Alcoholism, like any form of addiction, rarely limits its effects to the life of the alcoholics themselves. Even if they are high-functioning alcoholics and can manage to keep up the appearance of control, their dependence will inevitably affect their relationships with their family and friends.

If you are an alcoholic, help is at hand in the form of addiction treatment centres, support groups and therapy, and the challenge of staying sober is fully appreciated. What relatives and friends go through, however, can be somewhat underestimated. Yet, their experience is no less traumatic and perhaps made worse by the fact that they feel powerless to help the person they care about.

Founded 16 years after AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), Al-Anon recognises this and provides a safe and supportive environment for people whose life has been affected by the alcoholism of a loved one, regardless of whether the alcoholic has accepted that he or she has a problem, is still drinking or sober, and is seeking help or not. Alateen is a similar organisation to support friends and relatives of an alcoholic teenager. It is a fellowship and largely functions like AA, with group meetings and the guarantee of complete anonymity.

What Al-Anon does not do, however, is interfere in the alcoholic’s life and try to convince them to stop drinking, or support the family in their attempt to do so. The group’s raison d’être is to meet the emotional needs of the people affected by someone’s alcoholism, including healing after sobriety has been achieved by that person.

How Al-Anon can help

If you were asked what issues the relatives and friends of an alcoholic might face, you would be likely to think about physical and verbal abuse, uncertainty about the future, heartbreak and loss of trust. However, there are other more subtle dynamics which can develop between an alcoholic and his entourage and endure long after alcoholism has been overcome.

It is common for family and partners to blame themselves intensely for their loved ones’ addiction, be it because they see themselves as the cause, or because they haven’t been able to control it. Being the rescuer, the caretaker can, unfortunately, lead to co-dependency and can make it difficult for an alcoholic to recover when their loved ones are subconsciously reluctant to give up a role they have become accustomed to. Love can also turn into pity and condescension, or misplaced loyalty.

Al-Anon addresses these issues in an informal way, as well as dealing with the low-self-esteem that the situation may have created, with an emphasis on the fact that the decision to stop drinking can only come from the alcoholic and that their loves ones are neither responsible for the alcoholism nor putting a stop to it.

How does it work?

Al-Anon follows the same Twelve Steps Programme as AA, and local branches meet weekly at the same place and same time. Booking isn’t necessary, and people are free to just come, although regular attendance will be expected once you commit to the programme.

The format of meetings will vary slightly depending on which branch you join, but, generally speaking, they will remain quite small and count no more than 25 people. Sharing is an important step but it is not mandatory and you will never be put on the spot if you are not ready.

It is quite natural to be nervous at first, but remember that all the people in the room are in exactly the same position as you and that you won’t be judged in any way. In addition, it is useful to remember that the purpose of those meetings isn’t to give advice or directions but to listen to one another’s story and take from them what can benefit you.

Benefits of Al-Anon

Alcoholism can be very isolating to everyone affected by it, directly or indirectly. Perhaps friends have stopped inviting your family, or you have been avoiding them so as not to be embarrassed, and, more likely than not, people will have lavished unwanted advice on you!

Attending a support group like Al-Anon or Alateen will help you realise that you are not alone, and being able to share what you are going through will often provide you with the extra boost of strength which will make dealing with problems easier.

Therapy, as an individual, family, with or without the person dependent on alcohol, would also give you the chance to explore in depth your feelings, the dynamics that have developed because of the alcoholism, and help you take a step towards healthier relationships.

The Robert Street Clinic is a private practice specialised in addiction treatment and alcohol rehab in Auckland, and is composed of mental health professionals with a wealth of experience. If you are looking for a therapist to support you, contact us or call us on 09 973 5950.