A ZAGAT Guide To Al-Anon Recovery In the Holidays

By Alice Somers 12/30/16

12 step rooms in the holidays are a complicated place to be. Here's some navigation through the haze.

A ZAGAT Guide To Al-Anon Recovery In the Holidays
Tis the season to be triggered.

I was sitting in an Al-Anon meeting next to a friend of mine and was startled by how empty the room was. Where is everyone? I figured the room would be packed given the number of boundary-less instant messages I had received on Facebook from family members in the last week alone. My friend with the cute bangs leaned over and whispered back: Wait till January. The room will be full.

Twelve-Step rooms during the holidays are always a weirdly deep and complicated place to be. So I want to help you navigate through the haze. First of all, if you are thinking of attending, now is the time.

(I went to my first Al-Anon meeting December 22, 2007. I heard if you shook the Al-Anon family tree hard enough, eventually an alcoholic would fall out. You didn’t have to shake my family tree that hard; I was mostly stepping over drunks as I left my house every day.)

I find the recovery between December 22nd and January 1st to be extremely powerful and lean. I don’t mean "lean" in a bad way. I mean, you are getting the message without a lot of bells and whistles. The bells and whistles will come beginning of January when the rooms are so packed there’s standing room only. Then the old timers will put on a real show for the newcomers. But for now, we’re just doing our best to get from here to New Year's without too many scrapes and bruises. 

This is the time of year when our recovery hits the road. This is when it is tested. Because we are either with our family or not with our family, and both scenarios come with complications.

'Tis the season to be triggered as fuck.

Just like the way dogs hear more than humans, Al-Anons hear people's needs at a higher pitch than normal people do. We run around people-pleasing, counting drinks and silently starting to hate everyone…including ourselves. The pressure to buy gifts, keep family tensions at a minimum, and maintain a pleasing appearance (clothed at the minimum) wears our poor souls down. We’re just not built for the barrage of guilt, boundary-breaking and neediness that floods us this time of year.

Have you ever had that catch-all-phrase flung at you by a well-meaning family member when you are trying to set a boundary for the first time in 25 years: "but it’s the holiday?!!" As if it being the holidays means we should somehow give up our own needs, our own wants and our own boundaries? That phrase, loosely translated in most dysfunctional families, means: no one gives a fuck about your boundaries.

The sugar, the social, the family starts to crowd in on us like a well-trained set of soldiers determined to blast through what precious stores of recovery we have built up.

If this is sounding familiar to you: Get Thee to a Meeting.

I find meetings earlier in the day are stronger. First of all, the coffee is fresher and there is a good chance at breakfast. There’s an ACOA meeting on Sundays at 11am in Hollywood that also rates very high on my Zagat guide.

Most of my recovery is centered on my family. And what is family if not a place where you huddle together and hurl insults at each other over bagels? I remember on one fairly nasty Christmas, my mother telling me she wished I had been her sixth abortion, and then looking at me with that flirtatious smile and saying, “You can use that line in one of your little plays, darling.” (I did use it in one of my little plays.)

So yes, this is the sort of thing I think about in line at 11am at an Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting. Also the coffee is very strong.

New York and Los Angeles are like the Harvard of recovery. It’s always nice to be sobbing during a share while gazing into the eyes of your favorite celebrity.

However, I understand that during the holiday season you may not necessarily be in LA or New York. You may not have your favorite recovery buddies around you and you may not be able to go to café gratitude to discuss step seven after a meeting. You may be in a state that is not so cozy. In fact, you may be in a state where you can’t swap referrals for laser therapy amidst swapping referrals for therapy therapy.

That’s right, you may be in the middle of a snow blizzard in the bottom of a basement with three other people.

As far as I’m concerned, the worse the basement smells the better the recovery. I remember going home to Toronto one holiday (not necessarily middle of nowhere, but still a lot less vision boards) and needing to go to a meeting.

I had been assured in my cozy Al-Anon meetings in Los Angeles that the traditions made the meetings the same wherever I went. Yes…and...no... Cities are different culturally and that means the meetings are too.

I remember that same holiday sitting in an Al-Anon meeting in Toronto. The meeting happened to be sandwiched between where my father died either of vagueness or alcoholism 30 years ago (the family myths are strong, the actual facts are a lot less clear), and two blocks away from where my estranged mother lived.

I was contemplating this as I looked across the room and made eye contact with a newcomer. The newcomer had concerns about how to deal with alcoholics driving in the holidays. I knew what page to direct her to in our literature. It was the first time I had been able to direct a newcomer to something so specific and so helpful.

There I was, in the middle of a snowy night in the church where the Cowboy Junkies had recorded my favorite album, handing this literature to a newcomer. I had been depressed up to that point: Toronto in general can be lonely for me; this street in particular punched me in the heart.

In that moment I felt a sense of meaning.

And I think that’s what we’re actually after this time of year: meaning. Meaning is more muscular than joy. It sustains us through all seasons.

One of the promises states that we will be able to enjoy the mystery and paradox of life. What is more paradoxical or enjoyable than sitting in a cushy church with a group of fashion-forward women, sharing your darkest secrets? Or than being in a meeting in the middle of a snowstorm knowing no one and still willing to connect to others?

And if you seriously can’t make it to a meeting, may I suggest Marc Maron’s WTF podcast and a long walk?

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