One of the women I sponsor in Al-Anon celebrated her birthday last night. I’m not referring to the day she was born (what we call her belly button birthday), but the day she found her way to Al-Anon. My first meeting was a birthday meeting, and it struck me as a strange custom. That fact that I needed a program like Al-Anon seemed no cause for celebration. I had no intention of marking the date. But within a month, I was backtracking the weeks to mark my calendar. I couldn’t articulate it at the time. But I was beginning to understand that day as the day as a day I was, in a sense, reborn.
There seem to be a lot of Al-Anon birthdays this time of year. Maybe it’s the stress of the holidays. Perhaps it’s the resolution to do something about the problem of alcoholism in the New Year. For whatever reason, this time of year I see new faces at almost every meeting. Usually, they come to find out how to get their alcoholic to stop drinking.
Sometimes they come because their alcoholic has stopped drinking, but things have NOT gotten better. This is one way in which the disease can be described as “cunning and baffling.” When the alcoholic is drinking, at least there seems to be a good reason for the chaos. It can be puzzling when the chaos continues after the drinking has stopped. Instead of learning how to change their loved ones, these newcomers are told that they are powerless to do so. They are told they didn’t cause the disease, can’t cure the disease and can’t control it. What’s more, they are told that they, too, have become sick. That this is a program to help them get well. If they want to see improvement in their homes, they need to focus on themselves. How bizarre is that? For me, at least, it was a hard sell.
I was there because of my daughter.
I wasn’t at all sure that I hadn’t caused it. Surely, the trouble she was having had it’s roots in something I had done or failed to do as a parent. Plus, I had come from a long line of alcoholics. I felt I knew where she was headed. Wasn’t it my job as her mother to keep her from destroying her life? I believed I could, through the sheer application of my will. And my will was considerable. And how could it be that I was sick? My life did not look unmanageable. My daughter’s life was clearly in shambles. But I had a good job, a nice home, a happy marriage. I was just fine, thank you. I don’t remember much that was said at that first meeting. But I do remember feeling that I belonged there.
I had to admit that I had tried everything in my power to get my daughter to stop drinking and using drugs, and that all my efforts had failed. When I was able to see it, I had to admit that all my attempts to save my daughter only strained our relationship, and left me broke and exhausted. My efforts had included psychological testing, counseling, involuntary rehab, admissions to mental hospitals. She spent a semester attending school at an outpatient mental health facility, where she got individual and group counseling, and where we both attended family counseling. Through all of it, the focus had been on my daughter. I can remember only one person who ever asked how I was doing. It nearly undid me. The truth is, I wasn’t doing very well. Only no one seemed to notice.
Now I found myself in a roomful of people who got me.
Their particular circumstances may have been different from mine, but they understood what I was thinking and feeling. They didn’t ask about my daughter. They only wanted to know how I was doing. In trying to deal with my daughter’s alcoholism, my life had become narrower and narrower until I found myself isolated. In Al-Anon, at least I was no longer alone. Eventually, I could see that this isolation and this obsession had made my life unmanageable. I did have a good life, but I had stopped living it. I had turned my will and my life over to my daughter.
At that first meeting, I was told to try at least six meetings before I decided that Al-Anon wasn’t for me.
I did. And I kept coming back. I got a sponsor and started working the 12 steps, adapted from the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. And my life changed. Eventually, I came to believe that I didn’t cause this disease. It runs in my family. I believe my daughter just got the gene. And today I know that I got it, too. I had heard alcoholism described as a family disease, but I never knew what that meant. Today, I think of it like second hand smoke. Just as you don’t have to pick up a cigarette to get cancer from smoking, I didn’t have to pick up a drink to be affected by alcoholism. It didn’t even matter that I was no longer living with active alcoholism. Once I got it, I had it. I was well aware of what I now call my character defects when I came into the program. But I thought it was just who I was, how I was wired. Possibly it was genetic. After a while in the program, I began to notice that I shared these qualities with most of the people in the room. That’s how I began to understand all the ways I had been affected by alcoholism. I began to separate myself from my disease. I learned that my disease is very similar to an alcoholic’s.
The difference is that an alcoholic’s disease is one of drinking. Mine is one of thinking.
Both are diseases of obsession. The alcoholic is obsessed with alcohol. I am obsessed with the alcoholic. The good news was that if these character defects were a result of alcoholism, they were not fixed in my character. Step 2 told me I could be restored. I could not be cured, any more than the alcoholic. But if I did the things that were suggested in this program, I could receive a daily reprieve based on my spiritual condition. I could, in a sense, put my disease into remission. I also learned that while I didn’t cause the disease in anyone else, couldn’t cure it and couldn’t control it, I could contribute to it. I learned that I contributed to the disease when I tried to control it. That in trying to help my daughter, I only hurt her. As long as I was willing to spring to her rescue, she had no reason to change. I had to let go. I learned that when I allowed her to make her own mistakes, I gave her dignity. She could only learn the lessons she needed if I allowed her to feel the full consequences of her decisions. I also learned that when I changed, the people around me changed. Ironically, when I focused on myself, I could contribute to the solution instead of contributing to the problem. The typical dynamic in an alcoholic family is that the alcoholic acts and everyone around him or her reacts. It’s like the children’s game of tug-of-war. Al-Anon teaches me that I need to drop the rope because no one can play tug-of-war alone. Sometimes when we do, the alcoholic gets uncomfortable enough to get help. That was true for my daughter, who celebrated her own AA birthday last May. But we can’t be assured of that.
Not everyone finds recovery. My first two years in Al-Anon, I had to accept the fact that my daughter might be one of them. But I could learn to be happy whether the alcoholics in my life were drinking or not. And that’s why, today, I love the tradition of Al-Anon birthdays. Especially during this time of year, which is all about fresh starts and new beginnings. For me, birthdays and New Years are times to take stock of where I’ve been and where I am now. That’s important because the changes happen so gradually, it’s hard to see them on a daily basis. But they do happen. I see them in myself and I see them in others. New Year’s is a time of fresh starts and new beginnings. In this program, living one day at a time, every day can be just that. Here’s wishing you a year of fresh starts and new beginnings.
Kathy M. is the writer and concerned parent behind ‘Grace was calling and I didn’t pick up’ blog. She’s since stopped updating her blog but continues to see new readers referring to her posts for guidance. One of her most popular posts is ‘An Open Letter from an Alcoholic’. We ask that you comment below if her story resonates with yours.