When Friendships and Al-Anon Don't Mix

When Friendships and Al-Anon Don’t Mix

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This post was originally published on July 7, 2015.

Liz had hands like a Barbie doll. Her wrists were tiny and her palms were thin, covered in smooth Irish freckled skin. She kept her pinkies slightly bent at all times and her thumbs curved away wide from the rest of her fingers. When she shared in Al-Anon meetings, I followed the gestures she made. I studied the way she gently flipped her wrists and how her pointer finger, on her right hand, would sometimes poke delicately at the air.

I don’t know why I did it but sometimes when I shared, I’d catch myself mimicking Liz’s gestures. One time when I caught myself doing the Barbie doll hand thing, I looked over at Liz to see if she noticed. Luckily, she was busy rummaging through her bag, feeling around for her tinted tube of Burt’s Bees lip gloss. I watched her as she pressed the tube between her pointer finger and thumb and pushed the cherry-colored stick across her lips.

I thought that Liz was the perfect Al-Anon student. She worked her steps and effortlessly fit the slogans into casual conversations. She volunteered to keep time during meetings and organized the monthly speakers. When given the opportunity to offer advice to newcomers, she stayed away from politics and kept religion at a distance. Liz followed all the rules of Al-Anon and I wanted to follow Liz.

When we were finally introduced to each other, Liz and I instantly bonded over our chaotic childhoods. We were both the “good ones” in our families, the responsible ones who cried every time our brothers relapsed and spent our childhoods playing with the plastic knobs on the cigarette machine at the local dive bar, while our parents pounded beers and sucked on cigarettes.

Slowly and without ever exchanging last names (another Al-Anon rule), our friendship outgrew the church basement of our Monday night meeting in Brooklyn and graduated to an occasional coffee at Starbucks and even a trip to the city one Saturday night to see the play Bill W. and Dr. Bob.

The more time we spent together outside of meetings, the more relaxed we grew with each other. Instead of just exchanging horror stories about our families, we graduated to talking about our jobs, our favorite mascara and even boys. Once, I innocently suggested meeting up at a local bar after work for a drink but Liz seemed horrified. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said. “What if someone from Al-Anon sees us?”

That’s why I was surprised to find myself, just a few short weeks later, sitting next to Liz in a bar on the Upper East Side. While she applied a fresh layer of lip gloss, I ordered us two vodka sodas with lime from the tattooed bartender.

When our drinks arrived, Liz picked hers up and instead of saying “cheers” or “salud,” she said, “It’s okay if we just have one.”

I wasn’t really sure what to say in return. So I just nodded and said, “Of course. One drink is totally fine.” I flipped my wrist over and squinted at my watch. “Besides, it’s only just eight. We can leave after this one and be back in Brooklyn before ten.”

The next time I looked at my watch, it was 11:30 pm and Liz was tangled up and tipsy with some random guy in the back of the bar next to the pool table. His friend, whose breath smelled like old yeast, was sitting with me at a high top, trying to push a warm round of SoCo lime shots on me. When he finally realized that I wasn’t going to budge on the shots, or succumb to his drunk advances, he motioned for his friend and Liz to come and join us.

Liz floated toward the table. Her curly hair, which she usually kept restrained in a hair tie, swung wildly across her shoulders. She leaned into me and wrapped her palm around my elbow to balance herself on the nearest bar stool. As she teetered back and forth, her purse slid off her arm and landed on the floor.

Immediately, I reached down to grab it but Liz stopped me. “Eh, don’t worry about that,” she said, throwing her arm across the back of my shoulders and laughing. Her voice got swallowed up by the bass exploding out from the speakers above the bar. She looked like a drunken fool sitting there with her mouth wide open, her eyelids droopy, her head bobbing up and down like a buoy.

This wasn’t the pulled-together, Al-Anon Liz that I knew and respected from our Monday night meetings. And even though we were miles away from Brooklyn, I scanned the bar to make sure that no one we knew from Al-Anon was there to see us.

Needless to say, Liz and I didn’t make it home before ten that night. The guy that she was bumping hips with offered to give us a ride but I quickly talked Liz down from the idea. I was still sober enough to know that getting in a car with two random guys, even if their intentions were pure, was not the best plan. So as soon as Liz was finished saying goodbye to her new friend, we pulled ourselves together and headed for the subway.

Liz was back in full-on Al-Anon mode when I bumped into her again after a meeting a few weeks later. Our exchange, as I kind of expected, was awkward.

“So, have you heard from that guy?”

“What?” Liz looked embarrassed as she stacked a metal folded chair against a cinder block wall in the back of the room. “Oh, that guy. Yea, we might get together this weekend.”

“No way!” I said as I grabbed a chair and added it to the pile.

“Not get together like that,” Liz whispered, tucking her chin into her chest as if she was trying to hide her words behind the buttons on her blouse. “Maybe a movie or something but not you know, a bar.

“Oh, of course,” I said while I fought off the urge to read too much into the way that Liz said, a bar.

“Anyway, we probably shouldn’t talk about this here.” Liz turned and swung the straps of her bag over her shoulder, squeezing them so hard that the veins in her hand nearly swelled over her knuckles. The last thing she said to me before she walked away was, “I’ll catch up with you later.”

I never found out how Liz’s date with the guy from the bar turned out because our friendship completely dissolved after our night out on the Upper East Side. Although I never confirmed it with Liz, my guess was that drinking with me, out at a bar, beyond the walls of the Al-Anon rooms, meant that Liz broke one of the unwritten rules of Al-Anon.

It’s widely assumed that people who go to Al-Anon meetings are the rule-following sober ones. And maybe following that rule meant more to Liz than it did to me. Maybe she thought I was a bad influence. After all, I was the one who initially suggested meeting up at a bar. Or maybe Liz’s reaction had nothing to do with me, maybe it was just Liz.

In Al-Anon, they advise you to take what you like and leave the rest. When I first started meetings, I didn’t understand what that meant. But now it makes total sense, especially when I apply it to my friendship with Liz and other friendships in my life that have dissolved for various, sometimes unknown, reasons.

Sure, it will always suck to be rejected but at least now I know that I can choose what I want to take from these relationships and what is best for me to leave behind.

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Dawn Clancy is the creator of Growing Up Chaotic, a blog and radio program for those determined to survive and thrive despite growing up in toxicity. Her goal is to create a community hell bent on breaking, cracking and demolishing the cycle of dysfunction.