Holidays hard for family, friends of addicts
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The weeks leading up to the holidays are filled with sentimental music and images of happy, loving families enjoying a festive meal or opening presents together.
"It can be a very painful time if you don't have that kind of family," said Fran S., whose husband, an alcoholic, committed suicide on Christmas Day nearly 20 years ago.
She regularly attends Charleston meetings of Al-Anon, a support group for those who have family or friends with an alcohol or drug addiction.
It's the weeks following the holidays that Al-Anon attendance often spikes when people with high expectations for happiness have been disappointed, said Elliott B.
"I've even gone on Christmas Day," said the Charleston father of a college-age daughter with drug and alcohol problems.
Fran S. and Elliott B. requested that their last names not be used to honor the Al-Anon pledge of anonymity to its members.
In Al-Anon meetings she attends, Fran said discussions have started on how to cope with the "Happy Holidays." "We talk about how to guard against those messages," she said.
"One of the things you have to guard against is self-pity. One of the ways to counteract that -- I hope I don't sound preachy -- is to talk about what you're grateful for, to look at what's good in life."
Both Fran and Elliot emphasized that Al-Anon meetings provide a safe place to share your pain. No one is judging you, they understand.
As a college professor in a small city, Fran worried that she would meet someone she knew or who knew her at an Al-Anon meeting. "The first time I went, there sat a student of mine," she recalled. "It's total anonymity."
For the first three or four meetings he attended, Elliot said all he could do was cry when it was his turn to talk.
Although he worked in the field of behavioral health, Elliot and his wife were as clueless as other parents when their bright teenage daughter stopped going to classes and not coming home at night. At some point, when her boyfriend was seriously injured in a car wreck, she had switched to a peer group active in drugs and alcohol.
About the same time, Elliot said, his father died. He became depressed, losing 50 pounds. "I was at as low a point as I have ever been. I was down to about 50 percent functioning."
Someone suggested Al-Anon. "I was fortunate that there were a number of men at that first meeting I went to. Other meetings tend to have more women than men."
When Fran first started going to meetings, she said she was turned off by the many slogans used by Al-Anon. Eventually, she came to learn that a simple phrase was a wise one.
"One we learn is called the three C's: You didn't cause it, you can't control it, and you can't cure it."
She said, "People come with in with the false notion that it will get the addict well. That's not the purpose of the program. The program focus is about taking care of yourself so you will have a happy and healthy life. ... This is particularly hard for parents -- it's like in your DNA to protect your children."
Elliot remembered, "People would ask how I was doing, and I would tell them how my daughter was doing. I learned it's about taking the focus off the person with the substance-abuse problem and putting it back on myself."
The terms "co-dependency" and "enabling" are in other lessons learned by those who have a loved one with an addiction.
"We want to prevent the other shoe from falling, so we intervene, and that is very unhealthy for the addict," Fran said.
"We have to learn how to get out of their way and let the consequences be what they are -- and they are sometimes dire."
In that regard, Elliot said, it was helpful that he and his wife used to go to Al-Anon together. "It helped us communicate. We were are on the same page with our daughter -- we were not going to give her money; we were not going to bail her out of jail."
Elliot's wife goes periodically to Al-Anon meetings, and he attends frequently. He reads from the Al-Anon books daily and every Thursday talks by phone to his sponsor, who now lives out of state.
"If it weren't for those guys, I don't know where I would be," he said of his sponsor and male friends in the group.
He described the 12-step programs of Alcoholic Anonymous, Al-Anon and other recovery programs as "magical in the way it works." Fran, though, said the 12-step program isn't for everyone.
Newcomers are asked to come to six meetings before making up their minds to stay or to seek another solution, she said.
Although her husband died in 1996, Fran said one reason she continues to go to Al-Anon is to help those new to the program. "It takes a lot of courage to come," she said, adding, "Usually, you don't come until you're desperate."
Where to find help
For those struggling with an addict this holiday season, Fran S. advises finding help. "Try not to face things alone."
Here is where you can find help through Al-Anon or Alateen, geared for teenagers:
For more information, call 304-345-7420 or visit www.wv.al-anon.alateen.org.
Reach Rosalie Earle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5115.