Many AA meetings end with: “What you hear here, who you see here, when you leave here, let it stay here. Hear, Hear.” The Twelfth Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous is more explicit: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” It seems fair, then, to ask how a card-carrying member of AA (note: we actually don’t have membership cards) could tell stories about recovery and addiction and AA without compromising the important principle of anonymity.
I’ve chosen to be pretty open about my struggles with alcohol and my recovery. Like many alcoholics, I lived under the illusion that I had managed to effectively conceal my drinking. It turns out I was quite wrong—my drinking was what you might call an open secret. I figured that if people knew about my drinking, they might as well know about my recovery. I also knew that recovery depends upon honesty and trying to conceal the fact that I was an alcoholic in recovery seemed counterproductive. I made the decision to share my experiences more openly but I recognize that is a very personal choice. I’m glad I chose that path and have found people are generally very supportive and often very inquisitive. While I don’t wear a t-shirt that says “alcoholic” on it, I’m willing to discuss the issue, answer questions and share information. I’ve been surprised on a number of occasions when friends and acquaintances talk to me about my recovery and ended up asking if I would take them to a meeting.
My own view is that anonymity can be a two-edged sword. The tradition of anonymity undoubtedly emboldens people to seek the help they need and that’s very, very important. But if the modern view is that alcoholism is a disease, the notion that those seeking treatment should be encouraged to do so in secret is outdated. I worry that our pledge of anonymity and the importance we place on it can generate or perpetuate feelings of shame and guilt—-two powerful engines of addiction.
One of my favorite books about addiction and recovery is A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. It’s a searing, poignant and funny account of his time in rehab. I found his descriptions of addiction and the personalities and emotions in rehab and recovery to be spot-on. Oprah loved the book, too. She picked it for her book club and had him on the show. She even called into the Larry King Show to defend him when his account was being questioned. Frey swore up and down that it was all true, that everything he described in the book had actually happened and had happened to him.
Well, it turns out that A Million Little Pieces was actually a work of fiction, a great novel but not a true story. Frey had to make a repeat appearance on Oprah for a public shaming. To me, this proved the book was authentic, if not entirely true. Who but an alcoholic or an addict would write a book that had so many fanciful elements, so much drama (newsflash: rehab is really kind of boring) and then claim on national TV that it was all true? I knew then that the book had been written by someone who knew one of the realities of addiction–the crazy outlandish lies that we tell, often for no real reason. Frey wrote a magnificent book and had he called it fiction it would still have been a magnificent book. But the simple truth never seems to be quite the right answer for us. We addicts lie about big and small, important and inconsequential and I believe dishonesty lies very close to the core of addiction. Embracing a life that requires rigorous honesty (“How it Works” in the Big Book) is one of the fundamental challenges of recovery and Frey’s willingness to lie about his book convinced me that it was an even more authentic account and had been written by someone who truly knew addiction.
Going public is a personal decision and I only get to make that decision for me. So I will endeavor here to tell stories that are mostly true—or maybe it would be more accurate to say “inspired by actual events,” like on “Law and Order.” My point is, I am telling stories and sharing thoughts that I think shed some light on the nature of addiction, the toll it exacts and the process of recovery. Some of those stories, or parts of those stories, belong to other people and it would be wrong of me to blithely tell them without permission or consent. Instead, I’ll alter some of the details, change the names to protect the innocent. I don’t believe that altering some of the details will diminish the power or value of these stories, but thought it was important to be clear about the process. When I’m writing only about myself, I will try to keep to the straight and narrow, but I will alter elements of some stories to respect the anonymity and privacy of others.
Thanks for letting me share.