I’ve learned in my program that I need to clear away the wreckage of my past. Part of that wreckage is the damage that I did to other people, especially family. In the movie When Love is Not Enough, the Lois Wilson Story, Lois’ character says that on average four people are pulled into the vortex of an alcoholic. The word vortex, the spinning fury of mayhem that pulls what is around it into its empty centre, is quite appropriate. We lie, we cheat, we manipulate and we steal from these people while we are in the vortex, often discarding them along the way. I am reminded of the Tasmanian Devil of old cartoons. That is pretty much what we did.
Lois Wilson was the founder of Al-Anon Family Groups program for the family and friends of alcoholics. She, being the wife of Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, knew what she was talking about having lived through the destruction that her husband’s alcoholism caused in both of their lives. She also knew of the struggle to find her own sanity in the midst of chaos and conflict. If her statement is true about how alcoholics and addicts affect the lives of others, then the rooms of Al-Anon should be overflowing; they aren’t.
I suppose it must be extra difficult to admit that the insanity of an addict’s life rubs off and that they are as powerless over alcohol and drugs and their loved one. It’s the alcoholic who is sick, not the spouse or partner. It’s hard to admit that one’s attempts to help a loved one have never been successful. It’s also hard to see that AA or NA is doing what love and devotion couldn’t accomplish alone. The wife of a friend of mine in the program openly states that she was as sick as her husband because of alcohol, but she was unable to see it until she went to Al-Anon, ostensibly to try to get help for him. Once there, she discovered that she needed help as well. Today they both travel their path of recovery.
I remember hearing a speaker at a meeting talk about having an argument with his wife because he was late coming home from work one night. She had been worried about him and he was angry because he had been in recovery for almost a year at the time. His sponsor chastised him, telling him that he had made so many promises to her that he had broken, that he had lied so many times about where he was and when he was coming home, and had manipulated her for so many years, that she had a right to think that he may have slipped. Even after a year, two years, or ten years, members have relapsed, so a partner’s worry is not without cause.
One of my sponsees came to me a while back. He’s fairly new in the program and was complaining about his wife. He felt that she was not understanding enough about his disease, always asking him where he was going and who he was with. He felt like she was treating him like a child and not the sober adult that he felt he was. His wife’s concern was genuine and is quite common. How many times had he broken promises to her? How often had he lied to her about where and with whom he was with? How often had he told her that he wasn’t going to drink or use only to find him dropped off on the front porch unable to stand let alone find the front door? No, he was the one who needed some understanding of where she was coming from and that while he may be sure he’s on the path of sobriety, she has every right to her uncertainty.
It is so much easier to see how our addiction has affected our own lives. It is not as easy to see how it has affected those who made the decision to love us. And it does affect them just as deeply and profoundly. I do not presume to speak for members of Al-Anon. I only know what I have heard from them. One told me that it was one of the most difficult thing he ever had to do was admit that he had allowed the alcoholism in his family to affect him as deeply as it had and that it took so long for him to realize that he too needed help to live.
We cause great swaths of destruction and leave a path of wreckage behind us. All of this can be cleared and the vortex toned down to a tolerable swirl. It takes time. Addicts and alcoholics know it takes time to go through their program and find happiness, joy and freedom. Those whom we have deeply affected also need time to heal. There is hope for all of us affected.
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Photo credit: Jennifer Rice