But I Don’t Want to Go to Al-Anon!
Many of the family members of addicts I’ve known have been reluctant to go to Al-Anon, to say the least. As someone who had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into AA meetings at rehab, I can relate.
Some have shared my nitial doubt that addiction was a legitimate disease and didn’t see the point in treatment. But the most common objection to Al-Anon has been: “It’s his problem, he’s the drug addict, why should I have to spend my time in dingy church basements?”
Addiction is a family disease: one members’ addiction intimately involves all of his loved ones. But people don’t look at addicts and see a brain disease. What they see is how addiction warps personality, the way the disease is expressed behaviorally. And what they feel is a bewildering mix of emotions, chief among them the anger I’ve heard expressed so often as: “How can he keep putting us through this living hell?”
Families living with an active addict do go through a living hell. But, borrowing a line from the movie Godfather, to an addict that’s not necessarily personal, it’s business, the business of feeding one’s worsening addiction. Addicts take endless advantage of whoever happens to be around and that’s most often their families. It’s no wonder they’re angry and alienated.
But the anger that inevitably results from trying to cope with drug abuse is toxic. It poisons relationships and consumes the people in them. Families need to find a way to disengage from addict behavior and the emotions that are aroused. (For more click on Enabling, Detaching and Letting Go). Understanding that addiction is a disease of fundamental irrationality helps but doesn’t suffice. You have to learn how to deal with irrationality rather than succumb to it.
At Al-Anon, they know how. They’ve learned to do one of the hardest things anyone ever has to do: disengage from an addicted loved one. That’s not an innate ability, it’s a skill one needs to learn and practice. Al-Anon is the best place to learn. The sooner family and friends of an addict accept that, the less they will suffer.
Will you feel uncomfortable at your first meetings? It’s quite likely. Go anyway.
What are you afraid of? Stigma? Vulnerability? Sharing your family’s pain, what you might think of as your family’s failure (which really means your failure)? Baring your most intimate problems to complete strangers? That you don’t belong? (Maybe that you do belong?) That you have nothing in common with the motley crew you’ll encounter? That people in Al-Anon are just new-age nuts?
All those fears — and many more — are common. But they’re wrong. Initially, it’s typical to look at other participants and catalogue your differences. But if you give it time, you’re likely to find the opposite of what you dread: a safe place of compassion and understanding consisting of people who’ve been where you are, can help, and want to because helping you helps them. In the process, you learn you’re not alone and can access support. And you’ll probably gain perspective on your troubles by listening to others whose immediate crisis or long-term struggle is worse than yours.
Besides fear, a second obstacle seems to be education. In my experience, the better educated an addict’s family is, the harder it is to get them to go to Al-Anon. This parallels what I heard at AA, that someone like me, with an Ivy-League college education and a law degree, usually found it harder to surrender to addiction and accept the 12-Step program than people with less formal education.
Why? Because people who have so much invested in reason and logic face the toughest challenge understanding the fundamental irrationality of addiction. Those with advanced degrees expect that they can do what they’ve always done when confronting a problem: use their critical reasoning skills to research all the possible alternatives and select the one that’s most effective. None of that works when it comes to addiction, however, because addicts are completely unreasonable when it comes to their disease. All the logic in the world goes right past them. The bottom line is, you can’t think your way out of addiction. You have to confront the emotions it arouses and learn to deal with them constructively rather than destructively. Attending Al-Anon meetings regularly is the best way to do that.
How long do you have to go to Al-Anon? That’s up to you, of course, but consider that it will take numerous meetings to do three difficult things: put aside your pre-conceived notions; listen, really listen to what veterans have to say; and realize that Al-Anon can help you cope in proportion to how much you put into it.
When I asked how long I was supposed to attend AA meetings, my rehab counselor said, “Go until you like them.” It took me a long time to understand what she meant: Go until you realize on the way out of a meeting that you feel better than when you went in. Then you’ll see their value, begin to like them and want to keep going. That will happen when you allow yourself to find the love, social support and strength that Al-Anon offers. Although Al-Anon may not literally save your life the way AA does in keeping addicts sober, it’ll probably feel like it.
So put aside your reservations and go!
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Click here for a link to Nar-Anon.
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