Al-Anon is a fellowship very similar to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but it is for family members and friends of alcoholics. Although formally totally separate from the fellowship of AA, it has incorporated into its groups the AA Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and AA's beliefs and organizational philosophy, but it has directed them toward helping families of alcoholics cope with the baffling and disturbing experiences of living in close interaction with an active alcoholic. In this sense, it is a satellite organization of AA (Rudy, 1986). Proselytizing organizations, such as AA, of necessity attempt to reduce, even eliminate, the ties of newcomers with other significant persons and groups who are not members. Rather than attempt to sever those bonds for prospective AA members, AA evolved Al-Anon as a way to include families into a parallel organization, and thus also initiate them into the beliefs and practices of AA. In addition, as AA expanded and more alcoholics became "recovering" ones, close relatives became aware that their own personal problems could be reduced by applying AA principles to themselves and working the Twelve Step program, even though they were not alcoholic. In 1980, there were 16,500 Al-Anon groups worldwide, including 2,300 Alateen groups of children of alcoholics (Maxwell, 1980).
Early in the 1940s, wives started attending AA meetings and soon began to informally meet together. By the late 1940s, there were so many family members at AA affairs that the AA Board of Trustees had to decide how to manage this valuable but perplexing influx. Since relatives of AA members had already begun to hold their own meetings, the board recommended that AA meetings be only for alcoholics but that whenever family members asked to participate they should be listed at the AA General Service office as a resource. Several AA wives began their own clearinghouse committee to coordinate the approximately ninety groups already in existence. Soon there was a separate network distinct and apart from AA itself. Because they were closely related to AA, however, they decided to shorten the first two letters of "alcoholic," and the first four letters of "anonymous" into Al-Anon. This has been their name ever since.
In 1950, the anonymous Bill W., a founder of AA, persuaded his wife Lois to get involved with the fledgling Al-Anon. The rapidly accumulating lists in the General Service office were turned over to her and to an associate, Anne B., who contacted those on the list, "and soon they had more work than they could handle" (Wing, 1992:136). For two years, the two conducted their activities at Stepping Stones, the suburban home of Bill W. and Lois. In 1952 they moved to New York City, where volunteer workers could be more easily recruited. By 1989, there were over 28,000 weekly Al-Anon Family Groups, which included Alateen, worldwide. "With each meeting averaging 12-15 members, an estimated total of 336,000-420,000 visits to Al-Anon meetings occur each week" (Cermak, 1988:92). Using data from a 1984 random sample of groups conducted by the Al-Anon fellowship, it was estimated that a quarter of a million people visit an Al-Anon meeting each week.
Al-Anon strives to direct its members' attention away from the active alcoholic with whom they attempt to interrelate, and toward their own behavior and emotions. In many ways, their personalities resemble those of alcoholics: they repeatedly attempt to control the feelings and behaviors of the alcoholics in their midst by simple force of personal will—much as alcoholics attempt to control their drinking by the sheer force of their individual will. In both instances, a denial syndrome emerges in their emotional makeup that protects their compulsive drive toward continued control. In sum, family members often become codependent—as obsessed with the alcoholics' behavior as he or she is with the bottle (Huppert, 1976).
For example, the alcoholic's spouse or partner has often vainly attempted to control the drinking. Except for brief periods, most pleas have been rejected and most promises have not been kept. Often, while the alcoholic has continued to drink and enjoy the brief emotional payoffs of intoxication, the spouse or other caretaker must try to cope for both of them by running the household, rearing the children, and working steadily to earn a living. If the alcoholic does show signs of improvement in a treatment center, the spouse or life partner may resent it deeply, since strangers have done more in a short period than all the partner's efforts over the years. To alcoholics' partners and relatives it appears as if they have not been wise enough, or determined enough, or superhuman enough, to get the alcoholics in their lives to stop drinking.
Al-Anon attempts to introduce the Twelve Steps of AA into the lives of family members as a way of minimizing the resentments and obsessive-control behavior they typically display. Al-Anon emphasizes an adaptation of AA's first step: "We admit we are powerless to control an alcoholic relative, that we are not self-sufficient." Such a step is an admission that it is a waste of time to try to control what is beyond their capacities. According to this strategy, it is no longer necessary for them to deny that their control efforts are powerless, and this relieves them from the enormous sense of accumulated burden and guilt. In addition, it allows acceptance of outsider treatment and its possible success.
(See also: Adult Children of Alcoholics ; Codependence ; Families and Drug Use ; Treatment Types: Twelve Steps )
Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters. (1984). Al-Anon faces alcoholism (2nd ed.) New York: Author.
Cermak, T. (1989). Al-Anon and recovery. In M. Galanter (Ed.), Recent developments in alcoholism, Vol. 7 (pp. 91-104). New York: Plenum Press.
Huppert, S. (1976). The role of Al-Anon groups in the treatment program of a V.A. alcoholism unit. Hospital and Community Psychiatry, 27, 693-697.
Rudy, D. R. (1986). Becoming alcoholic: Alcoholics Anonymous and the reality of alcoholism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Wing, N. (1992). Grateful to have been there: My 42 years with Bill and Lois and the evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous. Park Ridge, IL: Parkside Publishing.
Harrison M. Trice
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