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Al-Anon: Breaking the Cycle for Families

Lois Wilson founded Al-Anon in 1951 because she realized that as important as her husband’s sobriety was, it was only a piece of the puzzle. She, too, had been affected by her loved one’s addiction and had to participate in her own recovery process. Drawing upon her experiences with her husband and Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder, Bill Wilson, she adapted the Twelve Steps, and created “a fellowship of relatives and friends of alcoholics who share their experience, strength, and hope in order to solve their common problems.” Since then, Al-Anon has been breaking the cycle for families by providing essential support to those whose loved ones struggle with addiction.

Al-Anon is open to all family members and friends of alcoholics, whether the alcoholics in their lives are drinking or in recovery. AlaTeen meetings are for young Al-Anon members, generally teenagers, and are sponsored by an Al-Anon adult who oversees the group. The goal of both groups is not to give direction or advice to others. Instead, Al-Anon serves as a safe space for members to share their personal experiences and to invite others to “take what they like and leave the rest.” By drawing upon the stories of others, Al-Anon members find hope, encouragement, and insight that enable them to cope with their loved ones’ addiction.

Al-Anon’s primary message is that we are not responsible for someone else’s disease or recovery. Accepting our lack of control over alcohol and other people is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Most people enter Al-Anon with low self-esteem that is reinforced when they cannot change someone’s drinking behavior. Accepting that another person’s disease is not your fault or your responsibility is critical to healing.  It enables you to forgive yourself, to understand alcoholism is a disease, and to change unhealthy patterns. This idea is encapsulated in Al-Anon’s “detaching with love” principle.

Detaching with love means we separate ourselves from the addict with an attitude of love and forgiveness. It is not about threats or punishment. Rather it is a gift to both of you. You react not with fear or anger, but with thoughtfulness and hope. Caring enough about people to let them learn from their own mistakes is challenging, but it is also the most important thing you can do for yourself and the alcoholic in your life. It allows you to return your focus to your own well-being, and it also removes the safety net we have built for our loved ones that enables them to continue their addiction. Remember the only thing you can control in life is yourself. When we set boundaries, say no, and refuse to accept blame or make excuses for things that have nothing to do with us, we change the dynamic. The status quo of addiction you are familiar with has fundamentally been changed.

Al-Anon is an essential source of support and understanding for family members and friends of alcoholics. It helps members view their loved ones’ alcoholism in a different and more accurate light. You may not be able to control your loved one’s drinking or recovery, but you can minimize its impact on your life. Addiction may be a family disease, but it does not need to consume your life or perpetuate through unhealthy patterns. You cannot free your loved one from the chains of addiction, but you can free yourself and move towards a brighter future.