Anonymity and Recovery Advocacy

Masks of Recovery

The recent surge in social media discussions about anonymity and recovery advocacy (see here and here for examples) have triggered increased email inquiries about my thoughts as a recovery historian on these discussions.  Some have pointedly asked which side I am on, as if an anonymity war had been launched forcing one to choose one camp or the other.  If there is such an emerging split, I find myself challenging all who frame this issue as a war.  I challenge recovery advocates who feel anonymity is a musty, outdated concept that has lost all value in the 21st century, and I challenge those in 12-Step fellowships who suggest that public disclosure of one’s recovery status is a breach of 12-Step Traditions.  Here are selected excerpts from what I have written on this topic over the past 15 years.    

A.A.’s predecessors had been wounded by leaders and members who either used visibility as a springboard for financial profit or whose public downfall brought discredit to the organization. A.A. avoided both of these pitfalls by declaring that no one with a name (at least a full name) could speak for A.A. Anonymity, while practiced as a spiritual exercise, also protected A.A. as an organization and brought many individuals into recovery who saw in anonymity a shroud of protection from the injury that can result from one’s being linked to a socially stigmatized condition. (2001)

Radical recovery is not an invitation to violate the anonymity traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other twelve-step fellowships. It is an invitation for some individuals and family members in twelve-step recovery and those from other pathways of recovery to talk publicly about their recovery status without reference to the means by which that recovery was achieved, e.g., without specific references to AA/NA affiliation at the level of press. It is an invitation for people to become a messenger of recovery apart from their particular identities as members of AA, NA, CA, WFS, WFS, SOS, LSR, or other recovery societies. (2004)

Anonymity served many practical functions in the early decades of AA, and quite animated discussions continue on the extent to which these functions continue or do not need to continue in the twenty-first century. Three such practicalities were most prominent. First, anonymity at the level of press (and the cultural etiquette of not using last names within meetings and admonitions of “who you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here”) helped attract and protect the identities of alcoholics whose affiliation with AA, if publicly known, could cause harm to them or other parties. Second, anonymity at the level of press protected AA from public damage to its reputation that could occur if a publicly identified AA member or leader experienced a resumption of destructive drinking and related mayhem. The principle of anonymity and the practice of leadership rotation also helped AA avoid the organizational pitfalls of charismatic leadership and a centralized hierarchy that publicly personified AA. That function was particularly significant at an organizational level within a fellowship that defined the central problem of its members in terms of “self-centeredness,” “self-will run riot” and “playing God.” An argument could be made that the social stigma attached to alcoholism has declined in recent decades, making the first two functions less vital, although I don’t think this same argument could be made in such 12-Step groups as Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Heroin Anonymous, and other 12-Step groups for persons addicted primarily to illicit drugs.  (2013)

I still see the value of anonymity at the level of press as a protection of all 12-Step programs, and leaders within the new recovery advocacy movement distinguish public disclosure of recovery status (including at the level of press) with disclosure of one’s affiliation with AA or another 12-Step program at the level of press. I think disclosure of recovery status at the level of press without reference to affiliation with AA or another 12-Step program complies with the letter of Traditions Ten & Eleven, but it may not always meet the spirit of the Traditions (Tradition Twelve)….I think the practical justifications for anonymity change and may even be lost as cultural contexts change, but anonymity as “spiritual foundation” comes from a quite different source—not cultural context and the personal or organizational threats such context pose, but from the essential dilemma of individuals seeking recovery within a 12-Step framework. One of the central discoveries within AA was that the alcoholic could not recover using only resources within the self. The alcoholic’s essential problem, whether as a cause or consequence of alcoholism, was, in AA’s view, entrapment within the self. The most cursory scan of AA’s basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous, is informative. AA’s founding generation viewed such things as self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-control, self-discipline, self-assertion, self-reliance, and self-confidence not as virtues but as part of the central pathology of alcoholism (along with other self-hyphenated conditions, e.g., self-justification, self-pity, and self-deception). So what AA constructed via its steps and rituals was a “we program” rather than an “I program” of recovery that allowed the alcoholic to escape entrapment within the self—a program that required nothing less than the “destruction of self-centeredness” (AA, 1939, p. 30). When AA literature speaks of anonymity as a “spiritual principle,” it does so out of a profound understanding of the importance of self-transcendence as the vehicle for sobriety and serenity. You can hear people depicting AA as a “selfish program” to mean that the alcoholic must get sober for self and not for others, but you find a quite different orientation on the issue of anonymity. The “spiritual substance” of anonymity according to AA’s core literature is not selfishness but “sacrifice.” (AA, 1952/1981, p. 184). What is sacrificed in AA (and in acts of heroism) are one’s “natural desires for personal distinction,” which in AA are eschewed in favor of “humility, expressed by anonymity” (AA, 1952/1981, p. 87). Applying this understanding, one could see how an AA or NA member choosing public recovery advocacy could technically meet the letter of Tradition Eleven (not disclosing AA affiliation at the level of press), but violate the pervading spirit of the Traditions (Tradition Twelve). This could occur when advocacy is used as a stage for assertion of self (flowing from ego / narcissism / pride and the desire for personal recognition) rather than as a platform for acts of service, which flow from remorse, gratitude, humility, and a commitment to service.  (2013)

There is a purity—perhaps even a nobility—to recovery advocacy when it meets the heroism criteria. There is a zone of service and connection to community within advocacy work, and I think we must do a regular gut check to make sure we remain within that zone and not drift into advocacy as an assertion of ego. The intensity of camera lights, the proffered microphone, and seeing our published words and images can be as intoxicating and destructive as any drug if we allow ourselves to be seduced by them. If we shift our focus from the power of the message to our power as a messenger, we risk, like Icarus of myth, flying towards the sun and our own self-destruction. To avoid that, we have to speak as a community of recovering people and avoid becoming recovery celebrities—even on the smallest of stages. We must stay closely connected to diverse communities of recovery and speak publicly not as an individual or representative of one path of recovery, but on behalf of all people in recovery. The fact that no one is fully qualified to do that helps us maintain a sense of humility even as we embrace the very real importance of the work to be done. The spirit of anonymity—that suppression of self-centeredness—can be respected when we speak by embracing the wonderful varieties of recovery experience rather than as individuals competing for attention and superiority. (2013)