This year, Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) celebrates its 78th anniversary. Boasting 3.5 million members participating in some 180,000 groups around the globe, A.A. and its 12 Step program has grown into an organization with tremendous impact.
Even in its earliest days A.A. had the same two basic rules:
- Desire to stop drinking
- Keep yours and other group members’ association with A.A. completely anonymous.
Like anything else with a rich history of success spanning nearly a century, A.A. has had its fair share of squirming under the public’s critical eye. But recently, the second “A” in “A.A.” (anonymous) has received fierce attention from opinionated media and concerned members. Assaults flying between people within and outside recovery groups have created, more than anything, confusion about breaking anonymity in the tradition of A.A.
Just what does it mean to remain anonymous in the A.A. tradition? Should you mention A.A. on your Facebook wall? Can you share your testimony on video? Or is it all up to your personal preference? For a moment, lend me an open mind while we explore the concept of anonymity.
Revealing My Membership vs. Sharing My Story
If anonymity were a person, it just might be the most misunderstood and misquoted person in the world. And no one likes to be misunderstood.
What people seem to mix up the most is the difference between revealing your membership in A.A. and just sharing your personal recovery story.
Revealing Your Membership
Officially, breaking your anonymity means telling someone you’re a member of A.A. or in other ways indicating your affiliation with the program, unless of course you’re actually at an A.A. meeting.
Traditionally, breaking anonymity with your close family and friends has been accepted, and in many ways, even expected. But as soon as you start advertising and publicly sharing your relationship with A.A., you break not only anonymity, but also A.A. Traditions. And it is this kind of breaking of anonymity that is so dangerous to the foundation of A.A.
Why? Because when you explain your relationship with A.A., you implicitly open your friends and acquaintances up to scrutiny too. For example, if you mention your A.A. relationship on your Facebook wall, some of your friends might assume that some of your other Facebook friends are also in A.A.—in essence, you broke your friends’ rights to keep their involvement in A.A. private by revealing your relationship to A.A. Even if you’re fine with your friends and family knowing you’re in recovery, others in your A.A. community might not be as comfortable with their family and friends knowing about their involvement.
This is why the principle of anonymity is the backbone of the program. In fact, Bill W. wrote that “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions.” Many agree: Anonymity is the spiritual foundation for all that Alcoholics Anonymous represents. In some respects, taking anonymity from A.A. would be like taking “Nirvana” from Buddhism or the cross from Christianity.
To eliminate or even to crack this anonymity foundation where so many began their journey of hope would have widespread ramifications. When foundations crumble, everything crumbles—and the A.A. “house” has 3.5 million living, breathing, struggling, hopeful, recovering addicts inside.
If you’re thinking about giving up on anonymity, keep your white flag down a little longer. Without your anonymity, A.A. might just fall flat on its face.
Sharing Your Story
Keeping anonymity in A.A. is important, but does that mean you can’t share your recovery story? No. In fact, your story might be just what someone else needs to hear to seek help and find hope.
So how can you share your testimony without breaking A.A. anonymity?
When Is It Okay or Not Okay to Talk About Recovery and A.A.?
Here’s a simple chart to help you visualize the difference between breaking anonymity and sharing your story privately or publicly.
Within the confines of anonymity, you can share your story. You are allowed to inspire those around you to discover sobriety. And you can absolutely help the helpless, just like people did for you. Basically, the only thing you can’t do while staying “anonymous,” is brag on A.A. in a public setting while revealing your identity with a picture or your full name.
We understand that it can be hard to talk about your recovery without breaking tradition. If you’re looking for some guidance on what to say, check out the Faces & Voices of Recovery website. Their resources will help you learn how to share your story in a way the public will understand—a way that shows them “there’s more to recovery than not using alcohol and other drugs . . . recovery is creating a better life.” The recent documentary The Anonymous People also does a great job of capturing people’s recovery stories without breaking A.A. Traditions.
Putting Anonymity Under the Microscope
Now that you have a basic understanding of the difference between personal sharing and breaking anonymity, let’s dig a little deeper into what breaking anonymity means and doesn’t mean.
What Anonymity IS
Anonymity IS keeping your membership, and especially the membership of others, confidential. This provides privacy for A.A. members and allows them to confidently share real struggles and stories in group meetings. Primarily, anonymity provides protection from identification as an alcoholic.
Anonymity IS keeping your membership out of the press, TV, Radio, the Internet, and forms of social media. As Bill W said in the 11th Tradition, “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of the press, radio, and films.”
Anonymity IS up to you on a person-to-person basis. Breaking your own anonymity, for example to a family member, a close friend or a struggling alcoholic, is a personal decision.
What Anonymity is NOT
Anonymity is NOT keeping your recovery quiet. Although the stigma wrapped around addiction is decreasing, some people still believe addiction is the product of a weak-willed, morally-bad individual. Sharing your story of recovery makes others realize they can do it too. You never know who you might inspire.
Anonymity is NOT keeping your recovery a secret from family and close friends. In fact, not telling them will probably hurt more than it will help. Forms of accountability outside A.A. meetings are an important aspect of recovery. That’s one of the reasons having a sponsor is a must.
“Because sponsorship is a two edged sword. Don’t ever think for one minute that the old timer may not need you more than you need him. We refer to the newcomers as the lifeblood of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. And that you are just as vital to the old timer as the old timer is vital to you.” —Gene Duffy
Anonymity is NOT keeping to yourself after recovery. The 12th and final step of recovery was formed around the idea of giving back. In fact A.A. urges its members to never stop working the Steps: “try to carry this message (sobriety) to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” —Step 12
What Anonymity PROVIDES
The provisions of anonymity give us confidence in our spiritual foundation. Simply said, anonymity is the gift that keeps on giving.
So keep that white flag down and keep on reading.
Anonymity provides protection.Primarily, it protects members from identification as alcoholics. Anonymity also protects the group as a whole from unnecessary judgment. For instance, if a politician, celebrity, or professional athlete revealed his A.A. membership and then relapsed after receiving public recognition, someone “new” to A.A. might develop a false impression of the group. Thankfully, this will never happen if traditions are kept.
Anonymity provides safety. Admitting addiction is hard, and in a stressful or judgmental atmosphere, taking this first step is nearly impossible. A.A. groups pride themselves in their safe environment where trust comes naturally. Anonymity makes this trusting, open atmosphere possible.
“I can say that without the guarantee of anonymity I would never have dared reveal the many deep secrets that had painted me into a very small and dark corner, paralyzed by fear . . . Feeling free to speak without fear of judgment or exposure is one of the most important features of the meeting for a newcomer.” —mb
Anonymity provides equality and unity. With several million members worldwide, just imagine how diverse A.A. is! You have anywhere from an affluent gay actor to a low-income single mom. Yet, anonymity levels the field to one common denominator: the desire to stop drinking, and with that people can support each other setting all other personality differences aside.
Anonymity provides humility. We alcoholics seem to be extra blessed when it comes to naturally self-inflating egos. Anonymity helps deflate our egos and encourages selflessness, as we carry the recovery message to others. It checks our motives when we want to reveal our membership on a public scale. For this reason Tradition 11 was designed as “a constant and practical reminder that personal ambition has no place in A.A.” and that public relations should be through attraction rather than promotion.
“Anonymity is real humility at work. It is an all-pervading spiritual quality which today keynotes A.A. life everywhere. Moved by the spirit of anonymity, we try to give up our natural desires for personal distinction as A.A. members both among fellow alcoholics and before the general public. As we lay aside these very human aspirations, we believe that each of us takes part in the weaving of a protective mantle which covers our whole Society and under which we may grow and work in unity.” —Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
Anonymity has weathered 78 years of ridicule and success and the concept still emerges as the solid rock where many recovering and recovered addicts stand (whether they realize it or not).
When the media pokes at anonymity to see where it will squirm, they’re dangerously poking at the foundation of A.A. So stop. And consider what you’re doing before you add a crack to the foundation and hurt the Fellowship that’s helped you so much.
Let’s not be like Samson and have the house fall on us and other good intending or recovering addicts. Instead, let’s stay anonymous.
In his final address to the fellowship, Bill W said:
“If I were asked which of the blessings I felt was most responsible for our growth as a fellowship and most vital to our continuity, I would say, the ‘Concept of Anonymity.’ . . .
On the spiritual level, anonymity demands the greatest discipline of which we are capable; on the practical level, anonymity has brought protection for the newcomer, respect and support of the world outside, and security from those of us who would use A.A. for sick and selfish purposes.
A.A. must and will continue to change with the passing years. We cannot, nor should we, turn back the clock. However, I deeply believe that the principle of anonymity must remain our primary and enduring safeguard. As long as we accept our sobriety in our traditional spirit of anonymity we will continue to receive God’s Grace.” —Bill W. (October 1970)
|Keep to A.A. Tradition!||69.62%|
|I’m tired of this debate.||20.25%|
|There’s nothing wrong with telling the media you’re a part of A.A.||7.59%|
|Don’t tell anyone you’re in A.A. (not even your family).||2.53%|