Friday, February 25, 2011

Sheen, Lohan and Arquette.

You know, there's been an inordinate amount of interest and commentary on addiction as of late, Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, and yesterday on Oprah, David Arquette. I am filled with personal thoughts about all of this, of course, but I hesitate to throw my opinion into the mix.

Some years back I did something I said I'd never, ever do: I went back to school. But not to get my Ph.D. or anything like that. I decided to go back and get my C.A.D.C. For those not familiar with that, it stands for Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor.

I even dropped out of the theatre world for a few years in order to do something noble, something 'hands on,' something that might help people and not just this silly little 'pretend' business I had been in all my life. I was very serious and very committed. I thought I could possibly change the world in some small way. I was an idiot.

This subject is so deep, so full of pitfalls, so complicated, so full of misunderstanding it is, frankly, nearly impossible to weigh in with anything in the least bit helpful. So I won't try. Besides, after a few years I threw up my hands in disgust and walked away from drug and alcohol counseling. The primary reason is the simple fact that it is just overflowing with hypocrisy. And, like Holden Caulfield, it is the one thing above all others that brings out the devil in me.

My wife likes these shows on television about interventions and rehabilitations and these so-called experts yammering on about how to 'beat addiction.' I occasionally watch them with her. The difference is I watch with a jaded and cynical eye and she watches with her usual optimistic and hopeful eye.

Alcoholics Anonymous is, in my opinion, at its very core, the most altruistic social movement of the twentieth century. It has saved countless lives. It is an organization, on paper anyway, absolutely free of selfish motives. Unfortunately, it is run by human beings. And because of that, it regularly falls morally short of its ideals.

Charlie Sheen recently called AA 'brainwashing.' Gasps of offense were heard around the world. But you know what? He's right. That's exactly what AA is. It has never pretended to be anything else. It is brainwashing in the same sense Christianity is brainwashing, or capitalism, or socialism, or any other code of living that requires a single paradigm shift in one's thinking. Ultimately, and I'm sure this will upset many who have built their lives around it, it is a band-aid for the disease of addiction, at best. In addition, it not only encourages, it demands a completely new and often uncomfortable way of looking at life. And that, Gentle Reader, is no small potato, it's huge, it's massive, it's the difference between life and death for many.

The problem is, unless one is ready to live this new life every single moment for the rest of eternity it is doomed to failure.

Now don't misunderstand, I've known men and women to achieve sobriety and maintain it for thirty, forty, fifty years and more. They are people who've thrown off their 'demons' and have accepted and embraced this new way of thinking, this new way of living. They have somehow managed to build a bridge over that impossibly deep canyon called 'faith.' But not without cost. Not without struggle. A phrase in the 'program' as it is called by insiders, is 'one day at a time.' In other words, it's impossible to visualize a lifetime of sobriety. But it is possible to not take a drink or do a drug for twenty-four hours. Sometimes, in fact, in the beginning, it's 'one hour at a time,' or 'one minute at a time.' For those not afflicted with this most misunderstood disease, this is incomprehensible.

I've written an entire play about it, in fact. Praying Small. A very successful play, in the final analysis. Written when I was not so sullied by the human element of AA. But the play, at best, only scratches the surface.

Here's the thing about addiction: there is no known cure. Sobriety is contingent on one's 'daily maintenance, physically and spiritually.' And again, that ain't no small thing.

Okay, I've sort of wandered away from my point. I digress. The point is, I suppose, that Lohan and Sheen live in a reality that cannot be easily judged. And, not to drop names, but way, way back in my NY days I hoisted a few with Charlie. Our paths crossed often in a class we were both taking. Obviously, we didn't stay in touch and I'd be surprised if he even remembered who I am now.

This addiction business is an indescribably depressing subject. The recidivism rate is off the charts. And those not afflicted are always astounded by this. But why shouldn't it be? There is no cure. It's not now, nor has it ever been, a question of 'just say no.' That's as ludicrous as just saying no to cancer. Nancy Reagan, as well-intentioned as I'm sure she was, set back twelve-step programs decades with that little catch-phrase.

And then there was that jaw-dropping interview with David Arquette yesterday on Oprah. Angie and I got into a gentle disagreement over that. I was, frankly, appalled. Here this guy is, TWO WEEKS out of rehab, and he goes on national television to say he 'now has the tools' to cope with this disease. Good Lord, that's tantamount to someone going on national television and announcing they've discovered the path to world peace in the past week. Now, believe me, I understand the zealousness of the recently converted. But years in the business of recovery as a counselor has taught me how ludicrous that is.

I suspect Mr. Arquette had ulterior motives. Probably trying to get his wife back. Nothing wrong with that. Just terribly misguided. And this whole 'ulterior motives' thing is exactly why the success rate of AA has been estimated at somewhere around five percent. Yes. Ninety-five percent, or thereabouts, of the people who turn to AA for help eventually drink or do drugs again. It's a statistic AA is not especially proud of. But five percent is better than no percent.

My own personal journey has been littered with mistakes, bad decisions, rage, anger, shame, resentment, relapse and remorse. I have no answers, not a single one. I'd like to make that clear.

I have friends in 'the program' who get awfully stringent about it after awhile. Especially the 'old timers' as they're called. The brainwashing has been successful and they are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is only one way to get and stay sober: AA and the Big Book (the 'how to' manual written mostly by one of the founders, Bill Wilson). And one certainly can't argue with success; it worked for them. And I don't necessarily think they're wrong, I just think their lack of imagination is wrong.

Old time AAers are the most inflexible people I know. They've discarded the chains of addiction and replaced them with a very unattractive sense of piety. It's my way or the highway with them. And for someone with a day, maybe a week, of sobriety, that is the very last thing in the world they want to hear. They somehow manage to turn AA into an organization of exclusion. In some ways it's unforgivable. They have, in another phrase bandied about in the rooms of AA, 'forgotten where they come from.' They, over the years, begin to mistake time for rank. They become authority figures in their own minds. And the last thing a newly recovering addict wants to find while reaching out for help is a self-deluded drill sergeant who considers them a private.

Here's the sad thing about addiction: some die. Some die. A sentence in the Big Book explains the focus of AA is 'attraction, not promotion.' In other words, a newly sober person sees someone who is apparently living a meaningful and happy life and says to him or herself, "I want that. And I'm willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that." It's a great theory. But it only works if they see someone who actually is living a meaningful and happy life. And thirty years of physically not taking a drink does not mean that. In my experience some of the unhappiest people I know are people with a butt load of sobriety. And, by the same token, a few of the happiest people I know are people with a butt load of sobriety. The point is time sober does not, by any stretch of the imagination, equal rank. Most of the time it means they've simply gone an awfully long time without a hangover.

One of the most dangerous things in the world is to give an addict, any addict, a title. You can bet the farm they'll eventually abuse their authority (see our ex President). A buddy of mine was once actually booed at a meeting when he said out loud, 'Sobriety corrupts and absolute sobriety corrupts absolutely.' I thought he was dead on and applauded.

In any event, I, like so many others, have an encyclopedia of advice for Lindsay and Charlie. But AA, with the possible exception of death itself, is the most personal journey one can ever hope to take. My advice is based upon my experience on that journey. And it's probably all wrong. It's probably just another pile of bullshit. It's probably about as helpful as tits on a bull.

Alas, I'm most likely nearly alone in this thinking.

Robert Downey, Jr. was recently on the television program, The View. The redheaded broad, can't remember her name, asked him what he would say to Charlie Sheen if he had a chance to talk to him. Now remember, Downey, sadly, had to deal with his addiction demons in an all too public manner. Against all odds, he's pushed through and, by all accounts, is living a relatively content life now. He smiled tightly and replied, "I'd say to him what I'd say to him." Good for you, Robert Downey, Jr. Good for you.

See you tomorrow.

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