November 9, 2008

73 Years' Sober

For Alcoholics Anonymous - an organization that often gets the short shrift in popular culture - this is a momentous year because AA celebrates its 73rd anniversary.

As many of you know, my professional life began as a substance abuse counselor, soon leading to my dark past as a "community organizer" for this organization. I am writing this post not as a member of AA (an organization for which - gratefully - I have never qualified), but have friends whose lives have been saved - and changed - by their participation. Unfortunately, recovering people still not only have the stigma of addiction, but also...well, let's summarize the issue in two words: James Frey.

Twelve Step philosophy often gets short shrift in popular culture- you may get the occasional gem, but mostly, it's either "let's wallow in human misery with a slight dash of redemption" or complete and utter tripe like 28 Days. I sometimes wish a major super-hero would enter recovery (and I have a possible nominee)...if Joe Quesada can stop Marvel characters from smoking, we can have a hero in rehab.
My goal in this post is to help educate, advocate, and well...quite frankly, share some things that have helped me better understand.

Although there's a lot of mythologizing about how AA came along, a good resource - probably better than any biography - is the TV movie My Name Is Bill W. As an early history of AA, it's pretty cool, but as a typical movie-of-the-week, it actually has a lot more polish than one would expect. Yes, it hits all of the familiar tropes, but with one distinction - it's not the man who finds recovery; it's the two men who find their own humanity and connectedness, and realize that in that connectedness they find salvation. What works about the movie, quite frankly, is the casting - both James Woods and James Garner are used well in their respective roles as Bill Wilson & Dr. Bob Smith (in fact, you could even suggest that there was some typecasting - Woods' wired quality enlivening his portrayal of Bill. W, and Garner's more laconic quality bringing a great down-to-earth quality to Dr. Smith) Add JoBeth Williams and Gary Sinise, and you have a pretty decent film. It won't convert you to the 12 Steps (and critics of 12 Step programs, please note - this isn't an endorsement; just an attempt to educate), but it is a pretty powerful film.

Luckily, for a more recent, brutally honest look at addiction, David Carr's The Night of the Gun is a great tale of how a man not only deals/has dealt with his addiction...but is also a great meditation on honesty, memory, and truth. It does contain the necessary "story beats" of a man fighting his demons...but on much deeper level, it's about a man learning to retrust his memory, who is seeking the truth despite knowing that his own addiction can distort perceptions. (There's an accompanying web site that contains backing documents). Carr's journey takes him through some harrowing experiences, with some pop cultural touchstones (such as Tom Arnold and Bob Stinson), but ultimately, this is not a story with a happy ending, because the ultimate lesson of Carr's book - and which is suggested by the end of My Name is Bill W - is that recovery is a process not of gaining a God and having life work out; but relying less on ego and regaining one's humanity.

It would be easy to discuss the impact of AA on not only addiction treatment, but also on our culture as a whole. It's much easier to show how it and its principles have impacted on others. These are works you definitely must experience for yourself.

My Name is Bill W: Highly Recommended
The Night of the Gun: Highly Recommended

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

Final JEOPARDY! October 17, 2008: The co-founder of this respected org. refused to appear on the cover of Time Mag., even with his back turned.

None of the contestants got this right, though I did. Really.

The answer of course, is What is AA?