A quick note on anonymity. Support group meetings like these are anonymous. The stories told by others and their names are not to leave the room and therefore all references will be very vague and general, with only a specific focus on my takeaway as it pertains to my situation. I’m also not attempting to evangelize for the 12 Steps and, in fact, don’t even discuss the actual 12 steps in this essay. I’m simply sharing my thoughts on my experience with the group, which may or may not reflect others’ experiences with it.
I think the first 12 step meeting is probably a little awkward for everybody. It’s already some level of uncomfortable to talk in front of a group of strangers, but to do so about such personal issues? Really weird. But even if you’re used to talking about your problems and showing your emotions to others, be it friends or family or a therapist, a 12 step meeting is different, in that nobody responds. Nobody interrupts, nobody asks questions, nobody gives advice. They just sit and listen. Usually in life, when we share things about ourselves, we look for some kind of reaction or feedback, those remarks or gestures from others that ease the story along. During a 12 step meeting, one person shares at a time and everyone else just listens; when the share is over, its someone else’s turn and so on. The conversation happens through the interaction of those individual stories as they are heard, received and understood by everyone else in the room. Pause, and it’s quiet. Stays quiet, until you’re ready to continue or conclude. I’ve found those moments to be the most transformational.
I am not personally an addict. But other people’s addictions have been a constant presence in my life, in some way, since I was born. Yet, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I decided to attend my first 12 step meeting for family members and friends of addicts.
My dad died a little over a year ago after over a decade of serious, ongoing substance abuse. But even in the many years before he discovered and became addicted to the drug that destroyed many of his relationships and eventually lead to his death, he was an addict through and through. Addicted to alcohol early on, he eventually stopped drinking but his addictive behaviors manifested themselves in ways both obvious and insidious in the house I grew up in. Let me be clear: I had a very happy childhood. My dad was a wonderful, if unique parent for many, many years. He was also a loving, if frustrating and challenging husband. I imagine my mom, who was and is the most amazing person and mother, did her best to shield me, especially when I was young, from the bad stuff. But kids pick up on things, even though they might not understand them, and I think I internalized a lot of confusing feelings about how to deal when someone you love is an addict. You don’t have to have even taken Psych 101 to recognize that there’s at least some sort of a connection between my childhood and family struggles and my own personal and romantic history with people who exhibit addictive behavior.
I’ve been in therapy for, oh, eight years straight, no breaks, and it’s been tremendously helpful in getting my head at least somewhat right when it comes to understanding why I’m drawn to certain types of people and how I interact with them. Therapy helped me have a good relationship with my dad again for a bit, even if we eventually did stop talking before his death, but therapy helped me arrive at that decision with love instead of anger. Therapy helped me hold it together when my dad died and I had to deal with the shitshow he left behind. Therapy helped me grieve. Therapy helped shutdown the feelings of guilt, culpability and regret. I thought it was all I needed.
A few months ago, I offered to support one of my dearest friends, someone I love immeasurably, in their decision to get sober after years of drug abuse. The particulars of their situation are private and not for me to share. (And would really appreciate it if no one would speculate on the details in the comments). All you need to know is that my friend accepted the support I offered, but suggested I attend a 12-Step meeting for family/friends of addicts to get an idea of what I could expect. I found the nearest one that fit with my situation and marked my calendar.
Most of what I knew about addiction support groups came from TV and movies about addicts, but I wasn’t sure if the process would be similar in the support group meetings for family and friends. I was surprised that, like in so many fictional references, the meeting actually took place in a church basement. Instead of chain-smoking, we drink coffee and munch on the plethora of bagged chips and snacks brought to each meeting. The program is a gentle one: you progress at the pace that suits you and the 12 Step literature — bits of which are read aloud at the start of every meeting — is open to your interpretation. As a non-religious person, that the program defines “God” as what the individual understands their higher power to be and is not affiliated with any religious organization or denomination was reassuring to me. In fact, the Serenity Prayer — God, grant me the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference — has become a bit of a mantra for me.
Before my first meeting, I wondered who I would meet, what their lives were like and what the addict in their life (their “qualifier,” they call it) was addicted to. Most of all, I wondered if they would be shocked by my story.
Though attending a support group was instigated by the situation with my friend, and they were the qualifier that brought me to the meeting in the first place, I was well aware that my dad was my qualifier as well. I have long been pretty open about my dad’s drug addiction. I don’t hide how he died. But my openness has rarely been about seeking support or advice. And, frankly, as well-meaning as friends and others have been, I have known very few people who could really relate. When I talk about my dad, the things he would do and say when he was especially drug-addled, most people listen as if they’re hearing someone read from a really interesting novel or watching a movie; their reactions, even the subtle facial ones, convey that my reality can only ever been a story to them. I am hyper aware of the judgements they must be making, of my dad, of me, and I can see the wheels churn as they consider what they would do. I have felt resentful and annoyed and frustrated. As a result, my delivery has become more and more matter-of-fact, so that even when I’m opening up, I’m building a wall.
I don’t find myself doing that in my meetings. In that room, I’m surrounded by people who know what it’s like to love someone who has the disease of addiction, be it a parent, child, sibling, lover, spouse, friend, or some other relationship bound by blood or otherwise. They are not shocked and I don’t feel alone. In many ways, these are people I actually would appreciate feedback from, but I have to seek it out myself, either during the break or afterward the meeting’s over; but for that hour and a half, we just listen to each other. And through those shared experiences, I have gained so much insight into, yes, drug addiction, but more than anything, I have come to learn so much about myself, my behavior, and my reactions, and have identified ways in which I need to change. Because that’s really what the program is about — turning the focus away from what the addict in our lives is doing, thinking, and saying, and putting it back on what many of us have neglected — our own personal health, happiness and well-being.
Hearing how others have dealt with addiction in their lives has inspired new ways of thinking in me. I get something out of every share, as wildly different or eerily similar as they may be to the details of my own experience. Outside of the group, I find myself thinking about them often, recalling something they have said or simply feeling strengthened on difficult days by their resilience. I think about the mothers and fathers in the group, whose children are in different stages of addiction and/or recovery, who do or do not talk to them, and I’m inspired by their courage. I think about those in the group who are or have been in romantic relationships with addicts, and I feel less isolated in a world that is otherwise shaking its head and telling me to “move on already,” when I don’t feel ready to. The others in the group have felt the same impact, and it’s been incredibly moving to see how my own participation has impacted others in their journey.
During my first meeting, I explained that my offer to help my friend during their recovery was a no brainer. I felt called to do it. I thought that the 13+ years I spent dealing with a drug addicted parent — with all its highs and lows — prepared me for it. After all, I had seen addiction kill one of the most influential and important people in my life. And in many ways, I was prepared and was able to successfully give this friend the support they needed and that feels good. But more than that, I think I was being called to do it for myself, that the experience is part of my healing and recovery process. What a huge, meaningful, difficult, enlightening, powerful experience it has been and continues to be. It is this opportunity to find a better way to live that I am most thankful for this year.
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