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Al-Anon: A recovery program for family members to focus on themselves


For loved ones of addicts and alcoholics, the chaos of addiction and alcoholism is sometimes replaced by the uncertainty of sobriety, and that’s where Al-Anon can help.

Al-AnonYes, their spouses, sons, daughters or parents have gotten help for their affliction. They may have spent 30 days at a residential treatment facility like Cornerstone of Recovery. Hopefully, family therapy has initiated a way to repair the damage done by the addict or alcoholic, but those first few days or weeks after the post-treatment reunion can be awkward. Uncomfortable, even.

Your loved one may be someone you don’t recognize, and that’s perfectly normal — the idea behind recovery isn’t for addicts and alcoholics to get their lives back, because many of them were unhappy, uncomfortable or outright miserable even before their drug and alcohol use became a problem. “A new way to live” is often a catchphrase of recovery programs, but at Cornerstone of Recovery, we recognize that such a transformation can take some getting used to.

After all, the trust you’ve begun to rebuild is tenuous, and your loved one may be leaving the house regularly to attend recovery meetings. They’ll likely be forming close relationships with others in recovery who help them stay sober and hold them accountable, and you may be left wondering where, exactly, you fit in.

While this new landscape can be what you prayed and hoped for, it can also be difficult to navigate. That’s one reason the family therapy team at Cornerstone of Recovery recommends Al-Anon (or Nar-Anon) Family Groups, which are 12 Step programs exclusively for family members of addicts and alcoholics.

“Family members need to have their own support system, their own journey, separate from the addict and alcoholic,” says Danyelle Smith, a family therapist at Cornerstone of Recovery.

It’s imperative, adds therapist Joel Bain, because of the wounds to the family dynamic that are still raw. Addicts and alcoholics have programs of recovery in which to deal with those wounds, but if their loved ones don’t take steps to facilitate their own healing, it can put undue pressure on the very person about which they’re so concerned in the first place.

“The big elephants are always the same thing — how to participate in their loved one’s recovery, how not to participate, is it OK that I feel a certain way,” Bain says. “Anger, mistrust, betrayal, isolation, sadness, grief, guilt, shame — all these strong emotions are felt by family members, and they all have different ways of talking about how they feel and validating where they’re coming from. And many times, they’re trying to get all of their answers through the recovering person, who’s still in the midst of their own muck.”

What Is Al-Anon and Nar-Anon?

According to the organization’s website, “Al‑Anon is a mutual support program for people whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking. By sharing common experiences and applying the Al-Anon principles, families and friends of alcoholics can bring positive changes to their individual situations, whether or not the alcoholic admits the existence of a drinking problem or seeks help.”

Both Al-Anon and Nar-Anon offer camaraderie based on the shared experience of navigating a loved one’s addiction and/or alcoholism. According to the Nar-Anon website, “When you come into the family group, you are no longer alone, but among true friends who understand your problem as few others could. We respect your confidence and anonymity as we know you will respect ours. We hope to give you the assurance that no situation is too difficult and no unhappiness is too great to be overcome.”

Both organizations have been in existence for decades. Co-founded by Lois Wilson — the wife of Bill Wilson, one of two men who established Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) — Al-Anon was officially established in 1951 and adopted a version of the 12 Steps with permission granted by A.A. By 1954, Al-Anon Family Groups had established a worldwide headquarters, and 10 years later, after Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) began to spread as a 12 Step program for addicts, a parallel family group began in California.

Nar-Anon was trademarked in 1965, the organization’s first literature was published shortly thereafter and by 1971, Nar-Anon had become incorporated and a world headquarters established. By that point, meetings had begun to slowly spread out of California and across the country. Today, there are roughly 24,000 Al-Anon meetings held in 131 countries, according to the organization, and although smaller in scope, Nar-Anon Family Groups holds thousands of meetings in countries around the world as well.

What Al-Anon/Nar-Anon IS

  • Al-AnonFamily groups of Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are meetings of mutually supportive individuals who discuss their experiences, offer their strength to those new to the process and share the hope in their own recovery journeys. There are no membership requirements and no commitments or pledges to sign.
  • They’re voluntary groups, and there are no expectations placed on newcomers. You can sit and listen or you can share.
  • They’re anonymous — meaning that even if you see someone you recognize, meeting attendees are expected to keep the confidence of those acquaintances outside of the meeting. In other words, if you run into a fellow Al-Anon or Nar-Anon attendee at the grocery store, striking up a conversation about the meeting is frowned upon.
  • They’re safe spaces. In many instances, the family members of addicts and alcoholics build strong bonds because of their shared experiences, and just as their addicted and alcoholic loved ones do in their own 12 Step meetings, they learn the power of mutual support, build trust and find hope through those shared experiences.

What Al-Anon/Nar-Anon IS NOT

  • They’re not strategy sessions. In other words, if you’re hoping to find answers on how to get your loved ones clean and sober, this isn’t the place. These meetings are for your personal recovery.
  • They’re not hierarchical organizations, meaning that there’s no group “leader” or “boss” that will tell you what you should and shouldn’t do. Members volunteer to chair the meetings, but that’s for organizational purposes only, not to issue commands.
  • They’re not religious. Yes, the word “God” is used in the literature, but regular attendees take great pains to differentiate between spirituality and religion. “God” is not a reference to the Christian deity — merely a placeholder word for each individual’s concept of a Higher Power.
  • They’re not the same: Meetings are different from city to city, from state to state, from country to country — but the foundation stones of recovery are universal, as are the Steps used to get there.

Like family therapy, attendance at Al-Anon is just a step along the road to long-term recovery. But it’s important one for loved ones, who are encouraged to focus on their own healing while the addicts and alcoholics in their lives focus on theirs. By undertaking these parallel journeys together, everyone suffering from addiction — the addicts and alcoholics, and the family members affected by their disease — can find new ways to live.

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