Last week at work I found myself discussing movies with my colleagues. Lucas, a young co-worker, is watching his way through a self-compiled list of the 25 best films of all time. Knowing him well, I was expecting a list of movies about big boobs and fast cars. But lo and behold, I was pleasantly surprised. Many were movies I’d put on my own list. As I scrolled down I noticed the David Fincher film The Fight Club. The film came out in 1999, the year I stopped drinking, and although my friends liked it I could never bring myself to watch it; the violence I had seen in the trailer was too much for my still fried and twitchy nervous system to handle. I told Lucas I’d never seen the film. "Oh, you must” he said. "Isn't it about some disaffected yuppie banker types beating the shit out of each other so that they can finally "feel" something?" I asked. "No" Lucas laughed. "It's about so much more than that. Just watch it, you'll see."
And so I did. And I absolutely loved it. The protagonist of The Fight Club, played by Edward Norton, is an unnamed man known only as The Narrator. The Narrator is trapped in a miserable, lonely existence. He feels he is living a life of “wage-slavery and consumerism”. He is so depressed and plagued by insomnia he fears he is going mad. One day he goes to his doctor to ask him if it's possible to die from insomnia and to procure more sleeping pills, but his doctor cuts him off. The Narrator gets very agitated, begging his doctor for meds. “Please help me!" he implores his doctor desperately. "I'm in pain.'' But the doctor, seeing that his patient has become addicted and refusing to prescribe him more pills says "you wanna see pain? Swing by First Methodist Church on Tuesday nights and see the testicular cancer guys, that's pain!"
And so The Narrator goes to his first 12-step support meeting, Testicular Cancer Anonymous. Not that there are meetings of this type in reality or that The Narrator had or has testicular cancer but at this point in his hellish journey he has become willing to try anything to feel better. He starts small. First with Testicular Cancer Anonymous and then with a classic, Alcoholics Anonymous. As the rooms begin to give him relief (from addictions and maladies that he does not even possess) he begins to branch out, eventually attending any 12-step group he can find. He attends 12-step meetings (invented purely for the screenwriter's delight) such as Tuberculosis Anonymous, Kidney Disease Anonymous, Hepatitis Anonymous, Brain Parasites Anonymous, Blood Parasites Anonymous, Sickle Cell Anemia Anonymous, and so on. Of course the movie is spoofing the whole idea of 12-step programs and that bothered me a bit, but not enough to stop watching.
The very first thing I noticed when The Narrator starts to attend these 12-step meetings are the participants. It's no wonder that people are afraid to darken the threshold of any 12-step meeting based on what Hollywood would have us believe the rooms of recovery look like. The rooms where these Hollywood-style 12-step meetings are held are usually as rundown and decrepit as the people sitting there. A depressing melange of peeling paint, creaky floorboards and hissing radiators. Windows (if there are any) are often barred or meshed over with old opaque fire glass. The rooms look hot and humid and freezing and damp at the same time. Airless and oppressive. These set designed 12-step rooms remind me of the sort of rooms that I imagine the Mexican drug cartels use to torture their enemies, the only difference being that the designed-by-Hollywood 12-step rooms are a bit larger and have a few more chairs scattered about. A single low-wattage light bulb usually flickers and hangs forlornly from the ceiling. A narrow pool of dusty green light spills onto the grimy floor. And around that sad pool of weak fluorescent torture lighting sit the group members, and they almost always look miserable. Men and women, young and old, all seem to possess misshapen Mr. Potato Head faces. As if God were drunk one night and just slapped 2 eyes, a nose and a mouth on all of their heads, without any real idea of beauty or regard for symmetry. They have the kind of faces you have to look at sideways to make sense of. They sit there scowling and depressed. Is this what living in recovery looks like? Only in Hollywood.
Why can't the rooms of recovery ever be shown as they really are? Full of attractive people, laughter and camaraderie. Brimming over with a tangible sense of compassion for others. Why don't they ever show the love that those rooms hold? Then I realize that of course they can't show that love in film because what I am talking about is a feeling, not a visual. The feeling I get in the rooms is that of the weight of the world being lifted from my shoulders. I get that it would be hard to convey a feeling like that on film but still, I do wish some of the people sitting there in these cinematic A.A. scenes would at least smile once in a while and show a full set of teeth. Is that too much to ask?
But then, while I was stewing in my resentment about how A.A. is portrayed in most media something incredible started to happen. As The Narrator attends these 12-step meetings he begins to lighten up, to be happier; he is able to sleep for the first time in ages. He goes to his meetings nightly and what he finds there amazes him. The strangers in the rooms sharing themselves with such vulnerability and honesty simply breaks him down. He cries for the first time in years. He sleeps “better than a baby”. "Every evening I died, and every evening I was born again” he says blissfully, “resurrected”. After hearing that coming from The Narrator I no longer cared about how the Fight Club’s director portrayed the 12-step rooms. They had the essence of the rooms down pat in that one word. Resurrected. Because that's what I often feel as I’m leaving a meeting. Calm. Restored. Resurrected. What happens to The Narrator in the film is what happened to me. I walked into A.A. in a sort of nowhere-else-left-to-turn haze of desperation and it saved me. For a while the honesty and bravery, love and friendship that The Narrator receives, so freely given in the rooms, saves him.
Eventually, for a variety of reasons, The Narrator stops attending his 12-step meetings and, slowly and tragically, sinks back into despair and madness. “Well they got that right too” I smile to myself, knowing that if I were to stop attending my 12-step meetings the same thing would most likely happen to me. Maybe one day the rooms of recovery will be portrayed in their true manner, full of love and hope and healing. Until then I’ll stick around, always remembering that life is life, not a Hollywood movie.