Finding Serenity in Disability: What I Learned from Al-Anon

Some time ago, as I was grappling with some relationships in my life, I had the occasion to find myself in some Al-Anon meetings.  To this day, I would have trouble explaining precisely why I found them to be a good fit, but I did. Like most in our society, I've had some significant experiences with people with various addictions, but, no one of them well explains why I so resonated with the teachings of a group designed for individuals whose lives been affected by the addictions of their relatives or significant others.

Maybe it is that the teachings of support and serenity found within the 12-step programs are broadly applicable to the human experience.

Or maybe, just maybe it’s that the phenomena of disability can be very similar to the phenomena not of being an addict, but of being irrevocably affected by someone else’s addiction.  I’d like to explore that idea.

There are three areas that I would like to explore.  The mental exercise that I find in the first three of the 12-steps, the general idea of sharing experience, strength and hope, and the notion of talking things out with a buddy.

As taken from the Massachusetts Al-Anon website, the first three steps are:

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.

As I came to understand these steps, the first step was acknowledging that the actions of the addict in your life were outside of your control, as were many of your preprogrammed reactions when you became too focused on those reactions, and that focusing all of your emotional energy on controlling them had rendered life unlivable.

The second step for me came to symbolize turning over.  Turning over did not mean that I was necessarily confident that a benign higher power would solve my problems.  Rather it meant that I could turn those problems over, cease a useless focus on them, and be restored to the sanity that would allow me to focus on all of the things in my life that were within my control.  Whether or not there was another being to pick them up was functionally irrelevant, since either way there was nothing that I could do.

And, since talk is cheap, the third step is actually to do it.

How do I translate this to disability?  Well, anyone with a disability understands powerlessness.  I am powerless to change the fact that on any given day my stomach may choose to put me in horrific discomfort.  I am powerless to change the fact that without another human being, most of the basic activities of my daily living simply can’t happen.  I am powerless to change the fact that, when you are relying on another human being, no matter how good or how dedicated, occasionally something will come up in their life that will create a problem with yours.

I used to spend a lot of time of obsessing about these issues.  Even when everything was good, I was waiting for the next inevitable crisis, the crippling stomachache or the sudden quitting of a once reliable care attendant.  Sometimes, I would be so emotionally distraught by the certainty of an impending problem that I would lack the energy to set up the very backup systems needed to avoid the problem.  But, really, I was powerless to effect the capriciousness of other people’s lives.

In that context, turning it over meant that, after doing everything in my control, whether eating the right foods, hiring the best people, treating them well, or having backup systems, I needed to stop worrying about the inevitable rough times.  Knowing they would come, I needed to accept that either through my own ingenuity, the kindness of others, or, if you are so inclined, the Grace of God, I would find my way through them, but that my attempts to endlessly prevent them were both meaningless and self-destructive.

A day with good care or good health is a blessing, and one in which I can do many things to improve my life, but only if I leave worrying about the impending next crisis to God, the universe, quantum phenomena or blind chance, and focus on doing what I can to have the best life that I can.  This is turning it over.  I can only speak to my own experience, but I believe it applies to any of the phenomena of disability that are out of our control, once we’ve done all with our power to prepare.  Turn it over and find some serenity.

The second wonderful concept is what the program calls experience, strength, and hope.  Al-Anon starts from the perspective that nobody is the expert who is there to teach everybody else, but that each of your fellow group members has had an experience similar enough to yours that you may gain value in learning how they handled it.

What a message for disability.  We each have different disabilities, and even those of us that have the same experience them differently.  If I get on my lectern and give you my surefire step-by-step solution for the problems posed by your disability, I will be at best preachy and at worst completely off topic.

On the other hand, if I share with you how I handled a similar situation, you can take from that whatever is meaningful for you, using my experience in whatever way it helps as you craft the best solution for your life.  This is the experience part.

The strength and hope part is equally as important.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, disability can really suck sometimes.  Hearing other people’s experiences, how they got through them and that they got through them may just give you the strength and hope that you need to ride out the latest storm.  Certainly, we could all learn to do a better job sharing.

The last lesson is talking things out with a buddy.  Al-Anon recognizes that, though you may have the best answer for you, you’ll likely not get there by running around in circles in your head.  Calling someone who understands and cares.  Talking it out.  These are incredible ways to deal with life stresses.  We do this informally, on Facebook fora and listserves, but I love the idea of the formal exchange of contact information with the understanding that one expects and is ready to take that problem call when support is needed.  Disability, like any kind of adversity, can be incredibly isolating.  What a powerful thing to break up that isolation.

I don’t propose 12-step programs for disability.  I strongly resist the idea that we have anything to recover from.  That said, the system offers some incredible lessons in dealing with a difficult life and so I offer them here.  If one reader finds some serenity, it was worth it.