Friday, July 18, 2008

Remember the New Comer in Al-Anon

In Al-Anon do we really reach out to the new comer? Or are we wrapped up in what we want to say and sounding good?

This message may sound critical. But I am putting it out there for us to ponder . . .

I was at an Al-Anon meeting last night. It was/is a strong group (the people there have been practicing Al-Anon for a long is what I mean).

I have been at Al-Anon meetings where after the meeting the older members may complain about a new comer or someone early in recovery "bitching" about there lives in Al-Anon meetings. When I "drill down" (listen hard) I find that the person complaining about the newcomer, I often find they are complainers or they are controlling (still) or they are not living with active alcoholism (or all three).

My message is this: I am a pretty smart guy. I grew up in - not poverty - but not under the best of circumstances and I pulled and clawed my way up the social structure (whatever the hell that is and that means) to a pretty good life. My life was jolted into the stone age emotionally, when I found my wife had an alcohol problem. I just thought we had a crappy marriage - that one I could deal with (or so I was thinking - a duh here). When I engaged and found myself in the dance of alcoholism, I was under the spell of alcoholism. I found myself depressed, layered in wool blankets that kept me from feeling and living was basically in a dark cloud.

Now, now, is different. I am out of the spell. I am not living with active alcoholism because I am physically out and away from it. Even the sober days, when I lived there sucked. It felt as my daughter wrote, the house was full of alcoholism. And she was right. It dark and gloomy, lugubrious might be the better word.

What I am saying is this. I could easily slip into thinking that these people need to get with the program - the newcomer - that is. But that is not true. We need to get with the program. We who have learned to live with it or who have gotten away from it.

We need to show empathy for the newcomer and show them or tell them that if they practice these principles - which are so very foreign to the newcomer - that they too will find hope, serenity and peace. But it takes time we need to say. We need to be cognizant that they are facing verbal abuse, deception, lying, anger, perhaps even bodily harm. We need to remember that everyone in the house is getting "screwed" by this awful disease, and that the newcomer has not a clue what the hell we are talking about in Al-Anon. All they want is HELP. "Help me fix this" is the newcomers cry.

While we were discussing Tradition 5 last night, I realized that discussing a Tradition to a newcomer is like painting the deck chairs on the Titanic.

I am not saying we should immerse our being into helping the newcomer. What I am saying is we need to welcome them and state to them that this may be the complete opposite of what they were thinking they would hear, and that we need to be very clear that we will talk to them after the meeting. I am also not saying we should sell them on the program, but we should clearly point out we have been there too. And reading the preamble is not enough. All the words in the beginning of the meeting are lost on the newcomer. We need to say it again.

I have been in sales/consulting for a billion years. I have read all the books and have been in countless meetings with clients. If I can say one thing it is this . . . .

We need to see the life of the newcomer from where they sit and empathize and get a sense of the pain they are enduring - albeit a short minute or two - but just get a sense of surrendering our ego and wanting to say something smart - and just BE a beacon of hope.

That's all for now. That's my rant. I hope I stirred up a fire and a message the next time you see someone at a meeting that is dying.


FrannyGlass said...

Well said, Joe. I often say a silent prayer for the newcomers...that they hear the thing they need to hear to keep coming back. I, too, remember how hard it was to walk through that door for the first time. There's a slogan in AA -- "Remember When." I think of this when some of the newcomers are brave enough to share. It makes me so grateful for not living with active alcoholism any longer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Joe, I am a newcomer and appreciate your sensitivity. My situation is complicated. I lived with an active alcoholic for 20 years, 10 of those years I drank with him (and/or to spite him). I cleaned up my act, then realized how disgusting drinkers really are. I washed my hands of all drinkers in my life, and began finding new friends and hobbies, (which was NOT EASY). Eventually I divorced him. A year and half after the divorce I noticed he cleaned up his act, and rid himself of the people and hobbies that corrupted him. We have been living together for 4 years, (still scared to death to remarry). He drinks occassionally getting caught up in the moment, and I get nervous as ever. Recently, he went on a two week drinking binge. All the pain and fear returned immediately, like no time had passed. I cannot find an alanon meeting within 50 miles of my hometown. He agreed to AA, attended twice so far, but I'm not convinced he'll continue. Your blog has given me hope and strength. I'll be back regularly.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this post. I've not been in Al-Anon long so I know what it likes to be a newcomer. What I like the most about going to meetings is that I don't have to pretend that my husband is not an alcoholic. My family has no idea what my alcoholic marriage is like as they live thousands of miles away from us, outside the U.S. Whenever I talk to family members, I pretend we are doing fine. Actually, I believe I am doing fine. It's my spouse who is still struggling. It surprises me that some members in your group don't have empathy for the newcomers. In any group, I suppose there will always be personality conflicts. It's good you're aware of these members and can be a needed friend to the newcomers. It takes a great deal of courage to attend that first meeting. I hesitated a long time before I went to my first one. Had I gone sooner, I might have felt better about myself sooner. I do so look forward to your posts. Thanks for the helpful words.

Catherine said...

Joe, I've heard similar complaints about newcomers and I was really alarmed.

The newcomer is the most important person in the room. We have a responsbility to help make them feel welcome and safe. The presence of new people enriches our meetings, diversifies the things we hear in shares and keeps the program alive.

Newcomers are often in tremendous pain when they first show up. (I know I was just crying and didn't know what to say or what was going on and just babbled. Obviously I hadn't read the daily reading or know the slogans!) They have been struggling with an alcoholic; how can we be anything but empathetic?

It can be both a healthy reminder of how far we have come in recovery as well as an opportunity to be of service when we offer them our phone number or recommend a pamphlet or just say hi.

Who cares if someone is not exactly sharing their "strength, hope and experience?" It's not a club. Everyone should be welcome to attend. I can either relate to their fears or pray for their recovery or tune out.

When I was first trying meetings to find the right ones for me, there were actually several where no one spoke to me AT ALL when I identified myself as a newcomer. Those are not the meetings I attend now. I kept coming back to the meetings where I had the strongest connection and it's in those that I learn and recover the most.

Anonymous said...

I just opened your message and couldn't be more grateful for it. I've been attending Al-Anon for 6 months now and still consider myself a newcomer.

Anyway, I've been working very hard at the program and it's helped enormously with my alcoholic spouse and family. But I went there for my child, and believe me, I can find no hope, serenity, nor peace with the pain and despair I'm living with. I've read 12 books in these 6 months, gotten a sponsor, and done just about everything I can think of including desperately trying to get in touch with a higher power.

I am lost beyond words. I can find nothing of solace for a parent of someone who is so badly afflicted with a disease that will surely kill him after going through who knows how much pain and suffering. Everything sounds trite to us parents. I see others in my meetings going through what I am and believe me, what I hear is very helpful for my own self-improvement and living with an alcoholic spouse, but absolutely useless as a parent. What the old-timers don't seem to remember is the terror, pain, and suffering. They say "Just keep coming back. Everything will get better." Are we supposed to look forward to feeling better when our children are dead?

We parents have to keep all this to ourselves or have to suffer criticism from our families and non-applicable advise from friends and strangers. Living with this is absolutely worse than hell.