The Never-Ending Argument Against Anonymity in AA

The Never-Ending Argument Against Anonymity in AA

By Leonard Buschel 08/24/11

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

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.”

I think of Tevye at the beginning of Fiddler On The Roof insisting his family practice TRADITION!—then, little by little, one daughter after another doesn’t adhere to the traditions—and Tevye has to learn that times change and love is what matters most.

The 12 Traditions are not the Ten Commandments, AA is not a religion, Bill Wilson wasn’t Moses, Dr. Bob wasn’t Jesus, and those who attend AA meetings do so simply because they don’t want to drink, and because they enjoy the energy and fellowship meetings provide.

Last year, while preparing for the REEL Recovery Film Festival in Los Angeles, I was at lunch with Roberta Monroe, a maven of the film festival circuit. Also at lunch was a well known actress whom I met in AA. Roberta had no problem acknowledging her homosexuality, but the actress was afraid to mention that she was in AA. These are obviously both huge and important aspects of their lives—why should one be a secret?

I smile at the coy quote in Counselor Magazine (February 2011), from a review of Jane Velez-Mitchell’s book Addict Nation: “Those who read her book ‘I Want’ are familiar with Velez-Mitchell’s struggles with alcohol, food, and work addictions, and how she embraced the 12 Step methodology to move past her destructive behaviors and achieve both physical and mental sobriety.”

A well known criminal attorney and frequent guest on CNN relates that when he had a few months sober, he was having some doubts about continuing what he felt was a monk’s way of life. He was at the local market, about to purchase some vodka and OJ. While waiting in line, thumbing through a celebrity magazine, he read that Rob Lowe quit drinking and was in a 12 Step program for alcoholics. He put down the bottle of vodka and the magazine, paid for the OJ, and went directly to an AA meeting. He has not had a drink in twelve years. If Rob Lowe had kept his recovery on the low-down and secretive, LA would be minus one powerfully effective criminal attorney and a very handsome pundit.

If you can use your name to sell tickets, maybe it’s time to use your name to save a few lives.

According to Dr. Bob (and The Good Old Timers, a book about the early days of AA in the Midwest), Dr. Bob is recalled saying, “If I got up to speak and gave my name as Dr. Bob S., people who needed help would have a hard time getting in touch with me.” Dr. Bob often introduced himself as “Dr. Bob Smith, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous,” as did Betty Ford.

In Los Angeles on October 13, 2009, my nonprofit organization Writers In Treatment (with Hazelden sponsoring) produced the event “Chasing the Muse:  A Candid Conversation About Creativity and Recovery.” The panel consisted of Mark Ebner, Michelle Huneven, Katey Sagal, Kurt Sutter and Dan Fante, with William Cope Moyers moderating. No one mentioned AA, but none of the audience members didn’t know what they were talking about when they referred to “working the steps, calling their sponsor and going to meetings.” After the discussion, Daniel Selznick came over to me to extol the courage, honesty and personal integrity these artists and writers had demonstrated, and was inspired by the remarkable stories of people in recovery: stories that left out any mention of AA or NA. How does denying AA and/or NA any praise or credit help anyone, including the addict or alcoholic who still suffers?

I have at least 500 friends on Facebook who openly discuss being sober and in the program. I’ve seen a woman invite people on her wall to hear her speak at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting.

In his article on this website, Charles Fleming quotes Brian Freedman, an executive producer with the Oprah Winfrey Network, who says, “I don’t know if there’s greater acceptance of addiction, but there’s certainly a greater acceptance of recovery.”

The Internet and social media has affected every aspect of life and the way we live it. How can we expect it not to change the way people practice and participate in 12 Step programs? The point is, there is a new paradigm emerging. I have at least 500 friends on Facebook who openly discuss being sober and in the program. I’ve seen a woman invite people on her wall to hear her speak at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting, giving out the address and time of the meeting.  I’m sure not all her 1800 Facebook friends are in the program. I have even seen postings from lazy AA secretaries, asking if any friends were available to be the speaker at her meeting. To me, that’s an appalling absence of the necessary and essential intimacy that AA encourages its members to have. Sometimes people stretch boundaries and go too far, even for me.

The truth is, I really love AA. It is an organization that I have felt closer to, more indebted to, and prouder to be a part of than the Boy Scouts, Beth Judah synagogue, the NRA, Naropa University, United Airlines Frequent Flyer Emeritus Club, the Mile High Club, or the Green Party. Only my membership in the Buschel family counts for more.

David Dodd writes in the Preface in his 1996 book Playing It Straight (a compilation of more than two dozen profiles of prominent celebrities in recovery):

…[M]any people in Playing It Straight who frequent AA meetings and attribute their successful recovery to the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are unable to mention the program by name.

It’s like an open secret.  Everyone knows, but nobody’s willing to take a stance.

But why is that? AA is not the Cosa Nostra, the KKK, the Skull & Bones Society, or the Illuminati. Indeed, one of Alcoholics Anonymous’ favorite aphorisms is, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” So why do we continue to deny our association with this life-saving program? Times and attitudes towards addiction have changed radically in the past few years. Isn't it time for A.A. to change with them?

Leonard Lee Buschel is the founder of Writers In Treatment, a nonprofit organization based in Studio City, Calif. that helps individuals in the writing industry suffering from addictive disorders. Writers In Treatment also produces numerous educational and cultural events including the yearly REEL Recovery Film Festival in Los Angeles and Vancouver with New York City scheduled for next year. Leonard is a California Certified Substance Abuse Counselor.
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Leonard Buschel is a certified California substance abuse counselor, the founder of Writers in Treatment and the director of the REEL Recovery Film Festival. He last wrote about the never ending argument against anonymity in AA. You can find him on Linkedin or Twitter.

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