Picking up the pieces

January 18, 2001

Picking up the pieces

How to contact Al-anon

For information on Al-Anon and Alateen meeting dates and times in Washington and Frederick counties, call 301-293-3803.

Information on Al-Anon or Alateen meetings in Pennsylvania and West Virginia is available by calling the international headquarters at 1-888-425-2666 Mondays to Fridays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., or go to on the Web.

Symptoms of alcoholism

According to, these are some of the symptoms of alcoholism:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> inappropriate sexual or aggressive behavior

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> mood changes

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> impaired judgment

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> impaired social or work behavior

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> slurred speech

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> lack of coordination

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> unsteady walking or running


HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> stupor

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Editor's note: Al-Anon participants do not use their last names. To protect their identities, we used first or middle names only of those interviewed for this article.

Mary's father was an alcoholic, though she would not become aware of it until years later when her family was in turmoil.


Her husband was an alcoholic. Her son was a substance abuser. She was caught in the middle: Powerless to help, powerless to stop trying.

"You tend to revolve your life around the alcoholic," Mary, of Frederick, Md., says. "The important thing we need to know about the disease is we didn't cause it, can't cure it and we certainly can't control it."

Unfortunately, alcoholism controlled - threatened to destroy - her, and she needed help.

There are roughly 14 million alcoholics in America, according to statistics on the Web site. The March 1998 Current Population Survey tabulated by the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the average family consists of about three people. By extension, there are at least 42 million people affected by an alcoholic's abuse of the drug. And that doesn't include extended family, co-workers, supervisors, neighbors and countless others.

After acknowledging they suffer from an illness and want to get better, alcoholics can turn to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Their friends and loved ones can turn to Al-Anon.

Founded in 1951 by the wife of the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon provides a forum for family and friends to come to terms with how alcohol addiction has come to rule their lives.

Combined with Alateen, a program for ages 4 to 17 affected by alcoholism, there are 30,000 groups that meet in 112 countries. Each has an average of 13 members, though some groups meet with as few as four or five.

Mary attends two, sometimes three meetings a week. She is also the alternate district representative to the area assembly of Al-Anon groups.

Charles goes to one meeting each week.

Jolene founded a group that meets once a week.

After going to meetings every day when he joined Al-Anon two years ago, Tim attends once weekly, more if necessary.

They live in different areas, are at different stages of life with different wants and needs. What binds them is a relative's dependence on alcohol, which in turn sent their lives spiraling out of control.

Beyond introductions, members need not speak until they feel comfortable at meetings, which in this area occur every day. For Mary, that meant almost six months of listening to others while working up the courage to speak herself.

Charles, who lives in Washington County, was sharing at his meeting soon after first attending with his wife. Referred to Al-Anon by their pastor, the couple has attended meetings for a year to learn how to cope with their son's alcoholism.

At first, it wasn't easy.

"I guess I was a little bit apprehensive, and somewhat embarrassed to admit we had this problem in our family because of the stigma," Charles says. "What are people going to think about us having an alcoholic son?"

Mary Lou is associate director of public outreach at Al-Anon's international headquarters in Virginia Beach, Va. More than an employee, she is also an 18-year member and says it's easy to see why alcoholism is viewed with disdain.

"Many people have the perception that alcoholism is skid row and bums, when the reality is that alcoholism can affect any kind of family on any socio-economic level," she says. "Somehow you don't want the neighbors to know about alcoholism in the family, so it's a big step for someone to come to an Al-Anon meeting and feel exposed."

When she was first attending meetings, Mary Lou would write 'Al' in her date book so anyone who happened to see it wouldn't know what she was doing.

Eventually, every conversation Al-Anon members have with an outsider turns to anonymity. Confidentiality allows the men and women of Al-Anon to share their stories without fearing repercussions for them or their alcoholic relative.

Even meeting locations are kept secret. Where AA meetings are listed in the newspaper, the only contact for Al-Anon is a phone number for people to call to get a list of meeting times and places.

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