For a lot of alcoholics and addicts in 12-step programs, Alanon is one of the places we naturally gravitate to when we need a little extra help with some of the shit that AA or NA meetings don’t really address. And it makes perfect sense, since an awful lot of us had parents and grandparents who were drunks and addicts. Ducks have ducks, baby.
And while it’s been a huge boon to my sober life in terms of (relative) serenity and sanity, the transition from the slam bang life-or-death approach in AA to the kinder, gentler feel of Al-Anon took some getting used to. To me, AA is like rock n roll and Alanon is more like folk music, so you really have to be in a different space to listen to the message there.
Like many addicts, I was affected by alcoholism way before I picked up a drink. My father was a drunk who left the family on Christmas Eve when I was eight, and even though I have no recollection of him, he had a huge impact on my life. I say this because if you can’t remember anything from childhood, chances are it wasn’t because it was so fucking awesome. A lot of my warped thinking was shaped during that period and it didn’t disappear with the baby fat as I grew up.
My father’s father was a drunk, too, and both of my mother’s grandparents were drunks. My other grandmother was a saint, and not surprisingly, so is my mother (and I mean that sincerely). Two of my brothers are dead from booze and drugs (one died from cocaine and booze, the other died in a drunk driving accident at 17), so not only do I have the breeding, I have the fucked up thinking that goes with generations of alcoholic behavior and my family’s equally fucked up ways to cope with it.
And it isn’t just my family. Most of the people in my non-working life are recovery people, and the women I attract and I’m attracted to are usually either alcoholic or addicts in recovery or their fathers or mothers were afflicted with the disease (although I do have some good friends that were never affected directly by addiction). Because I’m active in AA and spend a lot of time around drunks and addicts—many of whom aren’t going to stay clean and sober and some who are going to die—I need to learn how to deal with that shit.
Lots of sober people also go to Alanon because they passed their disease down to their kids, and these folks are horrified when their kids act just like them at their age. Go figure. So if any of these scenarios apply to you—addict/alcoholic parents, kids, love interests—Alanon might have a nice warm metal folding chair for you too.
But just because we’re all there to get better from alcoholism and addiction, and we’re using the 12-step model, don’t assume that the programs are anything alike. Addiction recovery (booze, drugs, food, gambling, sex or whatever) is not the same as Alanon recovery. Once we’re able to get free of the substances that were destroying us, our lives start to improve dramatically (even if it doesn’t always feel that way, especially in early recovery). But a lot of Alanons are still dealing with the horror of growing up with or actively dealing with fucked up parents, kids and partners. In other words, the mental, physical and sexual abuse that addicts and alcoholics inflict upon those closest to them—you know, the stuff that some folks put under that big blanket of “Things I’m Not Proud Of” when telling their stories from the podium or sharing at a meeting.
Alcoholics go to AA to treat their alcoholism, Alanons go to program to treat the effects of alcoholism, or as a woman from my Alanon home group says: “Alcoholics go to AA for their drinking; we come here for our thinking.” And if you don’t think your alkie or addict behavior affected anyone else, go to an Alanon meeting and just listen. It turns out that you don’t have to physically beat or verbally degrade someone to fuck up their life. Just being a completely unpredictable asshole goes a long way towards accomplishing that.
A lot of alcoholics and addicts have misconceptions about Alanon before they get there, and I was no exception. The first is that they sit around the room and kvetch about the alcoholics in their lives, like a social club for harpies. Just the opposite is true, and to me it’s almost too far to the other extreme. For starters, the main theme is to “keep the focus on yourself” and not on the addict. Although some people do engage in that stuff when they first come into the program, it’s really no different than drunks and junkies bitching about their probation officers when they first come to addiction recovery. Sometimes it takes time for them to start working on the solution, too.
The other idea is that Alanon is the “enemy camp,” as if we’re somehow at odds with these people. Alanon might be a perceived threat to those that are still using, but it’s not even that. They don’t teach members how to get drunks to stop drinking, just how to live with them without killing them or themselves. They even tell them that they “can be happy whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not,” which I still find a little hard to believe. They also emphasize that addicts and alcoholics have a disease, although I sometimes remind my Alanon friends that just because we have a disease doesn’t mean that we’re not assholes, too.
If you do decide to check out Alanon, here are a couple of things I learned in my nearly five years of regular attendance:
- Take care of your sobriety first. If I don’t know how to not use, Alanon isn’t very helpful. I had to build a solid foundation before I went, and old timers will tell you to not try and fix everything at once. I went when I was about six years sober and I don’t think I could have gone much sooner, because the message is just the opposite of AA. We need to help people to stay sober. They need to stop helping (and controlling) people to stay sane.
- Don’t talk about your addiction, sobriety date or anything like that. They don’t need to know you’re an alcoholic or addict any more than they need to know that you’re a lawyer or a Red Sox fan. In here, nobody cares because it’s not what we’re there to treat. I don’t talk about my car problems at an AA meeting so there’s no reason to discuss my addictions at an Alanon meeting. “AA’s feel that they have to tell everybody that they’re an alcoholic, but what they probably aren’t aware of is that the person sitting next to them might not have had very good experiences with alcoholics,” my friend told me when I first came around. My home group has a friendly reminder about this: “Please keep your other affiliations to yourself when sharing.”
- Don’t assume that you know everything about recovery just because you’re in a 12-step program. Last year my Alanon friend sent me a nice email that ended with, “I couldn’t stand you the first year you were in Alanon because you such a typical know-it-all alcoholic.” (She’s married to one). That whole arrogance of the alcoholic thing took a while to go away, and I still have to work on it daily.
- If you decide to start doing the program, get an Alanon sponsor. Just because you have an AA sponsor doesn’t mean you don’t need an Alanon sponsor. I have a primary care physician, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need a dentist. Or a therapist.
When I came to Alanon, I didn’t think I hurt anyone but myself. I found out I was unbelievably wrong, but that’s not the main benefit I’ve received. I found out there was a lot of stuff that AA couldn’t help me with, but Alanon could.