Monday, January 11, 2010

Powerless Over Alcohol

In many Al-Anon groups, it’s customary to dedicate one meeting a month to step study. Generally, in January, we study Step 1. So I don’t want to let January go by without some discussion of how Step 1 worked in my life.

Step 1 says “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

In Al-Anon, we work the same steps as those in AA and, at first, that confused me. I didn’t come to Al-Anon because I had a drinking problem. So how could I be powerless over alcohol?

I’ve heard some people they think of it as being powerless over the effects alcohol has on their loved ones. Others mentally substitute “alcoholic” for “alcohol.” That worked for me. By the time I came in, I knew I was powerless over the alcoholic.

Because I had grown up in an alcoholic home, I had seen what substance abuse looks like up close, and I was determined to save my daughter.

At the height of my insanity, here are some of the things I did to keep her straight.

Wherever my daughter went, I was close by. If she went to a movie, I drove her there and sat at a nearby coffee house where I could see her go in and watch to make sure she didn’t come out early.

Once, when my daughter asked to go to the bowling alley, I sat in the parking lot and watched the doors (for hours!) to be sure she didn’t leave without my permission.

As a journalist, I had a voice-activated tape recorder hooked up to the phone. A few times, I turned it on when my daughter was on the phone so I could listen through the headphones and find out what she was up to so I could try to stop it.

If I could have put an alarm on her bedroom window, I would have. But I didn’t have the money. So there were many nights I lay awake at night because I thought my daughter might try to climb out her window, even though we lived in a second-floor apartment.

When her attendance and grades tanked, I asked my daughter’s teachers to e-mail me every day with her attendance and homework assignments. When my daughter wanted to do something after school and said she had finished her homework, which she always did, I made her show me the assignments.

I didn’t go anywhere because I was afraid of what my daughter might do if I was not home.

Once, when she was still in high school, my daughter started hanging out at a boy’s apartment who was over 18. I suspected they were having sex. I knew they were smoking pot. I tried to get the boy evicted using the apartment complex’s zero-tolerance crime policy.

Her father and I checked my daughter into a drug rehab program against her will.

I subjected her to psychological testing, counseling, psychiatrists, psychiatric meds and hospitalizations.

I couldn’t distinguish small crimes and misdemeanors. If my daughter failed to check in with me after school, I went looking for her, getting madder and madder with every step until I had worked myself into a fury. Her failure to check in with me after school was a serious to me as running away.

Once, I was having coffee with a friend outside the movie theater. When the movie let out and I didn’t see my daughter, I got increasingly frantic. My friend was struggling at the time with a daughter who had a drug problem, yet she looked at me with alarm. Her look said, “You’re getting a little crazy.”

I saw her look, but instead of thinking “Maybe I’m acting a little crazy,” I thought, “You just don’t understand.”

Do I need to tell you that none of these things worked? Do I need to say that our home became a battleground? Do I need to tell you our relationship was—to put it kindly—strained?

I was determined that when I looked back I would at least be able to say I did everything I could. Yet all my efforts only alienated my daughter from me and left me feeling beaten, demoralized and exhausted.

When my daughter was 16 or so, she went to live with her father in another state because I'd tried everything I could think of and didn’t know what else to do. While she was there, she had been checked into a mental hospital (the choice being that or jail). She refused to talk to me on the phone except to say that if I came out to see her, she’d refuse to see me and make me sorry I came.

Even after all of this, I didn’t go to Al-Anon.

By the time I found Al-Anon, my daughter was grown and living in another state. Our relationship didn’t feel confrontational by then. Instead, I had been flying out from time to time, despite my daughter’s insistence that this was not necessary, to “help” with whatever difficulty she was having. I hired lawyers and counselors who told me I was doing the right thing. It felt good to be on her side for a change. She seemed to appreciate my help.

My daughter eventually found her way to a fellowship, which delighted me. Of course, when I came out, I tried to take over her program. I dragged her around to a meeting a day. I bought her books. I suggested who should be her sponsor.

She accepted my “help” with grace, asked the appointed one to be her sponsor, then, after I left, she never attended another meeting again. From home, I carried around a meeting schedule so I could “helpfully” suggest what meetings she might try that day. It still pains me to wonder what would have happened had I not been so “helpful.”

It was my daughter’s sponsor who gently suggested I try Al-Anon. “You can work your own program,” she said. “You won’t have to go to your daughter’s meetings.”

Wise woman.

I got off the plane and got myself to a meeting the next day.

At that point, I was willing to concede I was powerless. But was my life unmanageable? I couldn’t see it. From all outward appearances, I had it all together.

I still couldn’t see my part. Or why jumping on a plane at the slightest provocation and obsessing about my alcoholic from thousands of miles away, to the point that I couldn’t enjoy my own very good life, was unmanageable.

But I could admit that when my daughter was in school and living with me, I was trying to control (That I didn't think I was still trying to control shows how little self-awareness I had.) and my life was unmanageable. It was a start. Al-Anon is a gentle program, and awareness comes as we are ready.

My sponsor tells me that the first step is the only one we have to do perfectly. The rest we just practice.

I’d like to say I did it perfectly. That the clouds parted and I was bathed in white light and became the perfect mother and always knew the right thing to do.

But I can tell you it didn’t happen that way. I’m still learning about things I’m powerless over. And some days, I feel like I’ve never been to a meeting. Only now, whenever I start to feel my head go into its familiar spin, I know I’m probably trying to control something I am powerless over. Once I realize that, I can let go.

I can work Step 1 as many times as I need to.

In working the steps I have, of course, made amends to my daughter for my part. She was unbelievably gracious.

When she came to visit me over the holidays, she told me I inspired her, and that I was therapeutic to be around. That's amazing.

One of my favorite Al-Anon tools reminds me: Just for Today, I will have a program. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it.


  1. That's beautiful. And rings true for me. When I came to Al-Anon, I was ready to accept I was powerless over the alcoholic. The rest took some time. I suppose it's still taking some time.

  2. I am working the twelve steps in a codependency program. And my hubby is nine years clean and sober. So we are a recovery family. Nice to meet you.

  3. I really relate to the "crazy" way I tried to make the world turn to accommodate my alcoholic. If he would not change, then I was going to make everyone else change so his life would be OK. I feel better reading your post..we were doing what we thought a mother is supposed to do. "When we know better, we do better."

  4. My...powerlessness and Unmanageability...they're the same no matter who you are, aren't they?

    Thanks for sharing your story...It's amazing what happens when we Let Go and Let God...

  5. This is totally HONEST... Wow.. !!

    I kept thinking of the 3 Cs as i read your post.


  6. Hey Kathy, well can I say that the hardest part of attending an Al-anon meeting, is making it through the front door? How close was I to turn the car around and not go in? Or when the meeting started, how close was I to get up and run out the door? I realized that I never ask for help, and here I was, at a place, wanting help.
    And as I sat there, and we did readings, and I read something about compassion, I shared that I didn't get the compassion etc, I suddenly realized that I was angry. OMG, I had no idea how angry I was, at the alcoholic and mostly at me, for getting so duped!
    Just as well there were 4 newbies there at the same time!

  7. TheUndertaker: Thanks for the update. I had been wondering how it went. Walking in the door and asking for help IS the hardest part. So glad you took the step! I hope you find the peace, love and compassion I found in the program.