Need Anonymity More Than Ever
By Lynne Anderson | Originally published June 30, 2015, in YouthToday.org
Ian W., 21, flirted with drugs in high school. The romance turned rocky, however, and he found himself clutched by a relentless suitor he couldn’t escape.
He went into recovery and reclaimed his life, with the help of a treatment center, his family and a 12-step program.
He has been working a 12-step program for about three years. (He is comfortable using his name, he said, but because Youth Today wants to follow the recommendation of many addiction counselors, we are using only his first name.)
Most of his friends are in recovery, and they are a close group. They are accustomed to telling each other about their addictions, their struggles and their joys.
But he is careful around people he doesn’t know “just because.” And he wouldn’t share anything on Facebook, he said, because “it can lead to drama.”
While the world has changed in countless ways since Bill W. and friends started Alcoholics Anonymous 80 years ago, one thing has not changed in the world of A.A. — the belief that anonymity provides a safe environment for people recovering from addiction.
Yet in an era of constant, instantaneous information sharing and personal information, how can young people safeguard their anonymity? And is it even important to do so in the digital era?
Also, thousands upon thousands of adults in recovery question whether anonymity may actually hinder recovery. Celebrities such as Eminem and Pink have written and sung about recovery. A march is planned in October to promote openness. Is anonymity still important to teens and young adults in recovery?
Does anonymity still make sense?
“There’s no way I would say anonymity isn’t important to recovery,” said John O’Neill, director of addiction services at at the world-renowned Menninger Clinic in Houston. “There’s just too much stigma attached to it.”
Anonymity will be intensively guarded by the organizers at the Alcoholics Anonymous 2015 International Convention, which meets in July in Atlanta. About 50,000 people who battle alcohol addiction are expected to attend to share their experience, strength and hope as they have done for 80 years.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of them will be teens and young adults. They, too, will abide by the principle of anonymity.
In a world dominated by social media, some young people and experts who work with them say anonymity gets harder and harder to practice in the digital era — but more important.
Some youth do not realize sharing could harm them years later, in addition to arming not-so-friendly people on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with immediate ammunition for gossip. Some question whether anonymity makes sense in 2015.
“We live in this age where everything is tweeted, Snapchatted and Instagrammed, and it’s really too bad because it can prevent people from getting the help they need,” O’Neill said. “The ability to get help anonymously is essential.”
Moral stigma still exists
Yet anonymity has its detractors, especially among those who think that talking about addiction more openly can help to destigmatize it.
“At the very least, something we need to change when it comes to AA is that people have the right to talk about it,” said Clancy Martin, a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. Martin has written and spoken publicly about his addiction and has sometimes been criticized for it. “I don’t think people should be privately or publicly censured for it.”
Martin mentioned seeing a friend after an AA meeting one night who told him he had had a slip the night before. They had started the program at the same time, and both had been sober about a year.
Martin said he felt a mix of feelings but admits, “I was a little bit angry with him. I remember feeling ‘How could you throw that away? How could you do it?’ I had this moral indignation.”
Those feelings, he said, “speak to how deep this moral stigma is. It’s one thing that we’re weak-willed, but we think there’s something vicious — that is, having a blameworthy vice — about addiction.”
Greg Williams, campaign director for UNITE to Face Addiction and a filmmaker who helped make a movie called “Anonymous People,” said he agreed that stigma against addiction is still strong.
“We all know that employment discrimination exists, criminal justice discrimination exists and educational discrimination exists,” Williams said. People coming forward to talk about their addiction and their recovery can help, he said. But young people need to be particularly careful, in large part because of social media, he said.
“The bottom-line fact of social media is: Who has 300 friends — nobody,” said Roseann Rook, a certified addiction counselor with Timberline Knolls, a treatment facility near Chicago.“And unless they are a true friend, there’s no sense in telling them, because there’s no accountability.”
Even stars don’t name names
Over the years, many celebrities have been open about their addictions. Robin Williams and David Letterman are just two who openly talked about battling addiction.
Addiction experts noted, however, that if people listened closely, famous people seldom mention AA or other 12-step programs — and never break the anonymity of anyone else.
One addiction counselor mentioned late-late-night television host Craig Ferguson who once talked about his addiction on air and encouraged people to get help.
“He said something like, ‘It’s in the front of the phone book, people,’ but he wouldn’t say ‘AA,’” Rook said.
That’s because people who work an AA program — or 12-step program of any kind — know that one of the 12 traditions is that AA should remain anonymous “at the level of press, radio TV and films.”
Those traditions, however, were started by Bill W. and friends in 1935, when no one dreamed of a world with constant text messaging, Facebook updates and people openly talking about addictions.
While prevention is the best treatment, it does not work in all cases. Once a young person has developed an addiction, the best treatment, experts said, typically involves a 12-step program.
And, anonymity is essential to helping them to feel safe — from parents, teachers and other well-meaning adults who may beg, plead or threaten a youth to stop drinking, often to no avail.
“It is extremely important,” Rook said. “A person in recovery is sharing in a very different way than a person who is sharing something with their hairdresser, or someone else. That may be to get attention or to get sympathy.”
Social media can delay getting help
Sharing confidentially has a healing effect that, while perhaps not fully understood, bolsters a struggling youth’s ability to gain support from the group.
“The goal is to protect the group,” said Teresa Johnston, director of Kennesaw State University’s center for young adult addiction and recovery, outside Atlanta. “It builds community.”
“If I stand up and say I’m in a certain recovery program and then I relapse, and go back out and share that, it can have a negative effect,” Johnston said.
O’Neill of Menninger said the wide net of social media can inhibit a youth from getting help. Youth must have a safe place, and they need to know that there are people there they can truly trust. Even lifelong friends might not be able to understand what recovery means — and just how hard it is. Sharing with people who do not respect the process can be damaging, experts said.
“The younger people are so used to putting everything out there [on social media],” said Tiffany Leggett, a certified addiction counselor at MARR Addiction Treatment Center in suburban Atlanta. “but everyone should consider what they post on social media.”
Many young people say they understand the dangers of oversharing on social media, some of the experts said. They understand that it might affect their ability to get a job — but usually only “right now,” said Rook.
“I think the problem with youth is that their brains haven’t developed, and if they’ve been using drugs — and that includes alcohol — their brain development may have been slowed even more. If [the danger of sharing on social media] hasn’t been explained to them in detail, they can make a bad mistake,” Rook said.
Because youth love to spend time with other youth, they can often assume that all these buddies are friends, experts said. But a buddy or a pal isn’t the same thing as someone who honors your needs, keeps your trust and protects your best interests, experts said.
Ian W. said he has learned that lesson, as have many of his true friends, the hard way.
By that, he said he meant that many friends — such as the 300 “friends” Rook of Timberline talked about — are not really friends. Also, if they are not in recovery, they have little to no concept of what working a 12-step program entails.
“If they hear you’re having a problem or a bad day, they’ll try to start telling you what to do, checking up on you, that kind of stuff,” Ian said. That can lead to gossip among other “friends,” with one telling another, or several that so-and-so has had a relapse.
“You can feel like Big Brother is watching you,” he said.
“People want to be helpful,” said Kendall, a 19-year-old who’s been clean for a year. “But it can create drama.”
‘What’s motive for sharing?’
That said, both youth said they see “tons” of other young people posting updates about their sobriety.
“I see things like ‘I got 30 days,’” said Ian. “That’s pretty common. I guess people are willing to give up their anonymity in exchange for people telling them they’re awesome.”
And therein can lie a problem, some of the experts said.
“Teens need to think about ‘What is my motive for sharing?’ Is it sympathy, support, excuses?
Anonymity is sometimes just not taken seriously,” said Rook. “I saw a shirt recently that said ‘Rehab is the new black.’ That makes light of things, and this is serious business.”
Ian said he feels comfortable sharing his addiction and recovery with many people.
“It’s a nonissue. It wouldn’t make or break it for me,” he said. But, he does understand that it would be a deal-breaker — and dangerous — for him to break someone else’s anonymity.
Matt Meyer, an addiction counselor with Insight, an Atlanta-based recovery program, said that while a recovering teen should be careful about what he or she shares about his or her recovery, it is imperative that all who are in a 12-step group honor the anonymity of other members of the group.
“It’s OK for you to break your anonymity, but not OK ever to break someone else’s,” said Meyer, who is in recovery himself and who believes it can help his young charges if he opens up and shares that with them.
“But I’m an abuse counselor, so what if I’m in another field? I might not want to do that,” he said.
Laura, a pseudonym for another Atlanta area professional who is a recovering addict and not in the recovery field, agreed. She said she does not want those she works with to know she is in recovery. When she was still in college, she said, “I told a lot of people. But that was then.”
The workplace is competitive, said the 27-year-old, “and people can and do use things against you. I would be very upset if someone told my boss that I’m in recovery,” she said.
Stigma is still a strong reality, said O’Neill of Menninger. Young people who keep their recovery out of social media and in recovery rooms are being wise.
As for AA, it has posted the following on its website concerning anonymity and the convention scheduled for July :
“A vast communications net now covers the earth, even to its remotest reaches. … nothing can matter more to the future welfare of AA than the manner in which we use this colossus of communication. … AA’s anonymity at the top public level is literally our shield and our buckler. … love of AA, and of God, will always carry the day.”
It was published in 1960, in the Grapevine, the AA magazine, about television.
The flyer goes on to say: “We hope to see you in Atlanta — and if we do, we won’t tell anyone.”
Alcohol most popular substance abused by young people
While support groups for teens whose parents had addiction problems — such as Alateen — sprang up in 1951, few could have imagined that alcohol would become the widespread problem for youth and young adults it is today.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, underage alcohol abuse is “one of the most serious” health issues facing youth.
While youth experiment with all kinds of drugs, alcohol is the most widely used, according to SAMHSA. For example, more youths aged 12 to 20 in 2013 used alcohol reported using alcohol “in the past 30 days” than reported using tobacco or illicit drugs, SAMHSA reported in mid-June. Almost one in four — or 22.7 percent — reported using alcohol, compared to about 17 percent for tobacco, and almost 14 percent for illicit drugs.
In 2013, almost 9 million youth aged 12 to 20 reported drinking in the past month, with more than 5 million reporting binge episodes.
While alcohol abuse is horrible for people of all ages, it poses special risks to youth. Youth who drink are more likely to drink and drive and risk a fatal accident. Also, alcohol abuse impairs brain development. Studies also have shown that the earlier a teen begins to drink, the more likely he or she is to develop addiction.
This story also appears in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Living section and on the Sojourners website.
Cover illustration rendered from photograph by Pattonmania (I-Stock).