I’m here because I woke up covered in blood,” says a tearful Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) in the 2016 movie The Girl on the Train. She is standing in a sterile room while a dozen strangers sit in a circle on plastic foldable chairs, sheepishly avoiding eye contact with her. “I have bruises all over my arm from when I’ve fallen and someone’s helped me up,” she tells them.
This is one of the countless portrayals of an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting on screen, and it’s perhaps one of the most dramatic. “Hi, I’m [insert name] and I’m an alcoholic,” is a classic refrain used in movies and television where a character, fighting addiction, reaches breaking point and attends AA for the first time. Rocketman (2019). Madmen (2007). Smashed (2012). These all include depictions of AA meetings. There’s even a scene in Pixar’s aquatic delight Finding Nemo (2003) that nods to an AA meeting – when Bruce, a great white shark voiced by Barry Humphries, chairs a “Fish-aholics Anonymous” get-together. “Fish are friends,” the toothy sea creatures chant in unison. “Not food.”
But I’m An Alcoholic: Inside Recovery, a new BBC Two documentary that aired tonight (7 December), lifts the lid on what AA meetings are really like. Cameras go inside a session for the first time since the inaugural meeting happened in the UK in 1945, in a hotel room at the Dorchester. Portrayals of AA on screen often hyper-dramatise the meetings. And these scenes have become predictable; a lone person stands up in front of a group of strangers, totally vulnerable, and divulges their life story. The reality is quite different.
“I think people have got this bizarre idea that they’ve got to leap up and tell their life story,” says a doctor in the BBC documentary, alluding to what we’ve learnt from film and TV. “If they want to, they can, but that’s certainly not expected, or demanded.” In The Girl on the Train, Blunt’s character spills all about her marriage and her darkest moments during an AA meeting. While it’s true that members are encouraged to introduce themselves and admit that they are an alcoholic, in reality, you can attend AA — the world’s longest-running addiction support programme — and not say anything at all. Some might attend AA for months, or even years, before they speak in the meeting, the documentary reveals.
AA meetings have followed the same structure since the organisation was founded in 1935, by stockbroker Bill Wilson and doctor Robert Smith in the Baptist bible belt in the US. They set it up in response to rising alcoholism in the post-prohibition era. Now, in 2022, when problem drinking is on the up in the UK, and more people are seeking help, I’m An Alcoholic: Inside Recovery anonymously interviews AA members by altering their faces using deepfake AI technology. The resulting documentary is a harrowing yet uplifting story of recovery, showing how AA has been the difference between life and death for many in the UK for 75 years. “The realisation that you’re not alone is a remarkable revelation,” says one anonymous attendee. “It’s given me a way out of the darkness,” says another.
The one place where the film falls short is in its failure to address how AA’s Christian ethos may alienate people of different faiths or no faith at all, since the proportion of people identifying as Christian in England and Wales has fallen below 50 per cent for the first time this year. In AA’s Twelve Steps, members pledge to turn their “lives over to the care of God” in the third stage, while step six asks “God to remove all defects of character”. In some ways, it’s astonishing that the organisation has stuck to its religious roots so staunchly for 75 years.
But what the documentary does do effectively, and movingly, is show that AA isn’t about delivering a theatrical monologue to a group of strangers, it’s about mutual support and admitting you have a problem as the first step towards sobriety.
I’m An Alcoholic: Inside Recovery aired on BBC Two tonight (Wednesday 7).
If you or someone you know is suffering from alcohol addiction, you can confidentially call the national alcohol helpline Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 or visit the NHS website here for information about the programmes available to you.
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.