The family members of addicts and alcoholics often suffer terribly until the afflicted individual finally agrees to seek help. Parents, children, spouses, siblings and others all suffer their own pain as they watch a loved one struggle. When the addict or alcoholic enters treatment, the family usually feels some relief. But the family dynamic will not immediately return to normal. Healing the open wounds left by addiction will take time and understanding on all sides. Chapter 9 of Alcoholics Anonymous (“The Family Afterward”) deals primarily with this issue.
“The Family Afterward” is something of an addendum to Chapter 8 (“To Wives”). While Chapter 8 primarily looked at addiction from a spouse’s point of view, “The Family Afterward” opens its discussion to the rest of the family. Some of the issues mentioned in this chapter, such as infidelity, are still primarily spousal issues. Other issues revolve around the changes in the alcoholic who enters recovery and the ways in which families can prevent issues that might arise from these changes. Ultimately, “The Family Afterward” exists to inform families of the experiences they will encounter when their loved one begins a spiritual journey toward sobriety.
Chapter 9 also covers an issue that we’ve covered multiple times—addiction as a family disease. We’ll open by discussing this part of the chapter, so that family members may better understand the feelings they’re experiencing as they welcome an addicted loved one back into their lives. Recovery can turn into a tumultuous time for everyone involved, addicts and families alike. Hopefully, “The Family Afterward” will help sympathetic family members learn what they can do to ensure a smoother recovery for both themselves and the addict or alcoholic they love.
Addiction: A Family Disease
When the addict or alcoholic suffers, the family suffers. Everyone in the household straps in together to ride an emotional roller coaster. When we first step off, we find ourselves still disoriented from the ride. Stepping back onto solid ground, we may stumble over our feet a few times before we manage to walk properly. The same is true when families injured by addiction try to turn over a new leaf. We feel an urgent need to keep moving forward, yet we still find ourselves a bit disoriented. Everyone wants the wounds to heal, yet nobody’s quite sure what to say.
In the early days of recovery, harmless mentions of past events will sting like barbs. “The Family Afterward” describes such moments:
“Now and then the family will be plagued by spectres from the past, for the drinking career of almost every alcoholic has been marked by escapades, funny, humiliating, shameful or tragic. The first impulse will be to bury these skeletons in a dark closet and padlock the door. The family may be possessed by the idea that future happiness can be based only upon forgetfulness of the past. We think that such a view is self-centered and in direct conflict with the new way of living.”
Families that truly wish to heal cannot keep the past behind closed doors. They must instead try to embrace acceptance. Families must accept that drugs or alcohol took away the person they loved. This person was then replaced with a stranger, who was at times tolerable and at other times quite destructive. But now that the addict or alcoholic has entered recovery, the family can finally get them back. They do so not by hiding from the past, but by confronting it and dealing with it in a healthy manner.
This type of healing requires a great deal of willingness. Families must prove willing to let go of their resentments and forgive their addicted loved one, provided that the loved one in question demonstrates true remorse for their actions. The family must also show that they understand the nature of the disease and that healing takes time. Some families find this difficult. After all, they’ve been patient for so long. Should they really continue waiting for their loved one to get it right? If they truly believe that their loved one can get better in recovery, the answer is yes.
Handling Substitute Addictions
Families may outwardly agree to be patient with their loved one’s recovery, but it won’t always be easy. For many addicts and alcoholics, groups such as AA and NA turn into substitute addictions. The family may feel as if they hardly ever see their loved one. They waited so long to have this person back in their lives. Now that their beloved is finally beginning the healing process, they never seem to be around. They fought so hard just to regain this person, and now they feel their loved one is lost again to another obsession.
The frustration will mount even greater if the addict or alcoholic happens to be a bit outspoken about their spiritual growth. Never did they express interest in spirituality before, but now the pendulum has swung quite far to the other side. “The Family Afterward” suggests that families not worry too much about this. In time, the addict or alcoholic will see that they have gone overboard:
“He will perceive that his spiritual growth is lopsided, that for an average man like himself, a spiritual life which does not include his family obligations may not be so perfect after all. If the family will appreciate that dad’s current behavior is but a phase of his development, all will be well. In the midst of an understanding and sympathetic family, these vagaries of dad’s spiritual infancy will quickly disappear.”
“The Family Afterward” notes another problem with newcomers who go overboard on spirituality. Many of them, despite meaning well, still know little about spiritual living. They haven’t had enough time to carefully observe those who live by spiritual principles. Instead, they’re going by their own definitions, which may sometimes be flawed. “The Family Afterward” suggests one way in which the family might help:
“Whether the family has spiritual convictions or not, they may do well to examine the principles by which the alcoholic member is trying to live. They can hardly fail to approve these simple principles, though the head of the house still fails somewhat in practicing them. Nothing will help the man who is off on a spiritual tangent so much as the wife who adopts a sane spiritual program, making a better practical use of it.”
Spiritual principles such as the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions may be meant for addicts and alcoholics, but there’s a reason that support groups such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon make use of them as well. The same principles that benefit addicts can also benefit their families. We won’t list every single virtuous principle of recovery here, as there are far too many to cover. What we will do, however, is discuss how the broad matter of spiritual living is addressed in Chapter 9.
The primary principle of recovery is humility, and it’s a principle that every family member will need. Many think that humility is about seeing our weaknesses, but it’s about more than that. By addressing our weaknesses, we find our strengths. And in finding our strengths, we learn to live joyfully. We learn to experience freedom from the bonds of addiction, which have cast so many families into dark times. “The Family Afterward” discusses the joy that we find in recovery:
“We have been dealing with alcohol in its worst aspect. But we aren’t a glum lot. If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn’t want it. We absolutely insist on enjoying life. We try not to indulge in cynicism over the state of the nations, nor do we carry the world’s troubles on our shoulders. When we see a man sinking into the mire that is alcoholism, we give him first aid and place what we have at his disposal. For his sake, we do recount and almost relive the horrors of our past. But those of us who have tried to shoulder the entire burden and trouble of others find we are soon overcome by them.”
Family members should not shoulder unnecessary burdens. The family gave a lot to get their loved one on the right track. Should this be rewarded with dishonesty or betrayal, the answer is not enabling. In some instances, the family must turn their back on the one they love. Spirituality and understanding might prevent this circumstance, but all families should nevertheless prepare for the possibility. Barring tragic circumstances such as relapse, however, many will find recovery to be a wonderful time. It is a time for healing, which means that it is a time for joy. Families should take advantage of this and embrace the opportunity before them.
“The Family Afterward” ends by citing three popular AA slogans:
First Things First
Live and Let Live
Easy Does It
As long as we pay attention to our priorities, try not to be too controlling, and approach life with a bit of tolerance and flexibility, we’ll find that spiritual living isn’t so difficult. In fact, “The Family Afterward” suggests that it may be the secret to a happy household. Families should therefore try to participate in building spiritual principles when living with a loved one in recovery. Not only will it show support for your loved one’s efforts, but it just might make life a lot easier for everyone involved.