“Our hearts do not need logic.
They can love and forgive and accept that which our minds cannot comprehend.
Hearts understand in ways minds cannot.”
Last month was women’s history month and this month is alcoholism awareness month. And this past March 4th marked the 134th birthday of a very special woman to me, and to the history of alcoholism: Lois Wilson.
I very well might be dead without her.
She’s not terribly well-known, I know. Most people know her husband, Bill, if they know anything of her at all. Her husband was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Lois played a significant role in the founding of that Fellowship because it was Lois who pointed out to Bill that, even if he had not yet once succeeded in getting another alcoholic sober, the mere effort to help another alcoholic was keeping him sober.
After Lois pointed that out, Bill faced a crisis that had him seriously tempted to drink again. And so he knew he had to find someone else to try and help or he would indeed turn back to drinking. He found Dr. Bob, and thus Alcoholics Anonymous was born.
But I’d like to honor Lois for a different awareness: the realization that she herself had been profoundly affected by someone else’s drinking.
I’d like to honor her for her realization that she and the other relatives of alcoholics needed help too, and that the same Twelve Steps that were keeping Bill and his fellows sober could actually be used to help her and the other family members heal from the effects of their loved ones’ alcoholism, too.
Before anyone knew how or why, Lois understood that addiction seriously affects the lives of everyone one in relationship with the addict.
She understood from personal experience that even if someone got sober, that didn’t mean that everyone else around them was now okay. It didn’t mean that the fear, the denial, the constant waiting for the other shoe to drop, or the anger was over. Not at all.
Addiction profoundly affects spouses, children and friends, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Recovery for the addict does not necessarily mean recovery for the others.
Sad, but true.
In my humble opinion, the family disease of alcoholism and addiction can be just as lethal as outright addiction is. Spirits are destroyed, healthy relationships become impossible, hopes and dreams are shattered, and faith in the future and the possibilities of life are obliterated.
This happens on both sides of the disease.
Relatives and friends of alcoholics often spend their lives hiding the truth from others. Not just about the alcoholism or the addiction, but any evidence whatsoever that their lives aren’t just perfectly fine.
It’s like they’re afraid if anyone else sees even a crack in the perfect image they’re trying to portray, their whole lives will come crashing down.
Often they become completely numb, unaware of the depth of the problems in their lives and how disconnected they’ve become from the full spectrum of life’s experiences. They’re just surviving.
And yet their acquaintances may wonder “Why are you so angry all the time?”
“Why are you always afraid something will go wrong or that something bad is bound to happen?”
“Why are you unable to just enjoy it when something good actually is happening?”
“Are you ever going to trust anyone again?”
They themselves might be asking: “Will I ever be able to trust myself?”
Or, “Is this all there is? Is this as good as it gets?”
Families and friends of addicts and alcoholics often believe that all the good stuff in life is meant for others, not them. Always feeling less than others, always unworthy.
Sobriety doesn’t fix this. But many addicts and their families falsely believe it will. If their loved one would just get sober, they’d finally be OK.
I was in my 30’s, and one of the primary addicts in my life was long gone, before I finally realized how profoundly I had been affected, and that many of the things I was struggling with were directly related to having grown up with active alcoholism.
Indeed, when I walked into the rooms of Al-Anon, the twelve-step program Lois founded for families and friends of alcoholics, I almost completely numb. So numb that I can’t even remember when the first alcoholic in my life left. (There are many addicts in my family.) And yet that was the one thing I thought would make everything okay.
But then one of my family members was about to go to prison. It was the first time in my life I didn’t think I could just try and handle something all by myself.
In terms of the principles of the Twelve Steps, it was the first time in my life I realized that I was powerless over something.
I consider it a miracle that I actually had such a realization. Many never do.
Anger, shame and fear were pretty much the only emotions I was familiar with at that time. In fact, anger and fear were the most frequent emotions demonstrated in my family. And shame was the most common tool used to control others.
(Incidentally, it was anger that made Lois realize she needed help: she threw a shoe at Bill and yelled “Damn your old meetings!” Every time I hear that story, my thought is, “Man, all she did was throw a shoe. That is nothing compared to my family!”)
But oh, did we ever look good! Few people knew the truth about my family and I was terrified that anyone would find out. Not to mention the backlash from family members I faced whenever I did dare share the truth about what was going on.
I learned early on I either had to keep quiet or pay a high price. Sometimes I chose one, sometimes the other.
I also had this secret fear that if people saw the truth of my family, then that would make it real. And if it was really as bad as it was, then I was screwed up beyond repair. If that was true, there was no hope for me. I might as well give up.
It seemed much less painful to blindly trust the facade.
I thought no one else had a family as messed up as mine. But when I first walked into an Al-Anon meeting, I realized that wasn’t true.
I remember once an Al-Anon speaker saying that when she first went to an Alateen meeting (Al-Anon for teens), she felt like a spaceship had landed and all her people got off. That’s exactly how I felt when I walked into Al-Anon.
I kept hearing my story, my feelings, my pain, the shame I felt, and the fears I had over and over again.
I was no longer alone.
I also, for the first time in my life it seemed, got a glimpse of what was and what wasn’t an appropriate way to treat another human being. And that was nowhere near the way many of the people in my family treated each other.
Even more important, I saw how insane my own life was becoming by my efforts to change people I was never going to be able to change.
It sounds so easy to say it now that I’ve been in Al-Anon for over 13 years, but seriously, this is one of the most painful truths I have ever had to face.
The disease of alcoholism had so often made my family members horribly hurtful, physically and emotionally violent, uncaring and unloving. When I admitted I wasn’t going to be able to change them – and, honestly, this is a process that is still evolving – I had to face a tsunami of grief.
Who would love me, if not them? If my family couldn’t love me, was I even lovable at all?
If I couldn’t get the people closest to me to understand what they were doing, how could I ever be capable of doing anything worth doing?
I had no understanding of the disease of addiction, and I took every bit of everything they did deeply personally.
I felt unworthy, unlovable and incapable of anything. And I was completely blind to all kinds of evidence to the contrary.
At times I seriously wondered if my life was really worth living.
Without the Twelve Steps of Al-Anon and the support of my sponsor and friends in the fellowship, I would never have been able to walk through the enormous grief that is the reality of family addiction.
I heard another Al-Anon speaker talk about his experience in Al-Anon being like a cyclist who is in the center of a pack in the Tour de France, and whose wheels get caught in a crevice threatening to bring him crashing down. Except that with the power of all those other cyclists crowded around him, there is literally no room for him to fall.
I love that analogy because before Al-Anon I thought the grief would crush me. It didn’t. With the kind of powerful support I found in Al-Anon surrounding me, it simply couldn’t.
Through the process of the Twelve Steps, I was eventually able come to the conclusion that I was worthy, lovable and capable. In short, I got my sense of self back.
I walked through the doors of Al-Anon full of self-loathing and feeling worthless. Through the lens of my own family disease, I mistook self-love for outright narcissism.
Today, although I’m not perfect, and I never will be, I love myself to a degree I never thought possible. I am not screwed up beyond repair. And although I falter sometimes, I also love my addicted family members to a degree I never thought possible.
I can’t even begin to tell you what a difference that makes. And this is just one of the profoundly powerful ways I have been freed from the effects of the family disease of alcoholism and addiction.
So, thank you, Lois, from the bottom of my heart.
Although I’m not an alcoholic, those same Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous changed my life.
And you knew they would.