Celebrity and Alcoholics Anonymous.
I sobered up in fancy rehab out in Los Angeles. The rehab I went to took us to AA meetings, and NA meetings, and CA meetings. There was a meeting every day, in addition to individual therapy and group therapy and spirituality and personal training, and some hippie stuff like acupuncture and aromatherapy. Some of it that stuff was mandatory, some was optional. I tried everything. I had reached a point that I was deeply tired of being sick, and willing to try anything that had any hope of improving my life and helping me stop drinking (even though I still imagined, at the beginning of rehab, that I was drying out and learning to drink normally.).
At those AA meetings we went to, I saw and met a lot of celebrities. Some real A-listers. Many of them men and women who have no public history of trouble with drugs and alcohol. People who, just like you find in AA meetings all across the country, have healthy, long-term sobriety. Who are now productive and happy and engage with their communities. Some of the people I saw there were there because of repeated, high-profile problems with drugs and alcohol.
I’m a person who is somewhat impressed with celebrity. I get a little giddy when I meet a person who is famous. Whether in the arts and entertainment world, or the science world, or sports, or whatever. In St. Louis, once, in a coffeeshop (Not at an AA meeting, I wasn’t even sober yet. Just at a coffeeshop.) I met Mark McGwire. I shook his hand and told him how great it had been to go to a game with my dad where McGwire had hit two home runs. I don’t remember what he said. Something short and gracious. I buzzed for hours after. But meeting celebrities at AA meetings in Los Angeles, and later in St. Louis, couldn’t have been less impressive.
Because in those spaces, we’re all just drunks. We say in AA that we are “people who would normally not mix.” I think part of this hearkens back to the 1930s and 40s when AA was a place that just naturally integrated itself racially and by gender, open to all from the start. If anyone had cared to spend any time considering it, it would have been radical at the time. AA has never had any history of exclusion, so it never had to be integrated. Likewise, rich and poor, gay and straight, privileged and not, all co-mingle in the rooms. And the only acknowledgement we make to the extraordinariness of that is to occasionally say that we recognize that we are people who would normally not mix.
I never saw a paparazzo at a meeting. Not even when there were huge stars there. I don’t think that’s because the paparazzi have boundaries, but because most celebrities who go to AA meetings take special care to protect those rooms. Because all of us do. They are places of healing and honesty and openness, and it is crucial for all of us that they remain that way.
There’s a lot of outrage online right now that apparently some newsrag or another published a photo of Robin Williams at an AA meeting. And yeah, that’s kind of classless. And I’m appreciative that people who don’t really understand AA or alcoholism are reflexively protective of the anonymity we need to do our work. It would be better if that photo had not been made public. But I can’t find myself too angry about it. I’m not outraged. Time will pass. Memory will fade. People will forget the faces in that picture. And we’ll go on doing what we do.
I don’t really need anonymity anymore. I’ve been sober long enough that if I were exposed, I can stand on my time, because people who don’t get it think it’s about time. And that’s ok. I can talk to my boss or my human resources manager and describe my life and my sobriety in vague terms, and casually mention phrases like “Americans with Disabilities Act” and I’ll be just fine. I’m not ashamed. But my life is easier if I don’t have to go through that. And so I value my own anonymity, even if I don’t need it.
But I stay anonymous for others. And Robin Williams stayed anonymous for others, I feel confident saying, though I never knew he was sober until two days ago. We do it so that the starkly terrified newcomer will see that it can be done. That recovery is possible. That alcoholics in recovery can go on to live ordinary lives. They think their shame is permanent; they want to feel it can be protected. And it can. Until it doesn’t need to be. Because we learn being an alcoholic isn’t shameful.
I stay anonymous because my opinion about AA is just my opinion, and other people have other opinions, and theirs might be better than mine. I don’t speak for Alcoholics Anonymous. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, celebrities who speak about things are often seen as spokesmen for those things. And so celebrities keep personal anonymity to protect others. If they fail, if they die, if they drink, that shouldn’t cast shadows on AA itself. Their experience may not be your experience.
I don’t know Robin Williams’ story. And I will never know it. I know that he did the anonymity part of AA right, because we never knew he was one of us. He didn’t make AA about himself. I don’t know why he relapsed, and I don’t know why he died. Sometimes, all we have is why, and there is no following because.
When Phillip Seymour Hoffman died last winter, I discovered that friends of friends, in New York, in the rooms, knew him simply as “Phil”. That sounds right. I’m sure the same is true of many people in LA, who know Robin Williams simply as “Robin”. And knew his story. And considered him a friend. And I’m sure that he helped many dozens of people recover in the twenty-some years he was sober. And I’m sure his death, like Hoffman’s, will help some more. We take courage from where we can find it.