The first time I walked through the doors of an Al-Anon meeting was twenty years ago in London. I was visiting my sister for the weekend and, the morning after a visit to Crazy Larry’s (remember that club on King’s Road? Is it still going?), she took me to a Saturday morning meeting.
I stared baffled at the Twelve Steps banner, the Traditions, and the coffee table full of pamphlets and books. People were milling around and settling onto plastic chairs before the start of the meeting. My sister had been attending for a while and chatted with a couple of them and introduced me, but I was really just wondering what on earth I was doing there and was distracted by a monumental hangover.
The first person to share her story was the daughter of a British rock legend who is still making music today. She talked about the humiliation of being with him in public when he was drunk and high, and how painful it was that her father chose his lifestyle before her, the booze before her, packing her off to boarding school so that she was ‘out of the way’.
Two things happened for me then. First of all, I felt that I was in pretty good company here – I mean – her dad really is a rock legend! Twenty year old me, I’m now ashamed to say, thought that was awesome. But take away the fame and wealth, her story was mine and my sister’s. We nodded as she talked, and we knew exactly what she was talking about.
My sister shared about our parents, alcoholics both, but I still lived with one of them and couldn’t quite bring myself to speak during that first meeting. I’d discovered, you see, that the flaws of character that I thought were uniquely mine, and that I was ashamed of and hated, were symptoms of something else. I learnt that my family suffered from a disease, and I was part of it. But, the best thing I learnt that day was I didn’t have to be, that I could break the cycle and learn to do life differently.
Life changing stuff.
I promised my sister that I would find a meeting when I returned to our hometown and I did. It was held every Thursday evening at a local mental hospital. AA in one room and Al-Anon opposite. Married couples would enter the building and one would go in one door and the other go into the other. I girded my loins, and walked in.
In that room at the mental hospital were spouses of alcoholics, adult children of alcoholics and parents of alcoholics. We all suffered under these same character flaws, and we all wanted to change.
I attended religiously for a year, and learnt plenty, but I never did it right. I didn’t do the twelve steps for example, and I didn’t get a sponsor. I thought meetings were enough, and besides, typically at twenty, I thought I knew it all anyway.
Then I stopped going. I’d met my future husband and was having a wonderful time, what with him being an alcoholic and all. Everything was comfortable and familiar and being with him felt like home. That was the problem. A sponsor would have pointed out the obvious, and I may have developed enough self-awareness through doing the steps to have stopped the inevitable. But, well, you know…
A divorce and a couple of more toxic, co-dependent relationships later and I’m back through the door of Al-Anon. Being the adult child of alcoholic parents, I like a good emotional roller-coaster, and a bit of pain to sink my teeth into, but it just isn’t fun anymore, especially now that I have children myself. And, the kind of self-flagellation we adult children engage in is a road to madness and misery.
So, I’ve ended all contact with the last two toxic relationships in my life, and am now roller-coaster and pain free. I’ve decided to attend meetings so that life remains that way. This time I will get a sponsor, do the steps, do it right … well, as right as any flawed human being can do anything.
So why blog about something that is supposed to be anonymous? Because I grew up feeling ashamed. I grew up with secrets and abuse. I grew up being blamed for other people’s disgusting behaviour. And you know what? None of it was my fault. I had nothing to be ashamed of. I still have nothing to be ashamed of.
One of the common characteristics of adult children of alcoholic parents is our need to fix people, help, heal, be needed, and we do it the point of detriment of ourselves and the people around us. It is a way we inadvertently cause chaos, enable the addicts we love, and is something we need to watch like hawks. Maybe my blogging about my own experience with Al-Anon is that symptom? Maybe I think I can help someone?
With that in mind, I’ll list here some of the common symptoms of adult children that I relate to.
This is a list from alcoholism.about.com.
Adult children of alcoholic parents …
- …guess at what normal is.
…judge themselves without mercy.
…have difficulty having fun.
…take themselves very seriously.
…have difficulty with intimate relationships.
…overreact to changes over which they have no control.
…constantly seek approval and affirmation.
…feel that they are different from other people.
…are either super responsible or super irresponsible.
…are extremely loyal, even in the face of evidence that loyalty is undeserved.
…tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self loathing, and loss of control of their environment. As a result, they spend tremendous amounts of time cleaning up the mess.
With the gift of hindsight, I know that the last twenty years of my life would have been very different had I continued to attend Al-Anon meetings. I also know that the next twenty are going to be considerably better.