In recovery from substance abuse, it’s now traditional that people remain anonymous. This tradition can be traced all the way back to the 1930s, when one of the first groups dedicated exclusively to recovering people formed—Alcoholics Anonymous.
Now, AA is known worldwide for their twelve-step program of recovery, which is used in hundreds of other “Anonymous” groups (Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Hoarders Anonymous) as a means of recovering from addictive tendencies. But, what does it mean to be “anonymous?”
- Without any name acknowledged.
- Of unknown name.
- Lacking individuality, unique character, or distinction.
When I entered the world of recovery, I wasn’t so keen on the idea of anonymity. I was supposed to be nameless? Faceless? Unknown? Here I was, in rehab, because I felt the need to hide my drug abuse and self-destructive tendencies from everyone around me. Then, in recovery, it seemed like I was told to keep yet another secret.
At that point, I didn’t understand anonymity, nor what purpose it served in recovery. Where is the line between being open and honest, and then remaining anonymous? It took me some time to understand how anonymity functioned—as a protective force in some ways, but then as a mask of shame in others.
We All Have a Right to Anonymity
In one sense, anonymity in recovery is a form of protection. Protection from what? Stigmas, prejudice, unfair judgments: all realities of being labeled as an “addict” or “alcoholic.” I certainly feared what my family and friends would think or say if I told them about my drug problem. It wasn’t easy asking for help and admitting that I needed it. When I was living in a halfway house after rehab, I was denied several jobs and apartment applications because I was honest about my sober living situation (against the advice of many peers).
I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this—witnessing someone’s face or tone or energy change when you tell them that you’re in recovery. Often in meetings, I used to hear jokes about new friends “reaching to hold their pocketbooks” when they found out a person was in recovery. The entire meeting would laugh—because it was true for so many people. For this reason, I came to understand why every person in recovery has the right to remain anonymous.
We each have to respect one another’s right to anonymity, which is why there is so much emphasis on not talking about recovery or the people seen at meetings. It is not my place to talk about someone else’s recovery or their past. There is understanding and support within recovery meetings, but outside of those meetings that level of understanding is not guaranteed.
But Anonymity is Becoming Problematic
Yes, talking about other people in recovery or the stories heard at meetings without a person’s explicit permission is disrespectful. But, for me, this does not mean we should never talk about recovery—especially our own experiences in recovery. If we do, this level of anonymity can contribute to the powerful stigmas that surround substance abuse.
What’s the most common idea people have in their heads of an “alcoholic” or an “addict?” I’ve heard it too often: a person living under a bridge with a bottle in their hand or a needle in their arm. Whether you identify as a recovering “alcoholic,” “addict,” or “substance abuser,” any indication that you’ve had a problem with drugs or alcohol suggests that you’re unreliable, untrustworthy, a thief, inferior in some way, or any number of misguided judgments. Many of these stigmas exist simply because most people have had such limited experiences with people living in recovery.
These stigmas are rooted in fear, and fear is so often bred out of ignorance and misunderstanding. The true way to eliminate stigmas is to inform and broaden people’s perspectives, which means allowing others to see a wider spectrum of recovery. People need to see that substance abuse can affect anyone—doctors, teachers, politicians, parents, grandparents, students, soldiers, athletes, artists—and that recovery is possible.
Anonymity Is a Choice
Ultimately, anonymity is a choice for each individual, and in each situation they encounter. Though I no longer identify as a member of a 12-step fellowship, I attended a 12-step-oriented treatment center, went through the steps multiple times, and participated in AA and several other fellowships. I absolutely respect the tradition of anonymity and I see its value. I have learned that there are situations in which talking about my recovery may bring unfair prejudices against me.
However, the tradition of anonymity arose at a time when substance abuse (in particular, alcoholism) was not just taboo—it was shameful. Though stigmas related to substance abuse still exist today, we are beginning to talk about substance abuse more openly and changing those stigmas. We—the people living in recovery—can dismantle old misconceptions about substance abuse by serving as living examples. We each have our right to anonymity, but it is our choice to remain anonymous and keep our recovery concealed in all aspects of our lives.
Society is shifting its views. Substance abuse was once seen as a moral failing or a lack of willpower. It’s now being recognized as a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that deserves proper care and genuine empathy. More and more people are coming out about living in recovery—whether it’s in their own personal lives, at their jobs, or publicly in the media as a representatives of recovery. As they do so, judgments begin to change, and the amount of shame felt slowly reduces.
Today, I choose to talk (and write) about my recovery openly, but I haven’t always felt inclined to do so. I have certainly felt ashamed of mistakes that I’ve made in the past, and I’ve felt shamed by the judgment of others. But, I do believe that I am lucky to live in a time in which we can talk about substance abuse more openly. I also have come to trust my own opinion of myself more than others’.
We each have a story to tell. Mine is the story of a loved daughter and sister, a straight-A student, a competitive athlete, and a passionate writer who turned to drugs for many reasons, then found myself in a frightening, desolate place that I had never expected. This story has the power to open people’s minds about substance abuse. It has the power to change misconceptions about the label, “addict.” It is just one story, and my story is not the only one worth telling.
We are our biggest advocates. Coming out into the open about our recovery has the potential to inspire real change. But, it is always a personal choice. I choose to not remain anonymous in my recovery, but to embrace it as a part of my identity—though not my entire identity. The mistakes I’ve made, the struggles that I’ve overcome, and what I’ve learned in recovery all contribute to the person that I am today. I am proud of that person.
I think it’s important for other people to see that recovery from substance abuse is not a flaw or failing. Recovery can (and has) become a powerful force, helping to shape so many amazing people in the world today.
Nadia Sheikh is a freelance writer, adventure seeker, and general weirdo. You can find more of her writing about recovery on Sober Nation.