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Life with an alcoholic seemed unbearable to this husband,
Until he found
Oasis Called Al-Anon
from FAMILY HEALTH
we were leaving the party late that night, my wife tripped
on an outside step. Trying to break her fall, she put her
hands out and hit the gravel driveway, palms down and with
one leg bent under her. She was too drunk to get up alone.
I helped her into the car, drove home, and helped her to
our doorway. By the time I’d put the car away, she
had somehow got to the bedroom, pulled the bedspread over
herself and passed out.
The liquor wore off by dawn, and she woke me. We’d
better get to the hospital,” she said. Her hands were
caked with blood and impregnated with little stones like
so much buckshot. Her knee was the size of a melon.
After he had examined her, the surgeon, who had treated
my wife before, said, “I’m afraid we’re
in for another long one. Can’t tell till the swelling
goes down, but I’ll be surprised if she hasn’t
torn the cartilage this time.
In our 15 years of marriage, it had been a rare year that
my wife hadn’t spent a couple of weeks in the hospital
for some alcohol-related ailment: a sprained back, pneumonia,
nervous breakdown, torn ligaments, burns, a spinal fusion.
I’d walked this road many times. Trying to be father
and mother. Car pool. Sitters. Eating out. Psychiatrists.
And the awful bitchiness of the detoxifying alcoholic. I
couldn’t go through it again. I felt so sorry for
myself-and so damn mad at her.
Six weeks later, following the operation, the doctor told
me that her knee was all right. “But the malnutrition
is so bad that her skin kept tearing when I sutured. The
blood tests show that her liver is shot. She’s going
to be dead in six months at this rate.”
Walking to the elevator, I was totally depressed. I knew
that, as soon as she got home, we would be right back on
the same old merry-go-round. It all seemed so futile! And
then I bumped into a former business associate, a recovered
alcoholic, who for years had been helping people who had
are you doing here?” he asked. “Nothing serious,
Right there in the hospital hall, I told him the whole bloody
know,” he said, after I’d finished, “if
it’s as serious as you say, you need help, too. Living
with an alcoholic can be an impossible load.”
I know. I know.
And then he told me about Al-Anon-an organization for people
whose lives are affected by someone else’s drinking
problem. He went on to say that Al-Anon provides information
and help for these people whether or not the alcoholic seeks
help, and he suggested that I go to a local meeting. I was
too filled with resentment, though, to really listen. I
tried to be courteous but, even as he talked, I was wondering
why I should go to meetings. She has the problem-not I.
But the idea wouldn’t go away. “An impossible
load,” he had said. As time passed, I began to realize
how warped my life was becoming. I became aware of a whole
litany of destructive emotions-anger, anxiety, disgust,
embarrassment-that were beginning to overwhelm me. I should
One January evening, I got up nerve and went. In the meeting
room were 15 or 20 adults of both sexes and miscellaneous
ages. I sat down next to a woman in her 60s who introduced
herself as Beatrice. “May I give you this?”
she asked, handing me a folded card. “It’s the
whole thing on the head of a pin.”
On one side was the famous prayer: “God grant me the
serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage
to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
On the other side were the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The first step: “We admitted that we were powerless
over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Now the meeting was starting. George, the moderator, asked
us to observe confidentiality, to use first names only;
and he explained the purpose of Al-Anon, as a separate fellowship
from AA, designed to meet the needs of families and friends
of alcoholics. He pointed out that the Al-Anon program is
based on AA’s 12 Steps and is designed to guide its
members into personal awareness of their role in relation
to the alcoholic. Then he suggested that we take turns trying
to figure out, aloud, how far each of us had gotten with
I felt confused. “We admitted that we were powerless
over alcohol.” I thought, That’s my wife’s
decision, not mine. But then, as I listened, I understood.
The question for us was: “How well have we learned
that we cannot control our spouse’s alcoholism? What
progress have we made in learning to control our own anxieties
and anger in the face of the problem we live with?”
A pretty young woman with heavy circles under her eyes said,
“I’ve learned not to cover up for him anymore.
If he’s too drunk to go to work, I don’t call
up and say he’s sick. He may get canned, I know, but
that’s his problem to deal with.”
Others spoke up: “As long as he can count on you to
protect him, he won’t change. Don’t forget,
you’re powerless over his drinking. Don’t let
him make you anxious”….”I used to look
for the bottles and pour them out, until I realized he’d
just buy more and hide them better”…
she’s too drunk to cook dinner, I take the kids out.
We try to make it fun.”
And then it was my turn. Was I in any position to say anything?
My palms were wringing wet, and I didn’t know how
to start. Then the words really came: torrents of bitter
words, words of resentment, confusion and anger. It must
have sounded like a verbal boil being lanced, but the moderator
was matter-of-fact when I finally shut up. “Thank
you,” he said. “I guess we’ve all felt
that way at one point or another. That’s why we’re
here. Keep coming. If you don’t hear something tonight
that will be helpful, you will next time.”
During the next several days, I read everything the moderator
had given me about Al-Anon. I learned that a spouse, having
accepted intellectually that he or she cannot solve the
alcoholic partner’s problem, must take the big step
of accepting it emotionally as well. For his own preservation,
dignity and peace of mind, he must “let go”-detach
from the drinking problem. He must refuse to worry; he must
accept what he cannot change; he must seek serenity by avoiding
the arguments and anxieties created by alcoholics. It seems
so selfish to ignore someone, but as one woman in our program
explained, “That’s not what Al-Anon means by
detachment. It’s really ‘tough love’ we’re
talking about; to protect our own sanity, we turn away from
the drinking problem and the crazy behavior it causes.”
The second meeting I attended brought new dimensions. I
felt the beginning of fellowship with the group and a clearer
understanding of what we were trying to do. I learned that
in “working the program,” as Al-Anoners call
it, one is required to examine one’s own motivations
carefully-to make an honest self-appraisal of virtues and
weaknesses. Contempt, scorn and sarcasm are common personality
defects of the alcoholic spouse. And a determination to
run things-to control the alcoholic, to hide the bottles,
to keep a stubborn grip on everything "because the
alcoholic can’t do anything”-is often the most
serious personality defect of all.
I said. “But what do I do when I come home and find
the sink full of dishes, the hamper full of dirty diapers,
and the kids not fed?”
you try not to get angry-but to remember that you are dealing
with the symptoms of an illness. Then you do the minimum
necessary for cleanliness and health.”
And what about the children who have to live with an alcoholic
parent? You level with them, even if it makes you feel guilty
at first. You explain that their mother of father is as
truly sick as a diabetic, and you get them to Alateen-the
offshoot of Al-Anon for teen-agers-where they can rap with
their peers about their problems.
My 13-year-old daughter was becoming increasingly tense
about the problem at home. One day, she broke down at school.
Her teacher called me at the office. I had toyed with the
idea of Alateen for Beth, and had even talked with her about
it. Up to that point, she had not wanted to try it.
But there was an Alateen meeting scheduled for that night,
and Beth agreed to go. I sat across the hall at the Al-Anon
meeting with a lump the size of a watermelon in my stomach.
Would it help my daughter? Scare her? What were those ten
kids talking about? I couldn’t concentrate on a thing
in our meeting.
When I asked her later how it had gone, she broke into a
smile. “Great, Dad! Can I come back next week?”
As I write this, it has been 19 months since that first
January night. Taking it a step at a time, I’m still
with Al-Anon. It offers no magic solutions, but rather a
whole new philosophy of living, to be learned slowly and
patiently. There is a spiritual aspect to the program that
can be a stumbling block for some people. It requires that
one submit his personal will to that of a higher power and
stop trying to play God in his own house.
In my case, I am learning to put things in perspective.
I have two wonderful children, a good job and the ability
again to enjoy a sunset, a good laugh, a pleasant meal.
I am no longer consumed by that part of my life that I cannot
do anything about.
My wife is wrestling privately with her alcoholism. She
may yet reach out for help. I do not know. But I do know
that I no longer blame myself or her. Our home is a happier
place now that my children and I have learned about the
disease of alcoholism. The problem is in its place, not
pervading everything as it did before-because I, like many
thousands before, have found an oasis called Al-Anon.
further information about Al-Anon and Alateen, consult your
local telephone directory or write to: Al-Anon Family Group
Headquarters, Inc. (or Alateen), P.O. Box 182, Madison Square
Station, Dept. D, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Reader’s Digest, September 1976)