Most people know about the work done by AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), an organization in which alcoholics help one another overcome their drinking problems. Fewer realize there is a somewhat similar group devoted to helping the families of alcoholics.
Al-Anon Family Groups have no official connection with AA, though the two organizations work closely together. Like AA, Al-Anon is a nonprofit, voluntary association. The family groups sprang up informally when wives and husbands of AA members met to discuss mutual problems. In 1951, Al-Anon Family Groups headquarters were set up to serve as a clearinghouse for the exchange of ideas and information. The member groups, however, remain autonomous and decide their own rules and procedures. At present there are some 1,300 groups-about 1,000 in the U.S. and Canada, with the remainder scattered throughout 20 foreign countries. The average group has an active membership of about 25.
Membership is open to anyone with an alcoholic relative or friend; even teen-agers are welcomed. (In some communities, teen-age children of alcoholics have set up their own groups, called Alateens.) Most members are women, largely because there are many more men alcoholics than women. There are no bylaws or dues; members make small, voluntary contributions to cover the rental of a meeting place and the cost of refreshments. In addition, each member is encouraged to contribute a dollar twice a year for the support of the national headquarters.
Most groups meet once a week or twice a month. A typical meeting might open with a nondenominational prayer for serenity, followed by the introduction of new members. Next might come a group discussion, an address by an outside speaker (a doctor, psychiatrist, or clergyman), or a reading of inspirational literature. Typical problems discussed might be: how to protect the children from the impact of alcoholism; whether the wife (if the husband is the alcoholic) should go to work to ease the financial situation; or what the basic cause of excessive drinking is.
The heart of most Al-Anon meetings, however, is the “personal story” period, in which two or three members recount their own experiences in living with an alcoholic and either ask the group’s help in easing some of the problems or recount the methods they themselves have found successful. Members are encouraged to be frank but urged to withhold particularly intimate or emotional problems for private discussion with individual members.
Basic to Al-Anon’s philosophy is the idea that the family of an alcoholic is powerless to control his drinking. But a nonalcoholic can control himself, and the Al-Anon program tries to help its members by urging them to live one day at a time; to accept the idea that alcoholism is a disease; to examine their own consciences and try to remove from their conduct toward the alcoholic any trace of self-righteousness, resentment, or irritation; and to live full lives themselves, even if that means developing interests and activities the alcoholic cannot share. In carrying out this program, Al-Anon, like AA, stresses the need for reliance on spiritual help.
Al-Anon promises no miracles. About ten percent of its new members usually drop out after two or three meetings, when they discover the organization does not attempt to solve the basic problem of alcoholism itself. In other cases, the alcoholic relative bitterly resents having his problems discussed with strangers. Often the Al-Anon program just does not take. But even more often, Al-Anon says, its members are greatly helped by simply being able to talk over their problems with others in the same situation. As they struggle to overcome their own resentment, fear, or despair, they make at least their own lives more bearable. And in some instances, the resulting improvement in home life encourages the alcoholic relative to seek help himself from doctors, psychiatrists, clergymen, or AA.
For further information, write to Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., Post Office Box 182, Madison Square Station, New York 10, New York.
(Source: Good Housekeeping, January 1960)