Atheist ISO non-religious Al-Anon-style support
October 22, 2010 10:05 AM   Subscribe

I am very deeply in love with and married to a man who has substance abuse problems - particularly alchohol and cigarettes. I am not interested in leaving him. My powerlessness to help him causes me pain, and my misguided attempts to "fix" him are painful for him. Watching him destroy himself is destroying me, and is making me less loving a partner than he deserves. I've looked into Al-anon but, being passionately atheist and unable to reconcile myself with its higher power BS, I have not been to any meetings. Please help me find alternatives.

We both have depression. Mine seems to be kicking in at the moment, and I am feeling overwhelmed and worthless. I worry that I am being emotionally abusive to my husband (I never actually SAY "if you loved me you would quit" but I know my actions and affect communicate it loud and clear). I will tear myself apart with worry and feeling betrayed if status quo persists.

The website that serves as aggregator of Al-Anon meetings in my neck of the woods (Chicago) has this super-fucking-god-heavy version of the 12-step credo:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
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.
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.

I don't give a good goddamn about spiritual awakenings. I don't believe in a god or a higher power and can't help but feel scorn on some deep and private level for those who do (this is NOT something I'm proud of or think is admirable, but it IS a hindrance to finding meaning in a setting where the people I'm supposed to feel connected to are openly religious). I can't afford personal therapy right now. Are there other options for scientific-minded people who need support to help teach them how to live with loved ones who have chemical dependencies that affect their lives?

( if you prefer.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm 100% atheist as well, and I attend one of those meetings every week. One of the Al-Anon sayings is, "take what you like and leave the rest" - and it really is possible to do so. Some meetings will probably be more god-heavy than others; I'm sure in a large city like Chicago you will be able to find one that works for you. Attend a few meetings and talk with people afterwards. You will find other atheists and agnostics who have been helped in those rooms.

For me, the major tenet of Al-Anon is the letting go part. Reconciling myself with the fact that I cannot help someone else if that person doesn't want to help him or herself. It's hard to believe, but when you've tried everything over and over again and none of those things have helped in the past, it eventually becomes clear that it really is the truth.

I'm sorry. I have been where you are and I know how awful it is. If you ever need to talk, please feel free to send me a message.
posted by something something at 10:10 AM on October 22, 2010 [7 favorites]

There are always other options. I entirely agree with you that asking God to magically solve your problems for you is not the right approach (although for those who believe in God, there can be a placebo effect). Here is a revised version of the list that you present above:
1. Admit that excesive alcohol consumption has made your life unmanageable.
2. Accept that with the help of your loving wife, you can return to sanity.
3. Decide to work cooperatively with your wife toward that objective.
4. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.
5. Admit to yourself and to your wife what you have done wrong.
6. Be ready to work toward the remedy of your character defects.
7. Ask your wife to help you to overcome your shortcomings.
8. Be prepared to make amends to people whom you have harmed.
9. Make such amends, to the extent that it is practical to do so.
10. Remain vigilant against backsliding.
11. Seek through constant communication with your wife to improve your marriage.
12. If you enjoy good results with the above 11 steps, tell others about it.
posted by grizzled at 10:14 AM on October 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

There are often "for supporters of folks with X situation" meetings advertised on library and Public Health Department websites and bulletin boards. Though the meetings are often held in churches, if you can look past doctrinal posters you probably won't notice much difference from something hosted in a school.

I'd link to specific locations, but Chicago is huge on a level that unnerves all the Los Angeles natives in my family, and I can only assume anything I Google up will be an hour and $2 in tolls each way from where you are.
posted by SMPA at 10:17 AM on October 22, 2010

Roger Ebert is an atheist, and also a recovering alcoholic in Chicago who used AA. He wrote a great article not long ago where he mentions God in the AA context:

The God word. The critics never quote the words "as we understood God." Nobody in A.A. cares how you understand him, and would never tell you how you should understand him. I went to a few meetings of "4A" ("Alcoholics and Agnostics in A.A."), but they spent too much time talking about God. The important thing is not how you define a Higher Power. The important thing is that you don't consider yourself to be your own Higher Power, because your own best thinking found your bottom for you. One sweet lady said her higher power was a radiator in the Mustard Seed, "because when I see it, I know I'm sober."

Just pointing out that there are other ways of understanding the AA steps.
posted by sbutler at 10:23 AM on October 22, 2010 [9 favorites]

Check the AA main page. They've got a listing of answering services for Chicago, and you can even call the district office and tell them what you're looking for. Most of the AA chapters of which I've heard--no direct experience, fortunately--aren't quite so heavy on the theistic stuff.
posted by valkyryn at 10:26 AM on October 22, 2010

There are atheist Al-anon meetings, and the (non-athieist) one's I've gone to have no God in them to speak of- people pick their own "higher power," and for some of them it's just "The Person I'd Like To Be" or "Collected Experiences of the Folks in 12-Step" or some such. You can pick and choose, including not choosing anything. Even if you think "higher powers" are strictly for goobers, you can still go and get the community and ProTips. No one's going to quiz you on what you REALLY believe (as though those things don't change for people all the time anyway.)

There are a few people in the groups I go to who are proud to say they've never done a step and don't plan to. (And... no one cares.) Lots and lots of people don't have a god. (And... no one cares.) In fact, if anyone DOES care, it's a good bet they aren't "getting" Al-anon, since part of it is about figuring out what is and isn't your business. (Hint: other people's spiritual life=not your/their business.)

What you will find (hopefully) is people who've had some luck staying sane while going through exactly what you're going through.

I think it's hard to beat Al-anon for price and convenience. I recommend giving the IRL meetings a shot. The online meetings and phone meetings just aren't as useful, imo- their there for people who just can't get to real ones for whatever reason. Maybe you'll hear just one thing that meeting that helps you. If nothing else, it will get you out of your head for an hour, when you're ready to strangle your husband.

If you do decide to try out real life meetings, I strongly recommend you try a few different meetings, just in case the first one you try happens to be full of crazy Christians (or, as happens around the SF Bay Area, crazy new-age-Buddhists).
posted by small_ruminant at 10:27 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was once married to an alcoholic. I tuned out the religious stuff at the Al-anon meetings because hearing others' stories was so helpful (I also found a group that was very skeptical of religion so there wasn't much to ignore. For me this meant a very racially diverse, gay-welcoming in-town group). What helped me was this:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable.
I had to realize I could not make him change even if I was "right"; even if he loved me, even if even if even if everything. I was powerless. And that I couldn't manage because of this.
That was really as much as I thought about the 12 steps honestly. I got what I needed and left the rest. Good luck to you. Another thing that helped me was a therapist who helped me work through dealing with living with an addict. Personally, I could not manage to stay in the marriage but good luck to you and him.
posted by pointystick at 10:28 AM on October 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Look for a codependents anonymous group as well. I don't know if they are as theistic as Al-Anon groups, but like others have said, attending meetings and hearing stories can be helpful.

Check out Codependent No More from the library. You are a loving and caring wife, but you can't help someone else if you are feeling overwhelmed and worthless and worry that you're being emotionally abusive for encouraging your husband to kick his addictions.

The author of this book mentions god; skip the chapters and references that do nothing for you. Focus instead on the mentality that YOU need to help YOU before you can help anyone else, and for help accepting that you may not be able to help him at all. Best of luck.
posted by motsque at 10:37 AM on October 22, 2010

A lot of people in your situation have found help and community online in the friends and family forum on
posted by TurkishGolds at 10:38 AM on October 22, 2010

Consider couples' counseling.

In terms of affordability, there are a lot of options:

--some group practices have people who are still working on licensing who will charge less
--ask for a sliding scale
--use a credit card for the remaining, sell something, give blood...

We were able to get couples' counseling for about half of what he usually charges.

We are working with someone who is still working on his license but he is very good (actually, now he is licensed).

We paid the whole fee for the initial intake (ouch, but put it on a credit card). After hearing about the crisis mess our marriage was in, he asked how much we could afford per week, we told him, and he agreed.

We also thought about just going two or three times a month.

Half of his fee is a little tough, but affordable. We have a relatively high income so if yours is less than ours, you could probably get a bigger discount.

I have seen therapists go as low as $40 a session, and that's in NYC which tends to be pricey.

Please, please consider it. How much would you be willing to pay to keep yourself from being "destroyed"? How expensive would a divorce be?
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:38 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

If I know someone who has a solution to a problem I have, yet believes something I don't, it doesn't necessarily negate the fact that they had the same problem I had, found out how to fix the problem, and don't have it anymore.

No one should ever ask you to believe something you absolutely do not, and it's highly unlikely that anyone who has completely worked a 12-step program ever will. All I had to do was to remain slightly open to the possibility that I don't know everything.

Speaking as someone who has worked the 12-steps, the whole god thing can be very cringe inducing or even an emotionally and mentally violent complete turn off. I have experienced both of these reactions. If it helps, my current view of a "higher power" has absolutely nothing to do with organized religion, and a great many people I personally know from the rooms have similar concepts. Al-anon and AA as a whole do not cram God, a god, or religion down anyone's throat.

It's more of a spiritual connection with something greater than myself (hence, higher power), and not necessarily a bearded man in the sky with a halo and a host of winged people about him playing the harp.

All I had to do with regards to this, is to admit that I am not all powerful. That there is something, anything out there greater than me. At one point, I simply used the other people around me who were trying to work the steps as a higher or "greater than me" power. As a group, they were far greater than me, and in nearly all cases, knew more collectively with regards to how to handle emotional situations than I did. My view has evolved and changed over time, and it's also deeply personal. No one, especially those in AA, Al-anon, and like groups, should ever tell you what to think, or not, what to believe, or not, with regards to any conception you have or, don't have with regards to this.

I really appreciated your post. Your honesty and willingness to state your views is admirable.

That said, as someone who has been the alcoholic, and destroyed relationship after another; hurt, emotionally maimed, abused, neglected, took for granted every single woman who was unfortunate enough to mesh her life with mine, and who also has the opportunity to talk to some of these same women in sobriety, I know how much pain you are in. I also know that I was unable to stop until I was ready to stop, for whatever destruction that took.

Lastly, please just keep one suggestion in mind that I sometimes use in similar situations: "I may never be able to save you from you. But I can always save me from you."
posted by Debaser626 at 11:33 AM on October 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

You're in Chicago? You have lots of meeting choices, and every meeting is different. Some are full of newcomers, some are more like a touch-base for the same people who've been coming for 20 years, some are more focused on the God part, some don't even talk about the steps very often. One of the values of Al-Anon over individual therapy is the wisdom of the group, which points out the common experience of people who love someone who abuses alcohol or other substances.

I have a friend who has been in a sober marriage for nearly 20 years. Both spouses go to (different) AA and Al-Anon meetings regularly. My friend is an atheist who defines "higher power" as "the community which surrounds me": friends, family, the group itself.

(One thing to note: just because a meeting is held in a church does not mean that it is an explicitly religious group. 12-step groups pay rent; while it may be less than market value, each meeting is self-supporting. That's why the hat is passed [first-timers don't give] and why the coffee is better at some meetings than others.)
posted by catlet at 11:36 AM on October 22, 2010

Also... keeping in mind that AA and Al-Anon are not religious but spiritual, I heard a saying once that really struck me at the time:

"Religion is for people who are scared of Hell, Spirituality is for those who have been there."
posted by Debaser626 at 11:41 AM on October 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Picture a 200 pound table. Can you lift it yourself? Yet when someone is on the other side of the table, you can lift it together. Someone told me that this was how they came to understand higher power and it makes a lot of sense to me. The groups help. Drag yourself to them, please.
posted by lois1950 at 11:50 AM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry you're going through this. It's really tough on everyone.

What does your husband say? Is he having trouble at work or maintaining relationships with friend, family, etc.? Is he depressed or going through a hard time? How long has this been going on? Is he willing to seek help?
posted by WyoWhy at 12:57 PM on October 22, 2010

You suggest that you see yourself as scientific minded, so do the experiment.

Dont say that obviously heavy things fall faster than light ones,
go climb a tower and drop things.
Dont say that all Al-Anon groups will be full of evangelicals pushing their god onto you,
go to some meetings and find out.
posted by yetanother at 2:44 PM on October 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would try several Al-Anon groups regardless. Every group is different. Maybe you could start your own after a while, with like-minded people. I think the structure and guidelines on participation and respectful, guided communication are helpful. And maybe respecting the right of other people to engage a "higher power" --although I wouldn't call Al-Anon participants openly religious-- would be a step in putting positive boundaries in place. I can't say for sure, however, and I hear that it is frustrating to try to do walk alongside people with whom you feel a fundamental schism.

I have heard the higher power described as the idea that there are things you can't control and that you, yourself, are not sovereign. You don't have to attach a personality or actor to that non-control-over-your-life, just recognize that it exists. In Al-Anon teen, they tell you that the hp can be a dog, a chair, anything, just as long as it's not you.

You could get one of the daily readers ("One Day at a Time") and cut out the pages that mention a higher power. There are a lot of meditations that just cover basic co-dependence and respect and trust issues.

I'm sorry that I can't recommend a non-Al-Anon resource.
posted by ramenopres at 3:00 PM on October 22, 2010

One Day At A Time is the oldest reader and thus the most religious- there are even a couple Bible quotes in there.

I do know at least two people who have taken one of the newer readers and whited out every mention of God because they hated it so much. They said it made it much more useful and I believe it- I cringe every time I see the word, too.

The daily readers are comprised of writings people have submitted. As such, some days' readings work for me and some make me roll my eyes. (Though it's funny how which reading does what changes from day to day, depending on my mood.)
posted by small_ruminant at 3:16 PM on October 22, 2010

Sorry to hear of your situation, I am not surprised you are suffering depression. Having had an alcoholic father, I can feel something of your experience.

Substance abusers (and I am thinking alcoholics here) usually need to want to change very badly, in order to endure the suffering involved in breaking their habit. Sounds like you have two choices - stay or go. If you stay, it is unlikely that he will change, and the dynamic between you and he will become destructive unless you can accept him as he is, that is accept, not tolerate, or understand, or cope, but accept. That is, you need to be able to be happy living with him. I am sure it would be possible, but it won't be easy ... but you know that.

I suggest your priority is you, and that you be open to considering any and all options that are available, even if some are unattractive right now. You might do some in-depth research on co-dependency, that might help you better understand your position vis-a-vis your husband. Counselling and self-help programs should also be used as much as you can, but you also need to educate yourself about the nature of the situation you are in and causes of your behavior and responses, not his.

Good luck, I wish you well :-).
posted by GeeEmm at 3:23 PM on October 22, 2010

There's this. I've heard of one person whom it helped, but beyond that I have no data.
posted by novalis_dt at 6:17 PM on October 22, 2010

There are non 12 step options. Look into Rational Recovery, SOS, and Sober Recovery. See if you can get your husband to look into these with you too.

Good luck. There are ways to get help without doing the AA or AlAnon thing.
posted by broadway bill at 6:01 AM on October 23, 2010

Rational Recovery no longer has in-person meetings. There are DVDs to purchase and weekend seminars to attend, but RR isn't the non-religious alternative to 12-step that it used to be.
posted by catlet at 8:14 AM on October 23, 2010

SMART Recovery is another alternative to AA, although like the others oriented more towards the addict than their loved ones. Does your husband show interest in trying to overcome his problem? If you are looking for evidence-based treatments for alcoholism, you may find the work of Stanton Peele to be of interest. His website has useful info for friends and family. Also, I'm not sure if you've heard of The Sinclair Method, but if your husband is wanting to get well, it might be one option worth checking out. This related letter from Dr Roy Eskapa to the concerned spouse of an alcoholic patient of his gives a general outline of the treatment. Finally, the book Sober for Good has all sorts of non-AA resources for both alcoholics and their families so please don't believe there are not other ways. Good luck to you both.
posted by Weng at 11:40 PM on October 23, 2010

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