The Recovery Closet: Reflections on Coming Out (PART 2) Bill White, Tom Hill, and Greg Williams

I am no longer accepting.jpgThis week’s blogs is the third of a continuing meditation on stigma, recovery concealment/disclosure, and its personal and social effects.  Here are some random thoughts we would like to share for your reflection.

 Social Effects of Concealment  Recovery concealment (“passing”) offers some level of protection to the individual, but buttresses the social conditions (e.g., public misperceptions, prejudices, policies, and overt acts of discrimination) that make concealment a necessary option.  To be silent about one’s recovery status is at the social/political level an act of conscious or unconscious complicity in addiction/recovery-related stigma. What is unsettling about the agitation of advocacy movements within stigmatized communities is that they bring past and present acts of such complicity into full awareness. 

Process versus Event  Disclosure of recovery status is not a one-time decision, but a lifelong series of decisions that evolve in tandem with changes in personal, family, and cultural circumstances.  Coming out is a continual process requiring sustained commitment.

Simultaneous, Serial, or Selective Disclosure People who share multiple socially stigmatized traits face decisions on which aspects of their life to reveal or continue to conceal and the best timing and contexts of such revelations. Such revelations may occur in a simultaneous, serial (time-spaced decisions–like peeling layers of an onion), or selective (disclosing one dimension while continuing to conceal one or more other dimensions) fashion.   

Intimacy/Safety Continuum  Recovery disclosure is not an all or none proposition; it often unfolds incrementally based on levels of intimacy and safety and may vary from no disclosure (complete concealment) to minimal disclosure (status of recovery) to maximum disclosure (details of recovery story).

 Disclosure Testing Recovery disclosure in interpersonal encounters is best done in stages, with safety and comfort evaluated at each stage.

 Disclosure and Recovery Identity  Recovery identity is fluid over time, and degrees of disclosure often evolve across the personal/recovery life cycle.

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Disclosure and Personal Privacy  Disclosure of a socially stigmatized condition does not imply abandonment of rights to privacy.  Each person has the right to disclose or not disclose and to define the boundaries of such disclosure.  The decision to share one’s recovery status and the decision to share the details of one’s recovery story are quite different decisions as they represent far different levels of intimacy and vulnerability and require attention to the way in which these different levels of disclosure serve different purposes.   

Recovery Storytelling  The structure and details of one’s recovery story may change over time as one grows (again, an onion-like peeling of the addiction/recovery experience) and through exposure to the stories of others in recovery. 

In-Group Disclosure  “A very widely employed strategy of the discreditable person is to handle his risks by dividing the world into a large group to whom he tells nothing, and a small group to whom he tells all and upon whose support he relies on…” (Goffman, Stigma, 1963, p. 95).

Language of Disclosure  Recovery disclosure requires a language of disclosure, which one can acquire from others in recovery or from the larger culture when recovery has penetrated cultural consciousness.  The in-group jargon of a recovery fellowship may have limited utility for out-group communications to persons without personal/family recovery experience.  Such in-group and out-group language–disclosures to people with and without personal recovery experience–often evolve across the stages of recovery, as recovery communities mature, and as social attitudes toward  recovery progress or regress.   Collective coming out of people across different pathways of recovery requires a new generic language through which the recovery experience can be expressed to the larger public.  

Paradox of In-Group Language  It is ironic that the majority of people experiencing active addiction shun the “alcoholic or “addict” identity, while hundreds of thousands of people no longer actively addicted regularly introduce themselves as an “alcoholic” or “addict” in meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. 

In-Group versus Out-Group Communication  During the early stages of their cultural/political mobilization, discredited groups may embrace terms of castigation thrust on them by the dominant culture and recast such words as symbols of in-group identification.   Historically pejorative language could thus be used for in-group communications at the same time use of this language is being challenged by recovery advocates within the larger culture.  Terms like “alcoholic” and “addict” may have great psychological and community-building value within cultures of recovery even as recovery advocates allege that these terms constitute a language of objectification and advocate a preference for person first language at the level of public discourse (e.g., “person with a substance use disorder” versus “substance abuser,” “alcoholic,” or “addict”).       

Disclosure and Retraction  Sometimes recovery status is later retracted as one reframes his or her personal story, deleting addiction and recovery as meaningful categories within the story.  Addiction recovery, like recovery from other life-threatening conditions, can constitute a transitory or enduring identity, as a recovery is integrated into a person’s overall sense of self.

Disclosure as Social Advancement  Recovery disclosure can be a way of asserting a new identity for social/occupational advancement–what Goffman refers to as “making a profession of their stigma” (p. 27).  A recovery identity may also be falsely embraced and visibly worn as a means of transcending an otherwise stained identity (e.g., explanation for criminal or immoral behavior) or for social advancement (e.g., exaggeration/fabrication of addiction/recovery story when new opportunities are linked to that status).

Collective Disclosure  Recovery disclosure can occur as a personal act, but it can also occur as a collective act, as happens each year in public recovery celebration events in the U.S. and in other countries.  Rituals of collective disclosure can exert a profound influence on recovery identity and embolden social disclosure of recovery status outside of such events.    

Survival of Stigma Surviving a discredited condition/status can be a meaningful source of strength, potentially allowing one a depth of experience, character, and quality of life that might otherwise not have been possible without such challenges.  Lecturing at the 1945 Yale School of Alcohol Studies, AA co-founder Bill Wilson referred to this as “the sublime paradox of strength coming out of weakness.”