The Crazy Old Men of Alcoholics Anonymous

By Harry Healy 06/01/16

Older people can live isolated lives. But every dark emotion thrives on isolation. I know.

The Crazy Old Men of AA
Snapping at the whippersnappers.

During the last several years of his life, drawn out in pain that was emotional as much as it was physical, my grandfather was mad at everybody: His sons (that’s my father and my career criminal of an uncle); my brother, who has devoted his life to getting high and sucking up government entitlements; and my busted out, spottily employed, crack-smoking cousins. Mad at everybody it seemed—but not me. 

I was living a different kind of life in a different city, and he didn’t see me that often. Otherwise, I’m sure I’d have landed on his shit list, too.

I’d knock on his door and let myself in to find him creaking around his kitchen or studying the obituary pages of a newspaper. Once he registered that he had company, he greeted me like this: “Your goddamn brother…” but it wasn’t clear if he meant my sibling, or having mistaken me for my father, that the target of his fury at that moment on that day, was my uncle. 

In his late 80s by then, he was dealing with some degree of dementia, although he knew exactly how much money he had (we were all after it), had no trouble keeping track of who owed him what, seethed over slights he endured forty years before, and recalled every sin committed against him, no matter how venial.

He served out his last chapter in squalor. A cleaning service fell well within his budget, but all they’d do was take his money and turn in a half-assed job. Preferable then, to rattle around in filth, the milk in the refrigerator spoiling, dressed in the same pair of pissed pants, because in addition to his many conditions and complaints, my grandfather was afflicted with bladder cancer. Anyway, that’s what the doctors told him. But what the hell did they know?  

My grandfather was the first Crazy Old Man I knew this intimately, but he was not an alcoholic. He drank whatever he felt like drinking, usually beer, whenever he felt like drinking it, he ate whatever he felt like eating, and made a lifelong habit out of putrid Italian cigarillos—but I can’t point to any incident where he was obviously drunk, and his drinking did not seem to interfere with his life.

But take his irascible personality-type, drown it for the bulk of its adult years in alcohol, and then (this is a critical element in the formula) age it and freeze-dry it in a couple decades of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the result is a much unloved AA type. 

Take, for example, Burt. Burt’s been retired for some time and he’s been in the program about thirty years—a benign character, or so it appeared, who drifts through my neighborhood AA meetings.    

Burt stands outside the handholding circle during the serenity prayer, a quirk that I admire. He’s quiet, another quality I envy because I am not, and when the sharing gets around to him, he ordinarily takes a pass. It’s tough to know what’s going on with Burt. It’s not as if he’s going to tell you. But AA doesn’t compel us to do anything, and he’s well within his rights on these counts. A bit of an odd duck, but so what?

And then a few months ago, a controversy burned within a space that has become a de facto clubhouse, not exclusively for AA meetings, but recovery groups of every stripe. A committee had been formed to do its best to oversee the various groups, but the folks involved found themselves bumping up against laws that regulate real estate and insurance. 

Almost nobody who attended the committee meetings had the faintest idea of what they were talking about, but typically, this didn’t prevent them from holding passionate viewpoints they were determined to express in full flood.

I’m opinionated and contrary by nature, maybe even provocative. But my experience has taught me to sidestep these issues. I learned not to talk but to listen, an expression of abject neutrality frozen on my face. Whatever the group decides, I’ll go along with that. Wisdom of the crowd, and all that. 

Not Burt. He couldn’t take another minute of it. He kicked a chair and raised his voice and cursed, not at the air, but at the people who disagreed with him. Burt delivered a command performance, completely out of character, and I was sounded out by some shocked attendees weeks after the fact. They’re still talking about it.

I thought harder about the incident, and about Burt. He doesn’t have a great deal of social grace. Obviously, right? He was never married, has no children, lives alone and is most likely gay, not that anybody cares about that, but I suspect—and this is all speculation—that a man of his generation and social circumstances took great pains to hide that truth. Maybe. But he doesn’t work. He’s got nothing that he has to do, nowhere he’s obliged to be at any particular hour. That’s a powerful one-two punch.   

With the controversy over the meeting space, Burt’s mind had something to settle on, a cause to be passionate about, something to while away the long, lonely hours. Motion attracts the eye.

Older people can live isolated lives. Widowed, divorced, lacking energy, and with all of their tics and their aches and pains, they’re hard to be around. But every dark emotion thrives on isolation. I know. With dozens of AA pals, and even with a family, for many seasons I withdrew to the familiarity of my desk and my mind.

There’s another guy I’ll call Larry that I’ve been friendly with, inside and outside of AA, for going on twenty years. He’s enjoyed sporadic success in the entertainment industry—more than most, that’s for sure—and he still works once in a while. He had regular employment until he got too old for that particular endeavor. Larry is far from young, but he isn’t elderly. I’d say he’s late-middle age, and occupying a stage of forced idleness he isn’t happy about.

Exploding the cliché of grandpa as techno-dunce, this guy is nimbler with social media than anybody I know, and he besieges various platforms to rave about the political scene. He provokes strong responses, as this was his intention. Larry hits back harder, and this ignites a days-long donnybrook of un-following and deleting, and the unleashing of a great deal of poisonous digital energy. Amusing? I guess. It looks like a waste of time, but time is about the only thing Larry has. And the irony is, the parallel universe of the Internet is its own purgatory of isolation. Despite his thousands of followers, Larry is very much alone.  

He’s even more cantankerous offline. He walks with a cane sometimes, the better to shake at the bus driver who dares turn his vehicle in front of him, or the bicyclist who startled him. No offhand remark is allowed to pass unchallenged, and then he’ll uncork some choice comments that validate his offense—the entire point being it’s plain to see how Larry is right and the other guy is wrong. In short, he’s become a three-dimensional caricature.

Habits of mind run deep, and they calcify with age. My grandfather was never an easygoing guy. Emerging from his hardscrabble immigrant beginnings, he was contentious and combative and fought for everything he earned.

In Burt’s case, taking his cue from the passivity that defines our era, that go-along-to-get-along placidity is the sheep’s clothing of an angry passive aggression. And my buddy Larry was always a bit of a tough guy who came of age in a tough milieu, was chiseled out in that environment, and made it work for him. But every eccentricity, whether formed by nature or by experience, every quirk, every idiosyncrasy, is exaggerated once Father Time has had his way with us.

Burt and Larry are grizzled AA veterans getting worse, not better, slipping into authentic Crazy Old-Manhood. They’re not under the earth yet, and that’s a distinct advantage they enjoy over my Crazy Old Man of a grandfather. But they’re about equal when you factor in the disappointment with the way their lives turned out.

I understand. On many days I’m disappointed, too.  

Age: 56. Situation: Staring down the other side of the mountain, the less hopeful one, a trail of minor successes and colossal flops behind me. Broke. Still trying to make it as a writer. Forecast: The irreversible decline. 

But I’m determined not to let incipient Crazy Old-Manhood define my remaining years. I try to do a written 10th step everyday—“Continued to take inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” I strive to be as honest as I can be with myself, and that, trust me, is no mean feat. I’m patient with the oldsters, and I’ll occasionally spring for a Crazy Old Man’s lunch, not because I’m such a great guy, but to take out some karmic insurance with the hope that when my time comes, somebody might do the same for me. 

And despite all of my bitching, let me say in the humblest way that I can, I recognize that I’m loved by a great number of people. That’s made all the difference, and given me a real appreciation for where I am in life.

At the time of my grandfather’s overdue demise, he had six great-grandchildren. To my way of thinking, that’s a true measure of success. In his will, he made a specific bequest of a vintage watch that was originally exquisite, but had disintegrated into an awful state of disrepair. He either came across it at a flea market (Crazy Old Man red flag? Junk collector) or held it in collateral on a loan. He also left a bit of money that I used to kill off some debt, and then I was broke again, but I devoted a chunk of that cash to having the watch restored. I put it on every once in a while because it’s too fine for everyday wear, but it helps me, quite literally, to keep track of the time. It is the most beautiful thing I own.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix