THE NEW ‘EST’
by Kathleen Neumeyer
At AA, OA, CA. NA and PA, you can not only lose
an addiction, you can network yourself silly-
even find a spouse
It’s a well-dressed, Westside kind of group: boutique clothed women with serious hair and Rolex watches. Most of the men look as if they’ve come straight from the office without even loosening their ties. Standing at the end of the first few rows is a group of earnest-faced guys in blazers, gray slacks and well polished loafers. They look like agents. This could be a weeknight screening at the Directors Guild.
In fact, this regular Wednesday-night gathering of about 1,100-at Brentwood’s University Synagogue-is, if anything, even trendier than a Hollywood preview. And certainly more star-studded. Ever since Betty Ford, Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor made drug-addiction recovery-and the endless discussion of it-trendy, self-help programs, and their cookie cutter offshoots have become not only acceptable but almost hip badges of courage among celebs and make-it-urban-professional crowds. And this one, the Pacific Group of Alcoholics Anonymous, the largest AA meeting in the world, is no exception.
No question, abstinence is in for the ‘90s. Recovered substance abusers from Margaux Hemingway to Tony Curtis have hit the lecture circuits to describe their battles with the bottle and/or drugs-and they’re grabbing fees ranging from Hemmingway’’ lowball $5,000 a shot to Stacy Keach’s $25,000 for his cocaine-to-prison tale. ”There’s a Cocaine Anonymous meeting in Santa Monica where you’ll see more celebrities than at Spago,” says a Westwood psychiatrist.
“You’re nobody in Hollywood these days unless you are attending one of these groups,” says Dr. Dickson Young, a past president of the Alcoholism Council of Los Angeles County and one of only 3,000 doctors in the country certified as an addictionologist, medicine’s newest niche.
In a cover story last month, Newsweek estimated that the number of self-help support groups have quadrupled in the past 10 years. An estimated 16 million Americans-more than one million in the Los Angeles area-are in some kind of recovery program. But only a small percentage goes to the trendy private detox, counseling or weight-loss clinics that are making megabucks on the new asceticism. Most opt for one of the many anonymous groups. Most opt for one of the many anonymous groups. There are at least 27 such groups in L.A., all using some spin-off of AA’s tried-and-true model. Groups range from Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Pills Anonymous, Divorce Anonymous, Prostitutes Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous to Artists Anonymous, Sex Anonymous, Parents Anonymous, Impotents Anonymous and Depressives Anonymous. There’s Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics and Codependents Anonymous for the spouses, children, sweethearts and friends. There’s even a Diazepam Support Group for people trying to kick a Valium addiction. And almost all of them began in Los Angeles.
There are groups that meet at members’ homes for recovering doctors and attorneys, and there’s one for actors and agents. Both ABC and CBS have weekly in-house meetings. Every Tuesday at 8a.m., there’s an AA meeting in the United States Capitol for members of congress and their staffs. There’s a meeting of Overeaters Anonymous-for nudists-every week at Elysian Fields. KIEV-AM radio airs a thrice-weekly talk show, The Recovery Show, aimed at addiction and dependency. Executives with recovery problems are ducking out during their lunch breaks to go to exclusive meetings attended by other execs and managers.
“Nowadays, the assumption is that if you aren’t recovering from some addiction or another, you must be still practicing it,” says Dr. Judith Stevens-Long, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles.
“I tell my patients that abstinence is chic, they they’re right in step,” says Young, who treats alcoholics and other addictive personalities in private practice and serves as medical director of New Beginnings at Century City Hospital, where patients undergo a one-month detoxification and rehabilitation program. “Recovery is especially hot in Southern California, where everyone is so health-conscious. It fits right in. Everyone is drinking Evian.”
Ironically, the anonymous meetings themselves have become social events, places where you work out your problems and also meet new friends and do some serious networking. For many, the groups have come to replace singles’ bars. “Half of the guys here don’t even have a weight problem,” confides Gordon R., a longtime member of Overeaters Anonymous. “They just come to score.”
“These groups are like any club,” says an AA member. “During breaks, you start talking about what you’re doing, sharing ideas-the kind of conversation you might have had at a cocktail party, except you’re discussing things that really matter to you. Eventually it gets around to business.”
It’s not exactly the Knights of Columbus, but there’s the same ripe environment for opportunity. “In many instances, members use their group connections much the same way guys used to attend church just to sell insurance policies,” says the friend of one AA member. “I saw two people pitch an editor a story just last night,” says a member of an AA meeting for writers. “I’ve seen guys show up with scripts in their hands. But even though these things happen, they’re not the point of the group.”
The first AA meeting in L.A. was held on December 19, 1939, four years after a New York stockbroker who called himself Bill W. and an Akron surgeon known as Dr. Bob Smith found that discussing their problems help to overcome them. They published a book called Alcoholics Anonymous-now known within the organization as the Big Book-in 1939. A nonalcoholic woman hosted the first West Coast meeting in her home on Benecia Street in West L.A. A second group was formed in South Pasadena, a third in a Masonic hall on Pico Boulevard. By November 1941, the L.A. chapter of AA had a post-office box, a listed telephone number and a newsletter. Soon, California had more members and groups than any other state, a distinction it has held ever since.
The AA formula had been proving itself successful for a decade before it spawned its first copycat group. Narcotics Anonymous was started in 1953 by four addicts and originally run out of a Sun Valley home. Then, also in keeping with the AA model, a compulsive gambler who called himself Jim W. (nobody uses last names in anonymous groups) formed the first chapter of Gamblers Anonymous in L.A. in 1957. In November 1958, an L.A. woman known as Rozanne S. and her husband escorted a friend they thought needed help to a GA meeting.
“I was a world saver,” Rozanne says. “Although I didn’t have a gambling problem myself, what I heard at that meeting made me realize that I was not alone, that the anger and resentment I felt, the lying and the cheating and the self-pity, that I was not the only one who felt that way.”
Rozanne’s problem was that she weighed 161 pounds, even though she was only five-foot-two. She realized her compulsive overeating and the resultant self-loathing was akin to what compulsive gamblers felt. “I went to GA founder Jim W. and asked him to help me form a group,” she says. Thus, it was Rozanne and two friends who held the first meeting of Overeaters Anonymous on January 19, 1960-again based on AA’s basic program and again based here in LA.
Initially operated out of Rozanne’s dining room, Overeaters Anonymous has grown to 200,000 members attending 9,400 meetings each week in 50 countries. In contrast to Weight Watchers and other diet programs, Overeaters Anonymous does not promote any particular diet or eating plan. For years, OA did distribute a “gray sheet” diet plan but gave it up in the late 1980s when diet clubs and weight-loss plans such as Jenny Craig, Nutri/Systems and Optifast proliferated. They decided that OA’s primary mission should be to free its members from their obsessions, rather than whittle off their excess pounds. “We try to get at the heart and soul of the compulsive nature more than we try to get thin,” Rozanne says.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, a variety of “consciousness-raising” self-help groups emerged, but most returned to AA’s model to face the problems of the ‘80s. The first meeting of Cocaine Anonymous was held in rented space at the motion-picture health clinic on La Brea Avenue. Today there are more than 400 CA meetings a week in L.A. Codependents Anonymous is one of the newest spin-offs-and one of the few not founded in L.A.
Chris A. founded Divorce Anonymous with a friend shortly after a long-term relationship ended. Believing that the same 12- those in the throes of a failed relationship, step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous could offer comfort and support to Chris held the first meeting at the Council House for Jewish Women in April 1987. Thirteen people showed up. Today, she is holding four DA meetings a week, averaging as many as 50 participants, throughout Southern California.
Like AA, all the anonymous groups stress a practical approach to maintaining good habits, a rational lifestyle, as well as spiritual renewal and a pride in self free from obsessions.
And though all anonymous meetings are run by the members themselves, with no professional therapists or facilitators in attendance, they follow strict routines and adhere to rigid rules.
There are two principles common to anonymous groups: the acceptance of individual responsibility for the problem-meaning readily identifying one-self as addicted-and the assurance of anonymity. Although within the group, members sometimes identify themselves by their full names-and frequently give identifying information about their lives and professions-it is a cardinal rule that nothing said inside the meeting be carried outside.
Oddly, in this day of tell-all reform, one of the reasons for the anonymity is to prevent anyone from using the group for their own self-aggrandizement. “it’s really not so much to protect the reputations of the members-because often belonging to AA is the aspect of their lives for which they can be most proud-but to prevent them from exploiting the group,” says one longtime member. And going public can backfire. When a Kitty Dukakis or Elizabeth Taylor backslides, it reflects poorly on the organization they have been touting.
But what really makes AA and its kin unique is the utilization of a 12-step recovery program called “12 Steps and 12 Traditions.” Though the wording varies to fit the thrust of each group, the basic precepts are the same. The first of the 12 steps, for example, always involves admitting powerlessness over the addictive agent-whether it be alcohol, food or a relationship. Members are urged to find a sponsor-a mentor whom they can call if they feel the old temptation rise-and to choose one “home group” to attend on a regular basis, while visiting others as often as they feel the need.
New members are asked to take a personal moral inventory, to confess to their higher power and to another human being their past sins and to ask the higher power to remove all shortcomings. They are required to make amends where possible to anyone they have ever harmed. And just as important, they are charged with carrying the message to others who suffer the same addiction.
The only criterion for membership is the desire to join. There is no fee. Unlike many of the recovery clinics and diet programs so popular today, the anonymous groups are not run as money-making enterprises. Groups are supported by voluntary contributions that are placed in a collection basket passed at each meeting-know as the seventh tradition. Donations from outside organizations, corporations or government agencies are not accepted.
Similarities to a religious organization are not coincidental. As many point out, the anonymous groups function much like a church, and for many the 12-step program becomes more than a lifestyle: it becomes their religion.
Meetings are opened by a leader, who identifies himself and asks if there are others present who suffer from the same addiction. Those attending their first meeting are asked to stand and give their first name-“not to embarrass you but to allow us to get to know you during the social hour,” says one member. Those within their first 30 days of abstinence are asked to raise their hands. Each time a person introduces himself by first name, the whole crowd calls out, “Hello, ——-.”
The 12 steps and the 12 traditions are read aloud, and portions of the Big Book are sometimes read. At so-called open meetings, there are speakers who tell what it was like when they were drinking or using or overeating or gambling-kind of a witnessing. The formula basically boils down to “Amazing Grace…..that saved a wretch like me.” Good speakers are in demand and often speak at many meetings. They become quite polished, and their accounts are larded with humor.
There is a common argot-much talk of “working the program” or “working the steps.” Members say they “stuffed their feelings” or “played old tapes” when they lapse into unproductive patterns of relating. At a West Los Angeles meeting of codependents Anonymous, a young man says, “Like many of you, I lived in my head for years. But since I’ve been working the program, I’ve become much more present in my feelings.” Everyone nods. They know where he’s coming from. “Sayings such as ‘We have to feel it in order to heal it’ or ‘The only way out is through’ helps people express what recovery is all about,” says member Janet M.
At the open meetings, members are encouraged to bring spouses, children or friends to hear the speakers and to share in the fellowship. There are dances, picnics and other social events for members and their families, as well as weekend conferences at resorts and hotels. “When you come into a recovery group, you have to make it the focus of your life,” says Rozanne. “It replaces whatever activity you are trying to eliminate.”
“A lot of people were reared with a strong religious background, and then as they grew up they got away from it, “says Young. “For those people, AA can be like a rebirth of religious experience. The diagnosis of chemical dependency allows them to come back to their old spiritual roots. In other parts of the country people may go to church on Sunday and then go to AA, but in Southern California I think a lot of people use it for their church. They make AA their religion.
Although some members of Anonymous groups insist they are not religiously oriented, Cal State L.A.’s Stevens-Long says that, on the whole, one of the reasons the 12-step programs have been so successful is because of their similarities with religion.
“Twelve –step programs emphasize forgiveness,” she says. “All successful religions forgive their followers for their wrongdoings, because if they didn’t, there would be no reason to belong. Twelve-step programs allow for confession and atonement-basic premises in every ancient religion.”
It is the dependency on the program that bothers some critics, who feel the groups can come to function as a cult. “Another factor the two have in common,” says Stevens-Long, “is the feeling of members being helpless without the program, that they need it in order to combat their problem-that those who belong are in a state of grace and those who don’t are not. They are urged to bring in other followers. And there is a provision of community and fellowship, a major tenet of most religions.”
Tarzana psychiatrist John Hochman, however, says the groups, while “quasi-religious,” do differ sharply from organized religion. “They talk about a higher power, they have a code of conduct, a kind of scriptures-they read the 12 steps at their meetings and they read from the Big Book-but they don’t worship their founders. They don’t impute miraculous powers to them. It’s like people studying the teaching of Martin Luther King.”
Hochman says anonymous groups “differ from cults in that cults are shrouded in secrecy. You don’t know where the money is going. These groups are completely open. You can go in and check them out. Sure, they do pick up people who are helpless and demoralized, and they do make them dependent on the group, but that’s better than whatever these people were dependent on before.”
“In a very real sense, AA does the same thing as the church,” says Clancy I., who founded the Pacific Group 26 years ago when there was a free night at the Ohio Avenue meeting hall in West Los Angeles. “Like the church, AA gets people to change their lifestyles so they wind up in a more comfortable, spiritual way of life. That’s the goal of religion, and the goal of all movements. But the difference is that most don’t work. What makes AA unusual is that it works.”
Nevertheless, addiction is not an exact science, and long-term success can be problematic. Doctors now know it takes the brain three years to recover from a chemical dependency, and during that time the brain is changing, Young says. “The patient is going to have ups and downs. At predictable intervals-for five days every 4 to 6 weeks during the first year, every 6 to 8 weeks in the second year and every 10 to 12 weeks in the third year-the patient is more susceptible to relapse.”
According to a survey of AA members in the United States and Canada, an alcoholic with less than a year of sobriety has less than a 50-50 chance of making it through the next year without a drink. With one to five years of sobriety, he has an 86 percent chance. If he can stay sober for more than five years, he has a 96 percent chance of not drinking during the next year.
“Most of you here won’t keep coming back,” an AA speaker at the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church at the corner of Rodeo Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard told a Friday-night group recently. “Most of you will go back to drinking.”
Clancy I., with 31 years of sobriety, is a member of the University Synagogue AA group and a coveted speaker at recovery meetings worldwide. His group had only 250 members when it moved to the temple 12 years ago. There are usually some celebrities in attendance, given the convenient and highfalutin location. Names are never dropped, of course, but actors and rock stars, some of whom have made their newfound sobriety or abstinence known, frequent the meeting, where the riffraff quotient is low.
“We have a lot of sobriety at our meeting,” Clancy says. “There are other trendy groups in town, but they don’t have a great deal of sobriety”
One meeting fitting that description is held Friday nights at the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church. The attire is indeed trendy-leaning toward leather and chains. Unlike at the pristine Brentwood meeting, no one seems to be able to sit still during the proceedings. “This is certainly a busy meeting,” the speaker finally says. “Why didn’t you all just buy my motivational tape?”
Though all the anonymous groups follow the same precepts, they don’t necessarily see eye to eye. Clancy was asked to speak at some of the early meetings of Overeaters Anonymous. “I was suppose to talk about obsessions, as if all obsessions were alike,” he says, “I weighed about 140 pounds then, and I just kept thinking that all those fat old ladies should just quit eating so much. Unless you have the obsession yourself, it just doesn’t track.”
Some AA members look askance at groups such as Adult Children of Alcoholics and codependents Anonymous, which they see as fundamentally different from groups in which members themselves take direct responsibility for their problems. Members of ACA and CODA believe their problems stem from dysfunctional families in which they were raised but that they can overcome them through the 12-step method.
“The son of [AA founder] Bob Smith, who may be the original adult child of an alcoholic, has been quoted as saying he wouldn’t join a group like ACA because he refuses to be frozen in a state of adolescent victimization,” one longtime AA member says. “What I find different about the groups for adult children and codependents is that nobody looks happy when they walk out. I’ve never been to an AA meeting where I didn’t walk out feeling uplifted.
“I’d rather debate against AA than for it,” he says. “The arguments against AA are far more intellectually satisfying. I can easily prove that AA is a singular piece of sophistry for maladjusted misfits. The argument for it, on the other hand, simply boils down to, ‘Well, it sure does work.’”
(Source: Los Angeles, March 1990)