This post was originally published on February 25, 2015.
If there is one concept that I don’t think many people in AA understand very well (including me sometimes), it’s anonymity. The misconception for a lot of people coming in is that they think that nobody must know, like we’re in the fucking Klan or NAMBLA or something. And while individual anonymity may have been a big deal when AA was getting started in the 1930s, that’s not really the case these days.
For starters, the stigma of being a recovering alcoholic or an addict isn’t all that damaging anymore, thanks to TV and movies. And when you consider that if you’re fucked up enough to have to come into a recovery program for your addiction—particularly if it’s chemically-based like booze and drugs—people in your life are usually pretty aware that there is something seriously wrong with you anyway. So finding out you’re actually doing something about it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
If you’re one of those people coming into recovery that actually believes that your addiction was a secret to the world—fugetaboutit. Just because people don’t confront you about your fucked up behavior doesn’t mean that they didn’t notice. Stay sober for a while and those people who you think you were fooling will eventually say things to you things like, “I’m so happy you quit drinking, you used to scare the shit out of me when you (pick one): (A) drove drunk with your kids in the car, B) transformed from Mr. Happy to the guy with the Thousand Yard Stare, or C) said fucked up things to me on the phone at night and forgot about it the next day.”
The problem, of course, is that if you announce to everyone in your life that you’re getting sober, and you underestimate just how fucking hard it is (or convince yourself that you’re really not as bad as you thought) and start drinking and drugging again, everyone now knows exactly what your problem is, so you can’t go back to just hoping that people won’t notice how fucked up you are. So early on in the sobering up process, you might want to keep your recovery plan to a select few until you’ve actually got some time (and hopefully a program) and are less likely to relapse.
For me personally, I don’t really give a shit about my own anonymity, especially inside my recovery circles. When I give people my phone number at meetings, I give my full name, because there are just too many guys in AA with my first name to distinguish me from other people. I also don’t care if people use my surname to identify me in AA, because they’re there for the same reason that I am. As far as my friends and family go, everyone knew I was a drunk at the end of my drinking, and even before I went horribly bad, most people would have guessed that I had a drinking problem, so I don’t mind letting them know. But outside of AA, friends and family, I don’t broadcast it, professionally or personally (although if I’m dating someone, I usually let them know fairly quickly).
But just because I don’t care that much about my own anonymity doesn’t mean that I can break yours. It’s not okay for me to tell people—particularly people that aren’t in recovery—that I saw you at a meeting or that you’re sober, because I don’t know how comfortable you are with letting people know that you’re in recovery. So when I meet somebody that I know from AA (or Alanon) outside of the rooms at work or a social event and there are other people around, I don’t talk in recovery-speak or say things like, “See you at the meeting tonight!” Because if it’s a work event, they probably don’t want people knowing their shit, and if it’s a social setting or some random case of running into someone, I have no idea what the person’s relationship is to other people that are present and they might not be cool with it.
One thing I would suggest to those just coming around is that if you don’t want people to know something about you, don’t say it out loud at a meeting, especially if it involves other people. Anonymity is a great concept, but keep in mind that it’s being practiced by some not-so-well people, particularly if they’re new or are just there to get a court slip signed. While it’s a great idea to get something off your chest that is causing you guilt or shame—especially if you’re going to use over it—tell it to a sponsor or somebody that you can trust to keep it to themselves.
“Who you see here, what you hear here, let it stay here” is something that the secretary will frequently say at the beginning or end of a meeting, to which the group usually responds “Hear hear!” I have taken to modifying the response to “Ho ho!” Because I don’t think it’s realistic for a roomful of people to be able to fully commit to that standard. If it was, we wouldn’t know who all the celebrities in AA were.
There are exceptions of course. There are times when I happen to think that passing on what people say at a meeting is not only okay but the right thing to do. If I hear someone struggling (like talking about killing themselves or picking up a drink or drug), you can bet I’m going to pass that on to people in their circles, and I hope people would do the same for me. I suck at asking for help (I’m getting better) and so do a lot of people in recovery, so if they’re talking about it at a meeting, it probably means that this is one of the ways they are asking for help.
And if you’re wondering why someone who says he doesn’t give a shit about his own anonymity writes under a pseudonym, it’s the name I’ve been writing under for years. I’m self-employed, divorced and not accountable to anyone, and I’m an unabashed AA cheerleader because it was the only thing that worked for me to stop drinking and literally saved my life. I began using Johnny Plankton when I was working as a business reporter for a national newspaper chain and also a writer for a comedy website that did social experiments (pranks), many of which would have made my editor and interview subjects really uncomfortable.
I’m also a little fuzzy on the 11th Tradition, especially given the amount of psychotic AA bashing that goes on these days on the Internet, when a sane response from people who feel their lives were saved by AA could help a lot of people. I just err on the conservative side of the tradition (I am from the unhip capital of the world—Boston). But I understand why it’s in place, especially when celebrities (or bloggers) in new found sobriety become spokespeople for AA before they have any idea what sobriety is even about.
The added benefit of the pseudonym is that it allows me to tell stories from meetings and my recovery circles without linking anyone to me, thus making them easy to identify within my recovery community. It also allows me to write other people’s stories, while protecting their anonymity.
So the way I practice my anonymity works for me, and what works for you is going to be up to you. But here’s one thing I heard I’ve heard (in Alanon) that I think is relevant in terms of the decision: “When in doubt, don’t.”