It's Anonymous For a Reason!

By Harry Healy 11/25/13

You take away the second word in Alcoholics Anonymous and what are you left with?

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Still considered to be the spiritual foundation of all the traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, anonymity is a concept that is taking a beating both inside and outside of the organization. Misunderstood or not understood at all, this idea is under siege in today's social climate, where the pre-eminence of the self, the ego, the personality, has never been more exaggerated than it is today, and there are no signs it’s going back the other way any time soon.

Talent show-type TV programs trumpet mediocrity, celebrating some slight skill that’s half-baked before being rushed into the unloving spotlight of public exposure. The tendency of the contestants, when criticized, is to defend their greatness, after several million people just witnessed how they flopped. Their self-esteem is, to say the least, untarnished.

Overblown self-importance is nothing new in AA. In fact, it’s a common trait among alcoholics.

Sports at every level sing a song of the self. Watch a professional athlete perform a routine play, that is, execute the precise and often only action called for in a given situation. Observe as he points toward the sky, beats his chest like Tarzan, then kick-starts some inane jig, often while his team is getting killed. Antics like this, rare as they once were, would bring coaches barreling off the sidelines to drag the cretin from the field or the court. Obviously, that was another time.

Tragically few people have learned to spell or write, let alone think, but they advance powerful viewpoints based on emotion, and regardless if those opinions have been well formed, or formed at all, they will be aired. Peruse the comments following any article on the Internet. The writing in question will have been misconstrued and over-interpreted, but that will hardly interrupt the flow of radioactive reaction. Take a peek, for example, at the section that follows any controversial article on The Fix. I rest my case.

Alcoholics Anonymous, forever susceptible to the crosscurrents of contemporary life, is rife with the same phenomenon. Overblown self-importance is nothing new in AA. In fact, it’s a common trait among alcoholics. We’re desperate for recognition, and as that need becomes more widespread and even encouraged, we’re all in danger of being swept away with the tide.

AA is not a secret society. We are not unknown to one another, nor should we, or could we be. When reaching out to a potential candidate for AA sobriety, I tread lightly. I almost always say, “If you ever want to do anything about your drinking, let me know” and I leave it at that. If I’m asked point blank if I’m an AA member, I might answer yes, if I judge the knowledge to be useful to the person who’s asking. They’re usually just being nosy, so I stonewall them.

I wouldn’t bring up my sobriety in any kind of professional setting. I’m not going to talk about it on a job interview (“So, Mr. Healy, what are your interests outside of your career?”) and if I’m at dinner with people I don’t know well, or have no clue about my history as a sober drunk, I ask for sparkling water in place of the scotch I would’ve demanded at another time in my life. I don’t elaborate on why I’m not drinking. I picked up these common-sense pointers within about a year of landing in AA, and I’m stunned today when I hear members question the validity of those guidelines.

There's a passage in the Big Book about a businessman (there are many, actually) who has suffered a titanic fall and cannot right himself, in spite of receiving the priciest medical care available at the time. He starts practicing AA principles and is transformed. Readers are assured that "he is a free man. He can go anywhere on this earth where other free men may go without disaster, provided he remains willing to maintain a certain simple attitude."

I suspect anonymity is a main feature of this attitude. What he seems to have acquired is grace. He can't go around bragging—sobriety is not something he achieved—but he can't use his alcoholism as an excuse any more either. Sobriety and a circumspect approach about it have become a great leveler. He was sick, but now he's well, and there's a great deal of work to be done.

Anonymity on the public level is something else again. During the week I was roughing out this essay, a television personality was splashed across the cover of some supermarket tabloid, crowing about his newfound, and I would wager, fragile sobriety. Out of the headlines recently and pining for the limelight, this Hollywood cheese ball was angling for some much-needed publicity, and if that required him to employ the program and forego the second A in its name in the service of himself, so what?

The usual canard is that this revelation is going to propel some previously fence-sitting drunk into getting help. The actor’s confession is going to succeed in getting somebody sober where no-doubt several of the drunkard’s intimates (not to mention folks with ordinary AA experience) have failed? I don’t think so.

As a guy who expects a standing ovation for bringing home a quart of milk, I know what I'm talking about. 

Those who defend that point of view likely have little experience doing things they don’t receive immediate recognition for. Besides, if they don’t take note of their own good deeds, who will? It’s true that anonymity will not provide the cheap high of instant gratification, which is something alcoholics remain addicted to long after we quit drinking. And please, don’t let's think this hapless celebrity is going to harm AA if and when he drinks again. He is the person—unknowingly—who is suffering the most, by denying himself one of the true graces of the program. The satisfaction that true and sustained anonymity provides approaches the sublime.

As a guy who expects a standing ovation for bringing home a quart of milk, I know what I'm talking about. During my drinking career, and for years after I got sober, when I wasn’t lying outright about my exploits, I was exaggerating my role in the stories I told about myself. I was the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral. Years of painful practice of Step 6 and Step 7 knocked much of that out of me. So did sponsorship and working with others. Still, the impulse dogs me.

I have been a writer my entire life. I have experienced some middling success, not nearly enough to meet my estimation of my talents, but I must admit to being pleased with my contributions to The Fix. Except Harry Healy is not my name. Restraining myself, I haven’t directed my other editors to the site, people I’ve worked closely with for years, just to let them know what I’m up to. The same goes for relatives who figure into the essays I’ve written, and writer friends I’d like to impress. I fell down on that account once, and I regret it. Aside from a couple editors here, nobody knows who I am. Guess what else? Nobody cares.

I revel in being the unseen hand. On the job, if I do the work of other people, I don’t tell them about it. If they’ve noticed, they haven’t said anything. I prefer it that way. I was bringing snacks to a meeting I sometimes attend, and I got a kick out of the fact that people didn’t know where the sweets were coming from, until my cover was blown and they started thanking me at the end of the meeting. It’s less fun for me now.

Whether any of this qualifies as altruism is a debate for those better equipped, intellectually, to conduct that argument. It makes no difference to me. Flying under the radar does make me feel good, and if it’s antithetical to most of the thinking that dominates popular culture, so much the better. If for no other reason than that, anonymity would be worth putting into practice. But I’m pursuing a greater ideal, cultivating my better angels to overcome this rank essence to glorify myself. The benefits are not merely philosophical.

Leaving myself out of the equation as much as possible has opened new roads into my AA program. I have a deeper understanding of Step 3, I’ve ramped up my 11th Step practice, and I’m more willing to try Step 6 on my failings, which if I’m honest, are many.

I’m anxious a lot of the time, but I don’t act reflexively out of fear the way I used to. I see myself as a tiny cog in a universe that seems to want to unfold in a certain direction, and I’m trying to get out of the way of that unfolding. I don’t dwell on my disappointments. I have plenty of them. Who doesn’t?

And I’ve become more forgiving of missteps like wanton breaches of anonymity. In a lot of cases, it’s simply inexperience and fear, a reaction to the avalanche of signifiers in contemporary society. My suggestion: seek anonymity as an end in itself. Watch what happens.

Harry Healy is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about being a sober bartender.

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