Al-Anon: Merits and Pitfalls

Alcoholism not only presents serious adverse consequences for the alcoholic; it often creates havoc for friends and family members. Many of them turn to Al-Anon, a 12-Step group for those who are impacted by the drinking of another person. According to Al-Anon, the organization consists of 24,000 groups worldwide, with approximately 14,000 groups in Canada and the United States. The Al-Anon organization includes Ala-Teen and Al-Anon Family Groups.

Al-Anon describes itself as “a worldwide fellowship of family and friends of alcoholics, whether or not the alcoholic recognizes the existence of a drinking problem or seeks help.” Although the organization is closely tied to Alcoholics Anonymous, the two remain separate and autonomous.

Although Al-Anon is open to anybody, members are predominantly white females with an average age of 56 years. Members tend to be married and educated. Many come to Al-Anon when the alcoholic refuses to seek treatment and financial difficulties, legal problems or relationship issues have become too difficult to bear. Most have witnessed destructive behavior and their alcoholic family member has physically abused them. Like traditional 12-Step groups, Al-Anon is a lifesaver for many people. However, the organization isn’t the answer for everybody.

Benefits

Sharing knowledge – Learning how to navigate through life with an alcoholic friend or loved one is extremely difficult. For newcomers to Al-Anon, members who have been in the trenches are willing to share coping strategies and offer tips and suggestions to make the journey easier.

Encouragement and hope – Living with an alcoholic turns life upside down for friends and family, but regular attendance at an Al-Anon meeting offers an opportunity to share “war stories” with likeminded individuals. Members tend to be generous about sharing hope and strength, which can provide a sense of belonging and mutual support to ease feelings of loneliness and despair.

Improved mental health – According to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, a random sample of Al-Anon attendees reported improved mental health, decreased anger, depression and anxiety, and improved relationships and an insight into their own vulnerabilities such as co-dependency, childhood wounds and fear of abandonment, denial or enabling behavior etc.

Friendships – Attendance at Al-Anon meetings often generates camaraderie and mutually beneficial, long-lasting friendships.

Availability – Al-Anon groups are located in 130 countries around the world. Residents of most urban areas have access to conveniently located meetings every day of the week. The meetings, which are free, are available for people who lack access to private or public funding for addiction treatment, rehab or mental health services.

Considerations

Group settings – Some people are uncomfortable in group settings. Others, for a variety of reasons, require absolute anonymity. Al-Anon advocates complete anonymity, which allows participants to be more open and honest. However, there is no guarantee of anonymity, especially for well-known or high-profile individuals. Anonymity is sometimes a problem in rural settings or local communities.

Spiritual aspect – Al-Anon is not affiliated with any religious group or belief system, but there is a strong emphasis on spirituality. Participants are encouraged to accept a “Higher Power” of their understanding and Al-Anon groups may begin and end each meeting with a prayer. Some people have problems with the concept of surrendering to a Higher Power. Others see the organization as cult-like and overly religious in nature.

Lack of professional support – Many people find relief for depression and anxiety, but Al-Anon members and volunteer group leaders aren’t equipped to address serious mental health issues. It’s possible that suggestions intended to be helpful may be ill-advised or detrimental. Sometimes “informal” group leaders emerge and dominate newcomers; some attendees report that they have been excluded from Al-Anon groups when not adhering to informal and unwritten rules.

Co-Dependency issues – Co-dependency is a common problem for people living with alcoholics. There is some concern about a group mindset or that participants may develop an unhealthy dependency on Al-Anon meetings. Although the fellowship is beneficial for many, it shouldn’t be the sole source of friendship and support.

Perpetuation of victimization – People who live with an alcoholic may see themselves as victims. Sympathetic fellow Al-Anon members may inadvertently promote thinking that allows some people to place the blame on an alcoholic partner while perpetually holding on to victim status. The victim-victimizer relationship is complementary and the victim may choose another alcoholic if the current relationship ends. Al-Anon members, being predominantly women, might be submissive to a “white male culture” of AA and thus, again, remain powerless and in victimhood, unable to leave the alcoholic family member even if violence and constant stress are part of the daily experience of an Al-Anon member.

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