It arrived in the mail, unsolicited and with no forewarning. It was exquisite, housed in an intricate white package with a special place for its plastic card (with my name printed on it!) and inserts that detailed my new and many privileges. While I had managed little else in these past many months, I had achieved Yogurtland Platinum status.
“How come I’ve never heard of this?” you ask.
Because it’s a secret status, akin to the mythical Black American Express Card, bestowed to the select few that hit an unknowable, unfathomable, threshold. Upon admiring my shimmery, personalized card, I immediately knew three things:
1. Though I had little sense of my own value, I was very important to Yogurtland.
2. Somewhere there were people who knew what an obscene amount of frozen yogurt I was eating.
3. Between losing my job and my husband, my life had become unmanageable.
Apparently, the flavor of hitting rock bottom is tart with chocolate sprinkles.
The three months after my job ended and my ex walked out — offering some nasty comments about my character, shared with me in our final therapy session — are kind of a blur. While usually very social with many wonderful friends, my tribe became small : Anne, Lori, Cindy, Michele, my mom, my therapist. I was in a strange kind of shock; my head could not comprehend what was going on in my heart. I assume it’s one of nature’s salves — when something is just too much to process all at once, things go out of focus. But one thing was very clear to me every day: I was in pain.
Somewhere in the haze it was suggested to me — both by my longtime therapist and the counseling center to which I returned after my ex left (we had originally gone together to “work on the marriage,” which actually meant that he got to admit to his affair in an environment that pre-screened for homicidal tendencies and weapons) — that I start attending Al-Anon meetings. (For the uninitiated, Al-Anon is made up of relatives and friends of addicts who come together to share their experience, strength, and hope in order to solve their common problems). At first, it felt like one more thing to add to my ever-expanding list of things to do, which already included getting out of bed every day, learning to meditate, reading six self-help books, exercising, adding real food to my diet, washing my hair, etc. Then, one day, as I was sharing my story with an old friend, I realized that I sounded like a Telenovela. Between the job loss, the husband’s affair with a self-identifying Tiki Mermaid, the online stalking I had taken up… I sounded and felt like a lunatic.
This is where I share that I am in a program built on anonymity, immediately voiding mine.
I had gone to two Al-Anon meetings earlier in my life — once as a teen, where the anger radiating off of my mother was so palpable that neither my sister nor I cared to repeat the experience, and once in my twenties when everyone in the room seemed old — like 40 or something (if I only knew). Both times, I decided that it wasn’t for me — that I didn’t belong there.
My dad is my “qualifier,” and for most of my life, I’ve felt very certain that I understood how his addiction had affected our family, and, in particular, me, and that I did not need a 12-step program — especially one that talks a lot about God — to deal with my feelings. Like so many Al-Anons, I was sure I had it handled. And, in a way, I was right (Al-Anons love to be right). I didn’t need the program to help me deal with my feelings about my dad or his addiction , particularly with him now 25+ years sober.
I needed Al-Anon so I could understand all the ways that growing up in a household with addiction had shaped my thinking, my actions, and my defense mechanisms and to realize how that, in turn, affected every relationship I’ve ever had — both personal and professional. I have a big, take no prisoners, consequences-be-damned personality in part because it was the only way I knew how to be heard and seen over all the chaos in my house, and in part because no one ever thinks the ‘Auntie Mame’ character goes home to a constant circus of dysfunction — they just think she’s fun. This is fabulous at cocktail parties; at board meetings, not so much. And I am probably one of the funniest people you will ever meet — unless my sarcasm is directed at you.
This is not to say that I needed to wholesale change who I was, but I had reached a point in my life where I had to admit that things were not working. The job I loved was gone (my company had been sold); my husband had left me for the above-mentioned mermaid, taking with him my three step-kids; I was living on frozen yogurt; and Trump had been elected president. It felt like the end of the world. I was barely able to drag myself out of bed. Some days, I didn’t even bother.
Once I was broken, Al-Anon felt like a life-line. My life had become unmanageable, literally lifted from Step 1 (“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”). And while I am basically an infant in the program — struggling as I do with the idea of a “higher power” — I hear in every meeting, something that relates to me in some way. I have listened to people that I would have sworn could not possibly have anything to offer me, only to have the small epiphany that the sabotaging behaviors they describe are unbelievably similar, if not exactly, like mine. I did as the program suggested; I kept coming back. I went to different meetings and settled on a home meeting. I started reading the literature.
Al-Anon isn’t a cult, there is no quick fix, no pledge, no Prophet — just rooms with people that have had their lives turned upside down because they have been affected by a loved one or a friends’ addiction. It became clear to me that, regardless of what brought an individual into Al-Anon, there were a lot of common symptoms — years of failed efforts to control others, the misperception that we have all the answers for other people’s lives and should freely step in and provide them, an overwhelming need to “do something” about anything that gives us the slightest amount of anxiety — whether it is our responsibility or not — and many other common maladies of thinking. But the biggest revelation, the thing that propelled me to keep coming back, was the recovery I heard in so many of the stories. Revelation — I do not have to remain a victim to all of the coping mechanisms that must have served me well as the child of an addict, but are no longer helpful at best, and destructive at worst.
I know Al-Anon is not a miracle cure and it’s not for everyone — but I find hope and strength from it. It’s helped me understand things about myself that were hard to accept, but important as I processed what role I had played in the demise of my marriage. While my ex’s choice to have an affair was completely and totally about him and his character flaws, I don’t believe that anyone hightails it out of a happy marriage to chase mermaids.
Through Al-Anon, I have started to see my patterns and better understand how I show up in relationships. I can’t help but feel a tremendous sense of sadness that I didn’t embrace the program sooner. Perhaps I could have had a different, better, marriage. Though I had no experience as a parent myself, I had tremendous judgement about my ex’s parenting. As an Al-Anon, I felt the impending doom of ruin that would most certainly befall my step-children if they did not get the right therapists, the right schools, the right tutors. After standing on the sidelines for four years, seething about all that should have been done, I went “full Al-Anon” and began to “fix” everything. And, when I was not showered with gratitude for all of my unsolicited help, I became angry and resentful. While I loved my husband, in retrospect, I had started treating him like a child, another problem to be fixed. He needed so much, and I had so little left to give. I was not loving. I was not happy. We were fighting all the time. I thought this was normal. It was normal for me. My tolerance for discomfort was very high. My husband’s was not.
It was through Al-Anon that I came to understand how much of what was driving me was my own anxiety — a need to create order around chaos — -and there was a lot of chaos with my step-kids. But that didn’t make it my problem to fix. And while I did feel like my husband needed more than I could ever possibly give, the solution was definitely not to tell him to “go make some friends.” That was fear talking — fear that I would never be enough, fear of real intimacy. I couldn’t fix him, any more than I can fix anyone else. But through the program I’ve learned that I can change, become more aware of my reactions. And when that happens, the people around me are likely to change as well. But if they don’t? That’s okay, too. Other people are not my responsibility. It doesn’t mean I don’t love them, it means it’s not my job to bend them to my will or try to force them to be someone they aren’t.
While real change will require an ongoing commitment to Al-Anon, I am, at last, hopeful. In Al-Anon I have found a community: so diverse, and yet so understanding of what I am only beginning to know. It is amazing how a room full of strangers helped me find my truest self.