‘Why I Reject Anonymity’  

I’m out publicly. I’m out with being epileptic, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a recovering sex addict and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. How can AA be a program of attraction if nobody knows you’re in it? Don’t you think more people might give 12-step a chance if they knew, for instance, that their favorite movie star was an active member?

Let me be clear: I don’t break other people’s anonymity. I don’t share what I hear in meetings nor who I see there (although I have been the victim of such breaches). I get that if you work for a finance company or a childcare agency and nobody knows you’re in recovery, you might not want to drink your morning coffee out of your “First Things First” mug, or have somebody like me say, “Hey man, see you at the 6 pm meeting!”

But when did getting sober become something to be ashamed of? The more people come out about their struggle with addiction and sobriety, the more quickly we might destroy the stigma. If addiction is truly a disease, where’s the embarrassment? Getting sober is one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. It was by far the hardest thing I’ve done — over and over again.

When did AA become some secret society, like the Freemasons or Yale’s Skull and Bones? Sure, the history of AA has been all about anonymity (it’s built into the name), but now that there are TV shows and magazines about recovery, and treatment centers and sober living houses are booming, is it still necessary? I realize that as a professional writer who specializes largely in recovery I’m in a privileged position, free to wave (or burn) the AA banner as I like without jeopardizing my career or most of my life (if anything, it enhances my work). But even in that position, there’s no safety. For some Big Book thumpers, I’m not AA enough; and for the anti-12-steppers, I’m too AA. I can’t win.

'Why I Reject Anonymity'  And I don’t care. The common retort as to why it’s important to keep your anonymity at the level of press, radio and film (versus within your private life) is that if you relapse, then it looks like AA doesn’t work. But AA does not work for everybody. It is not the only way to get sober. It’s the way that works for me because, without the camaraderie of the program, I’m more alone than Tom Hanks in “Castaway,” and without the program’s spiritual principles to guide my behavior, I’m potentially a selfish homicidal maniac who’d make Robert Durst look like a nice guy. And even with AA, I have relapsed. Does that make AA look like it doesn’t work? Or does it make me look like maybe I have a really bad case of alcoholism that’s complicated by mental illness? And perhaps in relapsing I also hadn’t hit my bottom yet.

Anonymity is also considered by AA to have “spiritual significance,” in that it discourages people from vying for recognition, power or profit connected to the program. I do not claim to be a representative of AA. I’m not interested in being queen of the drunks. I think caring too much what people in AA think of you is as dangerous as caring whether people know that you’re in the program at all.

And who are we fooling? We know that anybody who says they’re in “recovery” is almost certainly in a 12-step fellowship. All they need to do is drop the word “serenity” or “acceptance” or “amends” and we know, beyond a doubt, that they’re a “friend of Bill. W.”
Photo by Wendy Hall

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12 Responses to ‘Why I Reject Anonymity’  

  1. Peter Walker June 3, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

    Thanks for saying what I feel. You’re the best.

  2. matej June 3, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

    Everybody’s story is different and therefore everybody’s program will be too. I’m not anonymous at all about my recovery but I don’t go out trying to 12 step everybody I know (although I wouldn’t mind 13 stepping some of them). Anyway, do it your way because it’s the only way that works for you. As long as you work the steps, get external help, if needed, and find the joy in life that is there, even if at times we’re too fucking insane to recognize it.

    Love the Robert Durst reference. Watching the show I was ashamed to recognize many of my own character traits in him.

    Anyway, keep doing what you’re doing as long as it works for you.

  3. Miguel June 3, 2015 at 11:04 pm #

    I am not in AA but my sister is. Isn’t one of the benefits of anonymity that one can “come out” (I am gay, btw, which is why I use this analogy) on one’s own terms? Perhaps this is a flawed analogy; but I am just reaching for something that might initially seem shameful even though it isn’t. Perhaps finding a community that is “anonymous” allows one to feel that they have the power to tell the world how and when and why they are addicts. Perhaps anonymity is just a tool of empowerment, something one sheds eventually.

  4. Paul Nobes June 4, 2015 at 9:16 pm #

    Awesome post Amy! what a revelation to finally connect with a “like-minded” person on the issue of anonymity.
    I express the exact same philosophy as you when it comes carrying the message. Being part of a small community I break my anonymity every time I go on a 12 step call without even mentioning my name. Society across the globe is starting to treat addiction as a disease effecting the patient and not a crime punishing the inmate as has happened in the past, why an earth would I try hide my recovery and testimony of overcoming adversity, knowing full well this might save the life of a practicing alcoholic.

    I have come under severe criticism from some of the “bleeding deacons” in the fellowship for breaking my own anonymity, and yet these are the members who never volunteer to do a 12 step call or carry the message.
    My answer to the anonymity addicts is, “here’s a news flash dude, the very first time you ran around with your underpants around your head at Aunt Dots 80th birthday party, or past out at your brothers wedding reception in the middle of the speeches, you broke your anonymity as a person who just might have a problem with the booze or drugs!”
    Guess what! everyone knows we have a problem due to our anti-social and sometimes disgusting behavior whilst under the influence, why now come into AA and hide the fact that you are working a program of recovery, practicing rigorous honesty in all your affairs and making amends to the people you harmed?

    My anonymity is based on the principle that we read at the top table “who you see here, what you hear here, when you leave hear let it stay here”.
    I always uphold the anonymity of fellow members and their personal shares, but when it comes to carrying the message to the still suffering alcoholic I will give the whole package of my past 14 years of experience, strength and hope to that individual in pain, even if it means breaking my anonymity on every occasion.

    I am a very grateful and humble recovering alcoholic, addict, codependent and chronic pain patient, who is proud of his sobriety and a wonderful life of inner peace and joy.

  5. Tommy O. June 5, 2015 at 4:11 am #

    High Amy!
    (My attempt at a little NA humour in my opening line)
    If I may make a suggestion, that perhaps if you were to read a bit more into the depth of the traditions (and concepts) you may find the answer you’re searching for about anonymity in there. I prefer the NA literature to AA’s as its written by the contributions of many recovering addicts, as opposed to Bill W., as a single entity, hence a greater input of objectivity and wider range of experience regarding the illness we know as addiction.
    Anonymity defined simply in the dictionary as one who is Anonymous.
    Anonymous means having or giving no name. One of the key principles underlying that namelessness is humility along with the necessary fact that no individual speaks for ANY 12 step program, as was the case when AA world service members had to remind Betty Ford as she appointed herself to speak publicly about her association with AA as a member, and to please stop that behaviour. AA does advertising on National television, (so they’re not hiding out) but you don’t see anyone representing the Fellowship because NOBODY, known or unknown, represents any or all of the membership. That’s done so that AA can be accepted as a PROGRAM of PRINCIPLES rather than a FELLOWSHIP of PERSONALITIES!
    Money, property, and prestige are things we try to avoid in our public relations policies so that NO individual member is seen as greater or lesser than any other in principle. I don’t really see Robert Downey Jr. as any more significant in the fellowship than my sponsor Tom J. is. But the general public sure does! So if we keep BOTH of their ‘PERSONALITIES’ out of the equation then ‘ALL WILL BE WELL’! At least that is the underlying hope. I’m sure that you understand that the main reasons for these principles outlined in the traditions and concepts are designed in a ‘spiritual’ nature to protect the ‘FELLOWSHIPS’ from ourselves and those who would attempt to exploit their position for ‘OTHER’, or perhaps PERSONAL means… It has happened many times in NA in Vancouver, a number of years back, to the point of creating a huge financial burden to the fellowship over an event involving 5440 and a dance that was a costly learning experience for everyone involved, not to mention the disunity it generated as well!
    I hope I may have offered in some small way, an assistance to your questioning about anonymity and it’s vital importance to the continued success of helping addicts to recover from the many manifestations the disease masquerades behind in an attempt to destroy people’s lives! As far as the difference between AA (alcoholism) and NA (addiction) goes, the difference between an alcoholic and an addict is that they’ll both steal your wallet, but the addict will help you look for it!.. Yes, we are a sick bunch!…

  6. Kelly Fitzgerald June 5, 2015 at 6:21 am #

    YES YES YES! Could not agree more! Down with anonymity!

  7. Chris June 5, 2015 at 9:21 am #

    Thought provoking piece. Though I’m not sure embracing anonymity always equates to one’s shame regarding whatever it is they may wish to keep private. And, speaking for myself—and countless others I’m sure—being in recovery most definitely does not mean one has participated in a 12-Step program.

    Thanks for sharing. I appreciate it. Chris

  8. grunrun June 6, 2015 at 5:32 pm #

    We all get to pick how we go with this question. We can join the generally newer people whose transparent desire is to be recognized and who hope that the importance of their limited understandings will be inflated into some kind of value in the eyes of those who don’t know any better.

    Or we can emulate the members who have made the effort to understand this subject at a deeper level.

    Some feel that the suggestion to not blab about what they see and hear in meetings is nothing more than a coercive and silly violation of their right to be completely idiotic tattletales. The less lame won’t do that…and they feel virtuous by not carrying tales and want to make sure you know it’s something they wouldn’t consider doing. It’s a principle with them not to rat out their friends and being so very virtuous about that narrow facet of anonymity gives them license to then pick and choose what aspects of anonymity they will choose to honor. They won’t ever do that, but they can do this, and this…on Tuesdays.

    Amy, one of the reasons it’s not done by those who care is that it can lead to articles like this, which showcase little more than a shallow understanding, and make AA members appear clueless. Stop self-generating questions that you then try to answer, doing so ineffectively. Or shit, ask someone who knows before you send these pieces off to anyone if the subject is beyond you. There is much you yet need to absorb regarding sobriety and displays like this at the point you’re at are not positives.

  9. Runet June 6, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

    We all get to pick how we go with this question. We can join the generally newer people whose transparent desire is to be recognized and who hope that the importance of their limited understandings will be inflated into some kind of value in the eyes of those who don’t know any better.

    Or we can emulate the members who have made the effort to understand this subject at a deeper level.

    Some feel that the suggestion to not blab about what they see and hear in meetings is nothing more than a coercive and silly violation of their right to be braindead tattletales. The less lame won’t do that…and they feel virtuous by not carrying tales and want to make sure you know it’s something they wouldn’t consider doing. It’s a principle with them not to rat out their friends and being so very virtuous about that narrow facet of anonymity gives them license to then pick and choose what aspects of anonymity they will choose to honor. They won’t ever do that, but they can do this, and this…on Tuesdays.

    Amy, one of the reasons it’s not done by those who care is that it can lead to articles like this, which showcase little more than a shallow understanding, and make AA members appear clueless. Stop self-generating questions that you then try to answer, doing so ineffectively. Or shit, ask someone who knows before you send these pieces off to anyone if the subject is beyond you. There is much you yet need to absorb regarding sobriety and displays like this at the point you’re at are not positives.

  10. Sherrie June 11, 2015 at 10:46 am #

    This is a clever piece. What I’ve learned from Al Anon is that we get to free ourselves from telling others what they should or should not do, how they should or should not handle their lives, because each of us is smart enough to figure out our own “shit”, so to speak.

    I tell people I attend Al Anon because I remember when I was at my wit’s end, feeling helpless and hopeless about my beautiful addict, someone told me about it. I attended for two years, and I was thankful that no one knew my last name, or who I was, or what I did for a living. That’s the part of anonymity that I appreciated. I, as well, had no idea what anyone else did or their last names. Sherrie K., a fellow Al Anon’er, that’s all we knew about each other. We shared a common experience, that we were affected by addiction through the experiences with those we love and cherish…and were fearful for.

    I’m an academic, and I suppose if people had “known” that when I went into the program, I would have been so ashamed that they would see me as a weak person, a person not worthy of academia because I should have known how to handle the stressors of being the mother of an amazing addict. I didn’t know. But because no one knew the details of my life, I was comfortable. I felt safe in the group. I felt safe enough to share what we all had in common. I was thankful for the anonymity that protected the dimension of me that was out in the world in the one place where I was okay, the one place I didn’t want to allow the effects of addiction to steamroll me.

    I am aware that there were people in the group who couldn’t tell anyone they were there because of domestic violence fears, initial shame that would take months, sometimes years to come to grips with. I know there were people who were in so much pain privately and to come out publicly was more than they were prepared to handle early in their recovery. “Recovery” — I know many, many people who use that word who’ve never been in a Twelve Step program, although it could be a tip that some of them have.

    I appreciate your need to “come out” — courageous and successful in your own recovery. But I also respect those who choose to keep their own anonymity and who respect the anonymity of others.

    Again, cleverly written. Nice job.

  11. Kevin July 13, 2015 at 10:57 pm #

    “_ _ is a program of attraction, rather than promotion. We need always maintain PERSONAL anonymity at the level of press, radio and film.”
    All the addict needs is to know is that the 12 step program exists, through ads listing a phone number or a website or it may be learned by word of mouth or by a government-related official providing the information, as has happened for so many.
    At this point, “personal anonymity” is maintained. Once an addict finds him or herself in a meeting, the “attraction” begins and the “personal anonymity”, for all intents and purposes, is widely accepted as being put aside (within the confines of the fellowship, that is), as names and faces begin to be associated with addiction.
    It is VERY possible for personal anonymity to be maintained while the addict finds a meeting without grandiose or un-humble “promotion”. It is evidenced in the nearly continuous stream of newcomers and growing fellowships in the rooms of 12 step programs.

  12. Nicole July 14, 2015 at 11:21 am #

    I fully agree with being open about addiction and sobriety to reduce the stigma.

    BUT – when you out yourself as an AA member, you become a spokesperson or rep of the program because so few others are known. So everything you do becomes representative of the program.

    Before I got sober, I didn’t identify with or want to be like the people I knew who were in AA, which was an obstacle to my getting sober through AA.

    When I was newly sober and going through a hard time, I read an article profiling a famous chef and mentioned his AA membership. It just made me feel badly about myself and lack of material success in AA.

    So, my commitment is to not place myself in a position to be a rep of the program other than my close family and friends.

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