The Al-Anon Faces Alcoholism magazine is designed to introduce relatives and friends concerned about someone’s drinking to Al-Anon Family Groups and to the concept of alcoholism or problem drinking as an illness affecting everyone in the family.
C. Scott McMillin, B.A., CAC, and Clinical Trainer
Santa Fe, New Mexico
“Why should I go to meetings if I’m not the one with the problem?” is a big question for most family members. After all, if your spouse has a heart attack, you don’t attend cardiac rehab. Maybe you do some reading or take a class, but that’s it. You don’t want to commit to more than that, do you?
If you’re involved with an alcoholic, the reality is you do have the problem. You didn’t cause it, and you can’t control it, and you can’t change the alcoholic’s behavior—but you definitely feel the effects of drinking. And you’ll feel the effects of recovery, too.
You may think that everything will be resolved if the alcoholic goes to treatment and follows it up with Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It sounds like a simple process. But it is not an easy one, and there are plenty of bumps along the way. As family members, you are affected. Your choice is whether that effect will be positive or negative.
If your alcoholic comes home from treatment or an A.A. meeting to find you in the grip of anxiety over whether he’ll drink again, that’s a negative for both of you. If, on the other hand, you’ve learned to manage those feelings and get your support from others because you are attending Al‑Anon, you’re much better off. And so is the alcoholic in your life.
In Al‑Anon, you’ll make friends with people who share your experience and are willing to listen. You will be miles ahead of most family members, who still have no place where they can safely vent their problems and hear how others use the Al‑Anon program to find solutions.
In other words, when family members have established a program of recovery, it makes things easier not just on us and on the alcoholic but, frankly, on everybody else involved. This is why family members need to attend Al‑Anon.
An interview with Cynthia Moreno-Tuohy, BSW, NCACII, SAP, Executive Director, NAADAC, The Association for Addiction Professionals, Alexandria, VA
This interview is adapted from an Al‑Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc.’s First Steps to Al‑Anon Recovery audio podcast series.
Question: Why is it important for the alcoholic’s family members to receive help?
Answer: The family needs to get healthier whether or not the alcoholic is receiving treatment or maintaining sobriety. But, when family members receive help and information, they are able to provide a support system and help build a safety net at home for themselves and for their children. Every family member needs to feel they have support.
Part of our protocols as addiction professionals is to look at what’s happening with the family. We don’t want to forget the family. The family needs to participate in a family information night or a family treatment program, if available from the treatment center. Al‑Anon is talked about there as well.
If the alcoholic is or has been in treatment, the family needs to understand that treatment arrests the addiction but does not cure it. Recovery is an ongoing, daily process for alcoholics and their family members.
Question: Newcomers to Al‑Anon frequently want to know what the cause of alcoholism is. They want to pinpoint how, when, where, and why their loved one acquired a drinking problem.
Answer: Today, we know the disorder of alcohol or drug addiction is genetic and that we're going to have intergenerational addictions within families. We also know that alcoholism has roots in environmental causes such as the inappropriate behaviors, poor parenting, and communication skills within a family over one or multiple generations. So, an alcohol use disorder can be both a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (environmental, psychological, social, or cultural).
It is possible for both the drinker and the family to recover from the trauma and negative patterns they have experienced. As a result, change begins within the family system and that's what we want to see. We want individuals and families to get healthier.
Question: Do you recommend that counselors and therapists refer family members to Al‑Anon?
Answer: Absolutely. The first step for the family is to understand that they do not have power over the drinker’s alcoholism. They need to learn what issues and actions they can and cannot touch.
Question: How do family members benefit from attending Al‑Anon?
Answer: When the family or anyone close to the drinker goes to Al‑Anon, they first need to focus on themselves. Then, they can begin to learn some of the skills and better ways of approaching the alcoholic family member. The family becomes healthier and they get the support they need from attending Al‑Anon.
Virginia Fowkes Clark, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist
People come to see me because they are unhappy in their lives and relationships, not usually because there is a problem of alcoholism in their family. After a thorough history, it becomes clear to me the impact the family disease of alcoholism has on many of my clients.
Many grew up with an alcoholic parent and thought they left that behind, yet it leaves them sometimes impaired in their relationships and in their work. Others married an alcoholic but did not see how that was contributing to their dysfunctional and unhappy marriage. Some marry and divorce an alcoholic, again thinking they got rid of the problem, but find their relationships continue to be affected. Some are depressed, others are anxious. Often, control issues are present.
On every first visit, whether an adult or a child, I get a family history of mental illness and alcohol and drug problems. If someone is living with an active alcoholic, and they are partially aware of how much this is a problem, I refer them to Al‑Anon right away. If someone grew up with alcoholism, I may wait a few sessions, until tying the alcoholism into their present problems makes sense.
Over the years, I have tried telling people various things, but lately I tell my clients what I observe: the people who come to therapy and go to Al‑Anon, if they need to, just get better faster. In fact, more than one client has been in therapy previously or on medication, but when they add going to Al‑Anon, it makes a tremendous difference. After suggesting they go to Al‑Anon, I give them a copy of the local Al‑Anon meeting schedule and a copy of Al‑Anon Faces Alcoholism.
Being persistent, if they do not go initially, I keep asking them to go. One woman, who did eventually go to Al‑Anon, told me later that she went just to get me to stop asking her. It changed her life, her children’s lives, and she remains a member of Al‑Anon to this day.
Michael Yeager, B.A., LCDC, CAS
I recommend attending Al-Anon to my clients who are family members of alcoholics. Participation in Al-Anon supports the “work” the family members do while they are in therapy. Al-Anon also acts as an effective aftercare program.
Al-Anon offers these people the opportunity to end their self-imposed isolation, taken on by living in an addicted family environment. Al-Anon members support each other through many life-changing experiences. Discussions at meetings help members discover choices and in turn they can feel empowered to be free, flexible, and vibrant.
I clearly see my clients benefitting from their participation in Al-Anon by:
- Developing and enhancing their inner strength and self-worth.
- Feeling their feelings.
- Rebuilding and taking responsibility for their lives.
- Setting healthy boundaries.
Therapy offers a safe environment for family members to get to the bottom of their limiting behavioral and belief problems. It is available from time to time, when the going gets tough. Al-Anon, however, acts as a supportive fellowship for further growth and development for lifelong living.
Diane M. Warshofsky, MACC, LMFT, LPCA
Marriage and Family Therapist
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
As I worked with recovering alcoholics, I began to see how their loved ones unknowingly challenged their lifestyle of sobriety. This led me to invite their partner to therapy in order to clarify my role as a support to the whole relationship. In this process, I recognized both the pain shared within the relationship, as well as the individual hurt of each partner related to issues of trust, guilt, and shame.
Marriages and families can erode over time, as the unacknowledged events of pain pile up because of the need to survive the present crisis. The absence of a crisis is foreign during recovery. Most are not aware that even “good” changes can cause a couple or family distress. I have found it helpful to provide both individual and couples’ sessions. The goal is to normalize their individual and collective experience, as well as explore their needs in the relationship and for outside supports.
Like Alcoholics Anonymous, Al‑Anon provides a safe place for one to receive strength and hope through others’ experience. This complements my focus of each individual’s responsibility of self-care. Significant others who no longer feel alone in their circumstances are given permission inside and outside of therapy to take care of themselves. This type of support can lead to changes that benefit the individual as well as the relationship. Not every relationship survives, but those that do have a working knowledge of how to separate individual from relational needs.
Without the shared experience of Al‑Anon, I believe that therapy would not be as effective. As a professional, I am grateful for the support my clients receive from Al‑Anon, as I walk with them through a part of their journey of healing.
Gail Barker, LCPC
We had our Alateen group meeting today and I have to tell you how grateful I am for Alateen. It has made such an amazing difference in these students’ lives. Many of them shared how they are now getting along better with their family—both the drinking and the non-drinking family members. I often hear how this is the one safe place they have in their lives—to be able to share whatever is on their minds, where others won’t judge, pass it around, or get mad.
It is amazing to see the transformation in these students. I see them going from a beaten down, angry, hopeless teenager—trying to cope with alcoholism in the family—to gradually feeling and finding peace, hope, and strength from others, loving each other and being happy. I so love it. It gives them assurance and hope that one counselor can’t possibly convey to them. It is a group process and an inspired process, and to have this opportunity in the school is amazing, since most of these kids would not be able to get to an evening meeting in the community. Their home life in their alcoholic families is such that they wouldn’t be able to get transportation at night or feel free to do so.
Alateen is supportive for them—safe and consistent. Children in alcoholic families do not know consistency, but in Alateen they learn to trust. It affects their outlook, their self-esteem, their grades in school, their friend and family relationships, their confidence, their ability to show concern for others, patience, peace of mind—so many things they probably would not get anywhere else.
The students ask if Alateen will be at their next school, if they are moving or when they go on to high school. It is a safety net for them. They count on it, and I am so grateful we have been able to get Alateen in so many other schools.
I so appreciate the Alateen Group Sponsors that are here faithfully each week. The Alateen members love them. I feel such overwhelming gratitude for the Alateen program. I know without a doubt the changes it has made in these children’s lives—changes and tools that will stay with them and affect their whole lives.
Dr. Paul Schoenfeld, Clinical Psychologist
Larry, a middle-age man, sits in my office talking about Al‑Anon—for family and friends of alcoholics.
He tells me his story: “I got a phone call from my son’s school when Joey was 14 years old. He was caught drinking at school with his buddies. At the time, I thought, ‘Boys will be boys,’ and didn’t think much of it. The progression of the disease is slow, so it was hard to see. Later on, I received a call that Joey was in an automobile accident. There were legal issues and court-ordered treatment—the whole nine yards of alcoholism. I attended a family meeting at the rehab program. They recommended I go to Al‑Anon. So I did—‘I’m a man; if I can’t help my son, who can?’”
Sadly, Joey died. But Larry wants other parents to know that there is help. I ask him how Al‑Anon helps him.
“I learned that alcoholism is a disease. My son didn’t like me judging or berating him because he drank. I’m certain that Joey felt that I lost my love and respect for him. Had I not gone to Al‑Anon, we would have continued to be at war.
“I learned to accept him and give him the respect and dignity to make his own decisions in life — to work, hopefully, on his own recovery. But that was up to him. I needed to work on my own healing. I learned my problems were of my own making. This is why alcoholism is called a ‘family disease’ in Al‑Anon.”
Al‑Anon provides a community of family members who struggle to establish a loving relationship with their ill family member, but at the same time, not to enable their disease. Parents, brothers, sisters, and children begin to realize that dependency on alcohol is not a moral failing or a choice, any more than someone chooses to have cancer, asthma, or diabetes. It’s a condition that their loved one lives with.
As we talked, I shared my frustration as a psychologist. Every year, I encourage scores of family members to attend Al‑Anon, but only a few follow through.
Larry said: “If you are thinking about going to Al‑Anon, just go. And attend at least six meetings before you decide it’s not for you. Just keep coming back. I’ve been attending for about ten years now. It’s only an hour or an hour and a half out of your day.”
Al‑Anon helps family members heal. It helps family members reconnect with the love for their ill family member.