Addiction Recovery and “The Anonymous People”

Young woman listening to man's testimony at support group

A film has made the rounds in the recovery community, touting the importance of choice in declaring one’s status as a “Friend of Bill W,” as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has been euphemistically called for decades. A secret handshake of sorts has linked those who spend hours a week in rooms where they find support and acceptance when they might otherwise feel like outcasts. The film “The Anonymous People” features subjects who are proud of their process of healing from addiction.

On September 23, three Philadelphia-area agencies — the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania, CB Cares and Pro-Act —sponsored a viewing of the film, attracting enough people to nearly fill the 450-seat auditorium of Delaware Valley College. A panel that included Beverly Haberle, director of the Southeast Council and an interview subject in the film, shared that when people become open about addiction, they can be strengthened and in turn give others permission to enter recovery unashamed.

Making Long-Term Recovery Real

Haberle said she sees herself as “a person in long-term recovery” with 43 years of sobriety. That phrase was used often throughout the evening. Until 14 years ago, Haberle didn’t share her status publicly. She said, “Now I see it almost as an obligation,” and she sees “sharing recovery as a gift. People need to see that recovery on a long-term basis is possible.”

She also spoke about the need for addiction and its widespread impact to be given the same type of attention and funding as other diseases. Pro-Act was one of the sponsors of the Sept. 20 Recovery Walk in which 23,000 people joined to support those overcoming addiction.

When it comes to addiction recovery and anonymity, Haberle said she wants people to know that “the face of recovery looks like me, not the stereotypes.”

Addiction and Anonymity, Historically

Since their inception, 12-step programs have touted the benefits of anonymity. Page 264 of Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers says, “[Dr. Bob] said there were two ways to break the Anonymity Tradition: (1) by giving your name at the public level of press or radio; (2) by being so anonymous that you can’t be reached by other drunks.”

The 11th Tradition states, “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” The 12th Tradition states, “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”

Although that was once the conventional wisdom to ease people’s way into recovery, it seems more of a privacy issue. “Who you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here,” still prevails, but members are free to identify themselves as being affiliated.

A 1950s pamphlet published by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence called “Advocacy With Anonymity”  explains that people can speak about this issue while protecting anonymity.  Marty Mann, the group’s founder, pushed for public education on addiction treatment, saying, “Every one of us who has learned anything about alcoholism and drug dependence can perform an invaluable service merely by passing on our information as widely as possible.”

Overcoming Shame and Stigma in Sobriety and Recovery

Eileen Martin, another discussion-panel member of the film viewing, was also forthcoming with her story. She received two DUI charges, which launched her into treatment for alcohol abuse. Twelve-step meetings and working her recovery program daily have become a source of support since her sober date of January 2, 2000.

Martin found that in early sobriety, she was cautious with divulging her situation. “You can’t un-tell someone. As I got my footing, it occurred to me that I’m not ashamed of being sober, so I wanted employers and others to know that I’ve learned some things about myself and am doing something positive about fixing my issues,” she said. “It’s always hard to wonder what people are thinking of me, of the stigma of being labeled as a drunk, or even as a non-drinking wet blanket. I’ve learned to care less about what others think when I know I’m doing what’s right for me and those with whom I interact.”

Martin found that being open and honest serves the purpose of “helping others who struggle with deciding if they’d like to do something about their addiction issues,” she said. But Martin points out that it can be harmful to one’s life or career to be perceived as related to drinking or recovery. “I never openly discuss recovery with others who are in recovery in front of third parties without permission. Everyone should have the right to keep their business to themselves. Fear of being outed either as a drunk or as sober is something that keeps many people from seeking help. Stigma is very powerful.”


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