When many of us think of 12-step and other peer support groups, we probably think of meetings dedicated to people in various stages of recovery from addiction. But addiction doesn’t discriminate, and family members and friends of people in recovery need support, too. That’s where organizations like Al-Anon play a critical role, providing peer support for people whose lives have been affected by a loved one’s addiction.
In this article, we’ll review the role that Al-Anon plays in the recovery community and answer some commonly asked questions about the organization and how to get involved. A few key points to remember:
- Al-Anon is a peer support group for family members and friends of people struggling with alcohol
- Al-Anon meetings are free and confidential
- Al-Anon meetings take place both in-person and virtually
Read more about the details about Al-Anon and what you can expect during meetings below.
What is Al-Anon?
Al-Anon is a Virginia-based nonprofit that uses the 12-step and peer support model of Alcoholics Anonymous to help family members and friends to cope with the alcohol addiction of a loved one. An important point to note is that the loved one battling alcoholism does not need to be seeking treatment or in active recovery for their family and friends to seek help at Al-Anon. However, many families do attend Al-Anon while their loved one attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Al-Anon believes in the philosophy that alcoholism and alcohol use disorder is a “family illness” that affects everyone around the person in active addiction. Originally begun by the wives of two early Alcoholics Anonymous leaders, the group also uses a similar 12-step approach, allowing friends and family members to process their experiences living alongside addiction.
Like Alcoholics Anonymous and other peer support organizations, Al-Anon primarily consists of local chapters, called Groups, which host smaller-sized meetings where members are welcome to share their experiences. Although Al-Anon has a larger organizational structure, including an annual conference, most people will experience the organization through these small-group support meetings.
Who can join Al-Anon?
Al-Anon meetings are open to anyone who has a loved one, family member, friend, colleague, or another person in their life who is struggling with alcohol addiction, alcohol use disorder, and alcoholism. Al-Anon is not intended to teach strategies to stop the loved one’s alcohol use, nor does it provide interventions or other support services commonly found in treatment programs. Instead, Al-Anon is intended as a group therapy and support program to help individuals who have been affected by someone else’s drinking to better cope and manage the experience.
Many meetings are based around the 12-step principles, which guide attendees through a structured process to acknowledge the harm that the addiction has done to their lives and figure out ways to move forward. At the same time, members are welcome to share their own personal stories and support each other in living with addiction.
Many Al-Anon members are married to someone with an alcohol use issue and may be concerned about the impact that their spouse’s drinking has on themselves and their family members, including children. Past membership surveys indicate that membership in Al-Anon skews female, but anyone affected by a loved one’s addiction is welcome to attend meetings.
Is Al-Anon free or does it require a membership fee?
Al-Anon meetings are always free. During some meetings, organizers may ask for donations, but they are not required. This helps lower the barrier to entry for family members who may have financial difficulty accessing therapy and other forms of self-care. Al-Anon meetings are also walk-in friendly, meaning you don’t have to register ahead of time to attend. Just find a meeting at a convenient location and time to attend. Your attendance at the meeting, as well as what was discussed, is always kept anonymous by members.
Where can I find a local Al-Anon meeting?
Al-Anon meetings take place worldwide, so chances are you can find a group meeting near you. The easiest way to find an Al-Anon meeting is to visit their Al-Anon Meetings website, where you can read more about the different types of meetings and find the right option for you.
To help provide much-needed support during the Covid-19 pandemic, Al-Anon offers “electronic” meetings over the phone, via Skype, Zoom, and even on social media platforms.
Does Al-Anon work?
Researchers have long studied Al-Anon to determine whether peer support groups actually work. Most agree that, although Al-Anon is not led by mental health professionals, the group meetings are highly effective at helping family members manage the toll of addiction.
For example, in The American Journal of Psychotherapy, researcher Joan Ablon notes that Al-Anon is “a remarkable self-help, nonprofessional modality of group therapy and group education for spouses, relatives and friends of alcoholics.”
- A 2012 study published in The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that long-term participants of Al-Anon reported improved quality of life.
- Research published in the journal Substance Use and Misuse in 2014 found that participants in Al-Anon turned to the organization for a variety of different positive reasons, including the 12-step format, the support of others in a similar situation, and the opportunity to help their loved one stop drinking or seek help for their addiction.
What is Alateen?
In the 1950s, participants in Al-Anon created a program called Alateen, geared towards teenagers and young adults whose family members and friends were struggling with alcohol addiction. Today, Alateen meetings typically take place at the same time and location as Al-Anon meetings for adults, making it convenient for parents and children to attend meetings together but share their concerns privately. The Al-Anon Meetings website can help you find an Alateen meeting near you.
The difference between alcoholism, alcohol use disorder, and alcohol addiction
While alcoholism is a popular term that has been used for decades, scientists and addiction recovery professionals now believe that alcohol use disorder is the most accurate term to describe someone struggling with alcohol addiction. By classifying alcoholism as a substance use disorder, treatment professionals are better able to diagnose and manage problematic drinking by recognizing common signs and symptoms.
Additionally, the key elements of alcohol use disorder are documented within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, a key series of guidelines used by doctors and mental health practitioners to diagnose mental health challenges.
If you are concerned that your loved one may be struggling with an alcohol use disorder, you may want to turn to the DSM checklist to compare your loved one’s challenges with common signs and symptoms. Just remember that only a doctor or treatment professional can make a formal diagnosis of alcohol use disorder.
Nonetheless, a few of the most common signs and symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder within the DSM include:
- Consuming more alcohol than desired or expected
- Trying to slow or stop alcohol consumption without success
- Consuming alcohol to “improve” a hangover
- Strong cravings for alcohol
- Alcohol use that impairs performance at work, home, or school
- Engaging in risky behavior while consuming alcohol
Organizations for family members of people struggling with drug addiction
While Al-Anon is designed to help family members and friends of alcoholics, they do not turn away others whose family members are using drugs or other addictive substances. However, because the organization is mainly oriented towards alcohol use, family members and friends of people struggling with drug addiction may find a different peer support group to be more effective. A particularly popular alternative is Nar-Anon, a 12-step peer support group that functions similarly to Al-Anon but is focused on drug addiction.
At BlueCrest Recovery, we believe in the power of 12-step recovery. If you have a loved one struggling with alcohol abuse our team can help. Contact us today to learn more about finding support groups and how we can help heal the damage caused by addiction.