The air is crisp as I park my car on a side street heading to my first meeting. There is a little sign directing me to where I am supposed to go. The rhythmic pounding of my shoes matches my elevated heart rate.

I don’t know what to expect; it is all very new and awkward but it is something I know I must do. Al-Anon is the support group for family and friends of those battling addiction and other mental health challenges. There aren’t many in-person meetings these days—this is the only one within proximity.

I am not here to help my loved one. I am here to help myself. I know I’ve been neglecting myself. I have a toothache that needs to be addressed. I haven’t bought a new item of clothing for myself, though I have bought clothing for everyone around me including my struggling daughter. I am long overdue for a physical, but it feels like I am just spinning my wheels trying to keep everyone around me afloat, putting myself last on my list, if on the list at all.

This is not about being selfish, but about getting some sense of order back in my life. I’ve learned that I don’t control anything. Life has taught me this. The pandemic has further confirmed this, and the events of the past number of weeks have cemented this awareness.


Control and orderliness are not the same. You can be not-in-control without being out-of-control. I do not decide what will or won’t happen. In Al-Anon jargon, there are the three C’s. We didn’t cause it; we don’t control it; and we cannot cure it. Nevertheless, I don’t have to feel flooded and overwhelmed all the time.

This is what I am here to learn more about.

As I descend the narrow wooden steps, I see a handful of people milling about, setting up chairs and motivational signs like “Let go and let G‑d,” “You are not your problem,” “First things first,” ”Live and let live.”

They ask only for my first name and they welcome me to this meeting. They are gentle and inviting and encourage me to come again because “it works if you work it.”

The masks only emphasize the anonymity. Still, you can see the broken hearts behind the masks.

I quickly note that I am the youngest in the room by more than a decade, likely two. I am trying not to let my built-in judgmentalism take over, as I see people who are older, some looking semi-unkempt, shabby and drab. I wonder if I am in the wrong place; perhaps I should find a meeting in a nicer zip code.

There is one couple who look like they are from the nicer parts of town and decide to gravitate towards them. As part of my welcome, the crowd is asked if anyone would be willing to talk to the newcomer after the meeting. Happily, they immediately offer.

I know this is judgemental of me and inconsistent with my values, but this is how I feel. Perhaps this journey is to teach me, in part, to really let go of my biases and see people for who they are in their soul and not how they look on the outside.


The meeting begins with the Serenity Prayer. It continues with a warm welcome and everyone goes around and introduces themselves using only their first names. There are a few minutes of accounting and technical announcements by the group leader, followed by a reading of the 12 Steps from a laminated paper, passed from person to person, each of whom reads one step.

I read step number seven.

Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do Your bidding.

The irony of me, a rabbi, needing to read and realize that I have to pray for humility is not lost on me.

In fact, later in the discussion part of the meeting, a funny exchange of role reversal takes place. I ask a pointed question. What do you do if the person “slips” and uses their substance again? In unison, the group answers, “Pray!”

“Pray?” I cry incredulously. “How does that fix anything?”

Everyone laughs. As the only clergyperson in the room, I was looking for something tangible to do and they were offering something spiritual. Yes, it is anonymous, but something about my yarmulke and beard - even behind my mask - gives me away.


The meeting continues with the reading of the Open Letter from the Alcoholic that literally brings me to tears.

I am an alcoholic. I need your help.

Don't lecture, blame or scold me. You wouldn't be angry with me for having cancer or diabetes. Alcoholism is a disease, too.

Don't pour out my liquor; it's just a waste because I can always find ways of getting more.

Don't let me provoke your anger. If you attack me verbally or physically, you will only confirm my bad opinion about myself. I hate myself enough already.

Don't let your love and anxiety for me lead you into doing what I ought to do for myself. If you assume my responsibilities, you make my failure to assume them permanent. My sense of guilt will be increased, and you will feel resentful.

Don't accept my promises. I'll promise anything to get off the hook. But the nature of my illness prevents me from keeping my promises, even though I mean them at the time.

Don't make empty threats. Once you have made a decision, stick to it.

Don't believe everything I tell you; it may be a lie. Denial of reality is a symptom of my illness. Moreover, I'm likely to lose respect for those I can fool too easily.

Don't let me take advantage of you or exploit you in any way. Love cannot exist for long without the dimension of justice.

Don't cover up for me or try in any way to spare me the consequences of my drinking. Don't lie for me, pay my bills, or meet my obligations. It may avert or reduce the very crisis that would prompt me to seek help. I can continue to deny that I have a drinking problem as long as you provide an automatic escape from the consequences of my drinking.

Above all, do learn all you can about alcoholism and your role in relation to me. Go to open AA meetings when you can. Attend Al-Anon meetings regularly, read the literature and keep in touch with Al-Anon members. They're the people who can help you see the whole situation clearly.

I love you.

Your Alcoholic

As I hear the person reading it, I know that I am in the right place. a) I am totally guilty as charged. b) There are truths being spoken that only someone who has been there could ever understand.

The meeting continues with most of the participants sharing a short version of why they are here, and more importantly what they get out of Al-Anon: the realization that after fighting the person, worrying about the person, trying to save the person from themselves, there is a point where you must submit and let the person be.

Let them be, to hurt themselves or others. Let them be, to ruin their lives. And only when you let them be, can you be OK. Only when you let go and let G‑d can you sleep at night without knowing what comes next, and still have a restful night’s sleep. (I’ve heard an “old-timer” say that if you don’t have a good night’s sleep, that is your problem. You have work you have to do. It is not the addict’s problem.)

The bonus: Only then can the person fall and pick themselves up and begin to do the work to get better. Will they? Sadly, there are too many stories of people who are dealing with spouses and children still battling decades later, but as they say in the investment world, past performance is no indication of future results.

While one and done is not common, I have faith that our daughter, our special gem will be an exception. And if not, I accept that too. Because I am not in charge, G‑d is.


Several months have passed and I have attended many meetings, both in person and online. I’ve found these meetings so helpful, and interestingly, the 12th Step, being of service to others, is quite true. As you go through the journey, and you help others who may be only one step behind you in the process, you fortify yourself as you help them.

As they say in the program, “You have to give it to be able to keep it.”

I will further share that as a student of Chassidic thought, where there is intense emphasis on personal growth, character work, and improvement, I have never seen a harder working bunch than those in the AA meeting rooms. AA, NA, OA, SA, Al-Anon, these are all people who are looking to refine their characters and replace the natural disposition of self-harm and hurt with healing, so they can pay it forward and heal others.

We hear many stories of Chassidic masters and greats who worked tirelessly and diligently to refine their characters and improve themselves. Well, here you have ordinary Joes and Janes who are doing the same holy work, only they operate under the cloak of anonymity and will never be, don’t ever want to be, recognized for their hard work.

It is a farbrengen of the holiest kind, and it never ends.

The author is a rabbi in North America. This is part of a series of articles chronicling his daughter’s ongoing struggle with addiction and mental illness.