At the beginning of the week I consulted the Al-Anon meeting calendar, and honed in on the Friday 7:30 p.m. meeting. For years I’ve struggled with the concept of attending Al-Anon because I felt I did not belong there. After all, I have not spoken to my alcohol dependent father for 5 years, and before that it had been 3 years, and before that it had been at least 20 years. I had read a cursory amount of Al-Anon material years ago that led me to the assessment that because I was not an “enabler,” and since I was now “detached” I did not need Al-Anon. I believed Al-Anon was for those still entangled with the alcoholic, still trying to get them to stop drinking, and lost in the vortex of covering up for the loved one. Al-Anon was for everyone else but me.
The other part of the puzzle that kept me from entering those Al-Anon doors was my own problem with alcohol. The thought of sitting with people who suffered because of a loved one’s battle with alcohol made me feel like an interloper hiding their true identity as an alcoholic.
Lately, I’ve been ruminating about my father, missing him as if he left yesterday. It’s as if mourning his loss many years ago had been arrested, and now, after all this time, the loss was finally being felt.
I pulled up to the church, and waited in the car until the last minute. I encountered a woman in a lovely dark green wrap dress wearing cross trainers who whispered, “Welcome” as she held the door open for me. I asked her, “Is this the Al-Anon meeting?” She nodded and showed me to a seat. There was a long rectangular desk in the middle of the room with 13 of us gathered around it. The group ranged in ages across the spectrum, easily from twenties to seventies. I immediately felt comfortable with the orderly fashion in which the meeting was being run. It felt like a well-oiled machine, yet one that could take new and broken parts like me.
They went through the typical motions of reading the 12 steps, and there was a preamble that was read (of which I cannot recall much of the contents because I was anxious at the mere fact of being in attendance). They asked if this was anyone’s first Al-Anon meeting, and I raised my hand and introduced myself. I was immediately given a Newcomer packet of pamphlets with a local meeting schedule. And then people shared, and it was so different from AA in that there was accepted silence between shares. If no one wanted to share, or if there was a large pause before the next person shared, the pause just hung there like the damp air after rain. There was no cajoling, or putting people on the spot to share. I immediately relaxed when I saw this was the group format. I’ve always appreciated people who are comfortable with silence, and feel no need to just “fill the gap.”
During one of the silences I found myself thinking about some of the AA and Al-Anon differences. During the introduction that was read the reader mentioned that a person should try Al-Anon for 6-8 meetings in order to see if the program works for them. I also recall hearing the reader say that people could attend regularly or infrequently. She also said something to the effect of “take what works, and leave the rest.” I was aghast at hearing this because it’s so different from the way AA is presented in “How It Works,” a chapter from The Big Book, which is typically read in an abbreviated form at the start of most AA meetings.
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our directions. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. They are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a way of life which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.”
I finally have a window into beginning to understand my issues with AA. It starts with that first sentence, “Rarely have we seen a person fail …” That sentence conveys an immediate arrogance that has always set me on edge, though I was never conscious of it until I found myself comparing the differences between the two groups. That first paragraph in “How It Works” conveys to the listener/reader that AA is the only program that works for sobriety. And if you do not recover it is because you did not fully give yourself over to AA. I’ve always felt that the second sentence of “How It Works” is overly simplistic and presumptuous. Here’s the response I’ve always wanted to write to the first paragraph of “How It Works”:
“I have not followed all of your directions. I tried, but some of them asked me to check my brain at the door, and I could not do that. I could not completely give myself over to this program. However, I am in long-term recovery, and I plan on staying that way for the rest of my life. If you were a fly on the wall of my life you would see that I demand rigorous honesty of myself. I may be mistaken about a number of issues in my life, but it’s because I’m still working through deep-seated issues. I may be afraid of my past, but I will face it, and do whatever it takes to get out of this ditch. But I cannot give in to the AA group think. Perhaps my chances are less than average. That’s okay. I’m familiar with being an underdog. Tell me something new, we all know I suffer from “grave emotional and mental disorders.” Who the hell doesn’t? But I will continue to recover because I don’t give up.”
Since I did not feel the pressure to share I felt comfortable sharing. In AA I’ve been known to go for long stretches of meetings before I share because of the feeling of expectation. I’ve never liked feeling like I’m expected to do something. I can be as stubborn as a rat terrier going after his prey. But remove the expectation, and I’m likely to get there on my own. I talked about my missing my father, and feeling like I did not belong in the meeting since I was no longer entangled with him. I started crying at the mention of missing the good parts of him. I wrapped up my share quickly for fear of turning into a spectacle. Then an older gentleman got up and brought me a box of tissues.
I’ll keep coming back.