Alcoholism is a family disease
Larry, a middle aged man, sits in my office, talking about Al-Anon, the 12-step program fashioned after Alcoholics Anonymous for family and friends of individuals with alcoholism or chemical dependency. 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. But as time went on, more signs of his drinking problem appeared. I got called in the middle of the night that Joe was in an automobile accident. There were legal issues, court ordered treatment—the whole nine yards of alcoholism. In November 2005 my son was in court ordered treatment at Sundown Ranch in Yakima. I was attending a family meeting at the program. They recommended I go to Al-Anon. So I did. I’ve been going to the program for 10 years now.”
Larry’s eyes tear up as he tells me—“Joe died in May 2012 from a drug overdose. This September he would have been 33 years old”. He apologizes--, “I still cry when I tell his story”.
“I went to Al-Anon in the middle of chaos. Joey was in jail. I thought that Joey was doing this to me or at me. At first he is 14, 18, and then 22 and I’m still trying to get him to stop drinking. I couldn’t stop trying to fix my son. I thought if he loved his family, he would stop drinking. My wife and I were angry, hurt, and frustrated. How could this be happening to us? I’m a man. If I can’t help my son, who can?”
Larry wants other parents to know that there is help. I ask him how Al-Anon helped him.
“I learned that Alcoholism is a disease and I began to learn about this disease. My son didn’t like my judging him, chewing him out, or berating him because he drank. We call alcoholism a family disease. I learned my problems were of my own making. I’m certain that Joey felt that I lost my love and respect for him. His alcoholism had nothing to do with his love and respect for us. This realization was a turning point for me. In 2008, our relationship began to heal. Had I not gone to Al-Anon, we would have continued to be at war. I could accept him and give him the respect and dignity to make his own decisions in life—to find his own way, and to hopefully, work on his own recovery. But that was up to him and outside of my control. I needed to work on my own healing.”
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 enable their disease. Parents, brothers, sisters, and children have to recognize that chemical dependency is not a moral failing or a choice, anymore than someone chooses to have cancer, asthma, or diabetes. It’s a condition that their loved one lives with.
“In the last years of life, I could show him that I loved him. He began to answer the phone when I called, come over for dinner, and go camping with me. His death was a tragedy that was outside my control”.
During our conversation, I share my frustration as a psychologist. I encourage scores of family members to attend Al-Anon every year but only a few follow through. He said—“If you are thinking about going to Al-Anon, just go. And attend at least 6 meetings before you decide it’s not for you. Just keeping coming back. It’s only an hour and half out of your day”.
Many adults don’t want to attend Al-Anon because they are concerned that it is religious. Larry says clearly—“Al-Anon is not religious, but we are spiritual”.
What’s the spiritual component? “We all want to be loved and accepted”, Larry says. “This realization can lead to a sense of community and connection, being part of something larger than yourself and your problems. That’s the spiritual part”.
Al-Anon helps family members heal. It helps family members reconnect with their love for their ill family member. It teaches them about the disease.
For more information about a local Al-anon group near you, go to www.al-anon.org.