Saturday, June 25, 2005 - Serenity is hard won - Serenity is hard won

Jun. 25, 2005. 01:00 AM

Serenity is hard won
The 50,000 people coming for next weekend's international AA convention won't all be alcoholics

Families and friends in Al-Anon use principles of AA in their search for recovery, writes Thomas J.

Five thousand of those attending the AA convention will be members of the Al-Anon family groups who follow the same 12-step program. Here, one Al-Anon member describes how he was affected by other people's drinking and how the Al-Anon program helped turn his life around. In the AA tradition of anonymity, the writer has withheld his full name.

I have no memory of a time before alcoholism. I have no memory of learning about alcoholism, either. It was just there.

Everybody, except my mother, drank. My father and my grandmother were the major alcoholics in my life, but when my grandmother's siblings, my dad's siblings, my cousins or any of their friends visited, the alcoholic episodes compounded the ones I lived with every day.

In many homes where alcohol is a problem, family members tiptoe around and do all they can to deny its existence. It's like having an elephant in the middle of the room and nobody even acknowledges its presence.

But in my home, we knew it was there and it was all we talked about. We were obsessed with the drinkers and believed that if they would only stop, everything would be okay. At the same time, we were terrified that anyone outside the family would know what was going on.

The missed dinners, the coming home at all hours, the incessant fighting, the threats, the silence, the screaming, the sound of things being broken late in the night and the escalating violence were scary, confusing and shameful.

Dad drank and we felt like we were doing something wrong. He was living it up and we were afraid to show our faces. That is the thing about alcoholism — it affects all the members of a family even if they don't drink.

The alcoholic is sick, and the family is sick, too. It is all part of the condition.

The alcoholic has alcoholism and the family members have alcoholism — the family disease.

Growing up in the GTA, I was a very nervous child, afraid of most everything and everyone. My stomach was upset all the time. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. It had a lock. Nobody could get me in there.

I made a habit of clearing all of the clothes out of my closet so I could put in a small table and chair. I draped a light over the clothes bar and brought in paper and crayons. I made a sign that said "Keep Out" and taped it to the outside of the closet door.

But even as I sat in my haven, I wondered why no one would come in.

I continued that pattern as an adult. I desperately wanted to have people in my life but it was as if I had a sign that said "Keep Out" — expressed in the way I looked and the way I acted. The legacy of family alcoholism is not so much the drama of the active drinking, but the behaviours, attitudes and actions I have carried into my adult life.

I didn't make a conscious decision to do this, any more than the alcoholic makes a conscious decision to become an alcoholic.

As I grew up, other characteristics began to show in my behaviour, apart and separate from my reactions to the active alcoholic. I was like a chameleon. I would adopt the ways of the person or group of people I was with, just to feel like I fit in.

When I was in high school I was given a personality test as part of a class activity. The results described my personality as "amorphous." I took it as a compliment. "Hey," I thought. "I'm flexible, I can get along well with others." The instructor said "No, it means you don't really know who you are."

I was an angry person. When I was young I kept most of it in, but it would spill out occasionally. As I got older, these episodes were more frequent and more out of sync with reality. I blew up at work, at my friends, at my spouse, at my family, at strangers. Part of me liked the sense of power anger gave me; part of me loathed myself.

I needed help but wasn't ready to admit it. I blamed the alcoholics in my life for what I had become. "If they would change, I would be okay." "If they would only apologize for what they had done, I could move on."

Seeing myself as a victim allowed me to stay in the illusion, in the denial, that there was nothing really wrong with me.

My quest for approval knew no bounds. I wanted connection with others, but would pull away from it when I had it. If I didn't pull away from it physically I would pull away from it emotionally.

`I needed help but wasn't ready to admit it. I blamed the alcoholics in my life for what I had become'

As a child, I was often called upon to help my mother in the face of frightening physical violence or to offer emotional support in its aftermath. I learned to like the feeling of being needed, of helping to "fix" people.

I sought it out in my relationships. I have chosen three alcoholic partners. No matter how bizarre the situation, it felt familiar. Vicious squabbles, obvious infidelity, a toxic mix of shame, remorse and denial. Despite all efforts on my part, nothing would change.

My actions, attitudes and behaviours — formed in the desperate crucible of life with an alcoholic — were wrecking my life. I was not doing this on purpose. I was not an alcoholic, I was not even drinking.

But I needed the kind of help an alcoholic needs. And when I was finally ready, I joined Al-Anon.

Al-Anon is a fellowship whose singular qualification for membership is that there be a problem of alcoholism in a relative or friend. I more than qualified. From the first time I showed up, I knew I belonged.

I came in with my life in a mess but I still held on to the belief that the alcoholics were the problem.

In Al-Anon I learned things: that my old way of thinking was what got me into trouble; that it was time to take my focus off the alcoholic and put it on myself.

Al-Anon does not offer an answer on how to stop someone from drinking, but it does offer a solution to the problems that plague people who have been affected by alcoholism.

I was told that when an alcoholic takes one drink, it sets off a craving for many, many more. I always thought they could just stop if they wanted to.

I was told that the alcoholics in my life had a disease. They were not a disgrace. They were sick people, not bad people.

I was told that no matter how much I try to control another person's drinking, I will fail. Even worse, that my obsession with other people's actions was a problem I needed to fix.

I resisted. Wasn't I the good one? The one everyone relied on to solve the problem, to patch things up, to smooth things over? Wasn't I the one who had been hard done by?

I still got endless satisfaction telling stories about the outrageous things the alcoholics had done, never recognizing the part I played.

Slowly, as I learned to use the 12 Steps and the other tools in the program, my thinking changed. The interesting thing is that Al-Anon's solution for the family is the same as AA's solution for the alcoholic.

The underlying principles of these steps are really quite simple: admit that I have a problem (powerlessness), become willing to accept that there is some power greater than myself (Higher Power), decide to take actions to find that power (God as you understand God), look at my actions, not someone else's (personal inventory), make restitution for wrongs I have done (amends) and work with others (service).

I've taken these actions and the quality of my life has improved dramatically. The situations outside of me do not need to change for my life to improve.

By practising the principles of the 12 Steps, I have found a way out of my fear of people, a way to temper my white-hot bursts of rage. I have a much better sense of who I am. I don't have to change to fit in. The person I am at work is the person I am at a party or with my family or with my friends.

I don't blame situations outside of me for what is going on inside of me. Life is not something that is happening to me, it is something I am participating in.

I no longer get overly involved in people's lives just to feel needed. I no longer do for people what they can do for themselves.

Today, my overwhelming feeling is gratitude. I am grateful for the freedom I have, I am grateful for the life I am now able to live and I am grateful to Al-Anon for providing me with the tools that make that possible.

There is still active alcoholism in my life. I have learned I did not cause the alcoholic to drink, I cannot control the alcoholic's drinking and I am powerless to cure it.

Instead, I have learned to love the alcoholics for the people they are and not hate or fear them for the problem they have. I have been able to forgive.

Living with alcoholism affects people, but those effects need not be a lifelong sentence.


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