Is Anonymity Still Required in Addiction Recovery?

young man in the dark

What would you say to someone just starting out in addiction recovery? This was the question posed by Yamaha Media to alumni of The Ranch treatment center, whose stories of addiction and recovery were filmed for a powerful video played at the 2015 UNITE to Face Addiction rally in Washington, D.C. Tens of thousands of people showed up to break the stigma of addiction and spread a message of hope, including senators, congressmen, President Obama (via recorded message) and artists like Steven Tyler and Sheryl Crow.

Caetlin Mangan, clinical outreach coordinator for The Ranch, was the only non-celebrity face featured in the video. Sandwiched between radio host and political commentator Glenn Beck and Sir Paul McCartney, Mangan answered Yamaha’s question this way: “I would tell them it’s going to be brutal. There will be times when you have to take it five minutes at a time. There will be times when you can’t breathe and you don’t know if you’ll survive it. But I’m telling you on other side of it there’s a life that’s more beautiful and rewarding than you could ever dream for yourself.”

Decades ago, it’s doubtful such a crowd would be willing to speak so openly about a heavily stigmatized issue like addiction. And by keeping quiet, they’d be abiding by a longstanding directive from Alcoholics Anonymous to keep any 12-step affiliations anonymous. Instead, they sent bold messages that addiction is a treatable disease and recovery is possible. So in light of this event and others like it, is anonymity still an important part of recovery?

The Purpose of Anonymity

Anonymity has been a core tenet of addiction recovery since 1939. It’s mentioned in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and AA’s Twelve Traditions, and has been adopted by the various “anonymous” recovery programs such as Narcotics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous and others. While participants are free to tell people they’re sober, they may not specify their involvement in a 12-step group.

Anonymity is intended to serve a number of purposes including:

  1. To protect the privacy of AA members. What happens in a 12-step meeting stays in the 12-step meeting. There are no records or full names used (in theory, at least). By ensuring that no one’s privacy is inadvertently breached, members feel safe opening up about difficult feelings and personal struggles. This, in turn, creates an environment where people can freely share their stories and learn from the experiences of others.
  2. To protect the integrity of 12-step programs. Members are not spokespeople for 12-step programs and should not use the program for self-promotion. Their personal successes and challenges are their own; they are not a reflection on the program.
  3. To make clear it’s an equal playing field. Regardless of status, gender, wealth, length of sobriety or other factors, no one matters more or less than anyone else. This helps remove judgment from the addiction recovery process and fosters humility.

Is Anonymity an Outdated Concept?

While few would dispute the importance of these principles, a strict interpretation of anonymity has limitations. Many people find themselves dancing around the issue in dubious ways, trying to talk recovery without getting into particulars. Others believe the directive has done a disservice.

Today, there is a movement away from anonymity. Certainly no one advocates “outing” others. As pointed out by AA in a statement on anonymity, common-sense discretion should be exercised to prevent outing others, whether purposeful or by accident, including on social media. But many believe that people in recovery should be invited to share how they got sober (including participation in a 12-step program), for their own empowerment and to enhance awareness of the disease and its treatment on a wider scale.

There’s never been a better time for this shift. Addiction is going mainstream. Celebrities, politicians and other public figures are opening up about their struggles and the addictions of their family members. People are writing tell-all books. We’re seeing stories of addiction and recovery as major plot lines in television shows.

“Sober people are having a coming out party,” Mangan observes. “In a similar vein, homosexuals remained silent for so long because they were trapped by inaccurate stigmas perpetuated by ignorance. It was only after real stories were shared by real people that a clearer picture came into view — that being gay did not define a person, but was only an aspect of who they are. Recovery is making similar strides. Slowly but surely, we are overcoming stereotypes and assumptions with more accurate representations being integrated into mainstream culture.”

Overcoming Stigma Through Awareness

Breaking down the stigma of addiction has been a slow process. Despite scientific evidence that addiction is a treatable brain disease, many still view it as a sign of weakness or character flaw. As the battle continues, lives are lost.

“When you first start out in the program, the message is clear: If you speak out about your recovery, people wont know how to handle you,” says Mangan. “We have to keep meetings safe; otherwise people won’t want to come.” And Mangan agrees, especially for people new to the program. But as she grew in her recovery, she increasingly felt the need to speak up.

To overcome stereotypes, people need to see the reality of addiction. “I’m a college graduate and a national champion public speaker. I’m also an addict. It’s not just the homeless person under the bridge or some other ‘kind of person’ who faces addiction. We all have to think about this,” says Mangan, who worries that stigma gives lawmakers and insurance companies an excuse to write off people with addictions.

Whether she’s with friends, sharing with clients at The Ranch or meeting someone new, Mangan’s approach is “Ask me about my recovery! I’ve worked really hard for it.” While she doesn’t broadcast her sobriety to every person she meets, she doesn’t shy away from those day-to-day opportunities to talk about it. For example, if someone asks her out for a drink, she answers honestly, “I dont drink, because I can’t be an adult about it.” “We hurt ourselves and others in deep ways when we don’t take the opportunity to engage in open and honest conversations about addiction,” she says.

Of course, talking about the very personal experience of addiction recovery can be uncomfortable. But, as Mangan points out, “If you’re sober, you’ve lived through brutally uncomfortable moments that pale in comparison to speaking out about your recovery. Why is the same person who was willing to crawl around on the floor looking for drugs now too embarrassed to say they’ve finally shown up for themselves?”

Pride in a Hard-Won Victory

Participating in a 12-step program — or any type of recovery program — should be a badge of courage. The more people talk about what’s working for them (and what isnt), the better others can understand their options and figure out their own path.

William Moyers, author of Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption and a driving force behind the Faces & Voices movement, says “Anonymity is important, but it doesn’t apply to people who choose to stand up and speak out of their own experience and without representing or speaking for any entity such as AA. There was no way I could talk about recovery without talking about how I recovered — that it’s not a magic bullet or injection, that it’s a process, and that process is involved. I need people to understand that recovery is hard work, and that hard work is reflected in my program through the 12 steps.”

Sobriety is an individual victory, but it’s also a community win. “In the 12-step program, we say you can only keep what you have by giving it away,” says Mangan. “To me, that means so much more than sponsorship. I have an opportunity to share my story in a way that can help save someone a lot of heartache and pain. That’s worth an uncomfortable moment or two.”

Most of us try to capitalize on our strengths — our intelligence, our accomplishments, our dashing good looks. For people in recovery, it’s counterintuitive to hide the aspect of their life that makes them most proud. “Most of the time, when a miracle happens, news crews show up and make a big deal of it,” says Mangan. “All of us in recovery are mini-miracles, and were hiding like there’s something shameful about it. In reality, getting sober is one of most difficult and bad-ass things you can do in your life.”

Coming Out in Recovery: The Choice Is Yours

Whether or not to share details of your recovery is a personal decision. “Whatever helps you get and stay sober, do it. If you want to speak out, you have that right. If you don’t want to or feel too uncomfortable, don’t,” advises Mangan. “The key is not missing out on opportunities for activism by fighting amongst each other. Let’s show the world what can happen when a bunch of miracles get together.”

By Meghan Vivo

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