Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Getting Straight In Rural Communities

March 5, 2006

It is a big step to willingly go for treatment for alcoholism. Reality has finally sunk in that drinking has caused major personal and family problems. It was a conclusion long denied and resisted. The rural alcoholic wonders how friends and the community will perceive and treat him or her once treatment is over.

They appreciate the openness, honesty and sharing that takes place at the treatment center. They learn to accept themselves and understand the many factors that contributed to their problem drinking. Recovering alcoholics feel a strong need to continue that openness and wonder where they can find it in their rural community.

Finding support. The local AA club offers an abstaining support group. Members socialize and have fun together. AA members offer an alternative to the existing drinking and non-drinking community social groups.

Local clubs offer support that goes beyond the superficial drinking conversations of their former drinking buddies. However, participation doesn't mean anonymity in a small community where everybody knows everybody's business.

To get anonymity, the recovering alcoholic may choose to drive some distance to a neighboring AA club. The larger the city and the farther away, the better. However, the new relationships and support from the distant club members are not available as a local support system.

It is easy to quit after three for four times on the road. Those who attend AA in bigger cities - perhaps for a year or so - go back to their local club with a good idea on how AA is supposed to work. They also have the experience necessary to assume leadership roles in their local club.

If the recovering alcoholic attends enough meetings, they may gain enough strength to feel good about attending the AA club in their home community. Then the alcoholic crosses the final hurdle to their commitment to maintain sobriety - openly making their commitment to sobriety to their local friends and community.

Small town AA clubs. Having a good meeting in a small town atmosphere is more complicated than it is in the city. Some people are talking the talk and not walking the walk.

A newcomer to the group might find the meetings to be gab sessions, with lots of war stories about their drinking days, one upmanship and country gossip. The group members may not be sufficiently focused to work on their own 12 Step members program or to reach out to other alcoholics.

Newcomers may feel like a stranger trying to break into a social clique while long time members wait for the newcomer to prove him or herself. The smallness of a rural community may mean that some members may have had a history of not getting along. Personality clashes could affect the group.

Experienced leaders can help the group stay on track. Members of an effective 12 Step group works on their own steps to recovery and makes themselves available to others who have drinking problems. New members keep the group vital and focused.

Old-timers may want the focus to be on abstention. Addicts with a history of multiple drug use may be confronted with the prejudice and suspicions of alcoholics with an anti-drug bias. Younger addicts may want to focus on character traits, co-dependency and family issues raised in treatment.

When there are few members, the challenge is to make AA work properly. Skilled leaders keep the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous in the forefront. They address destructive influences that interfere with the effectiveness of the group. Without strong guiding hands, a local club can be sidetracked in their struggle to be effective.

Recovery beyond AA. A part of recovery is forming friendships with people not in the local AA club. Forming new social patterns in a rural community will test the social skills of someone who isn't used to going out and forming new friendships. This is a frightening challenge for the recovering alcoholic.

The new life will also mean changes in family relationships and strengthening the marital bond. This may be a rocky road as couples attempt to work out longstanding differences that took a back seat to the alcohol problem. The new lifestyle may mean fewer outside associations and learning to interact and enjoy life within the family.

Getting straight in a rural community takes extra courage. Swallowing pride is hard. Breaking old social habits is hard. Finding support is hard. Being exposed and vulnerable to gossip and judgment in a small community is hard. Why do people do it?

The devastation and pain from alcoholism becomes so bad that people will do whatever it takes to change their lives. In a rural community, it takes extra courage. The results are worth the price they pay.

- They give up alcohol and an alcoholic lifestyle.

- They are respected for the changes they make.

- They respect themselves.

- They live more open and honest lives.

- They identify and live up to the values they really care about instead of being swept along in a tide of booze.

They are better people. They have better marriages and family life. Except for a few in the drinking crowd, the community is glad for it and is proud of them.