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I'm Nic Sheff and I'm in AA

The first rule of AA is that you don’t talk about AA. But AA is no Fight Club. So why can’t we just come out and stop being anonymous?

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Is the Anonymous as important as the Alcoholic? Photo via

By Nic Sheff

05/15/12

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When I started working on my first book back in the mid 2000’s, I was still pretty heavily into Alcoholics Anonymous and I went to meetings most every day and I was “working” the 12 steps with my sponsor. And so I was well aware of the AA traditions and the inevitable conflict that would arise from my trying to write my story about being in recovery without breaking my anonymity. 

Actually, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t 100% sure why the rule existed. I mean, why there should be a conflict between me writing about being in AA and actually being in AA myself? I knew that the 11th tradition stated that “We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films” but I didn’t understand why that would be exactly. Because the rest of the same quote—or, well, the beginning of it—reads, “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion.” Which would imply that they only don’t want you breaking your anonymity if it’s for the purpose of promoting AA. And that’s not what I was going to be doing. So then maybe there wasn’t going to be any kind of conflict.

I can’t be the only one who feels like organizations that encourage their members to enshroud their membership in secrecy tend to be a little sketchy. 

But when I talked to my sponsor about it, he agreed that I needed to be careful (although he never gave me any specific reasons why). He suggested that, instead of using the AA name, I should just say that I was in a 12-step program. That’s what I should write in my book, and that’s what I should tell people in interviews and whatever.

And so that’s what I’ve been doing. 

Even after I stopped going to AA and having sponsors and working steps, I still never came out and actually said I was in AA. But then that decision stopped making sense to me: anyone reading what I wrote could clearly understand that I meant AA when I said 12-step program. So why couldn’t I write that? But as soon as I started changing that one little thing, saying AA instead of 12-step program, people started acting like I’d broken some sacred rite. In fact, if you go back and read the comments for my last column, you can see a few examples of readers all but demanding that all mentions of AA be erased from the column.

People have even found me on Facebook only to write me all these messages telling me how “dangerous” it is for me to be openly talking about the AA program. There seems to be this common belief, or common understanding amongst AA members, that if people admit they are in AA publicly and then relapse, somehow that will damage the credibility of the program. As though people suffering from active addiction would reject getting help through AA because they’d seen how it didn’t work for, say, Charlie Sheen. 

But people don’t reject getting help through chemotherapy just because it doesn’t work for some cancer patients. And, besides, using that logic, wouldn’t it be better, then, to demonstrate how well AA actually does work by having all the people with 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 years come out and share their sobriety with the world? Then the people who keep relapsing would be overshadowed by the overwhelming success of all those old timers parading their long-term recovery around?

I can’t be the only one who feels like organizations that encourage their members to enshroud their membership in secrecy tend to be a little sketchy. AA is not in good company when it comes to organizations that reject transparency. Asking your members not to discuss their membership in your organizations—or asking them not to discuss the specifics of what goes on in that organization—just seems like a bad publicity move. Being secretive just makes your organization seem like a cult. 

Scientology, Mormonism, the Branch Davidians, The Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, Al Qaeda—all organizations (past or present) that encourage secrecy. But the difference between AA and all those crazy cults is that AA doesn’t actually have anything to hide. I think all the secrecy stuff really goes back to the old days, when being an alcoholic was the most shameful thing on the planet. 

But the fact that AA hasn’t adapted with the times makes no sense to me. It’s like Orthodox Jews not eating pork or shellfish. It made sense thousands of years ago because you could get sick eating it but now eating pork and shellfish is safe. So why has that rule not changed with the times? To me, the whole AA anonymity thing is basically the same. 

So, I don’t know.

It seems like AA should just embrace the changing times and step out of the whole cloud of secrecy thing. In this day and age, the best thing any organization can do for itself, I feel, is to be completely open. And that’s not only being open to members sharing the fact that they are members but also to questions and criticism—and to the reality that AA is not the only way that people can get sober. People in AA need to have enough faith in their own program and their own recovery to invite and welcome conflicting beliefs.

Attacking others for breaking their anonymity, or criticizing the program, really only holds the organization itself back. And if the main goal of AA is to help addicts and alcoholics get sober then they shouldn’t be opposed to ongoing open discussion. And it is for the sake of those new people trying to get sober that I believe it is absolutely crucial to bring the AA program, and its principals, into the 21st century.

So let me say now, just for the record, I’m Nic Sheff, and I’m an alcoholic, and I do owe my sobriety, at least in part, to Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Nic Sheff is a columnist for The Fix and the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction, the New York Times-bestselling Tweak, and We All Fall Down. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two hound dogs, and a cat and has previously written about selling himself for sex and his father David Sheff's book Beautiful Boy, among many other topics.

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