Tag Archives: Al-anon

Educating Rita by Ryder Ziebarth

One of my goals of this blog is to also tell some of the stories from the hidden victims of alcoholism and addiction. Particularly from the families effected by a loved ones drinking.

Ryder Ziebarth

Ryder Ziebarth

I met Ryder Ziebarth online and asked if she would guest post about her experiences as a mentor in the Alateen program. Ryder is also a 13 year alumni of the Al-anon program. As a freelance non-fiction writer she regularly contributes to the N magazine in Nantucket, the Nantucket Chronicle and has recently been published in The New York Time Metro Diary.
This is an incredibly moving piece and I’m honoured to share it with you…

One cold and black winter night, in a granite alcove of St. Elizabeth’s church, one of the youngest kids I mentor in an Alateen group seated around our big, round table said, “ I will never, ever, drink. Not one drop. It’s really, really bad for you. That’s what my dad and I know.”

This little girl’s mother, a graduate of six rehab centers, is still addicted to alcohol and cocaine, and her father is in an AA recovery program, just steps away from our door. Her new stepmother attends the Alanon program upstairs, and all three groups, the one I mentor being Alateen, meet at this church in north central New Jersey, every Sunday night, fifty two weeks of the year, even if Sunday falls on Christmas day, New Year’s Eve or Memorial Day weekend. Entire families attend separate meetings, and the majority of kids in my group have one or both parents or a sibling with them on most Sunday nights.

When I first met Rita, the little girl with the big proclamation that cold Sunday night three winters ago, she looked like she weighed no more than a breath of frosty air, with a head full of Shirley Temple, ginger colored curls drawn up with an unruly cockade of pink and purple ribbons. The heels of her pink sneakers lite up with blinking red lights as she walked, and her purple jeans had sprays of flowers across each pocket. That night, I think there were about twelve kids at the meeting– I remember squeezing around our big, 72”round table scattered with Alanon literature and program approved books.

“This is my stepdaughter,” a woman said, pushing Rita gently into the room, just before our meeting began.
“It’s her first time here. Her father and I thought this meeting might help her cope when she has to be with her mother—her alcoholic. She’s not too young is she?” she asked, scanning the tables of other, older kids.
“ No, she’s fine,” I said. But at barely age seven, she was the youngest child I’d ever had in the group. The stepmother said she’d be right upstairs if I needed her, and her father would be downstairs in AA.

“Sit next to me,” I said to this wisp of a child.
She replied that she would rather sit between two of the other kids, so I pushed the chair back in and started the meeting. We pass out our Alateen books and turned to page four. As we went around the table taking turns reading the twelve steps, sharing our first names, where we are from, and our age. Then we share stories about our previous week. We talk about school and upcoming tests, football scores and once in a while, a really bad situation currently happening in their alcoholic household.
It was Rita’s turn, and she introduced herself without hesitation.

Image courtesy of George Stojkovic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of George Stojkovic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“ I am new. My name is Rita. I was just seven, two weeks ago. My mother is an alcoholic- druggie and she snorts coke up her nose and I used to see her every other weekend with a social worker, but now I am not allowed to stay there again,’ and she flopped back into her chair, sighing dramatically while rolling her eyes. A few of the other kids nodded in solidarity.

“My mother’s boyfriend? I hate him. He is so gross and disgusting and mean? Last week? I was so mad at him, that I dropped the F-Bomb to get him away from me and my Mom’s dog,” she said pounding the table with both of her fists. All of us started, then laughed, and Rita laughed too. Feeling a sense power, she jumped out of her seat and laid both hands flat in front of her, leaning in toward the group. The back of her sneakers began to blink.

“I did!” she continued, “ I really did! He was beating my dog that was on the end of my bed with me and my yelling made him stop hitting her. But she was hurt bad and I ran out of my room and called 911 and the police came over and took her to the vet,” she said. “I was so glad I ratted him out, but boy was he mad. But my mother was madder for once, so he shut up,” she said, sitting down again into her chair.
“The dog’s O.K. now,” she added as a kind of happy ending.

Some of the kids looked a little stunned. Some of them laughed. Most of them could relate.
In addition to stints in rehab, Rita’s mother had been in and out of jail for drug possession. The divorce from Rita’s father had been contentious. The mother, in a coke fueled haze, fought for custody of Rita, which a wise judge denied her, instead granting once a month Saturday sleepovers with a social worker in tow for most of the visit. The mother’s current boyfriend had beaten Rita’s mother’s dog almost to death at the end of Rita’s bed on that visit, after the social worker went home. Rita’s mother, passed out on the sofa downstairs, hadn’t even heard him enter the house. The mother’s privileges of Saturday night sleepovers were promptly revoked.

“Are you staying with your Dad and stepmom now?” I asked her.
She shook her head empathically and her curls bobbed around her face.
“A social worker and me go see my mom every other Saturday. But I’m not talkin’ to her right now. I will, though next time. Now? I just sit there and watch her cry and yell at me, and then we leave. She needs a lesson taught to her.”
“ I hate my father, plain and simple. I haven’t talked to him in a month,” Savanna, a teen who travels an hour each way to make it to this meeting, says to Rita.
“ I don’t care if I ever speak to him again. He hates me, I hate him. It’s easy. And after the divorce is final, I never have to talk to him again because I am 16.”
“Oh I’ll talk to my mother again,” said Rita.
“ But when I do, she’ll be listening, or else.”
“Or else what?” Savanna asked her.
“Or else, she’ll lose me. I will never go back, and I know she would hate that.”

The Alateen kids bring an endless supply of anger and sadness, but also a remarkable abundance of acceptance of their situations, week after week. They feel safe in this room, a place where they can share the story of their lives with others who struggle with like issues. At every age, they reach out to each other with understanding and it never ceases to amaze me just how incredibly resilient and insightful they are.
“Who can share a slogan or step with Rita that might help her to understand what her mother might be going through right now? Or how to help herself get through the rough times?” I asked.
All twelve hands shot into the air.

Image courtesy of Vlado at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Vlado at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Rita has been in our Alateen group, most Sunday evenings. She comes, clutching her book Courage to be me — Growing Up in an Alcoholic Home, the pages dog -eared, and paper clipped for reference.
“ I’m working the program, Mrs. Z.,” she said proudly one night, showing me the new book mark she made inscribed with the closing refrain we recite at the end of each meeting: Keep coming back, ‘cause it works when you work it. You’re worth it, so work it.

She laughs more often now then she cries; she volunteers and loves to lead meetings, and her strength and tenacity has been a source of awe and inspiration for those in the program, least of all me. Although her mother’s recovery is still on -going, Rita’s recovery is right on track. As she said in one of the meetings not long ago, this time on a bright and warm summer night,
“ I matter, too.”

How to deal with a loved one’s drinking – Part 3

Put your oxygen mask on
When you fly in an aeroplane the air stewards will normally give a demonstration of what happens in the event of an emergency. They will demonstrate how to apply an oxygen mask in the event of air-pressure in the cabin dropping. Whilst demonstrating this they often instruct passengers that if they are sitting next to a small child or elderly person to put the oxygen mask on themselves, before helping the person next to them.

Oxygen mask

Oxygen mask

Often when we have been in a relationship with someone in active alcoholism we are busy taking care of their needs and not our own. We worry and fret about them and all our thoughts and conversations are taken up with their issues, we end up neglecting ourselves.

This is very simple you need to take care of yourself before you can help the people you love.
Try and identify where you need to do this and make the necessary changes, this isn’t selfish, this is self-preservation.

Imagine that you were on the aeroplane and you were running around putting on oxygen masks on everyone else before yourself, eventually you would run out of air and pass out.
Then what would happen? In order to serve, assist and love the people who matter to you, make sure you are taking care of yourself first.

Avoid blame
Blame serves no one; it punishes people and drives families and relationships apart. Blaming yourself for your loved ones problems is a very punishing thing to do, this is very common if the alcoholic is your child, parents tend to blame themselves. Accept that you have always tried to do your best and no-body is a perfect parent, everyone makes mistakes. Take responsibility by getting help or support and making necessary changes but stop beating yourself up.

Take one day at a time
If your loved one gets the right kind of help then they have a strong chance of getting well and living a healthy productive life. Accept it’s up to them to do the work, not you.
You can help and support within your boundaries but this really needs to be their effort. Don’t project about the future, we have no idea how that is going to work out all we can do is try our best and take life one day at a time. That’s all that is required of you.

If you have been in a relationship with an alcoholic, you have probably not thought about yourself for a long time. You may have been running around after them for so long, worrying about how they feel that you have forgotten how you feel.
Stop, and breath. How they feel is not your responsibility, as hard as that may be to understand. Only your feelings are your responsibility.
It’s time to take care of you.

Next week: The ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ when your loved one is in treatment.

You can read the last weeks entry here.

How to deal with a loved one’s drinking – Part 2

Setting boundaries
It’s probably true in many cases that were it not for the love and support of families, many alcoholics and addicts would be dead today. There is a point however, when the balance tips towards enabling rather than helping.
As family members we do what we feel is right, though often we sense that in trying to help, we only make matters worse. It is so painful watching a loved one suffer that we are prepared to do almost anything to relieve their pain. In doing so we may inadvertently prolong the suffering for everyone.

In order to really help the person we love we may need to make some changes in how we are dealing with the problem, remember your loved one isn’t wrong or bad. They are ill; they are unable to comprehend fully what they are doing or the consequences of their behaviour. You can help support them by learning a different approach to dealing with the problem.

Keeping boundaries
Boundaries are vital in all relationships; they protect us and other people. We are responsible for putting down our boundaries and protecting them. People will naturally push against them but it is our job to keep them.

Boundaries are the ‘line in the sand’ that we use to decide what is unacceptable or acceptable for us. When dealing with a person we love who is in active alcoholism we often move our ‘goalposts’ or ‘line in the sand’ and will do things we don’t want to do because we think it’ll help the other person.

However what usually happens is we end up angry or resentful because they have hurt us again.
Keeping your boundaries means not agreeing to do something that feels uncomfortable or ‘wrong’ to you no matter how hard the other person is trying to persuade you.

A good example of this would be calling in sick for your loved one when they are too hung over to go to work (again). By doing this you would be violating your own boundaries and values and would inevitably feel resentful for being put in this position. But you would probably feel you were helping your loved one by doing it, which is how you justify it to yourself, and hence the ‘goalposts’ get moved.

In reality you are taking the consequences away from the alcoholic. If they are left to deal with the consequences of their actions then they may find the motivation to get the help they need.

Be consistent
Make your feelings clear as simply as you can to your loved one, let them know how their behaviour makes you feel. Try to do this without anger or resentment (hard I know) but consistently let them know that you felt hurt, confused, let down by their behaviour.
Be consistent in letting them know that you love them but that their behaviour affects you so badly that it is difficult for you to continue your relationship with them whilst they are still drinking.
Communicating how you feel is much more effective than being angry or resentful.
e.g. “I feel hurt and disappointed when you behave like you did last night, I love you but your behaviour is unacceptable to me, I’d like you to get help”
Repeat this message consistently.

Putting down boundaries with an alcoholic is going to be a case of trial and error. What’s important is you start practicing them. The alcoholic in your life will keep taking as long as you keep giving. Strange as it sounds, loving yourself may be the first step in them realising there is a problem. If you stop saving them, they may wake up to the fact that they have to save themselves. You have probably learnt by now that you can’t stop someone drinking, they have to make the decision themselves. Having boundaries and therefore allowing them to feel the consequences of their actions, may actually save their lives.

Next week: How to take care of yourself.

If you missed the first part of this series you can read it here.

How to do deal with a loved one’s drinking: Part 1

Guidelines for family members
I’m often approached by people who have a loved one who has a serious alcohol problem. They are in despair and don’t know what to do.
Living with the consequences of someone else’s addiction or alcoholism can be devastating.
Standing on the sidelines watching someone you love destroy themselves and you are powerless to stop it. You can feel alone, isolated, frightened, angry, bitter, ashamed and hopeless with no idea what to do next.
I’m starting a series of posts on ‘how to deal with a loved one’s drinking,’ that I hope will help you understand and find strategies to deal with the situation. There is actually a lot you can do, what’s important is understanding what helps and what harms.

Please be reassured that you are not alone that many people have experienced what you are going through as alcoholism can touch anyone regardless of circumstances. What is important is that you don’t go through this alone and access help and support wherever possible.

Addiction/alcoholism is a disease not a life-style
Alcoholism is an disease. This is hard to understand because it doesn’t seem like one. Alcoholism has bee recognised by medical professionals and researcher as a primary, progressive, chronic and sometimes fatal disease. It’s true that nobody held forced the drink or pills down anyones throats, people choose to use alcohol and drugs. but if you have a predisposition to alcoholism or addiction the likelihood is you won’t be able to control or stop your use.

Why it happens to some people and not others is still unclear. The most helpful way to view alcoholism/addiction is that it is a symptom of a deeper emotional and spiritual problem.

Human beings are very complex and some people are just born better equipped to deal with life and their feelings, other people struggle with living life and use substances or unhealthy behaviour to cope.

All human behaviour is ultimately a manifestation of how someone feels.

So to put this in context of your loved one, their behaviour may have been outrageous, annoying, inconsiderate, hurtful, stupid or unmanageable but the reason that they behaved in any of these ways was because of how they felt at any given moment. Their behaviour was the best way they had at that time to deal with how they felt. Often they felt so bad that they were just anesthetising their feelings because they couldn’t bare it any longer.
So your loved one isn’t a bad person they are simply a sick person who needs help. It isn’t their fault they became an alcoholic or addict but it is their responsibility they do something about it.

So the most important thing to do is educate yourself about the disease. Once you understand what you’re dealing with, then you can begin to do something about it.

Here are some resources that might help:

www.al-anon.alateen.org Al-anon is a self help organisation dedicated to helping the loved ones of alcoholics.

http://www.coda.org Coda focuses on helping people develop healthy relationships.

Alternatively you could contact a local treatment centre or rehab and see if they run a family program. Sometimes it’s the family member that seeking help first that prompts the alcoholic to do the same.

Next week: How boundaries will save your sanity, and help the alcoholic understand how their drinking impacts others.

What’s the difference between anonymity and secrecy?

For those of you haven’t heard of David Sheff, he wrote a best selling memoir about his addicted son ‘Beautiful Boy.’
He has just written a follow-up ‘Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy,’ which explores the addiction treatment system and everything related to it.
One of the most interesting things he discusses is that addicts and alcoholics should come ‘out’ about their past in order to spread awareness and break down barriers. Fear and shame prevents people talking about personal experience with addiction. Families really struggle dealing with the addict in their family because they don’t want anyone to find out. Sheff is advocating that more people are public with their experience of addiction.
For the record, I totally agree with this.
I am completely open in all areas of my life that I am a recovered alcoholic. It’s just part of who I am. When you have worked as an addictions therapist it’s pretty hard to hide as the question you are most often asked is ‘how did you get into that?’
I am not ashamed or embarrassed, just very matter of fact. Because of this, I inevitably have people ask me for help or advice when they realise they have a problem or love someone who does. If I can help I do, I tell them there is hope.

My alcoholism is not a secret, it made me who I am an I am proud of what I have become.
I won’t lie, I sometimes enjoy watching people’s shocked faces when I tell them I spent most of my twenties drinking too much and snorting drugs. I can tell by their faces they don’t think I look the ‘type.’
And that’s the point.
Addicts and alcoholics can look like me, they can look like anyone. It can happen to anyone.
I used to think that alcoholics were ‘smelly old men on benches’ and because I hadn’t lost my job or got a DUI I wasn’t ‘qualified.’ I think a lot of people think like that and could get help a lot earlier if they had more information.
You can read the interview here.
What does everyone else think?