This was originally posted in 2017. Re-upping.
A couple of days ago, I had a chance to catch up with a friend and recovery advocate. Turns out we share a concern about the emergence of a kind of celebrity culture within recovery advocacy efforts.
It seems like a good time to revisit a post from Bill White that addresses the topic. The post focuses on anonymity and advocacy, examining the changing cultural context for anonymity and its functions.
On anonymity as a spiritual principle [emphasis mine]:
When AA literature speaks of anonymity as a “spiritual principle,” it does so out of a profound understanding of the importance of self-transcendence as the vehicle for sobriety and serenity. You can hear people depicting AA as a “selfish program” to mean that the alcoholic must get sober for self and not for others, but you find a quite different orientation on the issue of anonymity. The “spiritual substance” of anonymity according to AA’s core literature is not selfishness but “sacrifice.” (AA, 1952/1981, p. 184). What is sacrificed in AA (and in acts of heroism) are one’s “natural desires for personal distinction,” which in AA are eschewed in favor of “humility, expressed by anonymity” (AA, 1952/1981, p. 87). Applying this understanding, one could see how an AA or NA member choosing public recovery advocacy could technically meet the letter of Tradition Eleven (not disclosing AA affiliation at the level of press), but violate the pervading spirit of the Traditions (Tradition Twelve). This could occur when advocacy is used as a stage for assertion of self (flowing from ego / narcissism / pride and the desire for personal recognition) rather than as a platform for acts of service, which flow from remorse, gratitude, humility, and a commitment to service. (2013)
He closes with a call for a gut check on our advocacy efforts:
There is a purity—perhaps even a nobility—to recovery advocacy when it meets the heroism criteria. There is a zone of service and connection to community within advocacy work, and I think we must do a regular gut check to make sure we remain within that zone and not drift into advocacy as an assertion of ego. The intensity of camera lights, the proffered microphone, and seeing our published words and images can be as intoxicating and destructive as any drug if we allow ourselves to be seduced by them. If we shift our focus from the power of the message to our power as a messenger, we risk, like Icarus of myth, flying towards the sun and our own self-destruction. To avoid that, we have to speak as a community of recovering people and avoid becoming recovery celebrities—even on the smallest of stages. We must stay closely connected to diverse communities of recovery and speak publicly not as an individual or representative of one path of recovery, but on behalf of all people in recovery. The fact that no one is fully qualified to do that helps us maintain a sense of humility even as we embrace the very real importance of the work to be done. The spirit of anonymity—that suppression of self-centeredness—can be respected when we speak by embracing the wonderful varieties of recovery experience rather than as individuals competing for attention and superiority. (2013)
We stand on the shoulders of others
I’m grateful for Bill’s reminder. Personally, I’m bothered be some of the slogans coming out of the newest generation of advocates. “Silent no more”, “I am not anonymous” and “The silence ends” are just a few examples.
First of all, anonymity, as practiced within communities of recovery, never demanded silence. All one needs to do is read AA’s chapter on the 12th tradition, published in 1952.
When opportunities to be helpful came along, he found he could talk easily about A.A. to almost anyone. These quiet disclosures helped him to lose his fear of the alcoholic stigma, and spread the news of A.A.’s existence in his community. Many a new man and woman came to A.A. because of such conversations. Though not in the strict letter of anonymity, such communications were well within its spirit.
But it became apparent that the word-of-mouth method was too limited. Our work, as such, needed to be publicized. The A.A. groups would have to reach quickly as many despairing alcoholics as they could. Consequently, many groups began to hold meetings which were open to interested friends and the public, so that the average citizen could see for himself just what A.A. was all about. The response to these meetings was warmly sympathetic. Soon, groups began to receive requests for A.A. speakers to appear before civic organizations, church groups, and medical societies. Provided anonymity was maintained on these platforms, and reporters present were cautioned against the use of names or pictures, the result was fine.
We may not have organized recovering people into a national advocacy movement, but we’ve never been silent. As a community, we haven’t cowered in shame. Communities of recovery are so frequently painted as “secretive”, with all of it’s pejorative connotations–implying shame, hiding, cultishness, etc. Why are we reinforcing this?
“I am not anonymous” seems dismissive of anonymity as a spiritual principle.
The issue isn’t advocacy. The first wave of this advocacy movement was much more respectful of tradition and the people who blazed the trail for building a recovering community capable of engaging in this level of advocacy. They made the case for “advocacy with anonymity” rather than dismissing it as quaint.
There’s nothing wrong with evolving. There’s nothing wrong with questioning the confines of tradition. We don’t have to be bound by tradition, but we should respect the traditions, principles and values that brought us this far.
I hope this movement grows, matures and succeeds in reducing stigma and improving access to help of adequate quality, intensity and duration.
3 thoughts on “Recovery Celebrities?”
Jason, I think that this is well said and timely. The “old timers” had some wisdom that came directly from lived experience. I think humility and focus on the purpose are important. Incidentally, I have a T-Shirt with “I am not Anonymous” on it that I got from a group collecting stories of recovery. I see your point here. My sense of it is that “coming out” as in recovery signals a willingness to be open and share about recovery. I think it is possible to do so without disrespecting those who hold anonymity and a central principle that they live by. I know people who hold such views for a variety of reasons and I respect and honor those who take this position. On the larger point, ego and aspiration is certainly a risk to the movement and how people in recovery are perceived. I come from an era that the very notion of a recovery rock star is nearly unfathomable. Thank you for putting this post together.
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Agreed. There’s a long tradition of recovering people “coming out” in various contexts. Traditions of anonymity encourage us to pump the brakes, acknowledge that our continued recovery isn’t guaranteed, take our own inventory, consider our motives, consider the potential risks to our spiritual condition (wellness), and the potential short and long-term risks to others.
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