SHAME, STIGMA AND ANONYMITY Is secrecy part of the problem in recovery from addiction?

Karrol-Jo Foster, LMHC, CAP, ACRPS


Anyone who is familiar with 12-Step programs such as AA and NA has at least some basic knowledge of the traditions associated with these programs relative to anonymity. More specifically, the 11th and 12th traditions and the relationship between these two traditions and the spiritual ideals of 12-Step recovery. The intent of these two traditions is rooted in trust and humility and serves to protect the integrity of the 12-Step program. Yet many people, newcomers and old-timers alike, misunderstand these traditions and often take the idea of anonymity to an absurd extreme. I would venture to say there are some reading this article right now who are screaming foul, simply based upon the subtitle alone. For those folks I would suggest considering the notion of contempt prior to investigation and resist your urge to toss this article aside and completely disregard the fact that some misguided ideas do exist relative to anonymity. Furthermore, and this is the hard part, I ask that you merely contemplate the detrimental effect secrecy and silence has on the perpetuation of shame and stigma in substance abuse and addiction (aka ignorance).

Don’t get me wrong, this article is not meant to attack or discredit the idea that anonymity is an important and vital part of 12-Step recovery, especially when it comes to maintaining the visionof its’ founders; Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob. On the contrary, my goal is to examine ways in which anonymity serves a beneficial purpose while also clarifying the ways in which anonymity is
often misunderstood. More importantly, it is also my aim to raise conscious awareness by considering when living recovery out loud, non-anonymously, is both appropriate and beneficial to fighting shame and stigma.

Without any prior knowledge of the traditions and the history of AA, one might assume that it is the shame and stigma associated with addiction that warranted the need for anonymity in the first place, and this may ring true and make sense to many people. After all,
in 1935 when AA was founded there was certainly a much greater degree of stigma associated with alcoholism and drug addiction than there is now. Yet, shame and stigma still exist and remain significant impediments to lasting recovery. Anonymity as a way of hiding from the judgmental glare of society may have been an initial concern but was not the intent of Bill and Bob in establishing the 11th and 12th traditions. In fact, according to AA history, the intention was that every group member know the full name, address and phone number of all the group members. How else can members be beneficial to each other if they remain anonymous to each other?

Let’s take a look at exactly what the short form of these two traditions says regarding anonymity. Tradition #11 states “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” This tradition speaks to AA’s “public relations policy” which means it is specific to personally and publicly promoting AA. Its’ intent is that we should not break personal anonymity in order to promote ourselves as AA representatives or AA as a whole. Tradition #12 states “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” As previously mentioned, central to the AA tenet of anonymity are the spiritual principles of trust and humility. As such, AA members should never break the anonymity of another group member outside of the AA program (trust) nor should they break their own personal anonymity for selfish or egotistical gains (humility), yet members may break personal anonymity in the process of trying to help others. And this, my friends, is where both understanding and interpretation can lead to many a heated debate in 12-Step recovery circles. When is breaking personal anonymity beneficial to others and when is it not?

Obviously anonymity is a key aspect of 12-Step recovery programs, and important to those participating in these programs and other recovery treatment programs. Stigma can make public disclosure a dangerous proposition for fear of discrimination on many different levels. Anonymity provides real protection from these concerns, especially early in the recovery process when sobriety is fragile and relapse risk is high. There is also a concern by many who struggle with substance abuse and addiction that they will be judged by friends and family members, perhaps even ostracized by them. These are real struggles and fears experienced by many recovering individuals. This seems illogical, even crazy, if you have any knowledge of addiction and know the facts. Realistically, I would venture to say that every single person on the planet knows someone who is struggling with substance abuse issues or is or has struggled with alcohol and/or drug addiction issues themselves. It’s that pervasive! Unfortunately, people are NOT educated about addiction and, hence, the shame and stigma persists.

So what about the person who has achieved stable recovery and is working an active recovery program? When is it appropriate and beneficial to break personal anonymity? Obviously, it’s a very subjective and individual decision and I’m not here suggesting to make that choice for anyone. I would, however, like to point out the potential benefits of choosing to live recovery out loud. One of the greatest influences of choosing to live recovery out loud is in reducing the negative impact of stigma. Shame is at the emotional core of stigma. It is noted by researchers and clinicians alike as the main barrier to reintegration from treatment, and therefore represents a significant barrier to successful recovery. The more people in recovery who are willing and choose to live their recovery out loud, non-anonymously, are contributing to an environment of lasting recovery for themselves and for those who still struggle.

Now, let’s look at a few important facts:

Fact #1 – In 1941 interest in the AA Program virtually exploded after an article was published about AA in the Saturday Evening Post.
Fact #2 – Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob were active promoters of AA through the publication Alcoholics Anonymous (aka The Big Book) which is available for purchase by anyone at local book stores and
Fact #3 – It is through the sharing of personal recovery stories that others identify and gain the first glimmer of hope for recovery, whether they are participating in a 12-Step program or not.
Fact #4 – Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob lived their recovery from addiction out loud!

Anonymity has its place in addiction recovery and is vital to the 12-Step program model. My aim is not to do away with anonymity but to inspire more people who are experiencing the benefits of full recovery, to live their recovery out loud. Talk to friends, family members, neighbors, even coworkers (when appropriate) about your recovery. Don’t preach, don’t advertise, don’t promote…. but lso, don’t hide. The alcoholic and/or drug addict living under the bridge does exist, but this symbol of addiction is not the majority. The majority now includes our children, the elderly, professionals and non-professionals from every walk of life. We are in an addiction crisis in this country and stigma only serves to perpetuate the crisis. Don’t feed into secrecy, silence and judgement.

They are the fuel for shame and stigma. Choose instead to feed understanding, hope, compassion, and love in how you live and thrive in recovery. Live recovery out loud.

Karrol-Jo (KJ) Foster is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Certified Addiction Professional, Advanced Certified Relapse Prevention Specialist, and Researcher. KJ is currently a PhD student at FAU researching the impact of shame on addiction recovery. In addition to her shame research, KJ is co-author of the research project “Spiritual Competence in Counseling and Supervision” which is currently in progress. She recently facilitated a learning institute on Integrating Spirituality into Counseling at the American Counseling Association Annual Conference in Montreal. KJ is a member of ACA, ASERVIC, FMHCA and President of the Beta-Rho Chapter of Chi-Sigma Iota professional academic honor society. She may be contacted at