God grant me the Serenity to
Accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can and
Wisdom to know the difference.
When the life of someone close to you seems to be spinning out of control – your spouse, your child, your parent; it affects you too. Naturally, you want to help. You want life to stay as normal as possible. You want to protect yourself and others from fallout from their behavior, and too often, your own life spins out of control along with theirs. When you try to find ways to control or manage another person’s choices and behaviors, you find yourself TRAPPED in anxiety and worry, resentment, even guilt about things over which you have no control.
I grew up with an alcoholic mother and it’s no surprise that I married 3 addicts. Addict number 1 was already long clean from heroin when we met and he stayed clean. Number 2 was sober in AA when we met and a really sweet and together guy. When I fell in love with him, it never occurred to me that he would ever be not-sober. And we were SO close, it felt like a miracle.
As big a shock as it was when he came home one day and told me he’d “slipped” and had a drink; I had no idea the roller coaster ride I was in for as his alcoholism progressed. It turned out that he was an “episodic” drinker, which meant he would go on week-long binges every few years. He tried really hard to stay sober, he went to meetings and met with his sponsor but over time the binges became longer and got closer together. Thankfully, he introduced me to Al-Anon, the 12-step group for families of alcoholics. He knew himself better than I knew him.
At first, I found even despite all of Al-Anon’s advice about detachment, I did all the wrong things. I drove him to detox, another time got him into treatment and often monitored the hiding places for bottles etc., but it could not be MY job to keep HIM sober. It WAS my job to live a happy life and provide for my boys. I would sob at my sponsor’s kitchen table asking, “WHY?” “Why doesn’t he love me enough to stop?” “What about the kids?” “Why did he go to work drunk and get fired?” I would examine every detail of our lives looking for clues as to what caused his binge THAT time. Had I said something? Done something? My sponsor would look at me with great love and say…”He drinks because he’s an alcoholic. It has nothing to do with loving you.” The long periods of sobriety we had at first were wonderful and each time I thought THIS time it would be the last.
As he got worse, I got worse. I obsessed first with getting/keeping him sober and then I obsessed about his safety. I remember one winter morning actually following his footprints in the snow to find out where he was hiding and if there were signs of his going in and out.
I was as addicted to (controlling/saving) him as he was to alcohol – and my own life was out of control. In Al-Anon, I gradually learned to face up to MY addiction and MY unhappiness (which, honestly, pre-dated my meeting him) and learn HOW to “detach with love” and be happy. I learned to focus on what I had to be grateful for instead of whatever today’s drama was. I learned how to take life “one day at a time.” The Serenity Prayer became my mantra.
Many Al-Anon spouses learn how to live with active alcoholism. Every family is different. Eventually, as the man I love disappeared, I could not watch him die slowly and we divorced.
Ah, problem solved, right? WRONG. See, it was in ME. THEY just showed up as my teachers. Just this week I found myself anxiously and resentfully entangled in solving another family member’s problem, and the old familiar feeling led me back to Al-Anon basics – and relief.
You can find out more about Al-Anon and Ala-teen and locate meetings anywhere in the world at www.alanon.org and more information for alcoholics by visiting http://www.aa.org