Admitting that you’re in a Twelve Step group is officially condoned by the fellowship, while confessing you’re in AA is strictly verboten. What exactly is the point?
My name is Leonard Buschel, and I haven’t had a drink in 19 years. I am an addiction survivor. I checked myself into the Betty Ford Center on August 4, 1994. I am also a proud member in good standing of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) – well, until I just wrote this last sentence. I’m still proud, but my good standing is no doubt now in question.
I’m neither here to speak for AA, nor endorse or recommend it. I won’t tell you the name of any member I know, no matter how brilliant, compassionate, loving, wonderful or famous. But if they want to tell you they’re in AA, that’s okay with me. I thought I’d mention it just to explain to people where I disappear to for an hour several times a week.
Several members of my home group (an AA meeting that someone attends every week when physically possible—I’ve attended mine religiously for 15 years) insist on introducing themselves by their full names. Why? It’s because a few years ago, one of our regulars, Jack D, was hit by a car and hospitalized. We wanted to visit our fallen comrade; but since no one knew his last name, the hospital couldn’t tell us what room he was in. I see no reason to hide your last name from the members of your home group. It’s not like Akron, OH, in 1935, when even a street-sweeper would be demonized if they were openly an alcoholic seeking help – let alone a doctor, pastor or teacher.
One of AA’s strongest suggestions to its members is to live a life of rigorous honesty. How does one reconcile that with being told you can’t tell a reporter you’re in AA? The organization is Alcoholics Anonymous, not Alcoholics Secretive.
If someone can say, “I used to have a problem with alcohol, and now I’m in recovery and attend Twelve Step meetings,” why can’t they just say, “I’m in AA”?
The main cliché used to support the “anonymous” rule in AA is that if a high profile celebrity, politician or sports star revealed to the world that they were in Alcoholics Anonymous and then they relapsed, the entire world would conclude that AA doesn’t work. I think that’s ridiculous. Society would cite the individual, or perhaps even the disease of addiction itself, as the culprit. How many people really blame AA for Lindsey Lohan’s relapses or Charlie Sheen’s career trajectory?
I believe the rule is that I can’t tell anyone (reporter, girlfriend or neighbor) that “you” are in AA, and no one can “speak for AA”. No one person represents AA. I love the idea that an international organization has no official spokesperson. AA is a very successful grassroots organization with no president or elected officials, except local secretaries and treasurers who chair neighborhood meetings, usually for no more than six months in a row.
Step Twelve says, “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions.” Is this a de facto insistence that you have to be a spiritual person in order for this tradition to be important to you? It would, therefore, not apply to an agnostic, a pagan or someone who does not believe that only by living a spiritual life can he or she stay sober and be free from addiction.
Everybody knows somebody who’s either in recovery or has a close friend or family member in recovery. It’s not like 1935, when the only visible drunks were the ones on Skid Row, while good families kept their alcoholic relatives in seclusion. People now have more information and personal experience with addiction, thus have a better understanding and more compassion for those of us who suffer from addictive disorders. Except the media, which loves to sensationalize addiction and relapse every chance they get.
In America and the UK there is a vibrant and effective recovery movement, but the only media attention given to this is not about the healing, just the hell. This demonstrates that a cross between Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (Celebrity Rehab), The Lone Ranger (Intervention), or the Orwellian with a twist of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (Sober House) sells more soap than sobriety.
Society has awakened to the dilemma of the alcoholic, whether in recovery or not. The prejudice against addictive disorders has diminished, thanks to such organizations as the American Medical Association (AMA), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), Faces and Voices of Recovery. Also great publications like Renew Everyday, The Fix, In Recovery, 12-Step Gazettes, Counselor, The Phoenix, Sober World, and, of course, the publication you’re currently reading.
Recently there was a staged reading of the play Bill W. and Dr. Bob at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles starring Martin Sheen, Hank Azaria and half a dozen other well-known actors. During the Q&A afterwards, William Cope Moyers asked one of the performers why he gave up a Monday night to perform in this play for free. The actor had several good answers, but would not come out and say, “It’s because I’m in AA, and it saved my life.”
Sometimes the way people skirt around the issue of being “in recovery”, but not mentioning AA, reminds me of being in a school music recital and being afraid to tell anyone that you take piano lessons.
The issue of anonymity was recently addressed by Susan Cheever in a much-publicized article she wrote for The Fix. She wrote, “We are in the midst of a public health crisis when it comes to understanding and treating addiction. AA’s principle of anonymity may only be contributing to general confusion and prejudice. Talking about being in recovery without mentioning AA is like pretending to be a little bit pregnant.”
Speaking about AA in his review of The Motherf***er In the Hat, David Carr says, “As a matter of course, we don’t say the name of the program aloud. It is both a superstition and a matter of tradition. But anybody who has ever been in one of those rooms knows exactly what he is talking about.”
I think of Tevye at the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof insisting his family practice TRADITION! Then, little by little, one daughter after another doesn’t adhere to the traditions – and Tevye learns that times change and love is what matters most.
The Twelve Traditions are not the Ten Commandments; AA is not a religion; Bill Wilson wasn’t Moses; Dr. Bob wasn’t Jesus. Those who attend AA meetings do so simply because they don’t want to drink and because they enjoy the energy and fellowship that meetings provide.
Last year, while preparing for the REEL Recovery Film Festival in Los Angeles, I was at lunch with Roberta Monroe, a maven of the film festival circuit. A well known actress whom I met in AA joined us. Roberta had no problem acknowledging her homosexuality, but the actress was afraid to mention that she was in AA. These are obviously both huge and important aspects of their lives – why should one be a secret?
I smile at the coy quote in Counselor magazine (February 2011) from a review of Jane Velez-Mitchell’s book Addict Nation: “Those who read her book, I Want, are familiar with Velez-Mitchell’s struggles with alcohol, food and work addictions, and how she embraced the Twelve Step methodology to move past her destructive behaviors and achieve both physical and mental sobriety.”
A well-known criminal attorney and frequent guest on CNN related that when he had a few months sober, he was having some doubts about continuing what he felt was a monk’s way of life. He was at a local market about to purchase some vodka and OJ. While waiting in line, thumbing through a celebrity magazine, he read that Rob Lowe had quit drinking and was in a Twelve Step program for alcoholics. The attorney put down the bottle of vodka and the magazine, paid for the OJ and went directly to an AA meeting. He has not had a drink in twelve years. If Rob Lowe had kept his recovery on the down-low and secretive, Los Angeles would be minus one powerfully effective criminal attorney and a very handsome pundit.
If an actor can use his name to sell tickets, maybe it’s time to use his name to save a few lives.
According to Dr. Bob and The Good Old Timers, a book about the early days of AA in the Midwest, Dr. Bob is recalled saying, “If I got up to speak and gave my name as Dr. Bob S., people who needed help would have a hard time getting in touch with me.” Dr. Bob often introduced himself as “Dr. Bob Smith, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous”, as did Betty Ford.
In New York during the REEL Recovery Film Festival at the Quad Cinema, on October 1, 2013, my nonprofit organization, Writers In Treatment with the Writers Guild of America-East, produced our prestigious event, Chasing the Muse … Stone Cold Sober: A Candid Conversation About Creativity and Recovery. The panel consisted of David Carr, author and award winning New York Times journalist; author Lawrence Block; Michael Winship, President of WGAe; author Susan Cheever; renaissance man Malachy McCourt with William Cope Moyers moderating. No one mentioned AA, but none of the audience members didn’t know what they were talking about when they referred to “working the steps, calling their sponsor” and “going to meetings”. After the discussion, Robert Downey Sr. came over to me to extol the courage, honesty and personal integrity these artists and writers had demonstrated, and was again inspired by the remarkable stories of people in recovery, stories that left out any mention of AA or NA. How does denying AA and/or NA any praise or credit help anyone, including the addict or alcoholic who still suffers? How does anyone know that AA works, if no one in AA can say it works?
In his article for The Fix, Charles Fleming quotes Brian Freedman, an executive producer with the Oprah Winfrey Network, who says, “I don’t know if there’s greater acceptance of addiction, but there’s certainly a greater acceptance of recovery.”
The Internet and social media have affected every aspect of life and the way we live it. How can we expect it not to change the way people practice and participate in Twelve Step programs? The point is, there is a new paradigm emerging. I have at least 500 friends on Facebook who openly discuss being sober and in the program. I’ve seen a woman invite people on her wall to hear her speak at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting, giving out the address and time of the meeting. I’m sure not all her 1,800 Facebook friends are in the program. I have even seen postings from lazy AA secretaries asking if any friends were available to be the speaker at her meeting. To me, that’s an appalling absence of the necessary and essential intimacy that AA encourages from its members. Sometimes people stretch boundaries and go too far, even for me.
The truth is I really love AA. It is an organization I have felt closer to, more indebted to and prouder to be a part of than the Boy Scouts, Beth Judah synagogue, the NRA, Naropa University, United Airlines Frequent Flyer Emeritus Club, the Mile High Club or the Green Party. Only my membership in the Buschel family counts for more.
David Dodd writes in the preface in his 1996 book, Playing It Straight (a compilation of more than two dozen profiles of prominent celebrities in recovery), “…[M]any people in Playing It Straight who frequent AA meetings and attribute their successful recovery to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are unable to mention the program by name.” Ironically, the only people, save some heroic memoirists, who write about AA are not in AA.
It’s like an open secret. Everyone knows, but nobody’s willing to take a stance.
But why is that? AA is not the Cosa Nostra, the KKK, Skull & Bones Society or the Illuminati. Indeed, one of AA’s favorite aphorisms is, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” So why do we continue to deny our association with this life-saving program? Times and attitudes toward addiction have changed radically in the past few years. Isn’t it time for AA to change with them?
Leonard Lee Buschel is the founder of Writers in Treatment, a nonprofit organization based in Studio City, CA, that helps individuals in the writing industry suffering from addictive disorders. Writers In Treatment also produces the International REEL Recovery Film Festival, Experience, Strength and Hope Award Show, and the weekly Addiction/Recovery eBulletin. Buschel is a California Certified Substance Abuse Counselor.
Anonymity – A New Paradigm? – article in the Addiction Recovery eBulletin