Been there, done that


“28 Days,” a movie that recently completed its run in Malibu, is billed as a comedy. Despite many amusing elements, this tale of an alcoholic writer and party girl named Gwen Cummings (played by Sandra Bullock) sentenced to an abuse-rehabilitation center for 28 days for driving under the influence, is frequently anything but funny. But, despite dismissal of the film by many critics, the issues it deals with — drug and alcohol dependency and recovery — are far too common in today’s society not to pay serious attention to it. Accordingly, we asked several local residents who deal daily with dependency in their own lives about the movie’s credibility. What we discovered was both depressing and heartening; few have any idea of the scope of the problem right here at home, and how accessible the resources are to battle it.

It’s Saturday night in Malibu and the biggest gathering in town isn’t at the local movie house or at a benefit. It’s probably in a local school auditorium, and it’s the regular meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Nearly 300 men and women, some accompanied by children (baby sitting is also available), have jammed the room for their weekly (for some, daily) session of tough talk about the dangers of dependency, and mutual support to fight it. And, although the largest, tonight’s meeting is only one of three held daily in Malibu, and 3,000 weekly in Los Angeles. “It’s America’s biggest underground society,” says one member.

“People come from all over,” says Teresa, a stunning blonde volunteer greeter, welcoming this reporter to the meeting. Although most are Malibuites, tonight there are visitors from London, San Diego and Houston. The crowd ranges in age from teens to the seventies, and in dress from cowboy grunge and be-bop hip (complete with lime-green dreadlocks) to gala glitz.

“You should see the outfits at the Beverly Hills meeting,” adds Teresa, herself clad in a shimmering outfit that nearly matched the color of the slice of watermelon I was munching, chosen from a bountiful buffet (like AA, I’ll refer to individuals only by their first names).

Everyone was excited by the program, reserving close-up seats with Ralph’s cards, drivers’ licenses, even Tampax tubes. Tonight the featured speaker is a woman who would later relate the harrowing story of the destruction of her life by alcohol and how she rebuilt it and remained sober for more than 26 years through AA. The other speaker told of his equally horrific drug-and alcohol-induced behavior that culminated, five sober years ago, in a confrontation with the police on the beach near Gladstone’s restaurant. These people know of what they speak.

Like the film critics, opinions were pretty divided over “28 Days.” “It’s a piece of shit,” was the reaction of Steve, who deplored the way the film “glamorized the recovery process,” an intensely painful experience for most recovering alcoholics. Another, an Aussie named Lori, felt she “just couldn’t get into it,” probably because of the scatterbrained storyline (among the inconsistencies, the same people Gwen meets when she arrives at the rehab center are the same ones saying goodbye. Since their 28 days were over, why aren’t they gone?).

The film’s occasional sitcom-silliness and retread psychobabble didn’t bother Susan, a lively, outgoing actress/poet. She saw it as a positive force for awareness-raising, whatever the flaws. “It was a bit over the top,” Susan says, “but I thought about 85 percent of it was accurate.” She knows first-hand. “I went through the 28-day program at Beverly Glen Hospital 16-1/2 years ago,” she says. “We did have group meetings daily, similar to those in the film, where we would talk about our feelings.”

And, like Gwen, Susan also entered her 28-day program with a hostile attitude. For Bullock’s character, it was caused by withdrawal from Vicodin; for Susan it was heroin. “I came to Beverly Glen straight from jail,” she says. “I had three felonies: the illegal use of a credit card, forgery and grand theft. While I was there, I had to take medicine to regulate my blood pressure (because of withdrawal), and baths at 4 a.m. because I couldn’t sleep. It was hell to go through, but my doctor didn’t give up on me, and my life took a 180-degree turn.

“I think the movie will do some good,” Susan adds. “Some people may see it and make the decision to get their own lives under control. There are many who are scared or embarrassed about coming to an AA meeting, and there is no reason to be. Everyone is there to help and support you.

“If only five lives in the universe are saved, it’s worth it.”

For information or help anytime, call the AA central office, 800.923.8722. They’ll tell you where the meetings are, as well as take you to and from them.