02/09/2011 06:05 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Rethinking Anonymity for Alcoholics

I raised a query in an earlier post about the concept of anonymity and alcoholism, suggesting that shedding the anonymity factor may be a step toward eliminating the shame that is seemingly endemic to this disease. Some readers appreciated my words in the spirit in which they were intended; others did not.

The thoughtful responses were appreciated; I relearned some things about AA practices that I'd forgotten over the years (I have not been a regular follower since my first year sober.) The snarky, hateful (and usually anonymous) responses were just kind of mean -- and a little too defensive, I thought. And the suggestion that I'm arrogant because I dare to question rules that were made up before I was born and before more information was available? Really?

The pervasive theme, that anonymity is not only about shame but also a spiritual practice, one of putting principles before personalities, was well taken. I understand this a little better after reading people's responses and can understand where the anonymity would benefit in that regard (although it could be argued that this is more a matter of privacy than anonymity). But that doesn't even kick in until people are through the door. I'm talking about getting people through the door.

Some people suggested said they would feel just as strongly about anonymity if they were in a support group for cancer or diabetes. And there is the crux of my question: Is that really true, on all levels? Would they have spent even one minute blaming themselves, or being ashamed, for being diagnosed with cancer or diabetes? More importantly, would they have put off getting help because of that self-blame, or because of society's feelings toward those diseases? Would they hesitate to share their disease with their children, despite knowing there may be a genetic component? Would their children fear inheriting this disease because of the social implications?

I did not think twice about seeing the dermatologist for skin cancer, even though, as a redhead who used to slather on baby oil while sitting in the sun with double albums wrapped in tin foil to direct the sun to my face, that truly was something I could have prevented. Yet it took me years, after acknowledging to myself that I had a drinking problem, to seek help -- and that wasn't even something I could have prevented. That's the part I want to get rid of. Maybe shedding anonymity is not the way to do it. But I can't help but feel that the perception of AA as a secret group that meets in basements to talk about their disease does a disservice to alcoholics. I can't imagine a breast cancer survivor group ever having that same reputation.

Since I believe it is better energy to talk about what I am for rather than what I am against, I will say this: I am not against anonymity. I am for openness, honesty and non-judgment around the disease of alcoholism. I am for treatment options, dialog and communication that is not laced with fear and shame. I am for living with this disease the same way I live with my allergy to Keflex -- as a part of who I am, not the whole of it. I want my kids to be able to say, "Mom, how will I know if I'm an alcoholic?" as easily as they would ask, "Mom, what are the symptoms of diabetes?"

This is not about me. It never was. I came out about my disease 20 years ago. This is about my children, for whom I never want shame to be a factor. One person suggested that writers and "famous people" talking about their issues was an avenue toward greater fame and income; I would suggest that, for example, Demi Lovato coming out about her depression and self-esteem and cutting issues is an avenue for my daughter to one day say, "Hey, Mom, I think we need to talk about something," maybe even before she hits her teens... rather than when she has kids of her own.