Why is Anonymity in Recovery So Confusing?
There’s nothing better than sharing a personal recovery story on social media and having someone comment with a friendly reminder about anonymity with a winky face. 😉
Perhaps it’s assumed I’m so excited about the amazing life I get to live because of my sobriety, I accidentally forgot recovery is meant to be locked in a basement and never spoken about. Thank goodness for those unafraid to lay down the smack and call people out.
I get the sense I’m supposed to feel ashamed, embarrassed or even grateful for the “reminder,” but I don’t. I just feel concerned that so many people don’t understand anonymity.
Is it fun to drop quotes from literature, even if you have no idea what they mean, in some effort to sound like a genius? Fer-sure! But sometimes it backfires and can even be harmful.Some people don’t feel comfortable speaking openly about their recovery, and that’s totally okay.
I have a friend who has been sober over ten years and has shared this information with very few people outside of her recovery community. She chooses not to disclose because sadly, recovery gets wrapped in just as much stigma as addiction. The fact that she’s in recovery points to the fact that she once had a problem, and she believes disclosing will negatively affect her career.
Whenever and wherever she feels it’s appropriate, my friend shares her experience with other people, but on her own terms. She is very honest and clear about the reasons she does not wish to tattoo her recovery on her forehead (as if she should have to explain it). She does not hide behind an obligation to remain anonymous.
While I cannot imagine what keeping that kind of secret might be like, I totally respect everyone’s right to make that very personal choice.
We all have the very personal choice to disclose our recovery to others. Regardless of membership in 12-step fellowships, there is no rule that states we cannot talk about our addictions, recoveries, and whatever steps we have taken to find them. What matters are the words we use.
Many people seem to struggle with the fact that traditions are ONLY a matter for people whose recovery path involves a 12-step program. Not everyone in recovery is a member of a 12-step program (I know, I know – it’s mind-blowing), so not everyone believes in or even knows what traditions are.
That said, none of the 12-step traditions ask members to keep their recovery a secret.12-step traditions were formed over ten years after Alcoholics Anonymous was established. They were created — after much trial and error — to keep members of the program on the same page regarding how to best maintain the integrity of Alcoholics Anonymous. They were also created to protect it from the fallible human beings claiming program membership. Apparently, alcoholics were so self-centered and egotistical, it was thought best to jot down some suggestions for all to follow. They have since been adopted and adapted by many other 12-step fellowships.
Anonymity doesn’t have to be complicated.
Anonymity within a 12-step program (when understood and respected) has many benefits. It can serve to keep all members equal, “right-sized,” and humble. It keeps members accountable to the spiritual principles of the program. Anonymity also helps keep who and what happens at 12-step meetings private. This means if you and Lisa have mutual friends, it’s not okay for you to tell any of them you saw her at a meeting.
If you’re walking down the street with a friend not in program and you see Carmen from your group, it’s not cool for you to say, “Hey, Carmen!” and then turn to your friend and say “I know that chick from Sex and Love Anonymous!” Technically, I’m pretty sure even acknowledging someone from a meeting outside of one is frowned upon, but that might be an old idea.
Anonymity suggests no one should share anyone else’s story (in or outside of program). So, if your friend Dre shares at a meeting, it is not okay for you to tell people who weren’t there what he said. Yes, even if you’re really concerned about him and even if the people you’re telling are also members of the program.
What anonymity does not mean is that you shouldn’t share your own story or divulge membership in a private conversation to literally anyone you want. It simply asks that when sharing publicly, members not name the specific 12-step program they belong to.
When speaking at a non-program related event, in the news, or all over social media (yes, it would have been on the list), people are asked not to say, “Hi! My name is Sally Johnson, and I’m in AA/NA/SA/etc.” It’s okay to say you’re “sober,” “clean,” “in recovery,” and even that you attend meetings. The anonymity piece is very specific to public outcries of program specifics.
Outside of program, anonymity ensures that no one member will be able to speak for or act as a spokesperson for the organization as a whole.
That’s it. It’s really that simple.
If you are in a 12-step program:
- Telling your boss you’re in NA is perfectly okay, if you feel comfortable. Just don’t follow up your disclosure by telling her that Jackie from accounting is too.
- It’s okay to tell your partner you’re going to a CA meeting. You just shouldn’t run home and report who was there or what was said.
- You can literally tell random strangers on the street if you want; as long as it’s not being recorded for later use on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, or the local newspaper, etc.
- A radio interview, using just your first name, sharing about your membership is fine. A front-page story in your local newspaper about how you (full name and photo) are an active member of OA is a different story.
- Disclosure in private and secret Facebook groups is super tricky, mostly because of other traditions. However, after this essay is published on our public page, you shouldn’t comment that you’re AA sponsor wants to punch me in the face for writing it. HOWEVER, you can tell me that your 12-step sponsor hates my guts. That’s fine.
If you are not in a 12-step program:
- You can talk about absolutely anything you want without fear of violating 12-step traditions or “breaking [your] anonymity.”
Recovery is not a dirty little secret.
There is so secret recovery society, and we are all free to speak up about the reality that recovery happens. We are all encouraged to do our part to end the ugly rumor that it has to be private or exclusive to church basements.
Recovery is an amazing gift that helps the universe when shared. The only way we are ever going to climb out from under this heavy cloud of stigma is if we talk about our recoveries from addiction as if it’s a human affliction. The only way those struggling with active addiction are going to hear that it’s possible to recover is if we tell them – out loud – so they can hear us.
You don’t have to share your experience in the same way I do.
You don’t have to talk about your recovery in large groups.
You don’t even have to talk about it at all if you don’t want to.
But please stop using your misunderstanding of anonymity as a tool to shame those of us who do understand it and choose to recover out loud.
Julie Maida lives in Massachusetts with her amazing husband and three children. She has been in abstinence-based recovery since May 2, 2000.
Julie is eternally grateful for all the gifts of recovery and fiercely determined to advocate for, and connect ALL women with the appropriate support and resources necessary to achieve their personal recovery goals. She writes about mothering with mental illness at juliemaida.me.