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The Never-Ending Argument Against Anonymity in AA

Admitting that you're in a "12-step group" is officially condoned by the fellowship, while confessing you're in AA is strictly verboten. What exactly is the point here?

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"I can take off the mask...so long as I don't mention AA." Photo via

By Leonard Buschel

08/24/11

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My name is Leonard Buschel and I haven’t had a drink in 17 years. I am an addiction survivor. I checked myself into the Betty Ford Center on August 4, 1994. I am also a proud member in good standing of Alcoholics Anonymous—well, until I just wrote this last sentence. I'm still proud, but my good standing is no doubt now in question.

I’m not here to speak for AA nor endorse or recommend it. I won’t tell you the name of any member I know, no matter how brilliant, compassionate, loving, wonderful, or famous. But if they want to tell you they’re in AA, that’s okay with me. I thought I’d mention it just to explain to people where I disappear to for an hour several times a week.

Several members of my home group (an AA meeting that someone attends every week when physically possible—I’ve attended mine religiously for 14 years) insist on introducing themselves by their full names. Why? Because a few years ago, one of our regulars—Jack D.—was hit by a car and hospitalized. We wanted to visit our fallen comrade but since no one knew his last name, the hospital couldn’t tell us what room he was in. I see no reason to hide your last name from the members of your home group. It’s not like Akron, Ohio in 1935, when even a street-sweeper would be demonized if they were openly an alcoholic seeking help—let alone a doctor, pastor, or teacher.If someone can say, “I used to have a problem with alcohol, and now I’m in recovery and attend 12-step meetings,” why can’t they just say, “I’m in AA”? 

One of AA’s strongest suggestions to its members is to live a life of rigorous honesty. How does one reconcile that with being told you can’t tell a reporter that you’re in AA? The organization is Alcoholics Anonymous, not Alcoholics Secretive.

If someone can say, “I used to have a problem with alcohol, and now I’m in recovery and attend 12-step meetings,” why can’t they just say, “I’m in AA”? 

The main cliché used to support the “anonymous” rule in AA is that if a high profile celebrity, politician or sports star revealed to the world that they were in Alcoholics Anonymous—and then they relapsed—the entire world would conclude that AA doesn’t work. I think that’s ridiculous. Society would cite the individual as the culprit, or perhaps even the disease of addiction itself. How many people really blame AA for Lindsey Lohan’s relapses or Charlie Sheen’s career trajectory?

I believe the rule is that I can’t tell anyone (reporter, girlfriend, or neighbor) that you are in AA, and no one can “speak for AA.” No one represents AA. I love that idea, that an international organization has no official spokesperson. AA is a very successful grassroots organization with no president or elected officials, except local secretaries and treasurers who chair neighborhood meetings, but never for more than six months in a row.

Step 12 says, “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions.” Is this a de facto insistence that you have to be a spiritual person to have this tradition be important to you?  It would therefore not apply to an agnostic, a pagan or someone who does not believe that only by living a spiritual life can he or she get sober and be free from addiction.

Everybody knows somebody who’s either in recovery, or has a close friend or family member in recovery. It’s not like 1935, when the only visible drunks were the ones on Skid Row while good families kept their alcoholic relatives in seclusion. People, having more information and personal experience with addiction, have more understanding and compassion for those of us who suffer from addictive disorders. Except for the media, who love to sensationalize addiction and relapse every chance they get.

In America and the UK, there is in fact a vibrant and effective recovery movement, but the only media attention given to this issue is not about the healing, just the hell.  Shows that are a cross between Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (Celebrity Rehab), The Lone Ranger (Intervention), or the Orwellian with a twist of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (Sober House) sell more soap than sobriety.

Society has awakened to the dilemma of the alcoholic, in recovery or not. The prejudice against addictive disorders has diminished thanks to such organizations as the AMA, SAMSHA, NCADD, Faces and Voices of Recovery, Renew Magazine and, of course, The Fix.

Recently there was a staged reading of the play Bill W. and Dr. Bob at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles, starring Martin Sheen, Hank Azaria and a half a dozen other well known actors. During the Q&A afterwards, William Moyers asked one of the performers why he gave up a Monday night to perform in this play for free. The actor had several good answers but would not come out and say, “It’s because I’m in AA, and it saved my life.”

Sometimes the way people skirt around the issue of being “in recovery”—but not mentioning AA—reminds me of being in a school music recital and being afraid to tell anyone that you take piano lessons.

The issue of anonymity was recently addressed by Susan Cheever in a much-publicized article she wrote for this site: "We are in the midst of a public health crisis when it comes to understanding and treating addiction," she wrote. "AA’s principle of anonymity may only be contributing to general confusion and prejudice. Talking about being in recovery without mentioning AA is like pretending to be a little bit pregnant.”

Speaking about Alcoholics Anonymous in his review of The Motherf***er In The Hat, David Carr says, “As a matter of course, we don’t say the name of the program aloud. It is both a superstition and a matter of tradition. But anybody who has ever been in one of those rooms knows exactly what he is talking about.”

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