Keep Celebrity Worship Out of AA

By Harry Healy 04/07/13

We seem increasingly incapable of treating famous people just like anyone else in the rooms. The celebs trying to get sober lose out—and so do the rest of us.

Keep coming back! Paparazzi via Shutterstock

Some years ago, coming down from a pair of spectacular seasons, a high-profile pro jock was suffering through a dramatic decline in his production. Aside from the aches and pains that are the normal annoyances of a guy lucky enough to have a career as a professional athlete, there was nothing physically the matter with him.

The rumors started. They were about his drinking. The whispers got louder. His coach, a notorious blowhard, ruminated publicly about this player’s alcohol consumption. Eventually a reporter confronted him about his drinking, and then came the coup de grace: a scurrilous notice in a gossip column that spotted the athlete coming and going from a tucked-away but still widely known AA clubhouse.

Those aches and pains became chronic, developing into serious injuries that required surgery. The chatter snapped at the player’s heels during an attempted comeback. Were those really injuries, or were his physical problems the manifestations of, or worse, cover for, his alcoholism? A few years later, he washed out of the sport for good, and subsequent allegations tied him to the use of performance enhancing drugs.

There’s dignity in anybody trying to get sober: the butcher, the baker, the all-star jock, the headline-grabbing actress. They're all entitled to that dignity. If only we’ll let them have it.

It would be naïve to expect the press and the public to respect the anonymity of a celebrated personality who was, clearly to some degree, struggling with his drinking. But I always wondered about the source for the item that ran in that gossip column, and shuddered to think it might have been an AA member.

When I was new and trying to get the program in the early ‘90s, wondering if I belonged in AA at all, there was nobody musing publicly about what a mess my drinking had made of my life. The road to sobriety in AA is fraught with pitfalls for all of us. Painful as it is for me to admit this, the well known, the celebrated, the famous, might just have it harder. I have been sighted coming and going from thousands of AA meetings. The difference between me and that ex-jock is that nobody knows who I am and nobody cares. This has been very much to my advantage.

Our celebrity culture is past critical mass. It could not be more obnoxious if it were actively trying to be. But in our meetings we can provide at least some of the antidote to that contagion, if we use common sense and—here’s a word—humility. We should treat our outsize personalities with discretion. There’s dignity in anybody trying to get sober: the butcher, the baker, the all-star jock, the headline-grabbing actress. They're all entitled to that dignity. If only we’ll let them have it.

To wit: How about some self-restraint? The actor might not want to hear your critique of his Hamlet right after a meeting. And the quarterback may not feel like reminiscing about that championship season while he’s trying to keep his head low. Interpret social cues. But by the same token, and by all means, if the celebrity looks particularly hopeless or lost, or in the highly unlikely event he’s being ignored, extend a hand. Introduce yourself. If the guy wants to talk, he will. If he doesn’t, then blow.

Alas, the blade slices both ways, and here’s an example. A while ago, a celebrated type in town on business was making regular appearances at my home group. Not that big of a deal. It’s a huge Manhattan meeting, and New Yorkers are generally pretty blasé about celebrities. (Or they used to be. This shift is part of what I’m talking about.) This guy had a hard-earned reputation, which was terrible. He seemed fairly confident that most people in the room were aware of that, and maybe they were, but he was making his bad-boy image work for him. He had also been very public about his attempts to get sober.

This time, he assured to group, it was going to be different. He had a sober coach with him. That’s right, a sober coach. Some hapless hanger-on hired by his employer—a whole other issue—to keep Mr. Celebrity on the straight and narrow while he completed his work (and satisfied the actuaries at the company insuring his project). Our visitor could have simply showed up at the meeting and listened, although that would’ve cut against his personal grain, and would hardly satisfy his longing for attention.

On the sidewalk after the meeting, the celebrity was swarmed by well-wishers desperate to bask in the glow of his renown. Would these same members have been as eager to back-slap some schlub who had been, because of his drinking, fired from his job and kicked out of the house by his wife? The short answer is no. A little while after that, Celebrity suffered another booze-fueled public blowout. Guess his sober coach fell down on the job. Or maybe it was the coach’s night off. But Celebrity was soon making talk show appearances to promote another project, quite humbly and charmingly explaining himself away as a flawed human being who was merely doing the best he could. Who can argue with that?

Celebrity worship has also completely warped the understanding of the 11th and 12th Traditions—the former dealing with anonymity at the level of general publicity, and the latter with the anonymity of the individual member. Go to any Traditions meeting, and I mean any Traditions meeting, and somebody will fling out the name of some celebrity whose recent struggles with addiction have been slapped around in the news, with the rueful addendum that so-and-so celebrity individual, new to the program and ignorant of the Traditions, is acting as a spokesman for AA, and if that person doesn’t make it, by gosh, people will think AA doesn’t work.

Nonsense. Nobody thinks that any more, if they ever did. You would be hard-pressed to find an adult American who does not, at this point, know somebody at some stage of recovery, with its slips and slides, its faults and failings and yes, its successes. The member piping up about his rocking horse of a celebrity in order to make this banal point (often re-made two or three times, by interchanging celebrity names) seems keener to associate himself with the celebrity—or to notify the group that he does, in fact, own a television set—than to shed any light on the Tradition.

Personally, I refrain from identifying myself as an alcoholic anywhere outside an AA meeting, unless, and this is a big one, I’m doing face-to-face 12th-Step work. And I would never publicly comment on the sobriety, or the lack thereof, of any other AA member, famous, infamous, or obscure, not even at a meeting. And publicly, well, Harry Healy isn’t my name. I’m enough of an AA guy to leave my real name out of this piece, and all of the other writing I’ve done about AA. But that’s my choice. Somebody else might make another one. And that’s their business. The Traditions of AA exist to protect AA groups from their wacky individual members. This isn’t new: The book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions was published 60 years ago. AA has always been wacky. It has also always been effective, and it will work if we allow it to, for anybody who wants it, post-rehab celebrity flame-outs notwithstanding.

I have to admit it, though: Fame is a hard bitch to resist. Looking into the crowd of a boisterous meeting I had been asked to lead, I locked eyes with an entertainer I greatly admire. To put it bluntly, I’m a fan. I had to marshal what little courage I have not to address my remarks directly to this person, but to also regard the toothless methadonian, the cranky old-timer, the pink-clouded service junkie with a whopping two years of sobriety. I owe them as much attention as the guy I was, to my shame, trying to impress. Maybe I owe them more.

Harry Healy is a pseudonym for a writer in New York. He last wrote for The Fix about the value of a traditional approach to AA.

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