As loved ones of individuals who are struggling with addiction, or who are now in recovery, we often have issues of our own that we need to navigate. Having a close relationship with anyone in addiction or recovery brings about challenges that can be at best unnerving, and at worst completely fear-inducing. We want to love and support those people who we hold so close to our hearts, but when a history of addiction is involved, it can feel like we need to walk on eggshells. We want to encourage and help, but sometimes we want to control and guide them in the direction that we believe is best. And what so many people who work a program of Al-Anon will tell you is that sometimes helping, guiding, and certainly controlling can lead to some treacherous waters for both the addict as well as ourselves.
One of the beautiful aspects of my friendships with people working a program of recovery through the 12 steps has been the gift of learning. By attending 12 step meetings with friends, and sitting in on step-study groups, I experienced a sense of envy. The people who spoke of their recovery through the 12 steps had a tool-kit of ways to think about their lives, address their character defects, own their responsibilities, and make amends to those they had harmed. They found a spiritual guide in the god of their understanding, or Higher Power, and they were able to let go of control, or at least work towards this goal. Those who had completed the 12 steps with a sponsor had experienced the gift of unburdening themselves from their wrong-doings of the past. They had a connection with a higher power that they learned to trust. And they were able to examine themselves each night, with the goal of recognizing unhealthy behavioral or thought patterns, working on removing their short-comings, and ‘cleaning up their side of the street’ by making amends to anyone that they may have harmed. This all seemed like a pretty great way to live daily life.
Working in substance abuse treatment and recovery can be emotionally-draining. Sometimes we want recovery for our clients more than they do. As a friend or loved one of someone in recovery, we may see directions that we believe our friends should go in, and they don’t see it for themselves. It is important to recognize when we have characteristics or behaviors of codependency. When I was old enough and insightful enough, I saw addiction thriving on the branches of my own family tree. While not addicted to drugs and alcohol myself, I had certainly inherited some behavioral patterns that were not actually helpful to me or to my relationships. It was no wonder that I was drawn to the field of Psychology and wanted to work with other people on finding their solutions.
Several months ago, I took myself to my first Al-Anon meeting. I walked into the room with some trepidation. Would other people think I belonged there? Did I belong there? Did I have what they called “a qualifier”? What was a qualifier anyway? I was in a room with about 20 other people; men and women of all ages. The group read the 12 steps in unison. The speaker shared a reading, and then the group members shared how the they related to the reading and the topic at hand. Some people cried. Some people expressed hope and gratitude for the program. Everybody was given room to share. Seemingly, nobody was being judged. Nobody was offering up a solution to a particular problem. Everyone was able to just “be.” It was overwhelming at times, but not in a bad way. It was overwhelming in a full-heart, being accepted, and being understood kind of way. It was powerful. I re
member when the meeting started that the chairperson said something about “if you are new to Al-Anon, we suggest you come to 6 meetings before you decide whether it is right for you.” I made a mental note of this. I also did not think I should let a full week pass before going to another meeting. I found a 2nd meeting. Then, I found a 3rd meeting. I wanted what I saw the “old-timers” had; gratitude for a different and more effective way of living. Of course, in my strong desire for immediate gratification, I wanted it now, or maybe yesterday. But I told myself I would take my time. And I did. It took me about 4 weeks before I had the courage to ask someone if they would sponsor me. But I knew this person was going to be good for me, and good for my soul. I texted her because she had to leave the meeting in a hurry. She said she would be honored to sponsor me. She told me to call her anytime. I waited another week before actually calling her on the phone. I did not want to be a burden. I did not want to inconvenience her. I also was fearful of her judgment or her rejection. My goodness, weren’t these all the very reasons I needed to be working an Al-Anon program?
I am still what one would consider a “new-comer,” to this program. I still need to read the words when we recite the 12 steps, although more and more, I notice that I am beginning to know a lot of the steps by heart. I have a practice of reading the daily meditations from some of the essential Al-Anon texts. I make commitments to attend meetings and work hard to keep them. And I have found some serenity already. I have been able to more freely own my mistakes out loud. I have been increasingly gentle with myself. I believe I have a better understanding of how I can help the people I am around each and every day. I am on a path to learning how I tend to be my own worst critic, and how by doing for others, I may not actually be helping them. I am also able to share with families just how valuable the program of Al-Anon can be.
These are the gifts of Al-Anon that I have experienced so far, and I am only a few months in to the program. I am so looking forward to what is possible as I learn to turn my will and my life over to the god of my understanding. I am working on taking it one day at a time, and I am letting it begin with me. What used to be 12 step clichés that I did not give much thought to have now become fundamental concepts on which to build my thoughts, behaviors, and my relationships.
If you are someone who loves a person struggling with addiction, or someone who is working a program of recovery, please give yourself the gifts of Al-Anon. It will be one of the greatest gifts you can give, not only to yourself, but also to the people around you.
You can find meetings locally by visiting www.al-anon.org.
Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Certified Addictions Professional in the State of Florida. She is also a Licensed Psychologist in the State of Pennsylvania. Dr.Tarlow is the Clinical Director at Boca Recovery Center, and is also a private practice clinician in Boca Raton, Florida.