - I know I can't change their behaviour, or even help them, for that matter. I need help to cope with it, whatever the person's problem is. May or may not be alcohol or another addiction, it could also just be a "simple" untreated depression but I'm not sure anymore.

I wondered about going to open AA meetings but thus far, never have because I'm simply not sure alcohol is the problem and didn't know if, then, it's appropriate for me to be there.

Comment from oddsox on October 11, 2004 6:43 AM (Permalink to Comment)

Lil, we can hide it better than you think! Appearing to drink very lightly socially without any issues is the easiest thing to do. I used to take a few shots before I went to out, so I could just have one drink while there. Since we usually have high tolerances, we can look perfectly normal, sober, and are used to "functioning" while intoxicated. Even I cannot spot another drunk, so don't bother trying.

Chances are if you think there is a problem, there is. As the Prof said, if you feel uncomfortable it's up to you to do something. Unfortunately no matter how much you care, you can't do anything for us, we have to do that for ourselves.

Hope you don't mind me horning in you comments, but this is a topic I'm well versed in..

Comment from Liz Lawley on October 11, 2004 9:44 AM (Permalink to Comment)

Lil, the "not getting sucked into someone else's issues" is a major component of what Al-Anon focuses on. Detachment is one of the key themes. One person in a meeting I attended described detachment as "not getting emotionally involved in someone else's emotions," which is something that's really hard for me. Like many other people in Al-Anon meetings, I tend to be an emotional sponge--if the people I care about are depressed, I'm depressed. If they're angry, I'm angry. If they're happy, I'm happy. What I'm learning--slowly--to do is to not base my emotinoal state on theirs.

And Oddsox, you're not horning in at all...I'm really glad you commented.

Comment from William on October 11, 2004 2:08 PM (Permalink to Comment)

As a recovering alcoholic (2 years dry) and the son of a recovering alcoholic (who's higher power is an intellectual construct) I believe I know both sides of the fence and the pain of sitting on it, as well. The question I ask myself is, "What matters? What is missing?"

I found myself unable to hold dear to my father's intellectual construct. I found no solace or succor in the rigors of Zen or the pantheon of Hinduism. The way that could be spoken of was not the constant way. I remained empty as a church on Sunday at 12:05. All the while, nothing mattered.

When nothing matters, drunkeness doesn't matter. When nothing is wrong then intoxication is ... OK. When there is not a clear line of demarcation then it is alright to remain...undecided. Even worse, for my wife and my children, when it is OK for me to be an alcoholic then it is OK for them to be the co-victims of alcohol/drugs/abuse/etc.

Ok, so you know where this is going now. I suggest that what matters and what is missing, is a right relationship with God. NOT a right relationship with a Faith or a Church - those are just things. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Don't be lead by a preacher or a teacher or even these words. Listen to your inner being. Listen as you might to your hunger, letting your person speak to your needs. Then, in a moment of privacy, take up the Word. Read the teachings of Jesus. Not the literary trappings of the greater work but the few distinct words attributed to the man himself... out of those few words will come the foundation of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Out of that relationship will come what matters and what is missing.



Comment from Liz on October 12, 2004 3:30 AM (Permalink to Comment)

I haven't gotten the hang of Typekey, sorry. I keep misplacing my key. You & Joanne Jacobs are the only sites so far that require it (that are on my daily beat, anyway).

You said, "If the drinking in someone elseé─˘s life troubles youé─ţwhether ité─˘s occurring now, or happened in the pasté─ţthink about attending a meeting.

I'd change that to read "If the irrational or unreasonable behavior in someone else's life troubles you and that person denies the behavior exists, or refuses to take responsibility for the behavior é─ţwhether ité─˘s occurring now, or happened in the pasté─ţthink about attending a meeting.

This would address Lil's question, as well. You don't have to get somebody to accept a label in order to benefit from the AlAnon experience. And there are a lot of people out there who are manipulative and narcissistic (in a crazy-making way) who are not alcohol users--who don't use any drugs. Learning how to detach from them is the AlAnon message.

You said, In fact, think about attending more than one, because it sometimes takes a couple of different meetings to find one where you feel at home, where youé─˘re hearing your stories.

I cannot emphasize the keep going back feature enough to the folk that are just sticking their toes in, either to AA or AlAnon. Keep going to meetings till you find a group of people that are comfortable for you.

If you keep going and keep listening with an open heart, you will hear stories that will make sense of the things in your life that are now completely non-sensical. You will have a number of "Aha! So THAT's the picture" experiences. And you might make some new friends.

Having said that, I do have some reservations about the A experience--AlAnon, AA, *A, whatever.

One thing that bothers me about all the *A is just what William is talking about...the insistence on the relationship with "God", and that the higher power has a plan for me. The A message--running my own life without running away and realizing that I cannot control the attitudes behaviors or beliefs of another--can do a lot, but it is not going to cure my underlying depression, any more than AA or AlAnon can cure diabetes or cancer. I do no need to hear that if I just work the steps, my neurological problems will be magically cured. God did not have a plan for me that included some of the heartbreak I've experienced. That's a story somebody else can tell themselves to make sense of their lives, but that isn't for me.

I have a lot of trouble with the negative language involved in step work-- it is all about enumerating how you have failed. There's no balance, no looking at what positive things a person has accomplished.

I have a lot of trouble with the church/state divide that's regularly abrogated by persons with DUIs (for example) being required to attend AA meetings.

Some people go to an *A meeting every day--they find they need a daily "dose" to maintain the life they want. Other people don't.

While I have a number of reservations about AA and 12-step, there are a number of groups that I like, one all-women and two mixed. I make a habit of attending at least one meeting a week.

I don't say the whole Lord's prayer--I cannot honestly recite "Our Father, who art in heaven"--so I just keep silent till "forgive us our trespasses" where I jump in. In the

Comment from tim on October 14, 2004 3:02 PM (Permalink to Comment)

Liz, your thoughts about your process are beautiful as usual.

I happened to have seen the MPR has a show called Speaking of Faith, and this Sunday's show is on recovery oriented issues.">

I would be surprised if you didn't find it interesting.

Comment from Per on October 20, 2004 10:21 AM (Permalink to Comment)

Thank you for this wonderful post about Al-Anon!
/ A Al-Anon friend in Sweden.

Comment from Mike Golby on October 21, 2004 4:26 PM (Permalink to Comment)

Hi Liz

Alcoholism's been pretty much a part of my life since birth. My father recovered through AA when I was a kid. He pointed me (without prescription) to AA when I hit the skids around 17. I stumbled in at age 26, a virtual child but completely insane. That was back in '84, a time of smoke-filled rooms and atrophied Bukowskis with senses of humor as dry as any drink.

After four years of going the whole hog and taking on additional voluntary therapy, I drifted from regular attendance, but somehow the program stuck and I'd occasionally be invited to speak at meetings. (I've not done so for about three years, but I'd go along right now and speak if invited, and I'd feel comfortable doing so.)

Coming out of AA into Al-Anon during the '90s was something of a let down and I found myself not hooking into it after about three attempts--and a short slip that cemented my realization of its worth. (I realize my not feeling of not quite 'fitting in' says more of me than it does of Al-Anon, and I've remained uncomfortable at being uncomfortable with the groups available to me. But perhaps it's a case of "Not yet...") As an alternative, I found a two-year stint working online with a Coda-aligned list did me the world of good.

I guess I found myself taking the first step pretty much unconsciously by that time, and Coda offered a chance to grapple with specific behaviors. The Web worked for me back then (around '98 and '99) and gave substance and value to virtual relationships. It's still doing so. I certainly found blogging an easy step to take :).

As you stipulate so quietly but emphatically, there are no rules prescribing the way in which one chooses to work this program. I know 'it works if one works it' and I've a deep appreciation for it having saved two generations of my family. It's also made it infinitely easier for me to deal with my approach to my wife's alcoholism and related problems.

I guess my point is this. Whether I attend Al-Anon meetings or not (some cannot), a grounding in the 12 Steps allowed me to come to terms with myself in situations where I found myself confronting my own or another's alcoholism (either way, one's life becomes unmanageable). Today, it does not matter how I attained some understanding of the program's worth. Of more importance to me is my knowledge that it would take a conscious, considered rejection or refutation of the steps on my part for me to lose that which they have given me.

I'm certainly not serene or altogether together. But, hell, when I think of where I'd be without all those who've allowed me to see myself through them, I cannot but help believe in a power transcending my small appreciation of what this is all about.

"And someday maybe, who knows, baby..." you'll find me a regular Al-Anon attendee. Thank you for your post. It reminds me just how important it is that I continue to be me :).

Comment from Kyle on October 24, 2004 9:07 AM (Permalink to Comment)

Al-Anon is awesome and a critical first step towards self-understanding whose core tenants are sorely missing from so much of society. Yes, there are other venues for what Al-Anon delivers but Al-Anon helps to crystallize an import subset in a powerfully personal way.

I became a regular Al-Anon member and the wake up was slow and deep. I started going when I lived in NYC. The meetings there (which in NYC is very ubiquitous) were always anonymous. I never recognized the same people across the different meetings I attended. Being gregarious, this was actual positive, as it helped me focus on myself. (There’s an ironic note sounded at these meetings; “I came for the person I love and I ended up going for myself.” That’s focus as it ought to be.) I miss that here.

The metaphysical or “otherness” undertones were also a show-stopping difficulty for me then. However, I was never proselytized or made uncomfortable as it relates to this aspect. In NYC, I don’t recall the Lord’s Prayer being said at the conclusion of a meeting. I suspect they generally don‚t practice it there. Sure, members will discuss their faith but it is considered out of bounds to push that onto another. (You might see this is a co-dependent behavior that you’re there to stop)

I bet that the number of people in the U.S. who love an alcoholic represents a vast majority and that a vast majority of us would benefit from the 12 Steps. Like Liz’s joke about a control freak, co-dependency is pervasive and we all get the joke. No, this isn’t a call to spread the message to the four corners. Perhaps it’s more of a sigh.

Comment from Jamie P on November 3, 2005 8:38 AM (Permalink to Comment)

Hey guys and gals,

Sorry, a little off topic but if anyone is interested we now have Al-Anon meetings where we can talk in the sober cyper world - is a site where you can find info on Al-Anon meetings held over Skype.

Hope this will be of help to others. It will certainly be a help to me living here in Dharam Shala India.

Jamie P

Comment from JenT on December 9, 2006 4:58 PM (Permalink to Comment)

I've recently joined Alanon and I agree with EVERYTHING, it's been such a blessing...but one detail that nobody deals with is, what about when your husband goes on binges and his ex-girlfriend calls and tells you about their continuing affair? I can't get past this. We were married all of four months before his first episode with her, and always is with her when he drinks. I'm told by Alanon members not to make any decisions for (I think 6 weeks) but I just can't accept this. Anyone out there help? I keep telling myself he faces the fires of sobriety for me and has to be drunk to be with her, but still, I can't get past it. He's so wonderful between these episodes but I can't get past it. Help?

Comment from Liz Lawley on December 10, 2006 10:08 PM (Permalink to Comment)


No, nobody in Al-Anon will tell you what to do when the alcoholic in your life exhibits behavior that makes you uncomfortable. Only you can decide what your boundaries are, and what behavior you feel you can live with. All Al-Anon can do is help you to learn to recognize your feelings and your needs, and to develop the kind of inner peace that allows you feel confident that you're making the right decisions for yourself.

In meetings we don't allow discussion of non-conference-approved literature, but here I"m under no such restriction. So I'll recommend to you a book that has helped me a great deal, and that I think echoes many of the key ideas of 12-step programs: Byron Katie's Loving What Is. Her work, like the basic Al-Anon approach, is all about putting the focus on yourself and your feelings and needs.

Good luck, and do keep going back to meetings.

Comment from bossyboots on December 11, 2006 8:44 PM (Permalink to Comment)

Hi all,
Im feeling like Im driving people away from me with out even realising it. My husband has attended AA meetings before and both my parents are nonconfessed alcoholics. I am very lucky that my husband has taken control of the choices in life he makes, however I am confused in my role now as he still drinks socially, never turns nasty or abusive but I feel like the constant party pooper. When he drinks I become edgy and angry while he seems to have a really good time! He thinks I am a control freak and part of me agrees with him. I do have a fear of something though Im not really sure what. I feel very insecure as though I cant relate socially well anymore and find myself cutting myself off from these situations. I have even thought I should try drinking more so I can relax and have a good time too, but Im not much of a stayer and after a couple of drinks and a few hours I just get tired! Im tired of being the boring,sensible one and mostly my fears are unfounded but I cant shake the feelings of abandonment I get when my husband does drink. Looking to make some inroads into better understanding my fears and ways of managing my anxieties.Does any one else have these feelings?

Comment from Liz Lawley on December 13, 2006 5:11 PM (Permalink to Comment)

bossyboots, I'd strongly encourage you to attend an Al-Anon meeting in your area. The comments section of a blog post is probably not the best place to get the kind of support you're looking for...

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?

Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna