Friends in need

Friends in need

Those who come in close contact with people afflicted by a drinking problem are liable to exhibit unhealthy, self-damaging behaviour patterns themselves. A 17-year-old, who has been going to the Al-Anon meetings for three years now, has just failed her school exams. Living in a dysfunctional home isn’t exactly conducive to academic excellence, she says wryly. She points out how this support group has given her courage to rewrite her exams.

“Instead of harming myself, or taking it out on my parents, as would have happened earlier, I can take the situation in my stride and carry on," says the teenager who has shouldered responsibilities since she was six—forced to play parent to an alcoholic father, on occasion even feeding him. Not surprisingly, she went through phases of rebellion, depression and acute misery. “There were some days when he would start drinking from morning and be unable to drop me off at school," she says. Once she hurt her hand so badly that she needed immediate medical attention, but her father was in such an inebriated state that he could neither help nor take her to the doctor.

Help at hand

Not all those at the support group meetings get into detailed descriptions of their lives. Some just confide their feelings, others get philosophical, like the young mother who likens her journey of self-discovery to her toddler learning to walk—he keeps stumbling and falling, she says, but somehow finds the path again. The words, shaped by years of suffering, are moving because of their simplicity and honesty.

A middle-aged woman at one of the sessions, remembers her childhood as one of acute anxiety, though on the surface, everything seemed all right. “I was plagued by fears and kept questioning my parents about death, about god," she says.

And then, after 19 years with an alcoholic husband, the Al-Anon support group helped her to connect with the real world. “I’ve finally learnt how to manage," she says, pointing out how she has now learnt to stop worrying and take control—of her finances, of the household, and indeed, of her whole life.

The Al-Anon sessions are clearly a cathartic process. There are no solutions offered—it’s a simple sharing of experiences and feelings. “What I get from these meetings is a sense of identity. They help me realize that I am not alone," says a 25-year-old who has finally come to terms with having an alcoholic parent.

Medical condition

Kavita Arora, consultant psychiatrist at the Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research in New Delhi, says: “These support groups help to validate experiences—people understand they are not suffering alone, that there are others with bigger problems than theirs."

Arora points out several advantages of support groups such as this. While professionals like her do offer counselling and therapy to family members of alcoholics, it’s finally in support groups that they find the most benefit. Especially as most people, particularly children and teenagers, tend to feel they are being singled out. When they meet in groups, they realize that there are countless others like them. Secondly, people are still reluctant to seek professional help and rarely consult a therapist.

At the Al-Anon meetings, the focus is on oneself—and not the alcoholic. “The mistake we all make is to start pushing the alcoholic in the family to go for treatment, never once questioning our own behaviour," says another member. So, the message that goes out is to seek change within, to learn to put oneself first and build one’s life. This helps in gaining self-esteem.

A major learning for those who attend these meetings is that alcoholism is not a sign of weakness but a medical condition and is recognized by the World Health Organization as such. “If you are living with a diabetic or a cancer patient, there are no contradictions. Similarly, we learn to accept that we are living with somebody who is ill and the condition is caused by chemical reactions in the brain," says a long-time member of the group.

Although now separated from her alcoholic husband and in “a far better situation", she continues to come because, she says, it is very easy to regress into old behavioural patterns.

This is a sentiment almost all members echo. “When I don’t attend these sessions, I cannot control my anger, I take it out on my parents and am under a lot of stress," says the teenager. Another young adult describes how the support group has helped bring stability to his life: “I could never remain in a job for long, found myself getting restless, all because of being part of a dysfunctional family. But now, for the last two years, things are much better."

Just walk in

Although a voluntary group with no fees attached to membership, it takes a lot of convincing before people come to the meetings and then stay on. There are “walk ins" who never return, though they are told that they should attend, at least, six meetings before deciding whether it will help them or not.

Meetings are held literally every day in various parts of the city. An Alkathon (day-long session) is organized once a year, while an All India Convention also takes place once in a while. In addition, each member can choose a sponsor—here it denotes a spiritual guide—from within the group, for personal interaction.

Most people tend to pick someone whose history most closely resembles theirs. Al-Anon also operates a Helpline and has a website—though rather than online counselling, face-to-face interactions are encouraged. Most agree that these experiences tend to be similar whatever your background and there’s much to learn from one another.

As one young housewife acknowledges, “Maine bahut kuchh khoya hai, par yahan aakar maine jitne khoya tha, usse zyada paya hai (I have lost a lot but what I have gained from here is more than what I have lost)."

CLICK OR DIAL THESE HELPLINES Runs employee assistance programmes as well as provides online individual counselling.

Alcoholics Anonymous:; (022) 23016767.

Al-Anon India: A sister programme of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), it has the same 12 steps to recovery programme as AA, offering strength and hope through sharing of experiences. It has a couple of subgroups—Alateen for teenagers and Al-anonAC for adult children of alcoholics.; 9871970664.

Hope Trust: Has a residential de-addiction centre, counselling facilities, offers assistance to corporate groups to deal with alcoholism at workplace.

The Samaritans (present in various Indian cities): Part of Befrienders International, a UK-based agency offering emotional support. It also conducts therapeutic dance, yoga, craft and music lessons.

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