Some time ago, I had the opportunity to have an e-mail discussion about anonymity with a law student who was trying to decide whether he should disclose information about being an alcoholic in recovery in connection with applying for a judicial clerkship. The conversation got me thinking about how we deal with this time-honored tradition. Few things in AA (or any 12-step program; “AA” for simplicity’s sake in this article) tend to raise as much heated debate as anonymity. When the facts include one AA member making an unauthorized disclosure about the fact of another’s AA status as a recovering alcoholic, the rule is clear: just don't do it, period. It is also clear that we do not disclose our membership in AA in the media: notably at the level of press, radio, television and film. But when the facts deal with our own disclosure, at a personal level with other people who are not in recovery, there is much more ambiguity. As lawyers, we deal with ambiguity for a living. Yet many of us carry the absolute "rule" about anonymity even into the more ambiguous context. So without further ado, I jump into the shadowy ambiguity of anonymity with this edited version of our conversation.

I used to let alcoholism run me and it had power over me. I was profoundly ashamed of the man I had become. Recovery, on the other hand, shouldn't have power over me – it should empower me. Recovery empowers me to be a person of humble dignity. I'm no longer the cowering egomaniac ravaged by active alcoholism. So when it comes to disclosure about recovery, I tend toward candor, at least to some extent because of my lack of candor in the past. It keeps me honest about who and what I am. And in the doing of it, the stigma of alcoholism has less power over me, i.e., I'm just not going to act like I am ashamed of it. I'm going to act my way into good thinking - even though I used to sometimes feel a fleeting moment of embarrassment. Once upon a time, I made an effort to hide my bad habits and could not. No matter what I did, my bad habits were obvious to the casual observer. I don't think I should now try to hide my recovery, which is the good part. I mean, hiding the bad part, the active drinking, makes sense. But hiding the good part, the recovery, just seems counterintuitive.

I realize that in being candid I risk rejection by those who are not open minded, don't understand, or who feel threatened by it. Being rejected by the few probably minimizes my contact with people whose company would not be pleasant or healthy in the first place. No doubt, I have missed opportunities because of my candor. But I'd rather have someone accept the real me rather than a figment of their imagination, and later find out who I really am. There is a certain amount of deceit in not being honest about my recovery. Call it an error of omission. If at some later occasion when everyone else is having a drink I am asked why I don't drink, I'm in the potentially awkward position of discussing the topic in a less appropriate setting. I have lost control over the choice to disclose voluntarily and in a deliberate manner. I will either be honest or run the risk of making an error of commission by indulging in some fiction. Then I really would be in a bit of a bind, especially with respect to the principle of honesty we so vigorously endorse in recovery. I'm just not comfortable about not disclosing and then having to deal with perpetuating the deception or having someone perturbed when they later find out.

Finally, I think I am pretty much in the minority on this issue. People take the anonymity thing very seriously. I personally believe that it is not because of some high-minded adherence to the principle of anonymity, but because of a deep-seated internal sense of shame and fear of lost opportunity. Thus, by being so secretive, we not only yield to our shame and fear, we often deprive others of the message - that recovery, for all its ups and downs and the normal vicissitudes of life, is a joyful thing. In that sense, I want to be a good copy of the Big Book - I want to set a good example. No doubt, I would never have become acquainted with some great people (and some quite prominent) but for my candor about recovery.

But don't defer to my persuasion unless you are willing to risk losing a job opportunity or someone’s perception of you. Go at it with eyes wide open because the there are no guarantees. I know for me, I do not want recovery to become a shameful presence in my life. I will not apologize for being an alcoholic, and I'm even less inclined to apologize for my recovery.