When I first started attending AA meetings and someone used their last name, I’d raise my eyebrows in shock. Wow, I’d think, admiringly. That woman’s got some balls. That shock’s since worn off. It’s brave in its own right, I suppose, but sort of like showing your Star Trek Fan Club card in a roomful of Starfleet uniforms and foam Vulcan ears. It’s bold, but the stakes are pretty low. In my mind, putting yourself out there as an alcoholic in the real world is as powerful as it is inevitable. Anonymity is something of a pleasant fiction in most of the meetings I attend. Given Facebook posts and Twitter hashtags and the general vulnerability that comes with being online, it’s increasingly impossible. Today, to be truly anonymous, you’d have to work as hard at it as your actual sobriety.
Being open about my recovery is a double-edged sword. While I’m comfortable putting uncomfortable truths about my past out there, plenty of people would rather I just kept them to myself. Alcoholics Anonymous helps keep me sober, sure, but I’m not respecting the program by talking about it outside the rooms. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. A lot. I’ve been pulled aside after a couple of meetings and received some Facebook messages telling me: Stop talking about the rooms outside of the rooms. This is larger than you and your recovery. AA existed long before you came along and started writing about it. I also hear that I’m still so young in my sobriety that I don’t know any better, as if I’m taking AA out for a joyride and doing donuts with it in a parking lot.
Look, I totally get it. One of the AA traditions is that “anonymity is the spiritual foundation” of the program, not to mention the one that says to not talk about it in “press, radio and films.” It’s not like I think I’m above the rules or that I’m unique. No, that’s the sort of alcoholic thinking that got me into AA in the first place. I respect and value everyone else’s anonymity—I simply don’t care about mine. Still, for many, talking about AA outside the rooms is revealing way too much, as if it’s betraying something fundamental about recovery. It seems a lot of people look at AA as an ocean pipeline miles beneath the surface and, by revealing your identity, you crack that line and spill sacred oil out into the sea.
I understand the inherent reason AA thrives on the second part of its name. By saying I’m in the rooms, if I ever find myself drinking lighter-fluid vodka alone again and posting bizarre Facebook messages at 4:13 am, countless fingers could point back at the program as having failed me. People might accuse AA of not working—I mean, look at what happened to Paul. He used to be so sober. Like, super-sober! That’s really narrow thinking, though. It wouldn’t be an indictment of AA so much as evidence of my own fallibility, my powerlessness over alcohol. As my sponsor says, there’s some part of my brain that’s constantly trying to kill me. The problem is me and will always be with me. But that’s probably not how others would see it.
There’s a big difference between not being ashamed about my sobriety and being shameless. I’m not honest about my recovery for any self-serving reason. While being open about my alcoholism is liberating, it’s also hugely problematic. I’m not proud of sharing stories like the time I woke up to a half-dozen missed calls from my wife and my son’s elementary school because I passed out and didn’t pick him up. I get no electric jolt, no adrenaline rush from putting that out there. Also, no one close to me wants to hear how wonderful sobriety is. I’m about fifteen years too late in realizing I should’ve curbed my drinking, so sharing my progress doesn’t get a lot of high-fives with family and dear friends. Instead, I get a lot of silent head nods when I say I’m “working steps” and “in the program,” but mostly sad glances and furrowed brows. As if I’m loudly announcing my super-late arrival at a party I was never invited to.
I’m not challenging anonymity in AA so much as opting out. I don’t care that the world knows I’m a recovering alcoholic. I want that knowledge to help others find the courage to take their first steps into recovery—if it can. My sobriety is a constellation of things: listening to podcasts, meeting with my sponsor, regularly visiting recovery websites, reading memoirs. One of them just happens to be AA. The program isn’t my sole bedrock—it simply provides me a guideline for sober living. I can’t fathom not acknowledging something that’s had such a huge impact on my life. My mother used to call that “lying by omission.” And, as an alcoholic, I know lying better than most. If it feels like I’m lying, I’m probably lying. By redacting AA from what people see of my life, that’s like living a second life. Another family in another ZIP code sort of thing. I just can’t do it.
Breaking my anonymity doesn’t diminish my experience in the AA fellowship. I don’t feel duplicitous drawing from it, yet commenting on it at the same time. After all, I don’t claim to speak for AA nor my fellows in it. I just feel that anonymity is something of a melting glacier. I’m proud of anyone who maintains their anonymity in the same way I’m impressed by people who can buy a huge gift for someone and not immediately give it to them. I’ve embraced a lack of anonymity as a natural part of my sobriety. In fact, I’ve leaned into it—I just have to assume it’s the case. Countless people disagree, but I refuse to tiptoe from meeting to meeting like I’m darting around in the dark. That’s the sort of behavior that feeds the stigma of being an alcoholic. Hell, it makes me feel like an active alcoholic. For me, being anonymous is tantamount to being ashamed—and the minute I feel ashamed of walking into church basements is the minute I’ve lost the identity I discovered there.