Al-Anon—Your Guide to Emotional Sobriety

By Shari Albert 04/10/16

In AA the substances are alcohol or drugs. In Al-Anon, the substances are people, places and situations.

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According to al-anon.org, Al-Anon is for the "friends and family of alcoholics." It further elucidates: “Alcoholism is a family disease. The disease affects all those who have a relationship with a problem drinker. Those of us closest to the alcoholic suffer the most, and those who care the most can easily get caught up in the behavior of another person. We react to the alcoholic's behavior. We focus on them, what they do, where they are, how much they drink. We try to control their drinking for them. We take on the blame, guilt, and shame that really belong to the drinker. We can become as addicted to the alcoholic, as the alcoholic is to alcohol. We, too, can become ill.

If we get into advice-giving in a room full of perfectionism and control freaks, there wouldn’t be enough coffee to fuel the amount of time we’d need to talk things out. 

Many who come to Al-Anon/Alateen are in despair, feeling hopeless, unable to believe that things can ever change. We want our lives to be different, but nothing we have done has brought about change. We all come to Al-Anon because we want and need help. In Al-Anon and Alateen, members share their own experience, strength, and hope with each other. You will meet others who share your feelings and frustrations, if not your exact situation. We come together to learn a better way of life, to find happiness whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not.”

That pretty much explains it, but the program is way more elusive than it can first appear, and a lot of people—myself included—discovered that it can take a while to "get" what Al-Anon is really about and how it works. While that quote is certainly true in my experience in the rooms over the past seven years, I must say that this program is not for the faint of heart. It’s a complex, nonlinear, beautiful mess, filled with areas of grey, non-absolutes and no rules—ya know, things control freaks love. Just kidding, we hate that stuff, but that’s why we need to go. 

When I first started attending meetings, Al-Anon seemed so mysterious to me—kind of like the Freemasons—but I continued to show up, and ended up receiving a lot of the program by osmosis. This is how this program can work—it can seep into our pores and before we know it, we’re throwing around slogans like “They’re not doing these things TO us, they’re just DOING it,” and “Don’t go to the hardware store for oranges.” These are really fun to toss about at parties, by the way. Ok, not really. But there’s a reason they’re ubiquitous and helpful in daily life. 

Even though we do the steps in a linear fashion, I find the first three steps to be the ones I come back to on a daily basis.

That’s how it goes—for me, at least. I keep coming back to the first three steps over and over to get grounded and remind me that my higher power is only a prayer away. Sometimes that prayer is “Help!” We admit we are powerless… Came to believe in a power greater than ourselves... And then, made a decision to turn our will and life over… Or, in a nutshell: “I can’t. God can. I’ll let him.” Returning to these basics again and again can give us a good foundation from which to build the rest of the program. So you still have to do the steps in Al-Anon to get the fullest benefits, however, there’s a lot of worth in coming and listening—a lot of listening. 

This is a program about emotional sobriety, maintaining and, at times, developing a sense of who you are while allowing people to be themselves. People you love. People who may be harming themselves and others with their addiction. It’s not an easy program. I’ve met some of the strongest women in my life in this program. I call them the Al-Anon black belts. They’ve had children as addicts, abusive husbands, been fired, beaten, been cheated on, have had horrendous things happen to them—they’ve lived through it all and became Al-Anon ninjas. I love these women. (Men too—but I personally go to a lot of women’s meetings, so that’s why I’m referring to them here.) 

I’ve heard it said that AA is high school while Al-Anon is college. In so many ways, AA is more of a clear program: you maintain sobriety from your substance of choice. Al-Anon is more ambiguous. In Al-Anon, the “substances” are people, places and situations. You can’t exactly lock yourself in a box and not interact with anyone. That’s next to impossible, especially with whomever your qualifier (the person you thought you’d fix) may be. A lot of times that’s the person we’re closest to—the person who makes us crazy, the person who, “if they’d only (fill in the blank) then we could (fill in the blank).” The focus on this person, situation or event is what we want to try to make sense out of, control, or do whatever we can so it will have the best possible outcome—for us. This is why we go to meetings. 

Al-Anon is about one thing: YOU. Your behavior, your history, your perspective and your shit. All of it. It’s a program designed to help you be more emotionally sober, more able to accept people, relationships and situations for what they really are, not how you’d like them to be or what you hope they become. 

In Al-Anon, we surrender control—or try to, anyway—and take responsibility for our behavior when we don’t. It’s a program of learning about your ego, and how—between our egos and our habitual behavior—we can put ourselves in the victim role, more often than not. It’s a gentle program of awareness, acceptance and actions that we take to heal ourselves, and to stay out of the other person’s business. 

This is easier said than done. Here’s where the "gentleness" comes in. Because Al-Anon is a program about emotional sobriety and everyone’s emotions are so personal and specific, we don’t give advice in this program, we only share our experience, strength and hope. If we get into advice-giving in a room full of perfectionism and control freaks, there wouldn’t be enough coffee to fuel the amount of time we’d need to talk things out. Fellowship, sponsorship and the phone are important tools, as is the literature and service. We need each other to lean on and to help us when we’re in an emotional crisis—or even when we’re at a plateau in our program. It’s always important to stay connected. I have seen and experienced miracles in this program. I went from being the woman who freaks out over a text message for days, to living in my serenity on a daily basis. I know it works firsthand. I know because I’ve lived it and seen people who I never thought would gain a sense of themselves blossom into amazingly confident people in healthy relationships. I’ve seen broken relationships mend, people choose to get a divorce, have a baby, go back to school and change their lives for the better from a place of sanity. 

It takes time. It’s a slow, gentle, nonlinear program,  but if you put in the time and your butt in the seats, over and over again, you’ll see your life change in magical ways you might not be able to see before you kept comin’ back. 

Shari Albert is an actor and writer living in Manhattan. She last wrote An Al-Anon love story.

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