Alcoholics (not) Anonymous?

Atkinson Series: Women and Alcohol

Nov 19 2011

Ann Dowsett Johnston

The underground railroad that is Alcoholics Anonymous — with more than 500 meetings a week in the Greater Toronto area — thrives on the promise of many things, not the least of which is anonymity.

What this means, literally, is that individuals must keep quiet not about their sobriety, but about their membership in AA. For more than seven decades, anonymity has been key, ensuring a safe haven for sharing and recovery.

In 1935, when AA was founded in Akron, Ohio, anonymity made sense. But in the era of Facebook and Twitter, there are those who argue that anonymity is a dated concept. Is it time for AA to drop the second “a”? Some say yes — most famously author Susan Cheever. She has written not only about her own drinking and that of her father, writer John Cheever, but also a biography of Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of AA. Last spring, she wrote a controversial column in the new online New York-based magazine The Fix: “We are in the midst of a public health crisis when it comes to understanding and treating addiction. AA’s principle of anonymity may only be contributing to general confusion and prejudice. When it comes to alcoholism and AA, the problem is very public, but the solution is still veiled in secrecy.”

If alcoholism is a disease, does anonymity promote a sense of shame that is outdated? Cheever obviously thinks so, especially as it relates to AA’s Tradition 11: “We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” Says Cheever: “It seems to me that AA is the best treatment we have for alcoholism. But people do not understand what alcoholism is, or that there can be recovery. And there are those who are dying because of this. Twenty-five per cent of all our hospital admissions are related to alcohol.”

Is she right? Long term, is AA the best treatment for alcoholism? Yes, says Patrick Smith, former vice-president of clinical programs at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the new CEO of Toronto’s Renascent treatment centre: “In recent years, the penny has dropped. Post treatment, those who remain involved in a mutual 12-step program like AA dramatically improve their chances of remaining clean and sober.”

“Anonymity protects,” says Cheever. “But it also hides.” She draws comparisons to the gay world, and the act of coming out. So does Maer Roshan, editor and founder of The Fix — which is focused on addiction and recovery. “I think the recovery world is where the gay world was in the 1990s,” says Roshan. “Blacked out windows and bars, a secret world.” He believes there are good reasons for the anonymity rule: “If people relapse, and they are known, it destroys the notion that AA brings success.” Still, he says, “It’s a grey area when they say: you’re not allowed to speak of your own membership.”

Stephanie Covington, author of The Woman’s Guide to the 12 Steps — a book that has sold 350,000 copies since 1994 — has been in recovery for 32 years. She thinks the only people who should break their anonymity are those like herself: those who have been sober long enough to be stable, not lose jobs or relationships. “I do think recovery needs a face and a voice,” says Covington. “Maybe it behooves those of us who can’t be hurt to be more vocal. It’s too bad that there aren’t ways for people to understand the value of the program.”

What Cheever raises is something many authors have had to wrestle with. In the world of “quit lit,” many have broken their anonymity, most notably the late Caroline Knapp in Drinking: A Love Story. Others have walked a fine line, talking about meetings without naming the group: Mary Karr in Lit, Susan Juby in Nice Recovery. Says Juby, who is 22 years sober, “Anybody who knows anything about anything can presume. But I understand the sentiment around anonymity. The tradition is based on humility. I like the idea that recovery moves through example at a community level. There’s a nobility to that. Still, the hostility to meetings always surprises me — the idea that it’s a cult has lots of sway.”

“It may be a cult,” says one female member of AA, a corporate star in her 50s. “But if so, it’s one I want to belong to. If it weren’t anonymous, I wouldn’t be here.” The young woman to her right nods. “There’s a pecking order when it comes to stigma. If you’re male and drunk, you’re a good old boy. If you’re female and drunk, you’re not going to live it down.”

William C. Moyers revealed his AA membership in his book Broken. “If I was going to explain the gritty details of the spiral of my addiction, I needed to give the nitty gritty details of getting sober. Recovery is a mind, body and soul experience. It’s not magic. I owed it to my readers and their families to talk about the 12 steps. Quitting is not about stopping drinking. I stopped a million times. It’s about staying stopped, and it’s hard to stay stopped.”

Still, Moyers believes “it is not necessary for most to break their anonymity to get the word out about AA. You can be a voice of recovery without breaking your anonymity.”

Cheever envisions a different world. “What if it was widely reported that a significant percentage of U.S. senators are in AA, or that there are AA meetings in the West Wing?” she writes. “What if hundreds of the movers and shakers in recovery — doctors and lawyers and airline pilots, the Fortune 500 businessmen and ministers — stood up and were counted as members of AA? It would go a long way toward clearing away the misunderstanding that still surrounds us.”

Says Cheever, “The stigma around alcoholism is bad — but it’s misunderstanding that kills. We need all kinds of people to change at once. Anonymity is getting in the way of public education.”

Ann Dowsett Johnston spent a year studying and reporting on the issue of women and alcohol after being granted the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. Her piece on the invulnerability of youth appears in Insight today, and her series will continue to run in the Star until next Saturday. It can also be found at:  [email protected]

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