What Is Al-Anon for Families?
Almost everyone has heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, but how many are aware that there is also a support group for people who are not suffering from alcohol use disorder themselves, but have loved ones or friends struggling? This group is called Al-Anon. The word “Al-Anon” is simply a derivative of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), combining the first syllables of each word. The purpose of Al-Anon is to bring together people who have a shared concern. The group is there to lend support and understanding, to provide resources, and to help people feel better about themselves and their situations, as they can have the support of a community with understanding around them. Essentially, Al-Anon family groups were created with the sole purpose to help families and friends who have loved ones suffering from alcoholism.
AA was officially founded in 1935. In the very beginning days of AA, there were no local meetings that people could go to. Oftentimes, these meetings would happen in people's homes and were generally reserved for the men who at that time were primarily the heads of the household. Frequently, their wives and children would go to these meetings as well. While family members of AA participants were present, they would often either also participate in the AA meeting, or they would find another space in the house to talk amongst themselves. It quickly became evident that there was value not just from Alcoholics Anonymous itself, but in independent support that these women and children were able to find talking with each other.
As AA gained traction, it started to spread throughout the country. Alongside the expansion of AA, family groups were forming as well, but they had no official name and no official recognition. Al-Alon was officially founded in 1951 by the co-founder of AA Bill Wilson's wife Lois. She had first-hand experience and knowledge of what it was like to live with someone while they were actively using, to watch them during their struggles with recovery, and ultimately learning how to live afterward with Bill in long-term recovery. Not long after that, it became apparent that the children of alcoholic parents going through the program had their own experiences, and their needs might be different from those of the AA participants’ wives. This started the splinter group called Alateen, which began in 1957. This group, which is still active, is open for teenagers who have family members or friends suffering from alcohol use disorder.
Since then, the organization has expanded tremendously, and now it has over 24,000 registered Al-Anon groups in over 130 countries. Additionally, its publications are in print in over 30 different languages. Al-Anon has helped thousands whose families and friends have been affected by alcohol use disorders.
Generally speaking, the organizational structure of Al-Anon is kept straightforward. Al-Anon operates as a charitable nonprofit organization. The chain of command is purposefully left fairly simple. Input from the fellowship is given at each group, which then would go to the district level, to the area level, the area assembly, and finally to the World Services Conference. When information is disseminated it follows the same chain of command downstream.
Al-Anon does not identify with any denomination, political entity, organization, or institution, nor does it engage in any controversy. As such, it can maintain its ability to help people of many diverse backgrounds and creeds.
Who Does Al-Anon Help?
Al-Anon can help any family member or friend who is struggling with their loved one’s addiction. This list is not necessarily exhaustive, but some of the most common groups of people who are dealing with other people’s alcoholism in their lives and find their way to Al-Anon include:
- Spouses or partners of alcoholics
- Children of alcoholics
- Parents of alcoholics
- Siblings of alcoholics
- Grandchildren living in a home with an alcoholic adult
- Close friends of alcoholics
When preteens and teenagers come from families of alcoholics, they may find it difficult to successfully navigate what is and is not appropriate behavior around people with alcohol use disorders. It is common for children and teenagers to experience conflicts, challenges, and feelings arising from living with or dealing with a family member suffering from alcoholism in a manner considerably different from how an adult may perceive it. Alateen provides a support network for teenagers and in some cases, preteens through the ability to come together, share their experiences, and work through their steps to try and find a healthy way forward.
A Family Disease
It has often been said that alcoholism is a family disease. When one person is afflicted, it affects also affects those around them. When a family member or a friend is living with this addiction, it is very often very difficult to watch them be unable to manage themselves or to not maintain control over their lives. This leaves the rest of the family system to compensate. Often, this process may look like trying to manage the person suffering from alcohol use disorder, trying to bargain with them, and even eliminating healthy boundaries that are needed to keep a family system healthy. It can be said that frequently when a person is going through an addiction, the family system becomes addicted to the person. It creates an unhealthy family or relationship dynamic.
Al-Anon understands and recognizes that family systems become fractured when alcohol use disorder is severe. As a result, if you are faced with a situation where a loved one is suffering from alcoholism, it can be extremely helpful to have both a better understanding of yourself and the support of those who are living a shared experience.
Al-Anon is not allied specifically with AA and is not allied with any sect or other types of recovery groups. That said, many of the Al-Anon principles overlap with AA, including the 12 steps. This can be beneficial for an entire family, as it becomes easier to understand one another while the family members are working through their own individual steps to become healthy. This can provide comfort to families as they are all practicing the twelve steps together, but for different reasons.
Al-Anon meetings are always free and non-professional, meaning that they are not facilitated by an outside professional. There are meetings all across the country, so chances are there is one within your community. Meetings are used as a time to gather and share experiences, and to talk about Al-Anon’s 12 steps. These meetings usually last about an hour. Similar to AA, there is no leadership structure within the meetings, as everyone is just coming together to share experiences. Groups are a
fellowship and not intended to create an authoritarian structure in which information is passed down from the expert to the learner.
Usually, meetings are opened with the serenity prayer, and then something is briefly said about the nature of the meeting and about the purpose of coming together. This is called the opening and will generally sound something like this:
- We welcome you to the Al-Anon/Alateen Family Group and hope that you will find in this fellowship the help & friendship we have been privileged to enjoy.
- We who live, or have lived, with the problem of alcoholism, understand as perhaps few others can. We, too, were lonely and frustrated, but in Alanon/Alateen we discover that no situation is really hopeless and that it is possible for us to find contentment, and even happiness, whether the alcoholic is still drinking or not.
One of the most important, if not the biggest, pieces to remember with an Al-Anon meeting is that the meeting is centered around the person attending the meeting and is not about the person with the identified alcohol concern. The point of the meeting is not to have a brainstorm session on how to fix your loved one, or how to figure out what needs to be done in order to solve the loved one’s problem, or how to solve their common problems. It is about learning how to be healthy within yourself so you can lead a healthy, enriched, and fulfilling life.
After a meeting has concluded, the group will be asked for voluntary contributions. There is no requirement or recommended contribution amount that will be expected when leaving the meeting. The choice to contribute is entirely a personal one.
Al-Anon Online is also a very helpful resource. Navigating to that page can show you many different pieces of helpful information, including the organization’s history, philosophy, and different programs that are offered. This is also the place where print materials can be purchased to help guide a person through their step work.
If a visitor finds themselves still wondering if Al-Anon is right for them, there are some helpful quizzes they can take as well. This resource is beneficial for people struggling with family members who are using alcohol. The website also has an online community in which a person can navigate to virtual online meetings, and there is an opportunity to engage in telephone meetings as well. Al-Anon also has an app that is available for download, which allows a person to search for local meetings or attend them virtually. It also includes chat and a private journal to track your recovery or feelings.
Due to the language that it is in both the literature and the step work, many people question if being religious is a requirement for membership. Just like with AA, religious affiliation is not required, however, spiritual fellowship is. During meetings, there are never discussions revolving around specific religious doctrine, and no one will be asked to convert.
The ability to believe in a “power greater than ourselves” is required, as it is a crucial part of the step work. Some people struggle with this requirement, especially if their religious and spiritual beliefs do not align with the above statement. At the same time, the underlying philosophy behind both AA and Al-Anon is that understanding of what such higher power represents can vary between individuals and does not rely on a conventional religious understanding of the term.
Al-Anon is a very interesting fellowship as it is a support group for people living in a world that can often be chaotic due to the actions of others. Unfortunately, research is lacking in this area; however, there is a high likelihood that people who are sober themselves but are in constant close contact with others involved with alcohol use disorder might be struggling with mental health concerns. It may sound counterintuitive, but this is actually a normal reaction to have. When placed in a chaotic situation, the brain may adapt in maladaptive ways in order to make sense of the situation.
Boundary setting is also critically important when recovering from an unhealthy relationship, regardless of the nature of a relationship. This can apply to both romantic relationships, family relationships, friendships, or even professional relationships. So many times those who had been affected by drinking have allowed the drinker to act in a way that is not appropriate or healthy for the relationship. When this happens, too often it becomes a pattern. These patterns can become the blueprint for everyday living. In these situations, the relationship has become unbalanced and unhealthy. The creation of appropriate boundaries is not only allowed but is required to have a healthy relationship. Al-Anon might not specifically call out boundaries as a requirement for healthy relationships, but it is often a natural positive consequence when doing the step work.
Codependency is a term that is often used when people find themselves on the unhealthy giving side of a relationship. Relationships are supposed to be healthy and mutually satisfying. When people continue to stay in a relationship that is emotionally destructive or abusive, it is no longer healthy for either party. codependency has also been referred to as a “relationship addiction.” The belief is that if the affected member of the relationship just tries hard enough, they might be able to make their loved one see the issue their way, the magical transformation will happen, and the person can be cured.
This is not a phenomenon that happens overnight, but it does gradually happen over time. In some cases, if a person has come from a family where addiction was present, they might even believe that this is the way relationships are supposed to look and step easily into the role. Generally speaking, people who show codependent traits often have low self-esteem or are not quite sure of who they are as they are always attending to someone else’s needs.
Many times, people displaying codependent traits are trying their best and just want to be loved and appreciated. Unfortunately, when this hope is one-sided, it can lead to feelings of sadness, anger, and frustration.
Interestingly enough, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5), a manual used to diagnose mental health and substance use disorders, does not currently recognize codependency as a mental health disorder. It does, however, recognize it as a unique psychological concept that has been debated clinically. While the traits overlap with other diagnosable disorders, codependency has yet to be recognized as clinically diagnosable. Regardless of this debate, oftentimes, people displaying these traits do meet other criteria for diagnosable disorders.
Al-Anon might not specifically call out codependency, but many of the steps are geared towards helping people overcome many of the feelings that contribute to codependent behaviors.
How to Find Help
If your loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, further action may be necessary. You can find support groups near you today to get the help you need.