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A safe haven for families of alcoholics

By Roger Stark, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Jan 10th, 2012 @ 8:37pm



New casualties are created everyday. They come from the implosion of yet another family detonated by addiction. Sometimes it is completely unexpected, the discovery of secret, hidden acting out. For others it comes after the long simmering accumulation of broken promises, betrayal and chaos that come with addictive behavior.

It could be a son or daughter caught up in using illegal drugs, a drunken father, or a mother lost in the abuse of prescription drugs; they all have the same destination: a family system in shambles. And it doesn’t stop there — friends, co-workers and relatives all are caught up in the conflagration and the chaos. Dying love, betrayal, confusion, frustration, anger, despair and hopelessness abound, and solutions are in very, very short supply.

"I grew up with an adorable sister who became an alcoholic with her first drink at the age of 18. She drank for 30 years and was never able to stay sober for more than a few weeks at a time. She was one of my best friends.

"She was very shy and soft-spoken as a child. As she grew into a woman it was still very hard for her to speak up and socialize with people — unless she was drinking. When she was drinking, she was the life of the party! The things that came out of her mouth would make people laugh until they cried. She was so outgoing and confident — when she was drinking."

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This is the story of Janet V. and her struggle to make sense of the loss of her sister to alcohol. There are not any easy answers, very little makes sense when alcoholism or any other addiction steals a loved one.

Janet turned to a program known as Al-Anon Family Groups, a support fellowship for those injured by alcoholism. Al-Anon participants state, “Many who come 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 because we want and need help.”

It is a fellowship that seeks a culture of bearing one another’s burdens. In the sharing, members find healing. “We share our own experience, strength and hope with each other," Al-Anon literature states. "You will meet others who know of 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.”

The fellowship celebrated it’s 60th anniversary this year. Lois W., wife of AA’s co-founder Bill W., and a friend and neighbor Anne B., began the organization in Bedford Hills, N.Y., in 1951, some 16 years after the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. Lois was encouraged by many within the AA movement that realized family members needed help just as badly as the alcoholics did.

Today 29,000 groups meet regularly worldwide with a membership that nears 400,000. Some 76 groups meet regularly in the state of Utah.

What is Al-Anon?
AL-ANON (and ALATEEN for younger members) is a worldwide organization that offers a program of help and mutual support for families and friends of someone with a drinking problem whether or not the person with a drinking problem seeks help or even recognizes the existence of a drinking problem. Participants in AL- ANON and ALATEEN give and receive comfort and understanding through a mutual exchange of experience, strength and hope, and learn how the principles of the AL-ANON program can be applied to their own lives. This process of sharing amongst people with similar problems and applying AL-ANON principles binds individuals and groups together in a bond that is protected by a policy of anonymity and confidentiality.

The fellowship is very clear about what it is and what it is not. “AL- ANON is not a religious organization or a counseling agency. It is not a treatment center nor is it allied with any other organization offering such services. AL-ANON Family Groups, which includes ALATEEN for teenage members, neither expresses opinions on outside issues nor endorses outside enterprises. No dues or fees are required. Participation is voluntary, requiring only that one’s own life has been adversely affected by someone else’s drinking problem.”

"She lost friends, relationships, financial security — and she lost custody of her only child, a sweet and beautiful son. Many of us thought that losing her child would be her 'bottom.' It would surely be the one thing that would get her to stop drinking. It didn’t turn out that way."

In the beginning stages of addiction, there aren’t many negative consequences. Whether it’s alcohol, drug use, gambling or sex, it begins as fun, simple recreation. There are no big warning signs about the dangers ahead, when what was recreational becomes compulsive. In fact, one of the problems is that many people can use alcohol or drugs, gamble occasionally or look at pornography without the use becoming compulsive or addictive. Everyone believes they will be in that group, that they will never become an addict.

But approximately 20 percent of those that indulge get overtaken by complusion. Frequent use becomes compulsive use. At that point, the urge to indulge is greater than the will to say “no” — even in the face of horrific consequences.

"Her drinking began to take its toll on her body. She became sicker and sicker and she almost died on New Year’s Eve in 1998. The doctors told her if she continued to drink, she would be lucky to be alive in three years ... Instead of this news being a wakeup call, the words made her drink even more.

"She passed away on Dec. 18, 2001, at 7:14 a.m., at the age of 48. I laid beside her and watched her take her last breath. My life was forever changed."

Al-Anon Family Groups offer “a fellowship of relatives and friends of alcoholics who share their experience, strength and hope in order to solve their common problems.” Al-Anon holds a strong belief that “alcoholism is a family illness and that changed attitudes can aid recovery.

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“Al-Anon has but one purpose: to help families of alcoholics. We do this by practicing the Twelve Steps, by welcoming and giving comfort to families of alcoholics, and by giving understanding and encouragement to the alcoholic.”

Janet V. found understanding, on a level that brought some peace.

"I found just what I needed in the rooms of Al-Anon — hope, love, acceptance and the realization that there was nothing I could have done to stop my sister from drinking, no matter how much I loved her...

"I have two children of my own and they both suffer from the disease of alcoholism. So I am not only the sister of an alcoholic, but the mother of two incredible people who grew up to be alcoholics. I sometimes think about how much I have learned from my experiences with my sister and from becoming an active member of Al-Anon Family Groups. I’m quite certain I would be handling things quite differently had I not found this group of people who offer me hope, friendship and love — and a safe place to share my fears and my sorrows.

Family members come to Al-Anon thinking the alcoholic in their life is the problem, but they find there may be more to it than that. They learn early on that they are not alone in their struggle, it is not unique to their family or friend. They find people who have discovered solutions for many of the crisis they face, and a venue for a safe discussion of their struggles. They come to try to make sense of it all, and Al-Anon provides the forum that brings clarity and understanding.

"So now I live with the knowledge that I, too, need help to learn to live with the disease of alcoholism. I have learned that I can live my life — happy, joyous and free — whether the alcoholics in my life are still drinking or not. I can continue to love them in a healthier way, with boundaries I choose to set. I have learned that bad things still happen in all our of lives, but that we have choices and we can choose to make the best of any situation. And I have learned there is only one thing I can control, and that is myself. "



In the process of recovering from addiction Roger became a licensed addiction counselor and wrote the LDS recovery guide, “The Waterfall Concept, A blueprint for addiction recovery.” He blogs at his recovery website www.waterfallconcept.org

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