Local Alateen groups help teens who live in homes where alcohol addiction is prevalent

Alanon Family Groups World Service Organization Site—

By MADDIE FABIAN

Staff Writer

Published: 11-19-2023 5:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Local teenagers living in homes with alcohol addiction often find themselves less worried about their own well-being, and more concerned with a sibling, friend, or most often a parent.

Some teens have lost a parent to separation, divorce or even death, while others are living with an active alcoholic parent who is leaving to take care of themselves.

“Most of them are just very worried about the parent’s activities and wishing they could find something to say or do that would stop it,” said Sharon Tornow, an Alanon Member in Alateen Service.

Each week, confidential meetings — held at the Northampton Recovery Center and Hampshire Regional High School by local chapters of the international organization Alateen — guide local teenagers, whose lives have been impacted by the drinking of a family member or friend, through sharing experiences, discussing difficulties and finding hope.

“They have this place for introspection and connection that, when you don’t have it, that is the main feature of alcoholism as a disease — isolation, loneliness and shame,” said Nic Scott, Massachusetts Alateen state coordinator. “I don’t blame a diabetic, just as I don’t blame a person with the disease of alcoholism… but it does have some serious damage that can’t ever really be undone, but it can be managed.”

Calling alcoholism an “epidemic inside the COVID-19 pandemic,” the National Institutes of Health reported that the number of deaths associated with alcohol rose by nearly 38% during the first two years of the pandemic.

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Inside many homes afflicted by alcohol use disorder, a family disease, are thousands of teenagers experiencing loneliness and shame, a result of alcoholism that was only exacerbated by the isolating effects of the pandemic.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 1 in 10 children live with a parent who has an alcohol use disorder.

Since 1957, Alateen has served teenagers between ages 12 and 19 under the umbrella of Al-Anon Family Groups, which meets in over 130 countries to help friends and families recover from the impacts of a loved one’s drinking, according to its website. Local meetings, which are typically attended by five to seven teenagers, are held at the Northampton Recovery Center and Hampshire Regional High School.

As a free and confidential group, Alateen functions to foster fellowship and community, and to guide teenagers through the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which are a tool for spiritual, not religious, growth and recovery.

“I can’t really speak enough to how much of a miracle it is to have that at such an impressionable time when you’re developing your sense of self,” said Scott.

Fellowship

A 19-year-old Northampton teenager, who requested anonymity due to the nature of the program, has been attending Alateen meetings since she was 12 years old. Her father was an alcoholic, and she said that prior to attending meetings, she felt as if she were the only one dealing with alcoholism at home.

“Talking with other people who are going through the same experience especially when we’re younger and not used to doing that… It provided a sense of community and made me realize that I wasn’t as alone as I thought,” she said.

“Before Alateen, I wasn’t really living in the moment, I was just trying to survive living in an alcoholic household with my dad,” she added. “It led me to not be ashamed of who I am… I just became more myself.”

Meetings are facilitated by Alanon Members in Alateen Service (AMIAS), who are at least 21 years old, have at least two years in Alanon, and who have been thoroughly background checked and certified by the Massachusetts Area Office of Alanon Family Groups.

While teenagers are given the autonomy to create and lead the format of meetings, AMIAS representatives including Scott and Tornow are present to maintain safety and provide resources including readings, workbooks and conversation starters.

“We don’t talk about class, background, no jobs, no religion, none of that stuff comes into it; we are only talking about the effects of alcoholism and recovery,” said Scott. “It’s a type of camaraderie over something that is not the same as trauma bonding because it’s forward movement towards recovery.”

Tornow said that, through that fellowship, she has witnessed teens find that “they’re not alone in the experiences that they are having... They find that they can interact with other teens, their peers, in a way that feels totally accepted.”

The Twelve Steps

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous provide members with a framework for spiritual growth.

While the Twelve Steps ask participants to find a “power greater than ourselves,” members are free to define that power however they choose. Tornow said that power often takes the form of nature, a religious God, or even the group itself.

“All that’s important is that the individual comes to recognize that it’s not them, and it’s something that they feel is available to them always as a loving support as they travel through their days,” Tornow said.

Steps include admitting powerlessness over alcohol, making amends with people, and coming to believe in a power greater than oneself.

“Everyone has their own interpretation of the steps, but they are a guideline for an opening to spiritual exploration of a particular type of affliction or ailment because of the disease,” said Scott, adding that they never had a religious upbringing, only an understanding of the 12 Steps.

“It’s like a compass for your behavior towards yourself and everyone else,” they added.

At the meetings, Alateen members are given the opportunity to share lessons learned from practicing the Twelve Steps.

“It can be a fairly quick process, or it can take several years,” Tornow said. “The 12 steps just guide them through a process of getting to know themselves in a much deeper way than they have in the past, and an opportunity to resolve any issues in their lives that are now impeding them from having the serenity and self respect that the program allows or offers.”

Local meetings are held during the first and second lunch periods every other Monday for students at Hampshire Regional High School, as well as every Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Northampton Recovery Center.

“[Alateen] is definitely a gift in anyone’s life if they have the experience of alcoholism in a family member or friend,” Tornow said.

Maddie Fabian can be reached at mfabian@gazettenet.com.