By: Marty Ferrero, Senior Clinical Director of Caron Adult Services
There is a movement afoot across the country, whereby people in long term recovery are being encouraged to share that fact in their respective communities in order to combat the stigma associated with the disease of addiction that unfortunately still exists. The Faces & Voices of Recovery movement is very mindful of honoring the tradition of anonymity within Twelve Step communities, discouraging the mere mention of any Twelve Step affiliation, (or even the term ‘addict’ or ‘alcoholic’). The purpose is to simply put a face and a voice to the millions of people enjoying long term recovery of any kind, to advocate on their behalf, and hopefully, to put an end to the stigma once and for all. This recovery movement differentiates anonymity from secrecy, and is powerfully depicted in the documentary film The Anonymous People. Since this topic of anonymity is often a controversial one in recovery circles, let us revisit some of the history as shared by the founders themselves, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, as it pertains to AA.
Just as humility is the foundational principle underlying all Twelve Steps, anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all Twelve Traditions. In Tradition Twelve, Bill Wilson emphasized sacrifice as the spiritual substance of anonymity – giving up personal desires for the common good (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pg. 184). Laying aside these very human aspirations, he believed, allows each member of A.A. to take 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, pg. 187). Two hallmarks of Twelve Step programs – “placing principles before personalities” and “attraction rather than promotion” – both embody and embrace the tradition and spirit of anonymity.
In a letter from 1962, Bill shared that although he had no objection to groups or individuals remaining “strictly” anonymous, “most people find that anonymity to this degree is not necessary, or even desirable.” In the same letter he noted that “talking about A.A. membership in the ‘right places’… has a tendency to bring in other people. Word of mouth is one of our most important communications.” The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous made it abundantly clear that at the “level of press, radio, and films” (from Tradition Eleven) it was vital to remain 100% anonymous about AA affiliation. However, at the level of community, Dr. Bob Smith had a firm conviction was that it was also a violation of the tradition to remain so anonymous “that you can’t be reached by other drunks” (Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, pg. 264).
Bill Wilson shared there was a “real absurdity” to remaining completely anonymous. It was not uncommon for the first 100 members of A.A. to have small address books comprised of all 100 members names – first and last –telephone numbers, and addresses. In recent times, it is not unusual for A.A. members to have absolutely no idea of fellow members’ last names or where each resides. Some feel the pendulum may have swung too far to the extreme. Bill noted in a letter from 1959, “a long time trend toward the middle of the road,” the gray area between a member of A.A. on a “lecture tour to play a ‘big shot’ which compromises our whole Society” and members making themselves known at the community level.
These sentiments on anonymity from AA’s founders are of course related to divulging membership in Alcoholics Anonymous, not simply being “in recovery.” I personally do not feel that revealing one is in “long term recovery” is a violation of the tradition or compromises the integrity of A.A. as a whole. It is simply advocating, supporting and giving voice to the 23.5 million people in long term recovery in the hopes of helping them and potentially millions more still struggling with this disease. Considering only ten percent of those in need ever receive treatment for substance use disorders, (vs. 90% of those diagnosed with another terminal illness – cancer), the time has come for those in long term recovery who choose to do so, to stand up and be counted among the millions of other productive citizens of this country and the world. The beauty of it is that it is each individual’s choice, just like every other aspect of this amazing thing called recovery.