Alcoholism does not just affect the person who drinks. It also affects their loved ones.
This idea is the basis for Al-Anon, a sister organisation to Alcoholics Anonymous which is specifically for the loved ones of people who are addicted to alcohol.
Al-Anon is open to everyone whose life has been negatively impacted by someone’s alcoholism. That includes people whose parents were alcoholics, people whose husbands or wives are alcoholics, people whose children are alcoholics, and so on.
Although the circumstances of people attending Al-Anon are often very different, there are always similarities to be found in terms of the experiences and emotions that people have gone through.
For instance, many loved ones of alcoholics say that they have felt anger, guilt, confusion, sadness and depression due to their loved one’s alcohol use.
Those shared emotions create a simple but powerful bond between people who choose to attend Al-Anon meetings.
It is partly to help people deal with difficult emotions and experiences that arise due to a loved one’s alcoholism that Al-Anon was set up.
Al-Anon came into being in the year 1951. It was founded by Anne B. and Lois W. (the wife of Bill W., who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous).
Since its inception, Al-Anon has been helping people to cope with the fallout from alcoholism.
Alateen, which is a branch of Al-Anon, is focused specifically on teenagers who have suffered due to someone else’s alcoholism. It was founded not long after Al-Anon, in 1957.
Al-Anon uses almost exactly the same Twelve Steps as Alcoholics Anonymous, with one small change to the final step, replacing the word ‘alcoholics’ with ‘others’.
We go through the Twelve Steps, and explain how they are just as applicable to the loved ones of alcoholics as alcoholics themselves.
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
This step is about acknowledging the grip alcohol has over people’s lives. This grip is just as strong for the loved ones of alcoholics, who cannot escape their loved one’s alcoholism.
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
These steps are about hope: specifically, putting our hope in God, or a higher power. Dealing with someone’s alcoholism alone can be incredibly draining. By trusting to a higher power, the loved ones of alcoholics can take some of the weight off their own backs.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
These steps are about acknowledging that we have all made mistakes – and that some of these mistakes may feed into our current predicament.
For the loved ones of alcoholics, their behaviour may have nothing to do with their loved one’s alcoholism.
However, in some cases, they may have a certain amount of culpability: for instance, they may have enabled their loved one’s addiction to some extent.
Admitting this helps the loved ones of alcoholics to move forward with their lives and refrain from making the same mistakes again.
Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Steps six and seven are about surrendering, letting go our grip over the past. With the help of a higher power, it is possible to grow and improve as a person.
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
For the loved ones of alcoholics, it can be helpful (just as it is for alcoholics themselves) to make good with the people who you have hurt. By doing so, you permit yourself to start rebuilding.
Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. 
Finally, these last two steps are about growing spiritually, building a relationship with a higher power and using that to help you through the challenges that alcoholism has created in your life.
Much like Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon is spiritual without being religious. Attendees are welcome from all walks of life, whatever their beliefs.
There is a spiritual element to the Twelve Steps, but this is not meant to put off non-believers. Many followers of the Twelve Steps believe in a ‘higher power’ of some sort, rather than a traditional understanding of God.
If you are an atheist, or agnostic, and are uncomfortable with the spiritual elements of Al-Anon, then there are alternative 12-step groups you can attend, such as AA Agnostica, Secular AA and AA Beyond Belief.
Al-Anon meetings do not have a specific rubric or set of rules. Attendees are allowed to say whatever they like, provided they are respectful to other attendees.
There should be no judgement from anyone, regardless of what you say. On the whole, people are very supportive; there is a sense that everyone in the room is going through the same thing together.
This is what makes the experience of going to Al-Anon meetings so powerful: solidarity.
As a mutual support group for the family and friends of alcoholics, Al-Anon does not discriminate.
No one gets special status just because they went to a better school or have a higher-paid job; similarly, no one is judged or looked down on for having a lower-paid job or being less educated.
Al-Anon is not therapy. No one in the room is qualified to give in-depth advice on how to deal with your loved one’s addiction. However, everyone in the room will have their own story to tell, and sometimes those stories can be useful.
If someone else has been through the exact thing you are going through, and can tell you how they navigated that difficulty, that can shed light on your own decisions.
However, the focus in Al-Anon meetings should (as much as possible) be on alcoholism and its effects, so organisers will try to make sure these issues do not take over.
Many people who first come to Al-Anon meetings think that their story is the most shocking story ever told. They may be surprised to find that others have more shocking stories to tell.
One of the positive effects of attending Al-Anon meetings is realising that not only are there others out there in a similar position but there are others out there who have been through worse than you.
One benefit of Al-Anon is that it helps the loved ones of people suffering from alcohol use disorders (AUDs) to deal with the specific problems they face, such as excessive care-taking, low self-esteem, feelings of guilt, and failing to differentiate between love and pity for alcohol-using partners.
Having an organisation that is for a specific demographic means that it can address these specific concerns effectively.
Al-Anon can help attendees to stop blaming themselves for their loved one’s alcoholism. It does so partly by stressing the role of family pathology.
Someone with an alcoholic mother or father is significantly more likely to develop alcoholism. Knowing things like that helps the partners of people with alcoholism to stop blaming themselves unduly.
One person cannot control or cure another person’s drinking; nor can they be said to have caused it. Problem drinking happens for a wide range of reasons, many of which are to do with genetics and upbringing.
Al-Anon is designed to help the loved ones of alcoholics, not the alcoholics themselves. So, if you are considering Al-Anon, be aware that it is unlikely to help you with practical ways to stop your partner from drinking.
Al-Anon is more about dealing with the emotional stress of being around someone who is a problem drinker.
Al-Anon is a great organisation that helps people who are often forgotten in substance treatment.
The loved ones of alcoholics need just as much care and support as the alcoholics themselves.
If you are considering attending an Al-Anon meeting for the first time, we thoroughly recommend trying it. You can use this meeting locator here to search for meetings if you are based in the UK.