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Busting the Anonymity Myth

In early recovery, I was introduced to the concept of recovery advocacy by an old timer who had been there and back again. I remember my first thoughts about the topic:

“You mean I can talk openly about my addiction and recovery?...and this will actually help people?”

I couldn’t believe that some people shared about their addiction and mental health recovery in public, outside of church basements and in the light of day. It made me queasy.

This old timer, a woman who would later become my mentor, told me about the power of storytelling and the importance of smashing the stigma of addiction. She also saw in me something that I did not see in myself: that I had a story to tell. Not just for my own benefit of healing, but for the benefit of the entire recovery community.

How Do You Say “A-N-O-N-Y-M-I-T-Y?”

At recovery meetings early on in my journey, there was a word that I struggled to pronounce. My face flushed crimson. I stuttered. The letters felt alien on my tongue. Like I was in elementary school and was the only one who didn’t know the answer to a question. Fast forward hours of meetings and I eventually got the hang of it. Vowels and consonants tap-danced out of my mouth: A-N-O-N-Y-M-I-T-Y. Now I was on the other side (or so I thought), recognizing when someone entered the rooms for the first time by their inability to say the word, too. Newcomer.

Over time, the concept of anonymity transformed from a foreign language to something that I said with ease. But—did I understand it?

Alcoholics Anonymous states that:

Anonymity is often referred to as the greatest single protection the Fellowship has to assure its continued existence and growth. In stressing the equality of all A.A. members — and unity in the common bond of their recovery from alcoholism — anonymity serves as the spiritual foundation of A.A.[i]

The Founders of 12-Step Fellowships: Not so Anonymous

When I learned about recovery advocacy, the concept of sharing publicly about my recovery seemed at first glance to work against this tradition of anonymity. Wasn’t I supposed to keep my recovery confined to the small circle of chairs where I first got sober? Wasn’t there the possibility of instant combustion if I murmured the identifiers (alcoholic and addict) that flowed so freely in the rooms? Couldn’t the whole thing come crashing down if someone found out I was in recovery?

Marty Mann was one of the first women of Alcoholics Anonymous. After entering recovery around 1940, she began telling her story. Not just in hushed and secretive recovery meetings. Ms. Mann went public, under the direct supervision of her sponsor, Bill Wilson (one of the founders of AA). She was tireless in her efforts to bring light to the realities of addiction and recovery and passionate about helping those afflicted with a condition that was shunned by society. She also went on to found the National Council on Alcoholism (now the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence or NCAAD) and for decades was a respected speaker and expert in the field of alcoholism and addiction.

Bill Wilson and others also testified at congressional hearings and other meetings in order to advocate for policies that would help those in or seeking recovery get the help they need. Because of the early members’ advocacy in the United States, the stigma surrounding alcoholism began to shift and more people came to see it as a health issue instead of an exclusively moral one. Anonymity, for them, wasn’t so black and white.

The Power of Recovery Stories

Back when I was wrestling with the concepts of advocacy and anonymity, a recovery community organization in my home state hosted a screening of the documentary The Anonymous People.

The film highlights the history of recovery advocacy and recovery storytelling. It shares how the General Service Organization (GSO) of Alcoholics Anonymous put out a statement on anonymity. I learned that there was a difference between sharing about my recovery to help others and talking about any specific recovery pathway like AA or NA. I could be vulnerable without breaking anonymity. What is more, there were people who had gone before, people like Marty Mann and Bill Wilson and countless advocates around the globe. I wasn’t alone.

My personal recovery journey was also impacted by the stories of others. Women shared their experience, strength and hope with me. I learned that I wasn’t the only one who had a trainwreck of a young adult life like a small-town version of the movie Blow. I wasn’t the only one who experienced trauma in active addiction. And, importantly, I wasn’t the only one to hit rock bottom and then begin to claw my way up, with God’s help.

Author Henri Nouwen says that:

“One of the remarkable qualities of the story is that it creates space. We can dwell in a story, walk around, find our own place. The story confronts but does not oppress; the story inspires but does not manipulate. The story invites us to an encounter, a dialogue, a mutual sharing. As long as we have stories to tell to each other there is hope.”

Because of the stories of others, and learning more about advocacy and anonymity, I am motivated to share my own recovery story. I can be a recovery advocate who is vocal about my own recovery without breaking the traditions of recovery programs. It’s okay, and in fact it might be better to, come up from the basement. Afterall, isn’t hope shared in the light?

Caroline Beidler, MSW is an author and founder of the storytelling platform Bright Story Shine where she has released her eBook: Guide to Shine:10 Practical Ways to Make Your Recovery Shine and a 7 Day Recovery Reset Devotional. She is also a team writer for the Grit and Grace Project and blogger at In the Rooms. She also leads Creative Consultation Services, LLC., a business focused on creating sustainable addiction recovery support services and a Research Collaborator with the Lyda Hill Institute on Human Resilience. Caroline lives in Tennessee with her husband, Matt, and her twins, Henrick and Violet.

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