For recovery advocates who attend twelve step programs, one of the biggest challenges is talking openly about addiction recovery while also respecting the tradition of anonymity. After all, these programs have anonymous in their names for a reason. Most people know about the twelve steps, but there are also twelve traditions – and these traditions guide how the programs are organized. The eleventh tradition 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 film”.
In the interest of total clarity, let’s rephrase the eleventh tradition: Even if you do not disclose the membership of another person, you are discouraged from disclosing your own twelve step membership in public.
Across the nation, the addiction recovery movement is booming. Addiction treatment in New Hampshire is setting an example for the country. Moreover, addiction as a brain disorder – rather than a moral failing – is finally gaining acceptance. In this modern era, the question becomes: does anonymity help or hurt? Technology has pulled the debate into the limelight; public podcasts and blogs specific to twelve step programs are especially popular amongst tech savvy group members.
It’s obvious why revealing someone else’s membership in an addiction recovery program is wrong, but doesn’t it perpetuate shame and stigma to be restricted from talking about your own experience? Many people in recovery grew up in alcoholic homes where the family norm was “don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel”. Does the twelve step vow of silence perpetuate these toxic norms?
Earlier this month, celebrity news site Page Six reported that Vanderpump Rules star, Lala Kent, publicly disclosed her recovery from alcohol use:
“‘Five months ago, I came to the realization that I am an alcoholic, and I am now a friend of Bill W.,’ Kent said on Instagram Sunday, referencing the co-founder of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step program, Bill Wilson.
‘You will never know how much this program means to me,’ she added. ‘[It] has given me new life.’”
Kent received backlash on social media for breaking her anonymity.
Supporters of the eleventh tradition argue that by breaking your anonymity, you jeopardize the anonymity of others. In other words, someone might assume program membership by association. Proponents also argue that respecting the tradition is the spiritual way, as it removes ego and pride from the equation. Furthermore, an individual could misrepresent twelve step programs in public and sour the reputation for potential newcomers. To be fair, these points have merit. So how do recovery advocates balance a healthy respect for the eleventh tradition while also confronting shame and honoring the need to shed light on addiction recovery?
In order to answer this question, I turned to Process therapist, Jennifer Harrington, whose work with people in recovery focuses heavily on processing shame. “There will always be fundamentalists,” Jen explained, “but programs need to look at their norms”. Jen pointed to the historical context of early recovery programs. In 1935, the stigma around substance use was substantially more severe than it is today. The good news is that the landscape is rapidly shifting – and part of that shift is the normalization of addiction recovery. This normalization, however, may be stunted by the perpetuation of shame and secrecy. “Shame talk needs to be evaluated,” Jen emphasized. “Secrets keep us sick”.
Jen reflected on the healing people do in treatment, and how speaking your truth and sharing your story are integral parts of the shame busting process – as well as learning the value of not caring what other people think. When it comes to talking openly about recovery, Jen recommends asking: “What does the individual feel comfortable doing?” The key is to not violate the anonymity of others. That being said, Jen believes asking people to keep their own recovery a secret is like telling a cancer patient not to talk about chemotherapy.
“The people who discolor [the program] don’t represent the foundation,” Jen said.
So, how do you talk about your recovery? Well, first of all, talk about it in a way that doesn’t hurt others. Beyond that, the answer is up to you! If you prefer to err on the side of caution, perhaps you might identify as being in a “recovery program” or attending “recovery meetings”. When you get right down to it, there are a growing number of fellowships from which to choose. Moreover, this generalized approach does not violate the eleventh tradition. In any event – whether you’re a fundamentalist or a free spirit – remember there is no shame in honestly living your truth.
Autumn Khavari is the Process Recovery Center’s in-house writer. She received an education in Substance Use Counseling from Beal College in Bangor, Maine.