When I was a newcomer in Al‑Anon, safety in meetings meant many things to me, including serenity, anonymity, confidentiality, and acceptance. It meant serenity because the only time I experienced peace during the week was when I sat in a meeting room. The more meetings I attended, the more serene I felt. Safety, to me, meant anonymity because I didn’t have to worry that neighbors or coworkers would find out about my loved one’s drinking, or how I was coping with it. Confidentiality helped me feel safe too, for I knew that what I shared would stay within the walls of the meeting room, just as I extended the same consideration to my fellow members. Safety also meant acceptance. I was free to share from the heart without judgment or criticism. Because of our common bond, I could lower my defenses around a group of strangers who understood me without really knowing me.
As time went on, my feeling of safety in meetings evolved to include other things, like the practice of hugging before and after meetings. Prior to my recovery journey, I had an unpleasant experience with a much larger, physically stronger family member who hugged me so hard it would knock the wind out of me. My voice had been silenced by the shame I felt about that, and I didn’t know how to remove myself from unsafe situations. As a result, I felt apprehensive about accepting hugs from certain Al‑Anon members. With the help of my Sponsor, I could name the source of my discomfort, gradually learn to set healthy boundaries, and begin to accept hugs on my own terms. Applying that same principle to others, I started offering hugs to fellow members by first asking, “Would you like a hug?”
The content and structure of our group discussions contributed to my feeling of safety too. Knowing that only Al‑Anon program principles and literature would be discussed wherever I chose to attend a meeting gave me a sense of consistency that my home life lacked. While some members of my home group had other religious and political beliefs, I observed that when members shared, they focused on recovery from the family disease, not on topics that could differentiate or divide us. I also came to trust that in a meeting my sharing would not be interrupted or discussed openly, and no one would give me advice. We even discussed group problems, like gossip or dominance, in a loving, respectful way.
During my term as Alternate District Representative and District Safety Chair, I facilitated a Knowledge-Based Decision-Making (KBDM) discussion about what safety meant to other District meeting participants. We had a large group, and everyone seated around the table had up to two minutes to share their unique perspectives. I found it to be such a moving, eye-opening experience, revealing that my peers defined safety (or lack of it) differently than I did! I was so grateful for the opportunity to broaden my own perspective on this important subject. The diversity of those sharings left me wondering how we can keep our meetings safe for everyone. Our District Safety Committee met several times to ponder that idea.
Luckily, I learned that the tool Let’s Talk about Safety in Al‑Anon Meetings! had just been published by the World Service Office (WSO). To keep the message consistent, we encouraged all members of our District to refer to it, regardless of what safety issue confronted them, or how long they had been attending Al‑Anon meetings. What the KBDM exercise taught me was that safety truly is in the eye of the beholder. While each group is autonomous, and no perfect solution exists for every situation, I have learned the importance of talking to each other and reasoning things out. Let’s Talk about Safety in Al‑Anon Meetings! can serve as an icebreaker.
With the advent of COVID-19 last year, the word “safety” continues to be redefined for us all! The pandemic caused members to consider the physical safety of in-person meetings—now and in the future—in ways that would have seemed unthinkable two years ago. Some of the other concerns that have come to our attention at the WSO have to do with keeping electronic Al‑Anon and Alateen meetings safe and welcoming all around the globe, free from disruption or outside influence. If we keep a dialogue going about uncomfortable topics, such as the safety of our members, and resist going into denial about them, I believe the will of the group’s Higher Power can be expressed in a way that is best for all.
By Natalie M., Associate Director—Administration & Strategies
The Forum, July 2021
Feel free to reprint this article on your service arm website or newsletter, along with this credit line: Reprinted with permission of The Forum, Al‑Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., Virginia Beach, VA.