Brand building through storytelling

The best advice anyone gave me

It’s hard to believe, as I look at my mensch of a son—husband, father, giver of extravagant gifts and practically a teetotaler—that I once feared he was coasting toward alcoholism. He was then a student at a school renowned for hell-raising bashes. As the daughter of an alcoholic father, I had noticed a thing or two that stoked my worst fear: another drunk in my family. Feeling cursed, I called my friend Val, whose father also drank and never stopped.

“Have you thought of going to Al-Anon?” she asked.

I thought I knew all about Al-Anon, the sister 12-step group of Alcoholics Anonymous and a meeting place for anyone affected by someone else’s drinking. Mostly, what I knew was that I couldn’t possibly fit in with a group where people turn their will and their lives over to the care of God, as required in Step Three. But Val, who was not the churchly type, said Al-Anon had once helped her through a rough patch.

“There’s a wonderful group that’s been meeting in your neighbourhood for eons,” she said. “The mainstays are a couple of stalwart old ladies who buried their alcoholics long ago and don’t take any guff. If I meet you there, would you give it a try?”

The group met on a weekday morning, nowhere close to Val’s office. She hadn’t felt the need to attend lately, but for me she would make a special trip. That’s how I ended up on a folding chair in a church basement, drinking instant coffee from a styrofoam cup and reading aloud from the 12 Steps with more conviction than I ever dreamed I could muster. So what if I didn’t believe in God? I believed in the generosity of my friend and in the plainspoken wisdom of her Stalwart Old Ladies (who weren’t much older than I am today).

No poor-me laments got past them. They relentlessly challenged the rest of us to forget about changing other people’s behaviour and focus instead on changing our own. I remember a young woman I’ll call Angie who twisted her hands in her lap as she wondered how she’d ever get through another family Christmas with her cold, fault-finding sister. “I’ve always been the good girl, I’ve never complained,” she sighed. “And look where it’s got me.”

Some of us rushed to console her. Others speculated on the family dynamic that had driven the sisters apart. There were murmurs of approval when one woman insisted, her eyes full of fire, “It’s time to tell your sister the truth: ‘I’m not coming this year because I always have a terrible time.”

Just as Angie brightened, full of long-suppressed zeal to put that finger-wagging sister in her place, up spoke a Stalwart Old Lady. “Angie, your sister doesn’t need an explanation,” she said. “Just tell her you’ve made other plans.”

It’s been many years now since my last Al-Anon meeting, and I have yet to hear a piece of advice more transcendently pithy than those few words. In highly charged relationships, as in accessorizing or seasoning, less is more when it’s anchored by integrity. Al-Anon taught me that. Imperceptibly at first, I stopped fretting about how many drinks my son might have knocked back when I was not around to say, “Enough!” Meanwhile he grew up.

I suppose I might have found my way to Al-Anon without Val’s help. I might even have blundered through my son’s hard-partying years without any help from Al-Anon. Yet I like to think of the group as my friend’s gift to me. Every life has a story, discovered through long reflection on the jumble of events that compose it, for good and ill. In my story Val is the guide who appeared in a time of confusion and led me to a place of calm and purpose.

She’s on my mind today because her birthday, like mine, is next month and she’s no longer living to celebrate our bond. So here I am with you to share a little of what she left, her eloquent kindness.

Has someone else’s timely suggestion changed your life?  I’d love to know.

Click here for what I’ve learned the hard way about the pitfalls of giving advice. 

To learn more about my father’s long struggle with alcoholism, click here.


Posted by Rona

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