I received an email yesterday from a woman whose son is an alcoholic and who has been struggling alongside her boy and his illness. I recall talking to the young man last summer over the phone, who had planned on getting into the old treatment center I went to. He was unsure of this proposition, and my gut instinct told me that he wasn’t ready, that he was going to just get his mother off of his back, that he felt he could probably manage it all on his own.
I wish I had been wrong.
This poor kid ended up relapsing the day he left, and it went downhill from there. I had been in constant contact with this despairing woman (aren’t all family and friends of alcoholics despairing? That word was invented for them, methinks). I explained what her son was most likely going through and described alcoholism and it’s nefarious hooks that dig deep into our minds, body and spirit. She was briefly buoyed, but cautious. And then I didn’t hear from her for many months – until last night. Her son had spiralled even further down – living on the street, getting arrested, jumping from shelter to shelter, and had health concerns. He eventually cracked and asked for help. He returned to the treatment center and has done well since. She is now broke and needs to move because of this hardship, but her son is healthy and sober.
I bring this up to illustrate something – that I never would have met this woman nor been able to offer what I could if I wasn’t “out” (recovered alcoholic) with some of my friends. I have close friends, old friends, who clearly know that I am an alcoholic and have been in treatment and continue to work a recovery program. These few friends were at my one year medallion. They understand a bit of my journey and of alcoholism. It was one of these friends who introduced me to the distressed woman and son. Being open about my path yielded something wonderful – a connection to someone else who was suffering – someone I could reach out to. Someone to help. Like someone helped me at some point.
I recall once leaving a meeting, with two people walking behind me out of the door, discussing anonymity. The young woman was concerned about people at work finding out about her being an alcoholic. The man, who I know does great service work in the community, stopped and asked her point blank “What’s the downside of people knowing?”. She paused, unable to respond. I too found myself lost in thought. What was the downside of others knowing? And that line has stuck with me for the last year or so. It was something that reared it’s head up now and then as I gently stirred around the idea of being more out there, of letting others in on my “other” life. It’s a question that still dogs me, that swirls around the eddies of my conscious, that licks the edge of my decision or non-decision to break my anonymity.
There has been some discussion of anonymity on the blogs and twitter lately. Much of it stemmed from the release of a documentary called “The Anonymous People” which encourages those in recovery to speak out, to have a voice…and a face. I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t opine about it. But what it has done is revisit my idea of anonymity, the current social environment, and my place in it – or not. This slowly trickling back stream in the recesses of my mind has lately started to push and rush a little bit more in the last six months. No particular reason why, but I have been feeling this low level rumbling about where I am in the prism of recovery – am I the light, the reflector or the rainbow? Am I all or none of these? And how does my coming out or not coming out change things? Or is this yet another incident of this alcoholic over thinking things?
For me, anonymity touches three aspects, each with their own questions and challenges:
1) Personal – While I am open to my family and friends, I am still private in my work life and with casual friends / neighbours regarding my alcoholism. The question of my not drinking has come up at work before and I have answered honestly, but without mentioning being an alcoholic. The “What’s the downside of people knowing?” really plays a part here. What would be the issue if I were to expose myself to peers and subordinates? What fears coarse through my mind and spirit when I think of this? Silent mocking? Shame? Judgement? Whispers in quiet corners? Me being YouTube-d, someone trying to find some embarrassing episode? I am not sure, but those have crossed my field of vision. And if that did happen, is that a bad thing?
I can’t help but think that much wouldn’t happen. That most people wouldn’t care. That most people might be gently shocked, but then again, not really be concerned. That most likely, many of these folks probably know someone that is in the grips of the grape or struggling. But what compels me to move out of my protective shell is for that last thought – that I might be of service to someone. Like that woman with her son. That perhaps I can be a voice for someone, or just be around for the reason of someone to talk to. That maybe I was meant to do more than just go to meetings or typing a few things here or being sober. Or not.
2) Online – Once it’s out there, it’s out there. That’s one of the dangerous and sharp edges of the internet. Ask any Facebook user who has tried to delete their online persona or account. Anyone who has Googled themselves and no doubt had run into something they typed in years ago, or found a picture of themselves from some ancient company newsletter, or had some mention of them deeply implanted in an archaic document of some kind. So the decision to be out there is not to be taken lightly. Now, there are many of us in the sobersphere who maintain anonymity, and for valid personal reasons. Some do not want work staff to find them. Or others have criminal and legal issues that they don’t want trumpeted. Some fear ridicule. Others feel it’s no one’s business but their own. Everyone has their reason for staying anonymous, and that is highly respected and observed in our circles.
On the other hand, there are many here who clearly feel safe in this community and are out there – face, name, workplace, etc. Many of these bloggers are not concerned much with others stumbling upon them. In fact, many are proud to be out there, and wish to show the “who” behind the Gravatar and hope that they can attract others whose voice may be quiet, or stilted. They realize almost everyone in their own circles of life are already on board and care not if one or two others fall onto their blog.
I am not concerned about someone perhaps tripping over this blog, or what I have to say here. I don’t mention names, generally, and I don’t publish personal facts. I rarely post pictures of my family (or they are very old ones) and I don’t give mention of other personal details of my private life. That is why I keep it recovery focused – the rest of the stuff is immaterial. But what it does come down to is the next area that sobriety and breaking anonymity crosses.
3) The Traditions of AA – This is where some of the difficulties come in for me. And this is also where there is a lot of gauntlet throwing down in slight challenge of these. For those who don’t know, the Traditions, as they are known in the program, are 12 guidelines, if you wish, that help to keep AA, on a whole, intact. They are there to ensure the stability and growth of AA. They help steer us away from publicity, donations, leadership issues, etc. As they joke about in the rooms, the 12 Steps help us from committing suicide, and the 12 Traditions help us from committing homicide (you have to be there, stale cup of coffee in hand, believe me). And embedded in those traditions are the basics of anonymity. The internet was far from coming to fruition when they came up with the traditions, but since it’s inception, AA does have some “official” stands on anonymity and being online.
I am not going to get into the Traditions, as that can go on for some time, but what I will say is that it’s okay to break anonymity at group level, which means at a group, I can give you my full name, phone number, etc. and not worry about it. It’s when I get out in the real world, and in any context, that I cannot be a mouthpiece for AA. I can talk about it privately, one on one, though. (This is where some see this as secretive, but it’s all meant for the good of the group as a whole). But here’s where I see things a bit differently. To me, this sobersphere, is like a group. Anyone who isn’t interested in sobriety or recover most likely won’t be interested in this blog or the ones on my blogroll…unless they were concerned about their own drinking or the drinking of someone they know. We all know each other out here, for the most part. I feel like I am part of a family. A wonderful, inclusive, accepting and loving family. And for that reason, I feel that anonymity isn’t truly broken. Or is that me rationalizing?
So what’s the verdict after all this navel gazing and star searching?
The greatest challenge comes from within. And the simple question is this – is this ego / pride talking, or is this an authentic desire to open up, spread wings, stay truer to myself and be open for others if they need help? Can I be comfortable as a member of a group that stresses anonymity and yet be out there? My bro of bro’s Marius (from Trudging Through The Fire) had some great advice and thoughts on this a while back, and challenges some of the more traditional thoughts generally thought of regarding the program and anonymity. (I know, Marius challenging the status quo? I was shocked too) I have had time to chew on what he’s said, and see that after some consideration, I am in alignment with his point of view. I think service, on a higher plane, is where I am directed. I have spoken about signs from the Creator before in this space, and I have always tried to do the next indicated thing. I have tried to be in tune with that little voice that likes to tell me the right thing to do. And so it’s really about being in alignment with His will, not mine.
But there is still something that nags at me.
I am not sure what it is. There seems to be something blocking me from coming out outright. From jumping out of the birthday cake with a sash and a smile. From taking the big leap. I am not sure if it’s fear, or just being uncomfortable. Or just that finality. Or something that I am not meant to do now. Who knows. What I can say is that I have had no compunction with anyone else being so open about their recovery and being an alcoholic. In fact, I love it. I know for many out there, it’s not a big deal and it wasn’t a difficult choice. I do wish to be there soon and not worry about any downsides, if there are any. I do wish to be of maximum service to others and show that we’re not a bunch of homeless people slugging back hand sanitizer (ok, some of us are, but you know what I mean). That we have a face, that we’re like others, that we are others, that we’re the coaches, teachers, workers, parents, children, etc. that you see every day. That we are all different, and yet the same deep down.
I will find my answer. I know I will. I will find out where my voice is needed, and where my heart belongs. Where my shoulders need to be opened up for a sobbing, shaking head to land on. Where my arms need to open up embrace someone who thinks death as a choice. Where I can plant my feet and catch someone who is on the rebound and ready to give up and whither away.
In the meantime, I smile inside when I hear others talk about their conquests at the bars, when they talk about having to taper off, when I overhear rumours of so-and-so being a problem drinker, when the direction of a conversation turns to the bottle. I know that if someone needs some help, I will be there. My hand will always be there, outstretched and ready to grab them and tell them that it’s okay. You’re not alone. Right now, I am there, you can feel my breath, but I am anonymous. Receding into the light, reflecting, hoping to see rainbow whenever I gaze upon you, hoping to see you be well.