Seven years ago, I was returning home with my husband after several weeks cruising the Mediterranean and touring Europe. Yet, instead of being relaxed and invigorated, I was full of fear, anxiety, and trepidation about what awaited me at home. What was wrong with me?
We had left our 25-year-old alcoholic and drug-addicted son (our only child) in charge of our house and animals for eight weeks, hoping for the best but still in complete denial about his very serious problems. As it turned out, the house and animals were still intact, but my relationships with my son, husband, and myself were crumbling. I was desperate.
In the midst of the emotional turmoil, a word I had known for years, and heard from my Mum, crept into my mind—Al‑Anon. Less than a week later, I found myself at my first meeting, beginning a new journey, as the wisdom within the Twelve Steps began working within me.
Al‑Anon’s teachings are not rocket science, in fact similar ideas have existed throughout the centuries, as expressed by great thinkers, writers, and teachers. Consider the profound message found in this simple Sioux Indian Prayer that alludes to the common human failings of condemnation and self-righteousness: Great Spirit, help me to never judge another until I have walked in his moccasins. A few words that speak volumes!
This is my Twelve Step story—a journey I intend to be on for the rest of my life.
My loving, generous dad was an alcoholic. He hid his alcohol in his garden shed and retreated there as often as possible to continue his relationship with “the bottle.” From a young age, I learned to protect him, to be responsible for him, and to worry about him. I believed that my life-threatening childhood illness was the cause of all his problems.
In Step One, I learned I am powerless over other people, places, and things and that the only real control I have is over me. The coping strategies that had become the baseline of my existence, such as obsessive worry and manipulation, had harmed me to the point of serious depression—my life was unmanageable.
The concepts of faith and trust as a path toward sanity were introduced to my muddled mind in Step Two. Over time, I realized I did not have to know how or why something worked in order for it to work. For me, proof that a Higher Power existed was in witnessing the miracles of nature. I could see an analogy in the way nature gets on with life – it does not interfere in other people’s business and does not worry about the future – how very much I wanted to follow this example.
For a long time, I could not decide how I understood my Higher Power. Eventually, a combination of the God of my upbringing and everything that was good and real in the world around me felt right. But turning my life and will over to this Higher Power seemed impossible because it meant letting go of an “illusion” of control that was keeping a fragile hold on my sanity. Fearfully, but with the help and encouragement of Al‑Anon friends, I stepped a bit further along the path of faith and trust suggested in Step Three.
I believe our program is built partly on the premise that by knowing ourselves well and acknowledging and accepting our good and bad traits, we learn not only to forgive but also to like (maybe even love) ourselves and other people. My thinking patterns were so negative and steeped in denial of reality until I was faced with lessons that are the essence of Steps Four, Five, Six, and Seven, namely honesty and personal responsibility. Although I struggled with these concepts, slowly I began to replace judgement and self-pity with compassion and courage.
Steps Eight and Nine take the themes of honesty and personal responsibility a step further and suggest ways of making amends to people we have harmed throughout our lives in order to free ourselves of guilt and regret. Shattered dreams and remorse for things I had or had not done were casting a cloud over my life. However, there are some simple truths I am coming to believe: the past cannot be changed; I did the best I could with what I knew at the time; and most importantly, guilt does not have to ruin the rest of my life.
I put myself at the top of my amends list. I feared conflict and authority and allowed myself to become a most excellent doormat! Today, I treat myself with the same care I give everyone in my life and am no longer second best.
Second on my list is my beloved son. My heart has bled for all the pain his addictions have caused him. Sadly, I did not give him the firm and fair boundaries he desperately needed growing up thereby enabling his bad behaviour and reducing his desire for recovery. I make amends to him now by respecting his decisions, whatever the consequences (good or bad) are, and by keeping my nose out of his business. Not easy, but I have finally learned that only he and his Higher Power are in charge of his life. My only job is to accept him and love him just the way he is.
Everyone makes mistakes; after all we are only human and cannot be perfect. I sometimes have bad days, go crazy, and end up hurting myself or someone else. It has been a powerful Step Ten lesson for me, discovering that “cleaning house” as I go entails making amends for mistakes as soon as I recognize them, thus preventing resentment and guilt from taking hold.
My prayers in times of stress consisted of bargaining with my Higher Power for my desired outcome. Strangely, this strategy rarely worked despite the fact that I was sure I had the right answer. Finally, when I decided to just do my part to solve a problem and then let go of it, amazing things happened. Solutions often appeared without my interference.
My prayers have changed. I now share my worries, but try not to dwell on them. Instead, I express gratitude for the good things in my life. I meditate to settle and calm my mind. Practicing Step Eleven is my way of affirming my spiritual connection between myself, my Higher Power, and the world around me.
Step Twelve speaks of a spiritual awakening through working the Steps. There have been no thunderbolts for me, no sudden clarity of thought. Rather, it has been a gradual absorption of the wisdom of the Steps, with an eventual realization that a destructive attitude has changed or a resentment has lessened. Small (and occasionally big) miracles happen in my life almost every day.
The Twelfth Step also suggests that I tell others about Al‑Anon and if I could, I would shout its message from the rooftops. However, people will come when they are ready and not before. My only task is to practice the Twelve Steps to the best of my ability and let others know that this wonderful, healing program exists.
When I first came to an Al‑Anon meeting, I saw people gaining knowledge and strength of spirit through the support and understanding of others who had experienced similar pain and hopelessness.
Meetings do not consist of doom and gloom. Sure, when things are bad, we may cry, but we do not dwell too much on our war stories. Rather, we share about what works for us. We do not tell each other what to do, as we must work this out for ourselves. We have empathy, not pity.
When I saw people who had experienced real tragedy still able to live fulfilling lives, I decided that I wanted what they had. I am slowly but surely getting it!
By Susan B., New Zealand
The Forum, March 2016
Reprinted with permission of Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., Virginia Beach, VA.