Recovery is not just about abstaining from your addictive substance or behavior; it is about creating a new life for yourself. Likewise, addiction is not just about a problem controlling your use of a substance or engagement in a compulsive behavior. Your uncontrollable use of a substance or engagement in a compulsive behavior are only the symptoms of the disease. Addiction is really about complex psychological and possibly spiritual maladies.
How I Was Introduced to the Concept
I was first introduced the concept of the isms of alcoholism when my mom was reading me a piece of Al-Anon literature that talked about non-active addicts who still possessed the behaviors of using addicts. Since Al-Anon primarily refers to alcoholism in its literature, it used the term “dry drunk.” In the grand scheme of things, any addiction has its version of dry drunk syndrome.
Several years later, I entered the rooms of Al-Ateen, where I opened about my struggles with being co-dependent to my drug addicted cousin and defects of character that stemmed from growing up in an addiction-stricken family. My Al-Ateen sponsor said in one particular meeting that occurred not too long ago that several of the members, including myself, were talking about the “isms of alcoholism.” I have never had a drop of alcohol in my life or experimented with any other type of mind-altering, mood altering substance, so the concept of having the “isms of alcoholism” was mind boggling to me. However, I was glad that my set of issues had a label.
At 18, I entered the rooms of Al-Anon while still continuing going to Al-Ateen. I shared about my co-dependency, and I was pleased to find that many of the older adult members related to my malady. I am a firm believer that co-dependency is just as much as an addiction as alcoholism and drug addiction, and many of my fellow Al-Anon members agreed. One woman shared that she was surprised that she had many of the same defects of character in her co-dependency with her daughter who had a drug addiction. Another woman had an alcoholic husband and a non-alcoholic daughter, but her non-alcoholic daughter possessed the isms of an alcoholic. That was when it really clicked that the families of the addicts are just as sick as the addicts. The only difference is the addictive substance or behavior. The active addict is addicted to their substance of choice, and the families are addicted to the addict.
What Exactly Are the Isms?
Common acronyms for the word “ism” are “I, self, me,” “I sponsor myself,” and “internal spiritual malady.” The isms of the disease are the defects of character that go along with the disease. These include, but are not limited to:
· Selfishness (not to be confused with indulgence in self-care or putting your recovery first)
· Self-righteousness/Judgmental Attitudes
· Control issues
· Poor impulse control
Addiction is both a physiological and psychological disease. Medical detox treats the physiological component. The psychological component is when the real battle begins. Contrary to popular belief, imprisoning an addict for a period of time is not the panacea for addiction. Therapy and recovery programs are necessary to effectively treat addiction. While there are many cases of people who get clean on their own, most -if not all- of those people still possess the isms or switched their addiction. Many people stay in a recovery program for a period of time and then stray from program. The isms typically develop upon their leaving the program, even if they do not relapse.
How the Family Suffers from the Isms
Addiction is considered a family disease because it affects the entire family in a variety of ways, including physically, financially, emotionally, etc. The family members’ thinking becomes distorted because they are so obsessed with the addict and they often try to force futile solutions. Most immediate family members and friends of the addict suffer from co-dependency, which is an addiction to the addict.
Hurt people hurt people has been the real root of evil since the beginning of time. Family members of addicts, especially children, are hurt emotionally and/or physically by the addict or co-dependent family members. Since they are hurt, they tend to take on negative character traits and go out in the world and hurt others to mask their own pain. It does not happen on the conscious level; it is how their mind protects itself, which is called a defense mechanism.
Family members are often so appalled by the negative behaviors and choices of their addicted loved ones that they fail to recognize their own destructive behaviors that may or may not have existed before their loved one became actively addicted. My addicted loved ones and mentally ill family members were the embodiments of who I never wanted to be. However, when you are around people and imbibing their behavior, you unconsciously pick up on it, especially if you are a child and these people are the sole proprietors of your development. When I had to come to terms with the fact that I had their traits in early emerging adulthood, I was appalled at myself and felt like a failure. The rooms of Al-Anon and Al-Ateen and my AP Psychology class assured me that it was only natural, and there was hope if I legitimately worked my program with the intention of creating a new perspective and life for myself.
Preventing and Treating the Isms as a Family Member
Just as the addict needs to work a recovery program, family members needs to work a recovery program as well. The most common recovery programs that are for family members of addicts are Al-Anon, Al-Ateen, and Nar-Anon. These programs are based off of Alcoholics’ Anonymous and Narcotics’ Anonymous. The same 12 steps and traditions are used. Al-Anon is for family members of alcoholics, and Narcotic’s Anonymous is for family members of addicts. However, they welcome family members of all types of addicts because addiction is addiction. Keep in mind that there are more Al-Anon meetings than Nar-Anon meetings. Al-Ateen is for adolescents who are affected by a loved one’s addiction. Co-dependents’ Anonymous (CODA) and Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families (ACA) are also great programs.
Attending a recovery program offers two benefits: support and personal inventory. Other family members of addicts can understand you like no one else can. Chances are that increments of your story are in their story as well. The other members are not supposed to give you direct advice; they are supposed to only share their experience to have you “take what you like a d leave the rest.” There are no requirements, only suggestions. The tools, steps, slogans, and literature of the program help you work on your own defects of character.
Addicts and their families do recover!
Al-Ateen has made a difference in the lives of many adolescents across the world who have been affected by the addiction of a loved one. Eventually, Al-Ateen members reach a point where they are ready to transition to Al-Anon. While Al-Anon is merely Al-Ateen adult members as opposed to adolescent members, many emerging adults are ambivalent about making the transition.
The Differences Between Al-Ateen and Al-Anon
· The Age Group
There is not a large population of young adults (18-25 years old) who attend Al-Anon meetings. Most Al-Anon members are older adults (over 30 years-old) who are parents of addicts, spouses of addicts, or adult children of addicts. However, age does not matter in recovery; empathy, support, and the connections that are made are what matters. When I made the transition to Al-Anon, I was pleased to hear people who were old enough to be my grandparents relating to my feelings and struggles. While the chances of making close friendships is not very high, the chances of getting support and encouragement from the other members is substantially high because you are receiving a variety of perspectives that are on the adult-level. In Al-Ateen, almost all of the members are children of addicts and/or siblings of addicts. Receiving the perspectives of parents of addicts and spouses of addicts made me more understanding and compassionate of my other family members (e.g. mom, aunt, cousins, etc.).
Though Al-Ateen is supposed to be 9 to 19 years-old, many Al-Ateen meetings allow their members to stay until their mid-twenties due to most teens are pursing higher education and the lack of young adults in Al-Anon meetings. When considering making the transition, keep in mind that age does not matter; it is your personal readiness. You should consider transitioning when the sharing and literature starts to become too elementary for you. No one can tell you whether or not you belong at an Al-Ateen or Al-Anon meeting; only you can decide that.
· How You Obtain the Tools
Al-Ateen meetings are always moderated by an adult sponsor who is a member of Al-Anon and has gone through training to be certified to moderate Al-Ateen. Depending on the adult sponsor, they may provide tools and insight based on the sharing. The key difference between reaping benefits from Al-Ateen and Al-Anon is how you receive the tools. As opposed to Al-Ateen, there is no authority to directly give you the tools. While there is a chairperson who guides the direction of the meeting, they do not give direct feedback. You must interpret which tools apply to you and which do not in Al-Anon based on the sharing of your fellow Al-Anon members. The idea of having to pick out your own tools can be scary to transitioning Al-Ateens, but once you find the meeting that is right for you, you will see that it is easier than you thought. I found that I actually learn more in Al-Anon because I am receiving multiple perspectives, not just one.
· The Topics
Most Al-Ateen meetings are open-discussion; therefore, I would always share about my personal struggle of the week and relate to others personal struggles of the week. I believe that you should be able to vent about your personal struggles of the week in order to derive maximum benefit. That can be hard to do when the meeting is based on only one topic, especially if the topic is one of the Twelve Traditions. Finding the right meeting is key to addressing your concerns. After trying one meeting that I was not psyched about, I found a meeting that is almost an hour and a half long and has an open-discussion portion the first half hour before moving to the topic of the week, which became my home group because I was attracted to that structure of the meeting.
· Discussion Policies
There are little to no rules regarding discussion in Al-Ateen. We are allowed to state that we relate to other members’ sharing, and there are no policies regarding mentioning specific treatment centers, therapy, medications, other anonymous programs, or words such as “addict,” “alcoholic,” “co-dependent,” or “para-alcoholic” in order to encourage the teens to speak freely about what is on their mind.
Al-Anon prohibits cross-talk, which includes stating that you relate to another one’s sharing. Most Al-Anon meetings prohibit the mentioning of specific treatment centers, addiction medications, and other anonymous groups. Some Al-Anon meetings go as far as not mentioning the word “qualifier” when referring the addict and strictly enforcing the rules to keep the focus on yourself. There is even an Al-Anon meeting that is right up the corner from my house that has a reputation for kicking out members who do not strictly conform to the discussion policies. I think that it is impossible to share your feelings and issues without being able to mention your qualifier to some extent. Again, finding the right meeting with your preferred level of flexibility. I prefer and highly recommend meetings that are highly flexible in order to make you feel comfortable. For example, my meeting allows cross-talk during the open-discussion meeting only, and we do not prohibit certain words to describe our qualifier. The only policy that we kindly, but rarely have to enforce is not mentioning specific treatment centers and medications in order to prevent someone’s sharing sounding promotional.
· More Availability of Meetings
A major benefit of transitioning to Al-Anon is that there are more meetings available for your choosing. Though this fact may not apply to all areas, there are typically many more Al-Anon meetings than Al-Ateen meetings. In my area, there is only one Al-Ateen meeting that is almost 40 minutes away from my house, but there are multiple Al-Anon meetings in my area. My Al-Anon meeting is only 10 minutes away and in my township, which beats the commute to my Al-Ateen meeting.
How to Successfully Make the Transition
You do not have to make the transition from Al-Ateen to Al-Anon overnight. A slow, but sure transition is the best way to make the transition. You should take all of the time that you need to find the right meeting for you. You can ask the adult sponsor of your Al-Ateen meeting to refer you to a good group, but it is important that you find the right one for yourself because the right group for your sponsor may not be the right group for you. In my situation, I did not like the group that my adult sponsor referred me to, but I loved the one that I found on my own that my adult sponsor did not even know existed. You should consider your desired size of the group, flexibility regarding the discussion policies, and other characteristics (e.g. open-discussion, presence of coffee or food, more women or men, etc.). There is absolutely no problem with being active in both Al-Ateen and Al-Anon at the same time, which is what I am currently doing until I feel ready to be full-fledged in Al-Anon. Being involved in multiple programs allows for quicker, more effective progress. Since Al-Ateen and Al-Anon are under the same program of the Al-Anon Family Groups, there should be no problem mentioning that you are also an Al-Ateen member. However, if the policy regarding remaining anonymous as a member of another anonymous fellowship is strictly reinforced, you should shy away from mentioning that you are an Al-Ateen member. The most important part of your transition is that you do what is best for you.
Bria Riley is a published author, recovering codependent and adult child of an alcoholic, who is active in several recovery programs. She knows the turmoil and heartbreak of growing up in an addiction-stricken family and wants to help others who have also been affected by addiction through her writing.