Thursday, March 3, 2011

My Thoughts On Charlie Sheen. Sort Of.

On one of Charlie Sheen's recent rambling rants, he was questioned about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).   His response was to call it a "bootleg cult" and claim it had only a "5% success rate".

Dr. Drew Pinksy (of Celebrity Rehab) was questioned about Sheen's claim, and his response was, "He's got a point. "[AA's] success rates aren't that great. But the fact is, it does work when people do it."

I'm not going to address Charlie Sheen's credibility, but the fact is that all this recent press has people talking about Alcoholics Anonymous.   I find it all fascinating.

The recent press about AA has got me thinking.   If you're looking closely you will note that I've never even typed 'AA' in any post on this blog.   This will likely be the only post where AA is mentioned.

The reason I don't speak publicly about AA is that I believe - strongly - that no individual should present themselves as a representative or spokesperson for AA.   This issue is addressed directly in AA's traditions (operating guidelines) that members shall "maintain anonymity at the level of press, radio and films", and that "anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities".

I agree with the intent behind these traditions, and I believe vigorously that anonymity is the cornerstone to AA's program of recovery.   Every individual who walks into an AA meeting deserves to feel safe, and their identity should be protected.   

I also believe, though, that the Traditions were developed when the existence of the internet and the pervasiveness of television couldn't have been imagined.    The world is seeing a LOT about addiction (reality TV shows, celebrity train wrecks, news coverage of the detritus of addiction - car accidents, suicides, broken families, crime) but how much are we seeing about recovery

So Charlie Sheen goes on a rant, spouts off a statistic about AA (which nobody will ever be able to verify or deny), calls it a cult, and overnight AA is being mentioned at the level of press and radio - thrust into the spotlight due to the media storm surrounding Sheen.  

People had really strong reactions to Sheen's statements, whether in agreement or disagreement.    Debates raged online about AA's effectiveness, and many people took it personally, regardless of which side of the debate they were on.

When asked what I think of all this, my response is this:   It doesn't matter.  

It doesn't matter what Charlie Sheen, Dr. Drew, or anyone thinks about AA's effectiveness.  It doesn't matter if anyone thinks it is a cult.    My opinion?  If AA doesn't work for you, that's okay.   If it does work for you, that's great.   Whatever helps you stay sober, and experience personal growth and peace of mind is awesome.   Whatever way fills up your mind, body and spirit with truth, compassion and forgiveness and removes your obsession to drink or use drugs - that is a good way.

But here is what Sheen's recent escapades really got me thinking about:  I believe a big problem we have today is a lack of discourse and understanding about recovery.  

All too often, the world's exposure to addiction is limited to when a celebrity publicly implodes and is hauled off to rehab.   The media swarms around a train wreck (and we watch... I do it, too) and then falls away when the antics die down.   If the person gets sober there isn't a juicy story anymore.

What happens after all the ugliness?   What is their life like on the other side of addiction?    You won't see much about that in the National Inquirer or splashed across TMZ.  

If they don't stay sober, though, we're going to hear all about it.  Train wrecks and relapses are great for ratings. 

The media is peppering us with images of addiction, but where is the counterbalancing point?  Where are the stories about recovery? 

Many people in recovery are reluctant to talk openly about it. They fear judgment and reprisal, and for good reason.     The stigma of alcoholism and addiction remains strong.    Please note: Breaking your own anonymity is a personal choice.  I know that many people can't, or won't, and I completely respect and understand this decision. 

Back to AA's traditions, and the concept of maintaining anonymity at the level of press, radio and film, and not putting personalities before principals.   The founders of AA knew what they were doing, and I believe their intent is clear:  don't speak for AA, and don't jeopardize anyone else's anonymity.  Ever.

However, I feel strongly that there needs to be more discourse about recovery.   All kinds of recovery.     The more the topic is discussed - without jeopardizing anyone's sobriety or anonymity - the more the stigma will be chipped away, the more the silent suffering will feel they can find help, and hope.

I believe a person can be a member of AA and still talk openly about addiction and recovery without running afoul of AA's traditions.     How are people in recovery - any kind of recovery - ever going to help other suffering addicts or alcoholics if we can't speak about our journeys?  

AA also states it is a program of "attraction, not promotion".     I can help attract people to recovery without attracting them to my particular program, and certainly without promoting it.

What works for me may not work for someone else.  It's a personal choice when, if and how someone decides to get help.   What program I follow doesn't matter at all to someone who doesn't want to get sober.   What does matter, in my opinion, is helping someone understand that recovery is possible, if they want it.   And that they get to choose how they go about it. 

I hope that is what I'm doing here on my little acre of the internet.    I will never preach any particular program of recovery.  Heck, I won't even tell someone they need to get sober, let alone tell them how to stay sober.  

My dream is that there is as much dialogue about recovery, some day, as there currently is about train wrecks.   I know - it's a pipe dream.

But I can dream.  And I will.


  1. Good Morning Ellie! I have been a bit fascinated with Sheen, too. The program that works for me is called Celebrate Recovery. It is faith based and has been my saving grace for over two years.

    My shame is gone and I am forgiven. I am also sober. I would love to talk with anyone who is considering getting help from any sort of habit or addiction.

    I am thankful for your voice Ellie. It DOES matter......

  2. Thank you for speaking openly about recovery. It is the hardest work. I am not convinced that talking or writing about how AA works is a breach of the anonymity promise..
    thank you for your bravery.
    Jeanne M

  3. I would hope that you would get more followers from this post, not less.
    I have a friend who gives her life to help others in AA, she was there, she gets it, and their support is her lifeline.
    So many do not have the support of their families ... I have not followed this new train wreck, it seems its has happened before, and with his attitude it will happen again.
    But for the people that this matters too, he should hush now.
    The media is a monster, feeding, and gorging and spitting out the bones ...
    wouldn't it be nice, just once, to see more support.

  4. I like your pipe dream.
    My head is dizzy from nodding profusely with every single sentence :)
    (and love love love your new blog design/updates!)

  5. This is SUCH an important post. And aren't so many of us actively recovering from something? Alcholism, drug addiction, depression, and on and on. Society doesn't celebrate the hard work at all.

    Thank you Ellie, as always, for being brave enough to write about what's real. What matters is what works. I'm right with you lady.

  6. The reason Sheen or anyone else would call AA a cult is ironically because of things like the Traditions, the "rules." It does look a lot like religion. And then there are those that are SERIOUS about abiding by those Traditions (look, we even capitalize it, like Bible!) and define themselves and their lives largely around AA.

    It strikes me that we addicts, we HUMANS, like to step as far as we can to one side or the other. We're extremists. Most of us feel more comfortable with feet firmly planted near one line or the other, the edges.

    Then we piss each other off, pointing our fingers from the far reaches where we can't hardly even SEE each other anymore.

    And that's exactly why it's good to talk about this. ALL of it. Even if the AA purists are going to stomp off because you mentioned AA on your blog. The thing that always gets me about that is that Dr. Bob and Bill W. were not silent publicly about AA. They wrote about it and talked about it. They wanted so badly to spread the word.

    Yes. We need to NEVER mention who we saw at a meeting or what they said. That's keeping it anonymous. And we shouldn't walk around preaching AA as the "poster child" for it because no one person should represent it, as you said. But talking about it in generalizations is not the issue/should not be the issue. It's sad to me when people take the Traditions to mean that you can't talk about your personal journey with recovery at all. Ugh, I can't imagine if you had not been doing that while I was still drinking. I needed your story. Your hope. I thank you for giving it to me.

    Sorry I wrote a book in your comments. Great thoughts/great post, Ellie.

  7. Great post, Ellie.
    And a very important perspective. Fact is, there is hope. There is recovery. There is a step and another and another.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Pam @writewrds

  8. Ellie,
    I don't know why anyone would unsubscribe because of this post. Having attended Al-Anon and seeing the impact AA has had on important people in my life, I think it is important to talk about how it saves lives, and how other programs save lives as well. If you don't share by example, how else will others know how it might help them?

  9. I'm very proud of you Elle, taking the high road. ANY way a person can reach recovery and stay there is the best way for them. Just like some diets work for some and not for others, some child-rearing books/suggestions work for some and not others. The way anything works for some and not others. We all have to overcome something, that's why we are here, to be tried and taught and to LEARN so we can go to the next life better people. You, my internet friend, are going to be there a much better person, and you are going to help OTHERS reach that same goal. Simply by being honest and open and sincere. By being, from what I have learned lurking here for the last year or so, Elle. I would love to meet you someday and just give you a hug. Since that will probably never happen, please wrap your arms around yourself and squeeze tight! That ((((HUG))) was from me!

  10. Heather of the EO left a great comment! I agree with her, and with you. We need to get our stories of recovery out there. How are we supposed to 'carry the message to other alcoholics' if we don't ever talk about it? I know when I got sober, blogs like yours and Stephanie Wilder Taylor's were a huge help to me. Because let's face it, women are still the minority in AA, and moms even more so. There is a HUGE, HUGE stigma around being a mom alcoholic, more so than any other type of person. Moms drink in silence, in secret, in shame. We need to know we are not alone, and people like you let us know that. Please don't ever stop sharing your story! It means so much to so many women!

  11. Whatever helps you stay sober, and experience personal growth and peace of mind is awesome. Whatever way fills up your mind, body and spirit with truth, compassion and forgiveness and removes your obsession to drink or use drugs - that is a good way.

    I am a compassionate person. I FEEL deeply. If we aren't there for each other- without judgement- then what does that say of humanity? Is it ugly? Just as ugly as a train-wreck or is it the rubber-neckers? I say it is all of the above.

    His words/actions are a cry for help. I don't judge someone that is reaching their hands in the air grasping for breath. If I could I reach my hand to help instead.

    Your post... VERY well written.

  12. I loved the post. I've been watching the Charlie Sheen unraveling with rapt attention, and even the media that's acknowledging our sick collective interest hasn't said anything about a national discussion on recovery. You couldn't be more right, and your post thoughtfully considers every angle of this difficult issue. I came across your blog bc of a RT today; I plan to be a regular reader! Thank you-

  13. You make some great points. I agree about how addicted (ironic, eh?) we are to warching the crash and burn, but the recovery remains almost invisible in the media.

  14. The other thing I was thinking is that if you, Ellie, are hewing as best you can to the Traditions, and scores of others who have a "successful" recovery (mindful that it's a daily reprieve) also are, and thus none of these bloggers, authors, etc. even type "AA" -- what will a search engine dredge up? Probably a lot of disenchanted people for whom the program was, for whatever reason, a disappointment. Type in "recovery" and "meeting", and you'd probably get a different set of perspectives.

    The other thing is, in recovery memoirs, most people are oblique but it's pretty obvious that they're talking about AA or perhaps NA. So it's a quasi-anonymity. I'm not sure how this plays out in the public consciousness, frankly.

    But I also think -- and maybe this is just within my hard-drinking family and ethnic community -- that almost everyone knows someone whom AA has helped immeasurably.

    Just a few thoughts.

    ps did you guys see that NYT op-ed about Sheen and women? Really thought-provoking.

  15. Wonderful thoughtful post, Ellie. I can't imagine why anyone would unsubscribe over it. I guess I fail to see the controversy.

    Being on the recovering end of things today, I'm still drawn to the train wreck, BUT I'm even MORE drawn to those in the public eye who shared their stories of recovery, none of which I've ever heard mentiona AA. You can sort of tell if that's what they're engaged with by some of their terminiology, but the general public would not normally know that vernacular. I love stories of recovery and healing SO much more than those of the meltdowns. As a recovering alcoholic, I think I'm still drawn to the public drama because inside me burns the hope that this will be someone's bottom and they will finally seek help and feel peace.

  16. Thank you, everyone, for your supportive comments. I really appreciate it. I was feeling down this morning when I saw that people were offended by what I said, but I think I'm finally at a place in my own recovery where I'm getting okay with agreeing to disagree with people in the recovery community. It's part of getting over my people-pleasing pathology, I think.

    And, as Leah points out, I will continue to talk about "recovery" and "meetings", in the most general terms, and I'm not promoting one program, or speaking for it; I'm trying to keep an open dialogue about women, addiction and recovery out there in the world.


  17. Ellie, I discovered your blog from a retweet by Carry It Forward, and you are right on with this post. AA has no opinion, nor should it, according to the tradition, hence the AA name may not be drawn into any controversy. Your commentary is responsible and sane. Subscribing and looking 4wd to reading more. Garrett

  18. Ellie, I love this post. I think that AA is respected so widely that as a program it will be fine, but I do worry that Charlie is going to give some suffering addicts just the ammunition they need to keep going hard, and some of the will surely die. Like you, I believe very strongly that there are many paths of recovery, and whatever works for people is their business and their own blessing. My own recovery home is in NA, but I am forever grateful to AA for being the genesis of my program. As I continue to grow in recovery, I work hard to let go of judgment of others and of myself. Not judging where or how others recover is a really good place to start. Thank you for reminding me about that, and for writing such a thoughtful and respectful piece.