Breaking the Stigma of Anonymity

aa shame Apr 16, 2018

For most people, there’s something terrifying about the words I use to describe myself.  Every time I say “I’m sober”, or a “I’m a recovered alcoholic”, or even “I’m in recovery” there’s a beat of silence - as a mild discomfort crosses the person’s face. It’s almost as if you’ve given them data for which they have no appropriate reaction. The rolodex turns and turns, but nothing comes out.

 I’ve learned to say “I’m sober” naturally, a casual part of conversation - a result of many years of practice. And yes, it took a lot of time to extract the shame that I unintentionally added to this simple statement. My self-judgment was harsh, and probably picked up by others. But over the years, I learned to embrace it as part of who I am - and it now rolls off my tongue with ease and confidence. However, no matter how comfortable I am with my own words, there is still a beat of awkwardness when I share this part of me with others.

Now, bear in mind I don’t go around life saying this unless it is needed. I don’t go around work events, mingling with “Hello, nice to meet you.  I am Latin, have a dirty mind and am an alcoholic in recovery. Tell me about yourself!"  

But it feels like a natural thing for me to bring up when people offer me wine more than once at an event or dinner - or when a friend wants to go for drinks (I often agree, yet explain I don’t drink and suggests a place that also serves food or coffee).

Frankly, part of me can’t blame people for getting freaked out when I use the A-word or any of its variables. After all, “alcoholism” has always been Hawthorne's scarlet "A". For decades it’s been part of hushed hushed stories of shame. It’s associated with lack of willpower, poor decisions, broken marriages and families torn in half. Alcoholics…those “losers”. The stigma, the unsaid, is a brutal slap felt by us, who are fighting the fight of our lives. 

To add complexity, alcoholics ourselves have propagated this anonymity as part of our identity for a hundred years. 

The shame, fear, embarrassment and failure that stigmatize addiction have remained an integral part of the disease - perpetuate by our inability to fight back. 

Those who are members of Alcoholics Anonymous abide by a tradition requiring anonymity at the level of radio, press and film. The premise behind this tradition is meant to protect the AA community from “having the whole boat go down if a member jumps out”.  In other words, if we go around saying we’re AA members, and then relapse, we open the possibility for others to assume AA doesn’t work. While the intention behind this tradition is “good at heart”, it’s also generated a thick boundary of silence and lack of information. Little comes in, nothing goes out.  

Let’s be clear: If a member of a recovery program such as Alcoholics Anonymous relapses, it’s not because the program doesn’t work. It’s because the member stopped working their recovery program. Or for whatever other thousand reasons. It happens. Like when cancer comes back and people need treatment again. We relapse because we get disconnected from whatever keeps us sober. We relapse because that is what we’re wired to do. Finding the guilty party is a moot point. Sometimes, we relapse because we relapse. 

I think it’s time to shake things up and stop being silent. 

Personally, I am done being shamed. I am done carrying the stigma of failure. I am done being judged by others for my past or whatever actions resulted from my addiction. I am done carrying unnecessary stigma. I will not accept this as part of my journey - not now, not ever. 

I am tired of being part of an uncomfortable pause in conversation. 

I know this is only going to change if I start opening my mouth and shifting things. It’s my job (our job!) to be open and educate others on the subjects of addiction and recovery. Stepping into my truth openly - loudly - helps me get rid of the shame and darkness. It opens the door to having addiction be treated with the same compassion and kindness extended to other mental illnesses; but most importantly, it sets the stage for the scarlet A to evolve into a more empowering word: Authenticity.

When I share authentically - gratefully - and without shame, I create space for the miracle of hope to unfold. 

The ones drowning in addiction need that hope to stay afloat.  They are all around us: in our workplaces, our churches, our grocery store, our schools. They’re the people secretly searching for answers in podcasts, youtube channels, and social media - and finding very little information from those of us who could openly be their source of guidance and hope. 


It’s time. 

I smile, lift my head, raise an eyebrow, and toss my hair. I let my fingers fly over the keyboard with a dash of rebelliousness and a dash of hope. I’m not ashamed about being an alcoholic in recovery. I am, in fact, quite freaking proud of this incredibly badass truth that defines my fabulous life today. I am done being anonymous. I am done being stigmatized. I am done being silent.

Watch me open the heavy door, and set one high-heeled foot into the other side of anonymity. Watch me. And smile with me, why don’t you.

Follow me and share your stories of alcohol addiction, sobriety, recovery, relapse, madness and hope. Put a face, a name, a message, a voice to who you are. Join me in changing the conversation. 

Let’s keep stepping out into the light of our authentic selves over and over again.

One beautiful, honest, badass, freed-through-recovery-day at a time.


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