When my colleague Patricia Meyers got clean in 1997 after years of alcohol and drug use, she wanted to tell the whole world. Her father, however, urged silence. “I remember on a trip when I was in early recovery, he said, ‘You need to know if something happens, if something goes missing, you are going to be the first person they look at.’”
It was a harsh reminder that addiction – even when it’s in a person’s past – carries stigma.
Meyers acknowledged the logic behind her father’s advice but, ultimately, told everyone who would listen to her. “I was so profoundly grateful for being given a second chance,” she explains. “I mean, I didn’t have my pompoms in my hands or anything, but I wanted to share my struggles. I thought that if I kept it to myself it would just get bigger and bigger, and then I would go out and use. Talking took the power out of it.”
Meyers uses her life story to inspire and encourage others in her work in residential rehabilitation, but she acknowledges that when she’s outside of the addiction treatment field she’s become a little more circumspect over the years about revealing her past. The sad reality is, she says, “I see ignorance. It’s a little shocking.”
And, of course, that’s the Catch-22. Because there is ignorance about what addiction really is, those who have overcome it can be understandably reluctant to speak up and claim their success. But if no one speaks up, addiction remains misunderstood, getting better appears to be an impossibility, and the stigma continues.
So what’s the answer for those who are newly sober and wondering how open they should be? It’s a question we in the treatment community are often asked. In the end, it’s a uniquely personal decision, but we offer this advice:
You don’t have to tell everyone, but tell someone. Build a support network of people who know your story and will act as a secure base. It can include family members, friends, therapists or counselors, a mutual support group such as AA or NA – anyone you can trust to have your best interests at heart.
Concentrate on walking the walk. The tough reality is, relapse is part of the recovery process for many. Before going too public, it’s wise to let a little time pass so you can become grounded in a solid routine and build up your confidence. Going public too soon followed by relapse can erode trust from those who may not understand that addiction is a disease that changes the brain and requires time and effort to overcome.
Don’t confuse anonymity with silence. Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous urge anonymity as a means of providing safe harbor for those seeking support. What is not intended is that a person helped by AA may never acknowledge their recovery. AA has made clear that on the individual level, a person is free to share their personal story and to advocate for any political or cultural change they deem necessary, as long as the AA group itself is kept out of the conversation. In short, anonymity doesn’t mean you are sworn to secrecy, but if you do talk, tell your own story and not someone else’s.
Realize that your secret is probably not a secret. Many people get into recovery only after their life has spiraled out of control. That means that those in your circle probably already know of your issue. Rather than expending energy on determining who knows what, it can be more freeing to simply assume everyone is up to speed and be open about the fact that you are now in a good place and hope to stay there with their support.
Be aware you set the tone. People often don’t know how to react when they learn of past substance use, so they’ll look to you for cues. If all that comes off of you is waves of shame, don’t expect them to celebrate your accomplishment. Show yourself the same understanding and compassion you’d like to receive, and you’ll be more likely to get it.