Anonymity the shield that protects 12-Step recovery
Anonymous: (1) Not identified by name; of unknown name. (2) Having no outstanding, individual, or unusual features; unremarkable or impersonal.
The “mother program” of Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935, it’s spawned dozens of offshoots, all dedicated in one form or another to recovery from addiction in all of its forms. Gambling, sex, shoplifting, even Emotions Anonymous, a group committed to recovery from mental and emotional illness — all use the AA template, and all value the principle of anonymity above everything else.
When I first started going to 12-Step recovery meetings, I didn’t give much thought to the definition of that word. At the time, it was just part of a name. But as the years have gone by, I’ve come to understand just how vital it is to the continued success of 12-Step recovery, regardless of the label you put on the respective program.
The second definition — “Having no outstanding, individual or unusual features; unremarkable or impersonal” — is designed to level the playing field, so to speak. No one at a 12-Step recovery meeting is more valuable or more important than anyone else. Regardless of status in the “outside world,” in the rooms of recovery the homeless crack addict has just as much of a voice, is considered just as vital to the recovery process, as the doctor who’s addicted to pills.
Specific problems, titles, rap sheets, educational success, wealth, social status: None of those things matter in the rooms. Twelve-Step groups are only interested in two things of newcomers: What they want to do about their problems, and how other members can help. The longstanding Traditions of the groups even preclude dominant personalities from taking control of the fellowship, regardless of how qualified they might be as figureheads: “Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern,” says one of those Traditions.
Rules are determined by the group, and every member who attends a monthly meeting known as a “group conscience” has a voice, regardless if they have years of recovery or only a week. And each group, driven by the votes of the individuals, has a voice at the national and international organization level. It’s democracy at its purest, designed to give everyone involved an equal footing in the direction of a program.
In regards to definition one — “Not identified by name; of unknown name” — anonymity provides everyone who walks through the door of a 12-Step meeting a safe place to congregate. At every meeting, that principle is hammered home: “Who you see here, what you hear here, let it stay here.” Because of the stigma attached to alcoholism and addiction, many people afflicted are ashamed to seek help outside of a professional medical setting.
They’re afraid they’ll be recognized by others in the community they know, or that their attendance will somehow become public knowledge. Others fear legal reprisal, and that’s not without precedent: In the early days of one program, Narcotics Anonymous, it was illegal to hold meetings in the state of New York. Rockefeller Drug Laws made it a crime for drug addicts to meet together for any reason. Members often had to meet in one another’s homes, or case a meeting location to ensure it wasn’t under police surveillance.
We’ve come a long way since then; court systems often mandate attendance at recovery meetings as part of a convicted drug offender’s probation, but the stigma of being looked down upon as “less than” for attendance at a 12-Step meeting remains. Anonymity is championed within the rooms as the best way to combat that stigma.
And that anonymity works both ways: I’ve never come out and said which 12-Step program to which I belong in this column, and for good reason: my association is with recovery in general, and shouldn’t be associated with a specific program. If for some reason I were to relapse — not my plan or desire, but I’m under no illusion that I’m infallible or perfect — and my membership in a specific organization were public knowledge, than it would be perfect fodder for skeptics to point to that program and say, “See? It doesn’t work. He relapsed.”
(As a sidenote, one that deserves an entire column unto itself: The program works. Unequivocally. If I were to relapse, it would be because I stopped working the program.)
While the principle of anonymity isn’t practiced perfectly — because none of us in recovery are perfect individuals — it’s the closest thing to perfection I’ve ever experienced, and it’s invaluable to the continued success of 12-Step recovery.
Steve Wildsmith is a recovering addict and the Weekend editor for The Daily Times. Contact him at (firstname.lastname@example.org) or at 981-1144.