The anonymity of Alcoholics Anonymous emerged during a time when alcoholics could be ﬁred from a job or subjected to public scorn if someone found out you were an alcoholic — even a recovering one. The word stigma originally meant a mark of identiﬁcation burned or cut into the ﬂesh of an animal or a slave. It has come to mean a mark of shame. While it is no longer such a stigma for people to ﬁnd out you are an addict in recovery, it is important that you decide who ought to know about it.
Improvements Entertainers and public ﬁgures are less likely today to be scorned for being a recovering alcoholic. The open admission of Betty Ford and many other addicts has helped the public accept addiction as a disease.
Safe environment Still, addicts going to meetings need to feel they are in a safe environment. New members especially have enough fear without the worry that their boss will ﬁnd out they are attending Narcotics Anonymous (or any other addiction-oriented) meetings.
Anonymity and Confidentiality
Many people use the word anonymity when the word confidentiality would be more correct. Anonymity refers to “who” and confidentiality deals more with “what.”
For example, if you say, “A friend of mine is having trouble with her husband’s drinking,” you protect her and her husband’s anonymity by not revealing their names or other identifying information. If you are talking to another AA member about a third AA member, whom you both know and care about, anonymity is no problem, but you should be careful not to reveal anything that the third member might not want shared with another. Conﬁdentiality means keeping secret that which someone does not want to be made public.
Using last names Last names and other identifying information should be avoided at the level of press, radio, ﬁlms, and other mass media. There is no prohibition about exchanging this information with others in your TwelVe-Step group. In fact, Dr. Bob, cofounder of AA, said it was a violation of tradition to withhold last names from other members of AA (see the module on Tradition Eleven).
Outside the meeting rooms anonymity may get a little trickier. Suppose you meet a fellow program member while you are with your family or a friend who later asks, “Where did you meet her?” Try brushing it off with “I met her through friends.” Usually simpler is better.
Spirit of anonymity Recovery offers you the opportunity to share things that shame or embarrass you. The principles of anonymity and conﬁdentiality assure you that others will be sensitive about what you share that is painful. This involves trust.
Secrets Misuse of anonymity and conﬁdentiality creates paranoia. For example, if you have a problem with your sponsor and want to complain to another group member, you might try to swear the other group member to secrecy rather than being open and honest about your feelings. Fear, suspicion, anger, and gossip can replace the love and trust that characterize relationships in recovery.
Manipulating others Paranoia can be contagious. Some people get manipulative, using their secrets as weapons against themselves and others. An example is someone who says, “Can I tell you something, and you’ll never tell anyone else, ever?” This person may be about to dump their problems on you and also keep you from passing them on to someone else. You could decline, saying you don’t like the terms of the agreement. Another response might be, “I will do my best to be discreet and appropriate with everything you share with me.” This gives you an out in case you need support or advice from someone else.
Special situations There are conditions and situations that may require special sensitivity from the people involved. Incest, homosexuality, and illnesses like AIDS are all issues that should be handled with discretion and concern. Many addicts feel very ashamed when sharing past behavior related to the addiction. Examples are stealing, sexual behavior, and being arrested, even when such behavior is the direct result of addiction. Many people ﬁnd consolation in the phrase, “We are not bad people trying to become good, we are sick people trying to get well.”
Burning bridges The more open and honest you can be, the more freedom and serenity you will experience. Your addiction can use the power of secrets to get you to drink, use, binge, or get off track in your recovery. Sponsors often say, “You are as sick as your secrets.” You can eliminate the sinister power of some secrets by the honest use of Steps Four through Nine.
Online Things online get a little tricky with anonymity. Should you give your personal information when online? Is that at the level of “press, radio, and films?” Remember that most things online are searchable. So if someone can Google your name and AA, then that starts to look like a violation of anonymity.
Facebook groups, for example, can be Public, Closed, or Secret. Anyone can join and post in a Public group. Anyone can read posts in a Closed group, and find out who is IN the group. For a Secret group, you are not supposed to be able to read or post unless you’re a member of that group. You can’t even search the name of the group. Secret groups are supposed to protect anonymity, perhaps even too much, making it hard to find out that the group is even available. A good option for online meetings is InTheRooms.com.
While newcomers often interpret anonymity as that which keeps secret their membership and what they say, perhaps more important long term is the idea that all members are equal. Here is where humility comes in: an honest understanding of each member’s place in the fellowship. '
Honesty Humility includes the ability to look at yourself honestly, neither over- or underselling your capabilities and worth. The spiritual principle of anonymity ﬁts in nicely with this by saying that when it comes to Program activities, all are nonprofessional; each person is as valuable as the next.
Self-image True humility is a key to improving self-image. If you don’t need to put others or yourself down, you can see that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and appreciate rather than criticize individual differences.
The Traditions say that members should remain forever non-professional. Also, the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop the addictive behavior.
No gurus The Traditions suggest that your activities in the Program focus on sharing your experience, strength, and hope on an equal basis with other members. Although others may try to place you on a pedestal and treat you as a counselor or expert, if you allow that to happen you rob yourself of the spiritual foundation of the program — anonymity.
No status Anything that creates a caste system in the Fellowship tends to destroy anonymity. If you must have a certain length of abstinence to be a sponsor, doesn’t that imply that sponsors are in a higher class than other members? If you know that a certain member is a physician, there is no problem unless she allows or encourages people to treat her as a doctor rather than as a regular addict.
Commercialism There is also a problem when people go to Twelve-Step meetings and use them to promote their own treatment programs, or even the one where they went to treatment. If a particular treatment experience was critical to your recovery, then it would be somewhat dishonest not to mention that in telling your story, but when it begins to sound like an ad, you become an agent for a treatment program rather than an anonymous Twelve-Step Program member.
Anonymity, see also: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Beliefs, Character defects, Defenses, Grace, Gratitude, Half-measures, History of Twelve-Step groups, Humility, Humor & fun, Meetings, Openmindedness, Priorities, Relapse prevention, Sabotage of recovery, Service & giving, Spirituality, Step Twelve, Traditions of AA, Unity.
Updated 12 Sep 2015
Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.