Perspective: I Grew Up in Alateen and Al-Anon

by Shannon Luders-Manuel.

Four people describe their experiences as children in the rooms of Alateen and Al-Anon and whether it helped them cope with their family member’s addiction.

My mother has attended Al-Anon religiously for as along as I can remember. She left my dad when I was three after a particularly bad physical fight, in which he slapped her around while intoxicated. We spent that night at my grandmother’s house, and the next day my mom decided we were done for good.

As a single parent, my mom took me to Al-Anon meetings on a regular basis. As a child I could never make much sense of the stories, and I also didn’t try. I was happier spending time by myself in a corner, playing cards with my stuffed dog, Dominic. The highlight of every Al-Anon meeting were the sugar cubes laid out perfectly next to the coffee machine. Aside from those delicious mouthfuls that I tried to sneak incessantly, Al-Anon always seemed like a very bleak, secret space where men and women aired grievances with the weight of the world on their shoulders.

I didn’t understand why my mom and I had to attend these meetings since we weren’t living with my father. It felt as though we were carrying a secret shame that we were reluctant to part with. My mother and I had moved on, so why did we continue to subject ourselves to a depressive atmosphere, where members couldn’t offer advice and must nod secretly when they passed each other in the grocery store? At that age, these were questions I couldn’t answer.

When I was in my early teens, membership grew at the meetings we attended, and the room next door became a makeshift childcare center. As a shy child, I disliked the daycare room even more than Al-Anon. I stayed in the back with Dominic as usual, but instead of dejected adult voices wafting through the large room, it was filled with rambunctious children who outnumbered the older teen leaders. At a later point, a structured Alateen group was formed, but it either didn’t last long or I didn’t last long in it.

During my brief time in Alateen, a “fine” boy in his late teens came to speak to us younger ones. He told us a story involving his own struggle with addiction and encouraged us to remain vigilant in our lifelong sobriety. I felt drawn to his rough-around-the-edges exterior and his frank disclosure of personal failings. After his speech, I walked swiftly up to him in the outside hallway. I took off my necklace and handed it to him, telling him the charm would keep him safe just like it had for me. He gave me a sad smile and reluctantly took my treasure. He knew I was trying to save him, even though I hadn’t yet figured that out myself.

I never saw that boy again, but it was my first clear foray into codependency. From family stories, I’ve learned that I struggled with this personality trait from a much younger age, as childhood sexual abuse led me to seek out my abuser with desperation once I thought he had moved on. However, as I thought back on my response to the boy in Alateen as an adult, I knew it came from a desire to save my father even though he was fairly absent from my life. I did heavy therapeutic work on codependency in my early 20s, and I’m thankful for that experience in Alateen, as it demonstrated my inclination to seek out broken men.

Once I became a teenager, Al-Anon began to grow on me. Whenever my mom went to the front of the room to receive her chip, I felt a sense of pride in her steadfast commitment to the group. In fact, I began to see that my own involvement should be celebrated as well, and as a result, that Al-Anon group began giving chips to children just for surviving. I received my “13-year” chip when I was 13 years old. I stopped attending Al-Anon shortly thereafter, but the chip has always remained a secret symbol of pride.

Three women shared their experiences attending either Alateen or Al-Anon in their youth. For two, the groups helped them mature into healthy adults who have broken the cycle of addiction in their families. For one, both Al-Anon and Alateen were periodically helpful but ultimately not the support system she needed.

Jessica*: “I started attending meetings at age eight.”

I began going to Alateen (actually a preteen group) when I was about eight. My mother had recently told me about her alcoholism (an act of astonishing vulnerability and bravery). I was never forced to go, but I was encouraged to go by my mother, and the enticement of the snack bar at the venue and the soda and candy to eat while there was a draw to me.

[My mom] died from cirrhosis of the liver, kidneys and stomach when she was 35. I was 13 when she died. My father really tried to do the best he could for about six months. My dad tended to drink beer and only beer. Because of this and because he is able to hold down a job, he does not think he has a problem.

From my teens until now, he drinks at a bar after work for about three to four hours and then comes home and will drink between 12 and 24 beers that night. He would not register me for high school. He would have had to either leave work early or not go to the bar after. Neither was an option. Luckily, a friend’s mom lied and said she was my guardian so I could sign up for classes. To this day, I will not call him past noon. I tend to only call him on Father’s Day, Christmas and his birthday.

I found Alateen and later Al-Anon to be helpful to me in that I could better set boundaries and see what was “normal.” I think learning as much as I could about the disease has helped me to break the chain of addiction. Alateen and Al-Anon helped me to locate healthy adults and understand what was my responsibility and what wasn’t. Just because my childhood sucked, it didn’t mean that I could use that as an excuse for my own bad choices. My advice would be to use the program to learn as much as you can, try to apply it to as many places as you can, and find healthy people to help guide you.

Maria: “Alateen wasn’t for me.”

For Alateen, I attended briefly in 1995 when I was a junior in high school. I only went twice. I have tried Al-Anon a few times on and off during my adult years.

My mother was a drug addict (heroin, cocaine, crack) and my father was an alcoholic. My stepfather was a drug addict (coke, crack) and an alcoholic. My uncle (mother’s brother), who was also my godfather who lived with us, had been an addict (benzos and opiates) and alcoholic. He died in 1994 in our apartment of an overdose.

I had a discouraging experience at Alateen. Two of the teen boys in the group showed up high and drunk to the meetings. As a teen, I was trying to escape being around inebriated people, so it was triggering to be around them in a space dedicated to venting our feelings about the addicts in our lives. During the break, the second time I went, one of the boys made sexually inappropriate comments and innuendo to me. I never went back.

One positive thing I took from it was the adult moderator. When she asked me how I was feeling and I told her I was angry, she told me that was great. She told me to scream and I did. It felt good to scream and for once to be told my feelings were valid. It’s just unfortunate that the experience with the boys undermined that and made me feel unsafe enough to not return.

As for Al-Anon, when I went I was dealing with some stuff as an adult and it was helpful for a time. Most of my family had died (including my mother), my dad had a stroke, my longtime romantic partner and I had split, and my brother was using and drinking a lot. However, I was still put off from aspects of Al-Anon that ultimately turned me away from the program.

Many of the members were also active addicts or alcoholics themselves, or in the stages of early recovery, and while I don’t begrudge them for being there too, sometimes I felt the Al-Anon meeting was functioning more as an AA meeting, and again, that was triggering for me as someone who is the only sober person in my family who was trying to be around more sober people.

I discovered that it’s important to reach out when you need support and help, but also, it’s good to know your limits and not fear being independent or alone. I realized I was stronger than I gave myself credit for, both in my ability to reach out and in my ability to also acknowledge when something was no longer helpful and assert my boundaries. You don’t have to go through it alone, but Al-Anon doesn’t have to be the definitive answer.

Julie: “I chose Al-Anon over Alateen, and it saved my life.”

I started going to Al-Anon when I was barely 17. My grandfather passed away and I chose to volunteer at the American Cancer Society. A woman who worked there asked me a series of questions and then recommended strongly that I go to a meeting, just from random conversations we had as I did stuff around the office. I volunteered every Wednesday, and I went to Al-Anon every Tuesday night, so she knew I was keeping my promise of going to meetings. I went by myself and I was the youngest member in the group.

My mother was a pretty heavy drinker from about 8 a.m. My dad tried Al-Anon but it didn’t work for him, he said. My sister tried Alateen but she said it didn’t do anything to help her feel better or different about our family situation.

Al-Anon saved my life. I would have been pregnant or some dumb guy’s wife, and I probably would never have gone to college if I didn’t feel the support of the adults in that meeting. I needed adults who didn’t hold back their truth and treated me like an equal to grow; I always felt I had to be the parent to my parents, so the love of those people helped balance out my life.

[Through Al-Anon], I learned I cared too much what people think of me. I try to people-please all the time and I felt responsible for everyone. Al-Anon has taught me to stop and consider my situation so I don’t let old behaviour patterns run my life. I preferred Al-Anon as a teenager because I felt I was a grown person for a while by the time I made it to Al-Anon, and the Alateen issues just weren’t for me.

*Names have been changed for confidentiality.

Reprinted from The Fix with kind permission. Click here to learn about Renascent’s Family Programs.

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