In my hometown, I received the great, good privilege of serving as UNofficial pastor to parts of the Alcoholics Anonymous community---quite an honor for a non-alcoholic. Once, when asked to do a funeral service, I arranged to attend the visitation for the express purpose of getting to know the deceased in preparation for the eulogy the next day. To my surprise, more than forty persons stayed after the visitation to speak with me. After the third person introduced himself by saying “Hello my name is Jim” and the group responded “Hi Jim,” I realized, in effect, I was attending an AA meeting. I left humbled and impressed. These folks experienced the depths of despair and literally resurrected their lives through what it means to be community in AA. This experience with AA identified for me these factors that help us or keep us from continuing to thrive.
I couldn’t help notice the AA community seems to do forgiveness better than most churches! Why is that? One alcoholic friend told me the answer rests in an AA saying “Churches are full of people who are afraid of going to hell; AA is full of people who have been there already and don’t want to go back.” Great wisdom. Another friend says the difference is “AA folks declare the king has no clothes on; church folks sometimes know but are afraid to say so.” Authenticity makes the difference! AA and Al-Anon Family Groups also do community better than most churches. I have not experienced a church where a Jaguar and a beat-up old Chevy sit next to each other in the parking lot and the group in the basement includes professionals in business clothes, mothers with small children in tow and a shabbily dressed man in work boots with the mud still on them.
Rankism doesn’t exist in AA and Al-Anon. Robert W. Fuller’s book, Somebodies and Nobodies, affirms for me that rankism is the last ism we need to fight. I’m not saying all other battles against isms have been fought and won. I’m saying the battle against ranking each other in endless categories has scarcely begun. I not only experienced the worst of this rankism as a child born into poverty, I also was carefully taught that I could only overcome being at the bottom by rising above others on various imaginary charts that proved I was smarter, richer, whiter, prettier, classier, more educated, more famous, more honored. Fuller’s book should be required high school reading.
None of these rankings, high or low, has any bearing on our value or dignity as an individual human being. They may bring us fleeting recognition --- not less worthy of celebration because of its brevity, but also not related to our fundamental worth. While they may make us ‘king for a day,’ that does not make anyone our servant.
And tomorrow, we must always start over. …Fame and fortune are often mistaken for the goals of life. In fact, the deepest satisfaction flows form simple recognition from others for whatever we contribute to them. It has nothing to do with trophies, money, or fame, which are prized rather for the protections they afford us against the indignities of this still rankist world.
After years of respecting AA and having this personal experience of a meeting, I still needed the proverbial brick over my head before I started attending the Al-Anon Family Group---their program for families of alcoholics. Alcoholism is generational in most families and certainly persisted in mine. Stories about my maternal grandfather lovingly referred to him as an “Irish drunk;” cirrhosis of the liver took him at an early age. My grandmother then married a second drunk for whom she sometimes drove the car from the passenger’s seat! My paternal grandfather always came up the long sidewalk by their house singing “Hey, Hey Good Lookin” which signaled he was on a binge. He also died young.
In the next generation on my mother’s side, there were four siblings. Not one of them was an alcoholic but of the three who had children each has one alcoholic child! In the next generation on my fathers’ side, he is, of course, the headliner alcoholic because he still drinks at age eighty-five, never admitting to alcoholism though he fits all guidelines offered by AA. In my generation on Dad’s side the damage is too pervasive to delineate. My children teased that I looked for an alcoholic under every leaf. Since becoming a part of Al-Anon and my deep affinity with AA, I realize there are two under every leaf and as a nation we continue to address alcoholism poorly.
After attending my first meeting of Al-Anon Family Groups, I called my friend Mary and screamed “Why have I never attended these meetings before? Reading this material is tantamount to reading my biography!”
AA folks say “You come when you’re ready.”
Mary also said “Your years of therapy, training in pastoral care and expertise in interpersonal communications and relationships probably postponed your ultimate arrival at the Al-Anon door. You had skills for coping until you didn’t have skills for coping.”
My family’s reaction to the publication of this memoir formed one of the bricks thrown at my head which drove me to Al-Anon.
Some of the high notes in my aria as Queen Enabler included: giving sister, Margaret, the down payment for her home, then watching her abuse the home, borrow from the equity and sell it short of what she owed on it; buying Mom a car on which she let the insurance lapse and allowed my sister Vivian to drive and wreck it; and drawing my line in the sand with Mark by telling him I would no longer contribute to his life until he decided to quit smoking pot and take that brilliant mind off to college. Each of these constituted the circumstance which finally got my attention with that one person. Getting off the co-dependence merry-go-round happens one person at a time. If I complain about how slowly the process is my Al Anon friends remind me “Progress, not perfection, is our goal.”
Of the Enabler stories I’ve heard since being in Al Anon, the prize and pinnacle is the woman who found a pair of women’s panties in her bedroom that were not hers. She confronted her husband and he insisted they were hers when she knew they were not. She washed the panties and wore them rather than forcing the issue of his infidelity and alcoholism!
I’m finally letting the fact sink deeply into my soul, enabling others benefits no one.
However---big however---I find it necessary to learn some Al Anon principles over and over again. One principle that goes hand-in-hand with my co-dependence, and still has the power to thwart my good intentions, is accepting all people wherever they are on their educational, psychological and spiritual travels. I have spent much of my life trying to help others along on their voyage. Learning where to draw the line between legitimate support for others and when my help crosses into co-dependence is a vital skill. Backing off and accepting people for where they are feels like deserting drowning puppies in a lake. The answer, of course, is to place the rescue ramp where they can find it and trust they will make the climb when they have had enough of swimming. Sounds simple; hard to do when you are much more inclined to provide solutions to everyone you meet. I’m still a work in progress. Experts have been known to agree that the best predictor of success is not the absence of failure but the ability to bounce back from failure. Al Anon continues to help me bounce back from failure one day at a time. Thanks be to God for Al Anon.
The goal of serenity is as slippery as my hair gel.