Monday, August 12, 2013


A friend on Facebook shared a link to an interesting article today. The article is a month old now, but since I just saw it today it's new to me. It's from The New York Times Television section. It's written by Kristen Johnson, who apparently is starring in a series on TV Land these days. I remember her from 3rd Rock from the Sun, a television show so old that it's from a time when I didn't realize Joseph Gordon Levitt was hot. I'll summarize, but in case you want to read it for yourself, here's the link:Turning Addiction into a Sideshow.

In the article, Johnson, who is sober, talks about how the media treats alcoholism and addiction. In her opinion, addicts are almost always portrayed as “selfish, delusional jerks who have no qualms about destroying themselves and everyone who loves them.” She offers several examples of the media sensationalizing addiction and exploiting people with addiction problems for their perverse entertainment value. Certainly this happens. A lot. I've never done a thorough investigation of all the ways addicts are portrayed on television, in movies and in the press, so I won't pretend to wholeheartedly agree or disagree with her on this. It's not really important because regardless of how they are portrayed, the fact is that alcoholics and addicts are talked about – by name – often. Many times they identify themselves. Kristen Johnson did. She wrote a book, Guts, several years ago where she openly talked about her struggles with alcohol and pills.

So what I'm really interested in tonight is anonymity. I know many of the people who read this blog are familiar with the concept of anonymity with regard to recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction; however, some readers may not be so let me explain quickly. Twelve-step programs, in addition to the steps, have 12 Traditions. These traditions offer suggestions on how to behave inside the confines of the program. Two of the traditions – 11 and 12 – deal with anonymity. Tradition 11 suggests that “...we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films” [some programs include “and other public media”]. Tradition 12 states that “anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions...”

Personal anonymity at the public media level means not using your last name or your likeness when you are identifying as a member of a 12-step program. The long form of Tradition 11 asks that the press also respect that tradition and not identify people as members. I'm sure you all know how well that's working out. I haven't read Guts so I don't know if Kristen Johnson identifies herself as a member of AA in it. But Augusten Burroughs certainly identifies himself in Dry. Patrick Moore writes about AA and (I think, if I remember correctly) CMA meetings in his book, Tweaked: A Crystal Meth Memoir.

The reason I bring that up is because I often wonder if the concept of anonymity still has value in these programs. Don't jump all over me yet. I'm not saying it doesn't. I'm just saying I wonder about it. In an age where privacy at ANY level is almost non-existent, is there still a need for members of 12-step programs to be anonymous. Notice I made that distinction. It's not alcoholics and addicts that need to maintain anonymity. It's only alcoholics and addicts in 12-step programs. When they are out drinking and using, all bets are off. It seems a little backward. I'd much rather be anonymous when I'm all cracked out and paranoid than when I'm sober and a productive member of society.

Now, as I understand it (and I might not be exactly right here), part of the reason for anonymity is to protect the 12-step program from my potential bad behavior. Back in the day, Alcoholics Anonymous was trying to gain traction as a program that could get people sober and have them stay that way. It certainly didn't need the bad publicity of some famous person running around talking about how AA saved his life one week and then ending up in the gossip column drunk and disorderly the next. There's a story about that exact thing occurring involving a professional athlete in the 1940s or 50s, but I don't remember for sure who it was and I had no luck finding the story on Google.

Anyway, the 11 tradition was written in part to prevent that from happening. Fast forward 60 years. Does AA (or any 12-step program) still need that protection? It depends. Crystal Meth Anonymous is only 25 years old. It has a reputation in the older programs as not being able to keep people sober. That hasn't been my experience, but I've had many people tell me their sponsors have forbid them to go to CMA meetings for that exact reason. So a case could be made that the 11th Tradition is necessary (but not necessarily very helpful in that case).

However, the press really has very little respect for the tradition of anonymity now (there was a time when it did take steps to respect it). So, in that regard, isn't it possible that anonymity is hurting 12-step programs now. If the media is portraying alcoholics and addicts as selfish, delusional jerks, wouldn't it better serve these programs if recovering alcoholics and addicts stood up publicly to dispel that notion? I guess ultimately that's what I think, because even though I have tried to not identify myself as a member of a specific 12-step program, it certainly isn't hard to figure out which ones I might attend.

I don't know what will happen in the future with regard to this issue. In general, people don't like change. Specifically, alcoholics and addicts are terrified of it. The first 164 pages of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book have been left virtually untouched through four editions and more than 70 years. If they don't want to delete a comma or semi-colon, the chances of altering one of the basic tenets of the program is unthinkable.

Thanks for letting me share.


  1. Before you form an opinion, you read the relevant articles in Language of the Heart. Anonymity is a complex issue that goes WAY beyond protecting AA/CMA from my bad behavior.

    "Anonymity is the SPIRITUAL FOUNDATION of all our Traditions, reminding us to place principles before personalities." Despite what everyone thinks, that statement does NOT mean I don't talk about who was at the meeting -- it's a lot more personal than that. The long form of the Tradition says it best, in that it reminds us to "practice a genuine humility." I cannot do that if I make myself the face of AA or CMA.

    In regards to celebrities having publicity surrounding their addictions, remember that anonymity is not secrecy. Also, it's different for me to be public about my drug addiction vs. announcing to the media that I'm a member of CMA. Most celebrities keep their AA membership pretty quiet even if it's an open secret. It's a huge difference for someone to out in public and advertise their AA membership, either for their own benefit or in an attempt to publicize AA.

    The basic idea is that no matter how special I think I am, I'm just another AA/CMA member -- a commodity.

  2. Awesome reply. Thanks. It's always hard writing a blog post in an hour to cover everything and get nuanced thoughts across. I think we agree at the core on this issue. I think the problem comes when people don't fully understand the anonymity issue. I'm glad you wrote the "anonymity is not secrecy" part because I think a lot of people get those two things conflated. I often will say "I'm in recovery" or "I'm in a 12-step program". People make whatever assumptions they are going to make about those statements, but I try hard (I'm not sure always successfully) to not publicize membership in a specific program. There is certainly a lot to think about here. I hope more people weigh in.

  3. Betty Ford is my hero, or one of them anyway.
    Wm. Cope Moyers in his book Broken talks about the need to destigmatize addicts so that health care will cover treatment. Interesting subject due to legislation passed yesterday aimed at reducing sentences for addicts rotting away in our prison system. I agree that the face of AA or any other 1 step group should never be an individual, but just as visibility has helped gay rights, so does knowing someone in recovery put a human face on things.