I’ve heard and read many stories like the outstanding one written by Elephant Journal writer David Penn, in which people tell how Alcoholics Anonymous works, or doesn’t work, in their lives.
For some, the experience of being in AA is disappointing when it doesn’t deliver the expected results. Entire books have been written about this. I thank the authors for their honesty and would agree that AA is not for everybody.
AA hardliners will tell you that the group is for everybody. Some of them refer to people for whom it doesn’t work as “unfortunates”—a practice that has always grated on my nerves—but I have learned to hold no judgment and to keep an open mind.
You see, I am one of the hundreds and possibly thousands of people who have been helped by AA through their partners who are in the program.
Decades ago, I arrived on the doorstep of Al-Anon, the 12-step program modeled on AA specifically for friends and family members of loved ones affected by alcoholism.
Initially, I did not go willingly.
Instead, I went out of arrogance and spite because someone else had recommended it and I wasn’t the type to ignore others’ good advice, unlike “some people” I knew.
Most things I did at that point in my life were done out of arrogance or spite, so it’s not surprising that they were the motivating forces. What is truly surprising is that I eventually stayed in the program for more than a decade. I still miss it. I wish I would go back but I haven’t. Arrogance and spite are what hold me back. That is a story for another time.
The story I want to tell you now is about how Al-Anon saved me. How it opened my bloodshot, tear-filled eyes to the possibility that there was a better life waiting for me if I stopped reacting to circumstances beyond my control.
My spiritual awakening did not happen overnight and yours, if you are looking for one, won’t either, so if you are reading this thinking, “Oh my God, is there actually relief from the pain my loved one is inflicting on himself/herself and our family with alcohol?” there is, but it takes time to achieve. It’s a long journey taken one day at a time, one step at a time. It’s hard and heartbreaking work at times but it’s worth it.
That’s the ending to my story, now back to the beginning.
My journey to recovery from the impact of alcoholism on my life, began in fits and starts. I attended my first Al-Anon meeting in my mid-20s on the urging of a marriage counsellor. I thought he was a bit of an asshole and his repeated insistence that I go to an Al-Anon group meeting and that my partner go to AA only heightened the sentiment.
But I went, out of spite of course. My reasoning was that if the sonofabitch I was married to wouldn’t go to AA then fuck him, I’m going to do what I’m told and get help because I won’t be the only one to look like a shiftless asshat at our next appointment.
It was not a great start.
It took me 20 full minutes to find the damn meeting room which was hidden in a corner of a nondescript building hidden in a corner of a nondescript neighborhood near where I lived. A five minute drive that took fucking forever, so that by the time I finally found the place I was completely PO’d. I repeat—not a great start.
The meeting began with the traditional round table reading of The 12 Steps which I participated in with an air of aloofness brought on by my late arrival which clearly was not my fault. My participation got me an unexpected compliment from one of the members who praised my courage in being able to speak at my very first meeting without breaking into tears. How well I covered! How easily! I didn’t tell her that covering was a skill I honed after years living with the shame of mental illness and alcoholism in my family. I couldn’t say that, because at the time I didn’t know it to be true. Now I do.
That first meeting sticks in my head like burrs to a saddle blanket. The content of the meeting is gone but the prickly bits remain. I’m glad they do. They are what keep me real and I will share them with you:
Burr #1: Middle-age woman who tells how the program changed her life. Before Al-Anon she was living under a burden of responsibility of her own making and was desperately trying to hold it together, pulling double duty to keep up appearances by cleaning the house, raising the kids, and paying the bills while her husband drank. She stopped taking responsibility for what wasn’t hers thanks to the 12-steps and her Al-Anon family. I remember thinking, “What the hell is wrong with her? Why didn’t she just leave the asshole before things got so bad?”
Burr #2: Elderly man who shares how Al-Anon helps him to deal with the grief of watching his wife slowly kill herself with booze. “Good Lord,” I thought. “Why doesn’t he just leave her and spare himself the torture?”
Burr #3: Lady my age with three small kids who weeps as she tells the group she wants what they all have—the serenity part, not the problems. She has problems of her own, namely that her alcoholic partner is abusive. She feels isolated from her family who all tell her she should leave the asshole. “That’s good advice,” I think to myself.
I left that first meeting with my ego unscathed and my self-defense daggers (namely resentment and rage) firmly tucked in my back pocket, ready to pull at the next opportunity. I thought, “If things ever get that bad I know what I will do—I will leave the asshole.” It was a simple escape plan and I had my daggers to protect me.
Except that daggers kept in a back pocket long enough get dull and rusty. They lose their effectiveness. Eventually I lost mine altogether.
That’s when I lost it.
I never returned to that meeting, or any other meeting for the next five years (or was it 10?). By that time, I was a mess. I was angry and unpredictable every day. I couldn’t function.
Poison had seeped into my relationship with the alcoholic and, by osmosis, every other relationship in my life. I couldn’t hold myself together while trying to hold our family together. I was looking after our two small kids, doing nearly everything around the house, and holding down a full-time job because I was afraid my partner might lose his. I stopped talking to my mom because she once told me to leave him.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, my anger was an expression of the grief I was feeling as I watched my partner slowly pour his life and his health down his throat. He was dying. So was I. Without knowing it, time had turned me into a composite of all the people I listened to with derision at that first Al-Anon meeting. It was at that point that I realized something important.
I couldn’t leave the asshole.
Because I lacked the courage, balls, guts, or whatever you want to call it, to leave, I did the only thing I knew how to do. I pressured him to change. I got him to go to AA. He found a sponsor. He got better. His sponsor said “get her to Al-Anon.” I went. I got better. Then he quit. I did not. We split.
Life is better having left.
I don’t mean that life is better because I left the relationship. Clearly it is not, in so many ways. What I mean is that life got better after I left myself behind—all the broken, ugly, defective parts of myself that helped me cope.
I won’t lie, it was damn hard to keep going to those meetings until it got easy. I found a new family waiting for me inside the assortment of nondescript rooms I visited. They were a family that loved and accepted me and who stuck by me until I could honestly say I loved and accepted myself.
I won’t tell you how it happened.
I’ll let you create your own story of recovery if you seek it. Whether through persistence or fate or a combination of the two, I found help. I found a life. I grew up and I grew out.
My world now extends beyond “poor me” to include a beautiful circle of friends with whom I’ve created honest relationships. No ego and no anger. The rusty knives still appear from time to time as I expect they always will. I draw them when something triggers me: a story from someone who is suffering or an unkind act by someone who has been drinking. But I quickly put them away, knowing that there is no sense in battering someone who is in pain with my story of hope when what they really need is a listening ear. There are many such ears at Al-Anon. Sometimes, after listening, I do share my story.
I share because I care.
What I don’t care about is about whether or not my story helps someone to make a change. Over that, I have no control. I share because I care for myself and sharing brings continual healing to my soul. I am a better person for having joined Al-Anon. That is all I need people to know. All the other benefits are for me.
So now I’ll end this story.
AA didn’t save my partner’s life. He actually found a different path to recovery and for that, and for all the people who keep him on that path, I am truly grateful.
I am the most grateful to the AA sponsor I never met who encouraged me, through my partner, to get my butt to Al-Anon. To him, and to every other committed member of AA, I would say “AA didn’t save my partner’s life but it did save mine, and I can’t thank you enough.”