Today I celebrated 19 years of sobriety, one day at a time, yet even after all these years, I am still not comfortable with one of the tenets of most 12-step programs – the belief that anonymity is sacrosanct. In fact, in spite of the inevitable backlash I’ll receive for writing this, I feel that strict adherence to this principle may have outlived its usefulness in the field of addiction recovery.
A good place to begin is by looking at what Bill W., one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous says about anonymity. In 1945, he wrote: “The word ‘anonymous’ has for us an immense spiritual significance. Subtly but powerfully, it reminds us that we are always to place principles before personalities; that we have renounced personal glorification in public; that our movement not only preaches but actually practices a true humility.” Let’s not get sidetracked by that word, ‘humility’, which in and of itself is an elusive creature because the moment you speak of it, there is a great possibility you are no longer practicing it.
I should also clarify a few important distinctions in terms of the concept of ‘anonymity’ and how it relates to recovery. Tradition Eleven of Alcoholics Anonymous states: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” And once again, we see ‘anonymity’ is discussed in Tradition Twelve: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” From its earliest roots in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous’ very existence has been predicated on the cornerstone of anonymity, as it serves two important functions – protecting the identity of individual members as well as creating a non-hierarchical structure within each group.
At no time do I condone breaking the anonymity of another individual without his or her permission; in fact, it is the fear of this happening that keeps many people away from attending a recovery program to begin with. Having said that, where I disagree with many fellow members in my 12-step program is the prescribed expectation that my decision to break my own anonymity is in some way contravening the unwritten moral code of recovery.
It is suggested that by breaking our anonymity at a personal level, we become de facto ‘spokespersons’ for the particular recovery program to which we belong– To me, the logic behind that statement makes as much sense as the belief that one’s membership at a particular gym or health club can be viewed as a direct reflection of the efficacy of that establishment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the argument put forth in meetings that ‘we can’t have all these people running around publically saying they are members of Alcoholics Anonymous… What if they relapse? What would that say about our program?’ I may not be popular for saying this, but guess what – people relapse; that’s a reality on the path to recovery. And if anything, over the years, I’ve discovered that the more people who know I’m in recovery, the more support I’m exposed to when I might be struggling and prone for a relapse.
The one caveat to being open about one’s participation in a 12-step program involves the thorny issue of keeping one’s ego in check. I opened this article by stating that I had reached another sobriety milestone, and that statement can be interpreted in one of two ways – either as a self-serving opportunity to ‘toot my own horn’, or as evidence that it is possible to imagine a life free of drugs and alcohol. As someone who has a fairly public profile, I’ve have tried to offset personal ego-inflation by being completely candid about my continual daily struggles with sobriety. One of the things I have to remind myself of is not to compare what, at times, feels like the ‘mundaneness of my life’ with someone else’s highlights reel.
Before walking into the doors of my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I was fairly convinced what an alcoholic looked like, and it was safe to say, it didn’t look like me! I still had a job, a roof over my head, and family around me, however tenuous those things were. One of the greatest impediments for me not seeking help for my addiction issues sooner was the stigma associated with being labeled an ‘addict’. And therein lies my reasoning that strict adherence to anonymity, a somewhat ‘cloak and dagger’ secrecy at all levels of recovery, serves to perpetuate myths of addiction and adds to the stigmatization of those seeking recovery.
Despite what I used to believe, the opposite of addiction is not ‘sobriety’, but rather, the opposite of addiction is ‘connection’, and alongside of this connection comes an immense responsibility to step fully into my life and engage in both the joy and adversity that I face. Today, I am not only grateful for my sobriety but also grateful for the space that addiction has my life, for it has revealed a quiet strength within me. In the words of Albert Camus, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”