Many alcoholics, including those who are sober, keep their alcoholism a secret from loved ones, acquaintances and colleagues. The foundation of most 12-step programs is anonymity and this allows newcomers to feel safe to join and existing group members to continue attending knowing their identity will be protected. Anonymity saves lives.
While the principle of anonymity is crucial to the world of recovery, it also implies that being an alcoholic is something that should be hidden. There are many sober alcoholics in your life, but you may not know who they are. They often fear that others will judge them, that they could lose their job and/or that people will lose respect for them. These fears are a result of the “skid row” alcoholic stereotype. The fact that 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous were created with the tradition of anonymity is an indication that alcoholism has always held a stigma. “Breaking anonymity” is a personal decision and often done for the sake of helping another alcoholic but this does not generally happen in casual conversation.
Through the decades there have been various mental health conditions which have become better understood and less stigmatized. For example, in the past, post-partum depression was something mothers felt shame about, hid and would not seek treatment for. Today, it is a well researched and recognized condition about which women speak more openly and receive help—including celebrity mothers such as Brooke Shields. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is another mental health condition with many misconceptions associated with it. In the past few years, the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation (www.ocfoundation.org) has addressed these stereotypes head on. Their campaign “What does OCD look like? Me.” features spokespeople such as Elizabeth McIngvale and Jeff Bell who are changing the image of OCD and encouraging the millions of people with OCD to seek help. (http://www.ocfoundation.org/OCF_Press_Release_2008_07_07_Jeff_Bell.html). McIngvale is a vibrant looking 23-year-old who was diagnosed with OCD at age 13. Bell is a successful radio news anchor who was able to maintain his career despite his OCD symptoms. In fact, Bell has come forward with his story of OCD and recovery in his memoir Replay, Rewind, Repeat (www.rewindreplayrepeat.com) with the hope that he can help to change some of the stereotypes and stigma around having OCD.
There have been sober alcoholics who have spoken out about alcoholism and tried to change the stereotype, including the late Caroline Knapp in her book Drinking: A Love Story as well as a number of celebrities. Yet, it continues to carry a heavy stigma. Many sober alcoholics feel shame about their diagnosis and that negative message is passed on to others. The stereotype of the alcoholic must change in order for people to feel comfortable admitting that they are alcoholic. This would require that the medical and psychology community begin to better educate the public as well as themselves about the truth of alcoholism and that the general public becomes exposed to stories of high-functioning alcoholics who defy the “typical” alcoholic image. Connecting a real face and story with the alcoholic diagnosis is necessary in replacing negative judgments with compassion and understanding.
I have made a choice to educate others and tell my story in my book Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights (www.highfunctioningalcoholic.com). My intention is to begin changing the face of alcoholism as I once felt embarrassed about being alcoholic, but I have come to feel proud that I am sober. May the stigma start to lessen and alcoholics begin to feel empowered to tell their stories, reach out for help and in so doing, help others.