As AA's profile -- for a variety of reasons -- has continued to rise, both as a treatment for alcoholism and as a larger 12 Step "movement," it has understandably -- even appropriately -- come under greater scrutiny.
From the 50+ year old film "The Days of Wine and Roses" (released in 1962, and no doubt at least partly responsible for that classic image so many of us had in our heads of what an AA meeting looked like: sad, unshaven almost-bums in raincoats, staring listlessly into the distance or earnestly into the camera. Watch for Jack Klugman as Jack Lemmon's sponsor! Trippy!) to the currently-showing "Mom" (CBS sitcom which debuted in 2013 and is so full of AA it almost counts as going to a meeting.*) there's been a growing awareness of AA in the public consciousness. (AA history credits the then-famous Jack Alexander for his article published in the March 1, 1941 edition of the Saturday Evening Post for initially putting us on the map.)
On the one hand this is all right and good. While we maintain (and promise) anonymity so that people who wonder if they are alcoholic -- or if AA is right for them -- can come to a meeting and check it out without fear of stigma or reprisal, AA is not a secret society. Over time anonymity has also served an important spiritual purpose within the rooms; that which helps tamp down our often rampant egotism. It is a great equalizer. I don't want to know, when you're sharing, if you're a doctor or a hooker, as I will inevitably -- even if it is unwillingly -- have a bias which colors how I hear what you say. (I trust hookers more than I trust doctors. No offense to any medical professionals reading along at home. I didn't say I didn't trust you at all, just that I trust sober hookers more.) Of course regular attendees eventually get to know each other, but as a larger framework anonymity is a key element to what makes the whole thing work.
On the other hand, this elevated profile for AA really spooks me. I get uncomfortable with it. I cannot easily dismiss the feeling that, while the spotlight does indeed illuminate and communicate, it can also just as easily distort. Or burn. (I am not talking about an organization's transparency regarding what it is and how it operates. That's an illumination of an entirely different spectrum. I'm talking about attention from the media, in all its Hydra-like, many headed forms now.)
There are people who are rabidly anti-AA, and some of them have what sound like reasonable concerns, though the intense level of their antipathy always makes me both a little puzzled and a little sad. And there are people who are dogmatically pro-AA, whose passion is laudable for their own recovery, but I feel is sometimes strident and off-putting when talking to newcomers or people not in the program.
As AA's profile -- and representation -- has risen (I swear, there was an entire season on TV not long ago where at least one supporting character on every single show I tuned into -- or even channel surfed by -- was sitting in the ubiquitous church basement holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee, wearing an expression of intense sympathy and nodding) I have gotten many more emails asking for my thoughts regarding what I'll call, for shorthand purposes only, "backlash."
And by using the term "backlash" I'm not talking about honest inquiry, general curiosity, or even the very worthy open-minded challenge to some of what AA suggests as a treatment for addiction. I am referring more to talking points or disingenuous questions which I feel are either misinformed or misrepresent AA.
This is a good time to say yet again that I AM NOT A SPOKESPERSON FOR ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS. There is no such thing. As always, all I offer here is my experience from being an active, sober member of AA for close to 30 years now.
With all that said (I promise when I started I told myself, "Mr. SponsorPants, keep this little intro brief." Ah well, I try... or, as some have suggested, I'm trying. Very, very trying.) here is an email with a common question of late:
Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
My brother heard a story in the news about AA and he says that one of the things the story said is that it's bad for me to constantly call myself an alcoholic. What would you say to that?
Dear Bad Label,
Is it "bad" for you to call yourself an alcoholic?
My first answer to that is... maybe. That has not been my experience, but I understand where the question comes from. (I want to stay open minded about all points in these discussions, and not come back with a defensive, knee-jerk response.)
There is merit to the idea that I don't want a disease to "become my identity" -- and we can look to any of our brothers and sisters who are long term survivors of cancer or HIV for counsel and experience on this.
But the point (for me) when it comes to regularly identifying as an alcoholic is not that it's about making it "who I am" so much as it is reminding me "what I have."
A diabetic should probably remind themselves pretty firmly that they are in fact, a diabetic, every time they are considering the tasty dessert section of a restaurant menu. Is that making the disease their "identity" or keeping important information uppermost in mind when confronted with, for lack of a less biblical term, "temptation?" They have a medical condition and under a variety of circumstances they need to remember that fact so they make better, health-based decisions. I think the analogy is a good fit.
From my own personal experience I believe that AA's Big Book is right when it suggests there is a "curious mental blank spot" which happens in the mind of an alcoholic when we consider taking a drink. We can't seem to remember with sufficient clarity or force why taking that first drink is a bad idea. Or, conversely, we vaguely admit that it's not smart, but we're able to rationalize away whatever concerns we have with insanely trivial reasoning. No matter how bad things were yesterday, (and if you're an active addict of any stripe things can be very, very bad yesterday) today is a different story, and drinking or using is an option again.
So when I regularly identify as an alcoholic, it's not that I am affirming a negative identity -- I am remembering my diagnosis.
I'll go so far as to say that there were times when I thought about drinking and though I could not remember why it was a bad idea, I could at least remember that it was a bad idea.
And while it took more than that knowledge alone to keep me from walking into the bar that night, I think it likely that, because I'd spent a good amount of time over the course of my recovery reminding myself of my diagnosis, I was able to keep my thinking within a certain framework.
I hope, somewhat at least, that answers your question.
Lastly, for what it's worth, sibling relationships can be fraught and contentious (in fact I think two of my siblings should actually be named Fraught and Contentious), but consider that, even if your brother is not communicating in the most supportive manner, he still may only be trying to look out for you.
Ultimately, it's not anyone else's job to understand AA or what or why it suggests what it does.
Cheers, and keep coming back!
* I said almost.