Episode 59: Thanks for Sharing

In this week’s podcast, Benn and I have a conversation inspired by the movie, Thanks for Sharing, a film that describes 12 Step culture through the experiences and relationships of recovering sex addicts. The film was directed by Stuart Bloomberg who also co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Winston and features performances by Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gweneth Paltrow, Josh Gad, Joely Richardson, Patrick Fugit, and Alecia Moore (Pink).

Thanks for Sharing does an excellent job depicting the nuances of 12 Step Life, and how those of us in 12 Step programs relate to one another and our families as we come to grips with overcoming our addictions. I highly recommend this movie. As a person in recovery, I could relate to the characters and their struggles. The acting was superb, and the story was well-written and compelling.

The film opens with Adam, played by Mark Ruffalo, beginning his day as we would imagine he begins all of his days—on his knees in prayer. This is followed by a regimented routine and obsessive behaviors that perhaps help to make his life feel more comfortable, maybe even more controlled. We follow him on his way to a meeting where he will celebrate his five-year sobriety anniversary.

Another person on his way to the meeting is Neil, portrayed by Josh Gad. We first meet Neil on the New York subway where he is inappropriately touching and groping a woman passenger. We later learn that he is attending the 12 Step meetings as a way to resolve the legal problems that he’s facing as a result of acting out his compulsive behaviors. At the meetings, he puts on a bit of a show, and he doesn’t seem to be taking any of it too seriously, but when we see him alone in his apartment at night, it’s clear that he is sad, troubled, and in the throes of active addiction.

Adam’s sponsor is Mike, played by Tim Robbins, and he is sort of a guru at his group. I don’t know if Robbins has any real-life experience with 12 Step programs, but he nails this role. He gets it exactly dead-on right. He’s the hard-ass sponsor who dispenses advice with an air of authority to which his sponsees respond in good-humored subservience.

We later learn that Mike’s home life has its challenges. His wife, played by Joely Richardson, is slightly co-dependent, and his son, played by Patrick Fugit, is a recovering addict who much to Mike’s chagrin is staying clean without a program. Mike derisively characterizes his son’s sobriety as “white knuckling it.”

After receiving the go-ahead from his sponsor, Adam is ready for a relationship, and the opportunity presents itself at a party where he meets Phoebe, a character who Gweneth Paltrow capably brings to life. On their first date, Phoebe makes it clear to Adam that she won’t date addicts or alcoholics. She asks him if he is an alcoholic. He pauses uncomfortably and answers “no,” realizing that there is an important part of himself that he is not yet comfortable sharing with someone from outside the program.

The last of the main characters we meet is Dee Dee, played by Pink. She is attending a meeting for sex addicts at the urging of her NA sponsor. She is the only woman at the meeting, and many of the men in the room are noticeably uncomfortable with her presence. Dee Dee befriends the troubled Neil, and although Neil’s motives at the beginning of the relationship are suspect, their friendship is very real, and their evolving relationship is a key storyline in the movie. As I watched their story unfold, it occurred to me that their relationship and support of one another was probably more critical to their sobriety than any of the Step work they may have done. I thought back to some of the friendships I had in AA and how much they helped me as I was learning to live without alcohol. I think the bonds that I formed during that time were just as important and instrumental to my sobriety as was my experience with the Twelve Steps.

This is ultimately a movie about relationships, but it’s not a frivolous romantic comedy. There are several layers of complexity to this film that cause one to stop and think. As a person with many years of experience in Alcoholics Anonymous, this movie gave me pause. I could see myself in each of the characters. It was interesting to see how insulated we are, how we tend to create our own world that isn’t necessarily real. It’s like we’ve built a laboratory where we can experiment and prepare ourselves to mix in the real world— a world full of people who don’t understand, and who sometimes don’t want to understand us. Becoming comfortable in that world is, I think, the real test of our recovery.

As Benn and I discussed the movie, I thought back about how I learned to join the greater world outside of 12 Step culture. I spent the first five years of my recovery safely ensconced in my 12 Step cocoon. All my friends were in the program, and many of the social activities in which I participated were related in some way to AA. As I look back on it, I can’t say it was all bad. I may have needed that time to strengthen my sobriety before I was ready to venture out into the real world. In writing this, I don’t mean to imply that my experience is typical, but I don’t think it’s all that unique either. It seems it was that way for Adam, or maybe I’m projecting my own experience on the character in the movie.

I can certainly relate to Adam at that five-year mark. There he is “Mr. AA,” or in his case, “Mr. SAA.” He’s sober, he goes to meetings, he has a sponsor, he works the Steps, and he sponsors other people. He knows the lingo of the rooms and the acceptance he receives at the meetings help him to feel that all is right with the world. It’s a comfortable place to be, but sometimes we have to experience discomfort to grow, and this is what happened to Adam. I imagine he learned from his experience with Phoebe, but he will more than likely need to feel the sting of disappointment and heartbreak a few more times. That’s just life, regardless of whether or not one is wrapped in the 12 Step cocoon.

The relationship that Mike has with his wife and son is perhaps the most complex of all the relationships depicted in the movie. Mike is a recovering alcoholic and sex addict, sober for 15 years. He loves the program which he credits with saving his life, and when he throws around a slogan, he seems to genuinely believe what he’s saying. In his view, the only real sobriety is that which is earned from working a program. He likes to think that he walks the talk, and by all outward appearances, he does. Anytime an addict reaches out for help, Mike is quick to respond. It’s obvious that the other people in the group admire him, which is a huge boost to his sense of self-esteem. However, one doesn’t need to dig too far beneath the surface to see the selfishness that perhaps Mike himself is unable to see. He’s sober, but he’s deluded. 

There is a scene in the movie in which Mike’s wife is unable to find her pain pills, and both she and Mike automatically assume that their son stole the pills. Mike confronts his son, who denies having taken them and he demands that Mike apologize for the accusation. Mike won’t apologize, and a fight breaks out. Later when the pills are found, Mike still won’t say he’s sorry. Mike’s son never hears any amends from his father. It seems that Mike could take the time to care for and listen to the addicts in his group, but he couldn’t do the same for his own family. I sensed from watching the movie that Mike was, for the most part, oblivious to his own callousness, though later there were a few small cracks in his shell.

I loved watching this movie, though it stirred within me some competing thoughts and emotions. On the one hand, I could appreciate the importance of the friendships that we form in 12 Step programs, and how we support one another in our sobriety. The film did an excellent job in portraying what we in AA refer to as “The Fellowship.” On the other hand, it also showed how self-absorbed we can be, and how difficult it is to let others from outside of the program into our lives. There’s definitely a lot going on in this movie, more than can be written about here or discussed in the podcast.

I must say that I enjoyed everything about the film; even the soundtrack is good. Thanks for Sharing is available for purchase or rent at AmazonItunes, and YouTube. Hopefully, you can watch the movie and then listen to our podcast. It would be great if you would post your comments here to express your thoughts and share whatever feelings the film stirred within you.

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  1. Peter T. June 14, 2017 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    Another great podcast… I’m not much of a movie guy so when I saw the trailer I was like “I’m not sure I can sit through this – or if I really need to – to enjoy the podcast.”  So I didn’t see the movie and as you said, your conversation with Benn wasn’t so much about the content of the movie itself as the feelings and experiences to which you could relate.  I always gotten great insights about life and culture in AA/recovery, and another marble in the sober bag, from these podcasts. 

     

    John, I hear you when you talk about how much time you’ve been putting into the site and content, but it really shows.  As Archer noted, it’ is truly a “world class” recovery resource and you all should be very proud of what’s been built.  I turn as many people on to the site as I can up here.  Thank YOU for sharing, and for all your service. 

     

  2. Helen June 12, 2017 at 3:51 pm - Reply

    I saw the film a few years ago and thought it was worth watching. Like John though, I find it hard to see the funny side of addiction. Romantic yes. Funny no. I agree that addiction is a “disease” of disconnection and a substitute for intimacy.

    As far as wondering whether AA can overcome the polarization that has “infected” the rest of our society, I have to seriously doubt it when I see fundamental contradictions like this:

    In my quest (Helen’s) for more knowledge about The Society of Alcoholics Anonymous, I’ve been reading this pamphlet written by Bill Wilson “The Twelve Concepts for World Service. How Bill W. explained the spiritual principles that undergird A.A.’s structure and how the parts work together.” (found here): http://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-8_thetwelveconetps.pdf and found what I perceive to be a fundamental contradiction at the very core of it. I’m hoping that my perception is wrong and can be corrected by whoever is interested in reading and commenting on the subject.  
    How can one make sense of such a fundamental contradiction? To me, it means that the very core belief of AA is that I/we have not only been given the (contradiction in terms) “freedom to conform” but we’ve been given this “freedom to conform” by none other than God Himself!
    Oh how I wish things were a bit simpler!
    – Helen

    “The A.A. Traditions accord the individual member and the A.A. group extraordinary liberties. In fact, we A.A.s probably enjoy more and greater freedoms than any Fellowship in the world. We claim this as no virtue. We know we have to choose conformity to A.A.’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions or else face dissolution and death. “Because we set such a high value on our great liberties and cannot conceive that they will need to be limited, we here specially enjoin our General Service Conference to abstain completely from any and all acts of authoritative government which could in any way curtail A.A.’s freedom under God. We expect our Conference always to try to act in the spirit of mutual respect and love — one member to another. “Freedom under God to grow in His likeness and image will ever be the quest of Alcoholics Anonymous. May our General Service Conference be always seen as a chief symbol of this cherished liberty.”
     

     

  3. Steve K June 11, 2017 at 11:14 am - Reply

    Thanks for recommending this film John, I’ve just watched it. Yes, great film! I’m surprised that I’ve not come across it before now. As someone with attachment problems I think addiction is a substitute for intimacy for many. It has been for me anyway. I could relate to Adam in the film, who was finding sex with intimacy very difficult. In my drinking days I spent years having sex with different women without any emotional intimacy. I will recommend the film to others and check out your podcast soon.

    • John S June 11, 2017 at 11:22 am Reply

      Thank you, Steve. And thank you for your kind support of the site. We will be publishing an article that you wrote very soon. It’s a labor of love to work on this site, hard work but well worthwhile. If not for people like you who write, listen and comment, this site would not even happen.

      I enjoyed the movie. I was actually surprised that I liked it, but I did. I could relate to the characters in the film and it reminded me of the many friendships that I’ve formed over the years in AA.

  4. Joe C. June 11, 2017 at 9:39 am - Reply

    I remember seeing the movie, movies like this, I like to see more than once.  It’s a bit embarrassing that I can be critical of 12-Step culture myself, yet I am protective about the agenda of other critics. Somehow I am noble and they must be viewed with suspicion.

    The writing was great. It’s impossible to do this sort of thing without over-simplifying or sensationalizing but this movie took a complex and thoughtful view.

    I wrote recently about AA contraction (comparing member and group estimates year over year) and your podcast exposed a flaw in my coverage. I got lost in technical data and you looked at how members are affected and how we react. That’s more vital and it doesn’t need clinical number crunching to see what is real and how it impacts us.

    Conservatives say we have to get back to something and liberals say we have to reform. It’s really all our reaction to the existential terror of our legacy fading and the possibility of becoming irrelevant and symbolically dead.

    The drama of the group that was once so virile and is now fading; the problem compounded by overreacting and proselytizing which polarizes  instead of  unifying, that’s the story- more than the math.

    Thanks to both of you.

    • John S June 11, 2017 at 11:29 am Reply

      Thanks, Joe. It’s always nice to know you are listening. I wonder if AA can overcome the polarization that has infected the rest of our society. I don’t know, but I think that I personally should try to find a way to overcome it, and learn to understand the other side. You’re right, I think, that it’s fear that motivates both the liberal and conservative.

      It was a good movie. Who can’t relate to those scenes in the diner, going out for coffee and lunch after a meeting to talk our program talk.

  5. XBarbarian June 11, 2017 at 8:31 am - Reply

    Interesting. I hadn’t even heard of this film, but the cast and content have me wanting to. Think I’ll stream if available on Amazon.

    • John S June 11, 2017 at 8:49 am Reply

      Yes, it’s available on Amazon. That’s where I watched it. It’s available for both rental and purchase.

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