When Madeline got a phone call at two in the morning from St. Paul’s hospital telling her that her husband was in care after a serious car accident, she said, “Thank God it’s finally happened.”
She went back to bed and had the best sleep she’d experienced while he was away.
It’s not the kind of reaction one would expect, but Madeline’s husband was an alcoholic and his concussion, contusion and partly collapsed lung were a relief in a way.
“They must have thought I was nuts,” she says now, recalling the day decades ago.
But she instinctively knew that this was it. He’d hit bottom.
When they went to pick the car up, Madeline’s husband had put his head through the windshield and twisted the steering wheel.
He was lucky he lived, and soon after he started to go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.
That was six months after Madeline (not her real name) had started going to life-changing meetings of her own—meetings that would help her deal with everything from the car accident to her husband’s alcoholism and her reaction to it.
She had started attending Al-Anon meetings on recommendations from a friend and her family doctor.
“The only thing I remember about that first meeting was feeling, ‘I’m home, these people understand and now I’ve got some hope. Things are going to get better,’ Madeline says.
And they did, even before the car accident.
She’d stopped looking for him when he didn’t show up (previously she would phone bars and sometimes put their two children in the car and go looking for him late at night).
“I thought it was my fault, I didn’t know it was the disease until I got to Al-Anon. And then I realized what rough shape I was in and how I was affecting our children,” Madeline says. “Once I focused on myself and looking after me and making the home more pleasant for the whole family, it eased the tension.”
The organization that helped her and many others with similar stories is set up to support anyone affected by somebody else’s drinking.
An anonymous program, Al-Anon “isn’t allied with with any sect, denomination, political entity, organization or institution; it does not engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any cause.”
It’s only purpose, according to the group, is to help families of alcoholics.
And according to Madeline, that’s even more specific a target group than in practice. The Agassiz Al-Anon Family Group also welcomes teachers, employers, employees, etc.—anyone affected by another’s drinking.
The local branch of Al-Anon will be celebrating 40 years in Agassiz this year, and the individuals and families it has helped with its 12 step program along the way.
“I’ll be 42 years in Al Anon in May,” Madeline says, having attended previous to her move here. “I still go. It keeps me out of trouble and falling back into my old thinking and behaviour.”
And many of her friends are members.
Besides, Madeline says, without the old-timers who’d be there to help the newer attendees?
She laughs and admits that she learns as much from new-comers as from anyone, and that bonds made at the meetings can be strong.
“I’m closer to some of my program friends than I am to some of my family.”
When Madeline met her husband, she was in her late teens and he was the embodiment of fun and excitement.
The drinking didn’t seem bad, but she admits to a rather stormy courtship.
“I thought when we got married the drinking would stop,” she says.
But it didn’t. And Madeline took on the brunt of the responsibility, wondering how she could stop her husband’s drinking, how she could be a better wife and mother.
During that time before Al-Anon, she refers to herself as “stark raving sober,” and recognizes the effect both her husband’s and her behaviour was having on their kids.
“Often you can tell there’s a problem in a home by the behaviour of the spouse or the children rather than the alcoholic himself or herself,” she says.
In fact, by her estimation their two children who were about six- and two-years-old when she started attending the program were mostly affected by Madeline herself.
“Their dad was never a mean, nasty drunk,” she says. “For which I’m forever grateful.”
Her daughter recounts the common occurrence of standing at the top of the stairs when dad came home and mom telling them to go to their rooms.
An argument would ensue which would add to the persistent underlying tension in the house.
“But after the shift I can remember the big sense of a big uplifting feeling, feeling really hopeful,” Madeline’s daughter says. “Everybody wasn’t on edge, it was a lot better.”
“The air was cleared, a big cloud was lifted.”
So there was an immediate improvement for Madeline and her children after Al-Anon came to their lives.
But then of course, there’s the longer term contribution of the program to her husband’s eventual sobriety—though Madeline is careful to give him full credit for that.
However, she knows that her change in attitude and behaviour meant he couldn’t blame her anymore.
And whatever role that change played worked in Madeline’s family’s case: her husband was sober three decades when he died.
Not every family is as lucky, but she believes Al-Anon is worth attending even if the alcoholic never gets sober.
“The trust and the hope is that if you work at the program, life will get better,” she says. “Things will get better—whether the alcoholic keeps drinking or not.”
• Alateen, part of Al-Anon is for teenagers. As there is no Alateen in Agassiz currently, teens are welcome in Al-Anon. Al-Anon is a worldwide fellowship and operates in many countries. Members may attend any meeting, anywhere. Agassiz Al-Anon invites potential participants to attend a weekly meeting. Call Shirley 604-796-9865 or Anne 604-796-3103 for more information, or visit the website www.al-anon.alateen.org. Drop-ins are welcome at 8 p.m. every Thursday in the Agriroom at the Agricultural Hall, first entrance on the west side.