This year, I will continue my posts about how churches can improve the ways they help and support those who are in addiction and recovery. As always, I welcome input, feedback, and questions. Please share your thoughts with me and share this post with your friends!
When Alcoholics Anonymous started, the group was made up almost entirely of men. When the book was written, it was assumed that most alcoholics were men. In the 1920s and 30s those were typical cultural assumptions. As I read through the big book, I do not read a book written from a patriarchal perspective; rather, I read a book limited by its cultural context. However, the stories at the end of the book and the literature that has been included since has included the stories of women as well as those from other ethnic groups.
12 Step Groups have modeled the breaking down of gender, ethnic, and class lines. When people arrive for meetings, they gather to discuss their problems with alcohol and their solutions to overcome addiction and live sober. Everything else is irrelevant.
But when the original Alcoholics Anonymous book was written, the assumptions were there. Because of those assumptions, a chapter was added that is addressed specifically to the wives of alcoholics. It was written by some of the wives of the early members of AA.
It is important for several reasons. First, it acknowledges that people other than the addict suffer from the effects of addiction. The families of alcoholics were embarrassed. They felt the financial strain. They felt the emotional strain. The pain and agony associated with addiction is not limited to the person using the substance. The family members of addicts needed to hear that. They still need to hear it.
Second, families need to hear that it is okay to still love the addict. No matter how much pain is caused, no matter how much embarrassment occurs, no matter how much family and friends wish you would shun the alcoholic, families still love them. And they should. And it’s okay.
Third, often families need to be reminded that the addiction is not their fault. No matter how often someone uses the term, “So-and-so drove me to drink,” it is not true. The alcoholic can come up with a lot of excuses and blame a lot of people, but the fault lies within. There may be genetic or environmental reasons that help lead to an addiction, but ultimately the choice to drink or not lies with the individual. Families need to hear they are not the reason.
As I have been writing about lessons the church needs to learn in dealing with addicts, I think it is also important to reflect on how the church supports (or fails to support) families of addicts. Families do not necessarily need church members to come in and heap judgment on the addict. The family may not even be ready to talk about what is going on and all the effects the disease of addiction has had.
So what do families need from churches?
First, they need someone who will listen. Pastors, ministers, members, do not need to show up and say, “That person sucks!” They need people who are willing to come and say, “What is going on with you?” And then just listen. There may or may not be anything to do. But listening is important.
Second, create safe spaces within churches for addicts and their families. This may mean hosting meetings like AA or NA or Celebrate Recovery. It might mean hosting Al-Anon meetings. But churches need to be in the business of recovery—not judgment.
Third, have times for testimonies. And have them for people of all ages. Churches often do not do a good job of confession. That must change. Those in your church who have overcome addiction need to share their stories with their church families. Those who still struggle need to share their stories, as well. This does not apply only to addiction. There are a lot of people in your church who have overcome struggles of various kinds. Those stories must be shared.
P.S. The writing of the chapter, “To Wives,” in the Big Book ultimately led to the formation of Al-Anon, a 12 Step group for those who love addicts. The three main lessons of Al-Anon are: You didn’t cause it, You can’t control it, and You can’t cure it. If you have a family member who struggles with addiction, Al-Anon can be a good place to start seeking support.