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Expanding the Anonymity Debate

Robert J.Ackerman PhD
Over the past couple of years there has been much discussion about the concept of anonymity in the treatment and recovery of addiction. This discussion has ranged from the very definition of anonymity to the important role that it plays in in Twelve Step groups. Today more than ever the idea of anonymity is being debated. However, this is not the first time the issue is being discussed. 


For example, in 1978 I wrote my first book, Children of Alcoholics: A Guide Book for Parents, Educators, and Therapists. This was the first book written on children of alcoholics in the United States. I gave the first copy of the book I received to my parents. My father showed the book to his sponsor, Jim, and was abruptly told that I did not have the right to write such a book. Obviously, the sponsor assumed that I wrote about my father’s alcoholism and thus identified him as an alcoholic. I asked my dad if Jim read the book, and he said he refused. I had a good reason for wanting Jim to read the book because there was not one page, paragraph, sentence or word about my father in the book. There was nothing in the book that indicated that the author was a son of an alcoholic. I purposely wrote the book protecting my father’s anonymity not only out of love, but also because that’s what you did in 1978. I wrote the book to help children and adolescents living with an alcoholic parent. 


However, as I began to do more and more speaking engagements I was usually confronted with a common question. Either during or at the end of a presentation I was usually asked if I was a child of an alcoholic myself. As far as I was concerned at the time, Twelve Step groups dominated recovery from alcoholism and anonymity dominated the approach. I decided to ask my father how he would like me to handle the question. He said, “If you think it will ever help someone, you go ahead and tell them about us.” It was a great answer. 


Two years later I spoke in Milwaukee at a two-day workshop for a professional audience of clinicians. While I was there a local Twelve Step group asked me if I would speak for them at their club in the evening since I would be there overnight. I said I would if they could provide me transportation from the hotel and back. On the way to the club I asked the two women providing transportation if there was any disagreement or discussion about having me present for them, since my topic was the children of alcoholics’ movement. They looked at each other as if someone had already told me. The disagreement I was referring to was whether or not children of alcoholics should be permitted to say that they were children of alcoholics. Obviously, members of Alcoholics Anonymous were very committed to anonymity and in fact, anonymity was one of the stalwarts of the success of Alcoholics Anonymous. Would the children of alcoholics’ movement challenge this anonymity? Would this be an issue since I was going to present in a Twelve Step program? 


Although they were surprised by my question, they assured me that many people were excited about my presentation and that they expected a good turnout. In fact, when we arrived the place was already packed and they were connecting audio equipment into every room since not everyone could fit in the room where I was presenting. This was a good sign, but did I really belong there and was I going to violate the long held tradition of anonymity? Maybe I had the right to say that I was a child of an alcoholic, but did I have the right to identify my parent, and even more particularly, which parent?


The person who introduced me was a long-standing member in the club. It was obvious he was in recovery and was well respected in the club. I could sense from him his hesitation about my invitation and his doubt about the appropriateness of not only me, but also my topic. He graciously introduced me and there I was. Rather than avoiding the issue, I chose to go directly at it. I began my presentation by asking, “Do I have a right to be here and what is it that I want?” I simply answered, “I would like to have what you have, the right to recovery from alcoholism.” Additionally, I said, “If I ask all of the recovering people here tonight who are also adult children of alcoholics to leave, I think we would empty most of this building.” At least for that evening the issue was put to rest.


The two stories I just shared illustrate another issue and debate about anonymity back then that is still being discussed today. I have read many articles over the past several years about anonymity ranging from issues of whether it is still relevant, whether social media has really exposed so many celebrities in recovery that it is now acceptable to publically disclose one’s own addiction, and whether the loss of using anonymity weakens the community of Twelve Step groups. I don’t know the answers. However, the debate continues to be focused only on those seeking recovery or currently recovering. The debate still does not include those living with an alcoholic or addict. Although we have attained the development of many good family programs for those with a loved one in treatment, we seldom address the issue of anonymity for family members. In many cases family members remain just as confused as others debating the concept and issue of anonymity.


Historically, family members may have been even better about maintaining the identity of an addict or alcoholic simply by the denial that existed in families. This was related to one of the earliest reasons cited for anonymity and that was because addiction was viewed as either deviant or very stigmatizing. However, the children of alcoholics movement—and especially the adult children of alcoholic’s movement—may have contributed significantly to going beyond the limitations of anonymity. This is due to the fact that so many children of alcoholics of all ages reached out for recovery regardless of whether the alcoholic sought treatment. In essence, they believed that they had a right to recovery. 


I think the debate over anonymity will continue, but with less rigidity. So many more people are in recovery today and they are more open about it. Additionally, this has contributed to more openness in our society. The unacceptable, untreated alcoholic or addicted has now become acceptable as a recovering person. For some, anonymity will still play a very important role in getting people into treatment in the first place. Others might say that getting into recovery is the greatest thing that has ever happened to them and they want to share their story openly. 


Additionally, we must remember that identifying yourself as sober is not a violation of anything, but identifying yourself as a member of a Twelve Step group does. Thus reasons for anonymity might be considered internal and external. For example, within AA anonymity is the tradition and externally it helps to remove the stigma for those searching for recovery. On the other hand, anonymity is not an issue for many people who find other ways to recover other than Twelve Step groups. 


It appears we are moving towards anonymity as a choice and not a condition. Anonymous or not anonymous, either way the debate will continue, but probably to a lesser degree. However, one thing we know for sure is that at the individual or family level, treatment and recovery work.
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Formerly Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. Dr. Ackerman is a co-founder of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and the Chair, Advisory Board of COUNSELOR: The Magazine for Addiction Professionals. He has published numerous articles and research findings and is best known for writing the first book in the United States on children of alcoholics. Twelve books later, many television appearances, and countless speaking engagements, he has become internationally known for his work with families and children of all ages. His books have been translated into thirteen languages.