Why I Choose Not to Be Anonymous in Recovery

By Victor Yocco 02/25/20

I am in favor of a sober revolution in which everyone is comfortable speaking frankly about their struggle with alcohol and other substances.

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Man silhouetted in lit up doorway in darkness.
I couldn’t have predicted many of the changes that have occurred since I left anonymity; changes that perhaps would have caused me to reconsider going public. ID 46654967 © Dmytro Konstantynov | Dreamstime.com

“I can’t believe how some people will share the most intimate details of their lives on social media. People they don’t even know can see these things. Future employers. It’s shocking.”

I nodded my head in agreement as my biggest client shared her opinion of oversharing the details of your life. We were at dinner with a group, but this was a one on one conversation. I stopped processing what she said after that. My mind raced through the intimate details of my life that I’ve shared with strangers. I’m way beyond Facebook posts when it comes to sharing my struggles with alcohol and how mental illness has impacted my life.

A quick Google search would show my client I’ve written articles, spoken at conferences and on podcasts, and frequently posted about alcohol abuse and mental health issues on my social media. I felt on edge as I drove home that night. Would my client find out I’m an oversharing alcohol abuser? Most importantly, it was the first time I was questioning if it was a good idea for me to attach my name to the issue of alcohol abuse since I wrote my first article on the topic nearly five years ago. Why didn’t I stay anonymous? Was it worth it? Why would anyone choose to make their struggles public?

Why Didn’t I Stay Anonymous?

Five years ago, I made a personal and voluntary choice to write about my struggle with alcohol abuse. I wanted to raise awareness of the role I felt alcohol was playing in my field of design and technology. I had one year of sobriety. I struggled during that year to find a good reference point among my colleagues and friends for what not-drinking looked like. I knew there were others like me. I wanted them to know they weren’t alone. I wanted to put my name and face out as someone they could trust on this issue.

I believe we are more impactful when we remove anonymity from sharing our struggles. People pay attention when an A-list celebrity comes out with their struggle with alcohol or drug abuse. We feel more connected to a disease or condition when someone we know shares with us they have it. In that same way, though not at all a celebrity, I wanted to maximize the impact of sharing my experience. I also thought having others know my desire to stay sober would help hold me accountable in times I craved alcohol.

I had an anonymous childhood. I grew up in a family where one parent had a significant mental illness, and I went through middle school and high school avoiding attention. I reflected on this before I made my alcohol abuse public. I didn’t want to live a life of anonymity when I realized my struggles -- both with alcohol and mentally ill family members -- are shared by large numbers of people. Perhaps everyone knows someone impacted by one or both of these issues. But we don’t talk about it; not nearly as often as we should. I wanted to contribute to changing that for the better.

I made the commitment to attempt publishing and speaking on the topic of alcohol abuse. I haven’t set the world on fire, but I’ve gained enough traction. I’ve published over a dozen articles and blog posts, videos of conference presentations, and podcasts on this topic. I’ve lived four years with my issues made public.

The Present: Things change – Things Stay the same.

I couldn’t have predicted many of the changes that have occurred since I left anonymity; changes that perhaps would have caused me to reconsider going public.

My works situation has changed. Four years ago, I sat down with one of the partners at the design firm I work for. I told him I’d been sober for a year and I wanted to go public about the need for our industry to do more for those struggling with alcohol issues. I knew my first article on the topic was set for release within 48 hours. I wanted his permission to affiliate myself with the studio in my bio statement. He gave me his full support and that of the other two partners. I knew I wouldn’t lose my job when the article came out.

One year later, a mega-company acquired our studio. A company with many restrictions around communication with the outside world, a company with many restrictions against affiliating yourself with their name. I’ve now worked for this company for over three years. No one at the company from outside of our studio has commented on my alcohol-related writing or speaking.

I’ve done some things to help limit the possibility I’ll get in trouble at work. I’ve shifted how I affiliate myself in my bio: I don’t name my company; I don’t claim any affiliation with my opinion and the company I work for. I post less on social media, as many people from my studio and the larger company follow some of my accounts. I do have anxiety over being asked to remove my writing from public view. I knew this was a possibility if I decided to change employers after going public, but I was surprised to find myself with the same employer but different policies almost overnight

I’m not as concerned about future employers. As I continue to build a foundation of writing and speaking, I’m hopeful to move more towards the space of advocating for awareness of issues related to alcohol abuse as part of my profession. I will choose a future employer based on the support and flexibility they are able to provide me around this goal. And I haven’t given up on exploring the potential for acceptance of my advocacy at my current employer.

My personal life has changed. I was engaged and then married when I first shared my issues with alcohol abuse. I had my wife’s consent to go public. I wasn’t concerned she would judge me; she’d lived through what I was writing about.

I’m now divorced and dating. Potential dates ask for a last name to look me up online prior to meeting and I’m proud of what they will find. I know some might develop negative opinions based on what I’ve written. I’m not concerned about what I might miss, but it’s an example of something I hadn’t considered because my relationship status seemed solid four years ago.

I’m not set on having a sober partner. Almost every woman I’ve had a date with stated they drink. They ask if I mind them drinking on our dates. I don’t. One woman canceled a date after finding out I am sober. She was coming out of a marriage to an alcohol abuser and said she still felt triggered. I respect that. My lack of anonymity allowed us to avoid investing time in something that would not have worked.

Outside of work and relationship changes, I was aware of the potential pitfalls. People know my shit. You can know my flaws before you meet me. I can’t speak for how that might have impacted me. Many people have introduced themselves and congratulated me on staying sober or thanked me for sharing insights they found valuable. No one has ever said to my face they think I’m oversharing or embarrassing myself.

I constantly deal with imposter syndrome, which is when you feel like a fraud for putting yourself forward as someone with expertise. I struggle with this whenever I start writing an article or post meant to help others. I focus on the fact that I’m sharing my experiences in a way I hope helps people. I’m not saying what I’ve done is the only way, or even the best way to get and stay sober. I’m not an imposter as a sober person. No one is. We each do it our own way. If I do something that’s effective for another person then I want to take the opportunity to share that.

What if I do drink? If I relapse or decide I want to become a casual drinker (probably impossible), I will look very hypocritical. I find that helpful in adding to the sense of accountability I have. I know that’s shallow, to care what others think, but I’ve interjected myself into the how to be sober conversation and would deservedly look foolish for failing to hold up my end of the discussion.

A Personal Decision

I can’t speak to whether anyone else should make their sober status public. I am in favor of a sober revolution in which everyone is comfortable speaking frankly about their struggle with alcohol and other substances. Today, we are far from that. I always appreciate when actors, musicians, and sports icons share their struggles. These people have large platforms and can impact society at the change level much quicker than I can.

I believe the benefits of being open about my alcohol issues have outweighed the costs. I’ve been able to play a small part in shaping a message that will need to be repeated through the end of time, it seems: Not everyone drinks. It doesn’t matter why. We need to support those who choose not to drink. We need to support those who are struggling to recognize and treat alcohol abuse, as well as their families. I wouldn’t feel as comfortable entering these conversations if I didn’t have a small body of work to support my experience. I understand most people have no idea who I am or what my background is, but knowing I exist in public forums as a confessed alcohol abuser on a mission to help others with alcohol issues is enough to keep me engaged.

As far as the client from the opening of this piece, I don’t know if they have ever looked me up online or found any of my posts on sobriety. But I have made them aware I’m sober, and they are grateful to have me as the designated driver when we go out for entertainment.

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Victor is a researcher and author living near Philadelphia. He writes and speaks on topics related to UX research and design, and recovery. He has written for A List Apart, McSweeney's, Internet Tendency, Vox.com and many others. Find Victor at his website or on Twitter.