An accomplished editor in the publishing field, Jacob had all of the traits of a responsible, high-functioning adult. He was organized, diligent, a taskmaster, met his deadlines and earned promotions in his field.
But he drove people nuts.
About six years ago, a boss told him he needed to change. Jacob (who asked to have his last name withheld) was told that his management style was rubbing people the wrong way; he micromanaged employees to an intimidating level.
“I would insert myself into situations where I wasn’t needed. I would stand over people at work and tell them how to click through things,” he recalls. “At one point I told my wife she was washing her bra wrong.”
Thankfully for Jacob, he changed. His marriage is stronger for it and his work relationships are better, as he learned to be effective and keep an even keel at the same time. But the change required some soul searching. Jacob, now 39, learned, with a counselor’s help, that being the son of an alcoholic contributed to his dysfunctional behavior.
“We try to control everyone’s behavior all the time,” he says. “An alcoholic will go out and do unhealthy things, but we try to control that behavior. We will nitpick everything.”
His counselor also suggested he attend Al-Anon meetings, a support group for siblings and significant others of problem drinkers based on the same 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Al-Anon was started in the early 1950s and today has more than 24,000 registered groups and serves more than 130 countries. Locally there are about 60 weekly meetings.
With Al-Anon’s help, Jacob learned he wasn’t alone in his views and behaviors. He felt comfort in listening to others with similar stories.
“Sometimes you don’t realize you’ve been affected until you get the chance to listen to other people who come from the same sort of circumstances,” says Phil H. (who also is keeping with the “anonymous” group tradition of not using his full name). He has attended Al-Anon meetings for 30 years, first in Houston and now locally.
LIVING WITH A PROBLEM DRINKER
Carole Bennett, a family substance abuse counselor in Santa Barbara, Calif., who also wrote the book “Reclaim Your Life: You and the Alcoholic/Addict,” lived with an alcoholic husband for some 20 years. She’s now divorced and admits to staying in the relationship far too long with a spouse who couldn’t stay sober. Her book focuses on people like her and the many others affected by living with a problem drinker.
Bennett says people stay in these relationships for a variety of reasons, including guilt, children, religious beliefs, financial support and feeling as if they have no choice. Some are afraid to be alone or have convinced themselves the situation is not that bad. Bennett says the problem drinker can also be manipulative.
“It was one of the biggest mistakes to classify alcoholism as a disease. It’s like a get-out-of-jail-free card,” she says. “You’ll hear (the problem drinker) saying, ‘Oh you’re leaving me because I have a disease.’ ”
Brad Donahue, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas psychology professor, says family support is necessary for an alcoholic’s sobriety. But he also sees situations in which separation may be necessary to protect a spouse’s safety.
“The person engaging in the erratic behavior compromises the integrity of the family and leads to family dysfunction,” he says.
Donahue uses a therapy model that engages the entire family, not just the problem drinker. The goal is to create an environment that supports the person with the substance abuse problem in seeking help. To reshape the home environment, family members are also given tools to establish healthy boundaries with the individual and maintain self-respect.
“We think it’s better to get it all under one roof and grab the bull by the horns,” he says.
Frequently, counselors will refer spouses or loved ones of alcoholics to Al-Anon. Donahue and Bennett see the program as a great opportunity for family members to realize they are not alone.
“We see Al-Anon as a positive supplement. But perhaps it might be limited because it can only influence that person so much,” Donahue adds.
Bennett refers clients to Al-Anon. She went to meetings for 20 years but has stopped going herself.
“I got tired of it. After so many years, people talk about the same things,” Bennett says. “People were wallowing and I felt like I was always paying homage to this program as if it were an idol. It started to feel like a campaign, like we’re constantly creating a mental image of an Al-Anon symbol on a high mountain.”
Phil H. acknowledged that some local Al-Anon meetings aren’t as productive as others. When he went to his first meeting in the 1970s, after his wife enrolled in AA, he was ushered into an Al-Anon meeting and wasn’t sure he wanted to stay. The program encourages people to try six meetings before deciding whether they want to continue.
“I definitely did not get into it in the first meeting,” Phil H. recalls. “I was just sitting there waiting for my wife to finish her meeting. It was that way for a few weeks. Then I started to become aware of things. You listen to people talk about their depression and failure to control someone they care about. It has an impact on you.”
He and his wife are still married and he still attends meetings regularly.
For Jacob, who attends several weekly meetings, “Even the crappiest meetings are better than no meeting at all.”
Most of the AA and Al-Anon 12 steps hold at their core a relationship to God. Most of the steps give reference to “God” or, as in the second step, refer to “a power greater than ourselves” that “could restore us to sanity.” Meetings often open with the “Serenity Prayer” and regular prayer is encouraged.
Critics of Al-Anon say the higher power emphasis can be damaging and that it may be a reason for the program’s seemingly zealous promoters and participants. Phil H. asserts that there’s no particular God emphasized. And Bennett says most groups are good about keeping the God relationship neutral.
“It can be Christ, Buddha or the oak tree outside,” she says.
Cat (also withholding her last name), who works in the local casino industry, moved to Las Vegas in 2011 after her marriage failed in Georgia. She has been attending Al-Anon and AA meetings for the past 20 years. Growing up with an alcoholic mother, she spent a lot of time “cleaning up her messes,” she says. She, too, battled control issues and was an extremely jealous wife.
“I had this view of how a relationship should be. And if he wasn’t doting on me, I was sure he was gonna cheat on me,” she says.
Her own drinking made things worse. But when she stopped, she also found she and her spouse drifting apart, partly because of her emphasis on a regular spiritual practice and his having none.
“I believed it (spirituality) was something distant that wasn’t interested in me,” she says. “But I learned I can’t really do this by myself.”
Deciding how much credit Al-Anon deserves for bettering the life of a loved one of a problem drinker can be a long debate. Bennett once wrote a column for Psychology Today listing eight reasons some people love and eight reasons others hate Al-Anon. She found there were people like her who just felt they outgrew it and others who still feel they can’t live without it.
She says she still sees far too many people being dishonest with themselves about their problems.
“People like to bump along the bottom. They think, ‘I’ll do a little reading, do a little research and I’ll call it a day,’ ” she says. “It takes more than just raising your hand and sharing for a few minutes.”