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My Sober Life in Montreal Day 13: Questioning my motives and discussing anonymity

Last night, for the first time, I had serious doubts as to whether my decision to openly discuss my life as a recovering alcoholic was a wise one. A reader sent a polite but firm email informing me that I had broken the 11th tradition in A.A.: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.” Yep, broke that.

I have been around the rooms long enough to be well aware of this tradition, but for some reason, I never really considered it while writing this personal series. (Self-centered, perhaps.) Breaking someone else’s anonymity is a no-brainer: you don’t do it. But what this tradition basically means is that it’s okay to out myself as an alcoholic and break my own anonymity but it is not okay for me to include any reference to my participation in A.A., in media format. In the email, sent by the concerned party, it was suggested that I can openly discuss my involvement in a 12-step program, but that A.A. should not be included. Is this not just semantics? Don’t we all know, in this day and age, what a 12-step program refers to?

Fearing that I may have broken the sanctity of A.A. in one fell swoop, that I had caused irreparable damage through my outpourings, I went into an anxiety-induced tailspin and began frantically Googling articles about anonymity, specifically as it pertains to tradition 11. I read a terrific feature in The New York Times by David Colman, Challenging the Second ‘A’ in A.A. This led me to a 9000 word essay in Harper’s by Clancy Martin, provocatively titled The Drunk’s Club: A.A., the Cult that Cures. Both writers are alcoholics, thus breaching the 11th tradition. I did a quick keyword search on The Fix: A hugely popular website dedicated to addiction and recovery and found a tell-all by comedian Kristen Johnston (3rd Rock from the Sun) who wrote a best-selling memoir, Guts, detailing her battle with addiction. Also questioning the concept of anonymity was a highly controversial confessional by TWITCH author Nick Sheff, I’m Nick Sheff and I’m in AA. But the article I found that examined the issue most critically, carefully reporting both sides of the fence, was by local award-winning journalist Ann Dowsett Johnston in her Toronto Star piece Alcoholics (not) Anonymous?

Contact lenses stinging and desk cluttered with coffee cups and empty cans of Dr. Pepper, I digested as much information as I could in the span of a few hours, including hundreds of comments by devout A.A. followers. Gee, can you tell I suffer from anxiety? Oh no, this frenzied behaviour isn’t AT ALL in keeping with an alcoholic mind! I was fixated and on an insatiable tear to find out more and more and more. 

Finally, I stopped the madness, took a deep breath and tried to revisit my initial motives for sharing my secret: I wanted to prove to myself that life in sobriety wasn’t boring while inspiring others to consider their own life-work-adventure. However, as emails poured in from friends and readers, bravely sharing their personal drinking concerns, my daily diary quickly morphed into a more concentrated effort in illuminating hot topics surrounding addiction. I began writing less about Montreal and more about my experience as a recovering alcoholic. I quickly discovered there was a thirst for more knowledge about recovery and since my recovery is intricately woven into A.A., it seemed ridiculous not to share that important piece of the puzzle. I considered revising all posts by removing any reference to A.A. and substituting with 12-step program but concluded that to do so would be silly. If my diary has helped an alcoholic or drug addict, if it has provoked readers to view addiction and recovery in a more positive light, then I’m okay with breaking a rule… that was written in 1946.

I have incredible respect for Alcoholics Anonymous and its founder Bill W. The program gave me my life back and I have watched it save countless others. The steps and guidelines to living are pure genius, and to think they were written by one man is astonishing. But I’m still allowed to question certain aspects of the program. Just as the program is rooted in anonymity it is also rooted in helping other alcoholics. I am no expert in addiction, not at all; I am a 33 year old woman who is an alcoholic and I’ve struggled with alcohol abuse since I was fourteen. Shedoesthecity, at its core, is about sharing inspiring stories and promoting a life full of adventure and discovery to an audience of smart young women. This is the most important story I have to share.

Binge drinking is a huge problem amongst young women in Canada. That I know. I also know that there is serious confusion surrounding the idea of what an alcoholic is/looks like and a widespread misconception that A.A. is a religious cult or that rooms are full of middle-aged men. In my humble, although a little loud, opinion, A.A. is the best resource for recovery. Why would I play a game of broken telephone, quietly whispering to my close friends in hopes that the message slowly trickles out to the alcoholic still suffering, when I can share openly with our loyal following? Is this not a subject that deserves a proper dialogue and debate?  

Perhaps I should leave it to a woman who has 10, 20 or 30 years of sobriety to do the talking. But I can tell you, for certain, that when I began this journey, I could hardly hear those stories. That length of sobriety seemed inconceivable. I personally found it much easier to identify with the pack of girls two steps ahead of me. “You have six months? Wow.” “Wait, you’ve been sober for over a year? Holy crap.” In the beginning, those were the stories that kept me coming back because I thought, if that girl can get a one year medallion, maybe I can too. Even now, the idea of five years is scary. Will I make it? I really hope so, but for every alcoholic, it’s all about the next 24 hours. One day at a time.

I will never break another person’s anonymity intentionally. I understand, privacy is paramount for many individuals. Many feel that their livelihood and professionalism is reliant on anonymity. I get that. I respect that. But I’m okay to share my experience in the hopes that it benefits another. And I can’t properly share or disclose how I got better if I have to be all hush-hush about my involvement in A.A.

Yes, I’ve completely broken the 11th tradition, and I might very well be lambasted by peers in the program, but perhaps this tradition needs to be readdressed if we are to spread the word of recovery effectively in a manner that isn’t riddled with shame.

~ Jen McNeely

On day 1, Jen outed herself as a recovering alcoholic. On day 2, she wondered why the hell she did that. On day 3, she compares the dark days of 1999 with vibrant life in 2012. On day 4 Jen randomly meets Steven Tyler while strolling the streets late at night. On day 5 Jen took a meditative morning walk through the Plateau.On day 6 she found serenity in the Fuchsia Tea Room. On day 7 she hits the town for mocktails and shots of OJ. On day 8 she broke down the stereotypes of AA. On Day 9, Jen had a run-in with the circus. On day 10 Jen talks about how she knew she had a problem. On day 11 Jen recalls her last drunk meal and gains an appreciation for good food. On day 12 Jen tackles why she drank.

2 Comments

  1. SLH
    January 10, 2014

    Hi Jen,
    I get why you want to share the message of recovery.  It’s critical.  It’s life or death.  But you sharing how you do makes it about you, Jen McNeely and AA, not about you as one of many.  Sure, you are free to share about your involvement in AA and still be a member – that is why I love AA, you can’t get kicked out.  
    But this is your job and I personally have a hard time with you blogging about AA. All persons you have cited who have broken this tradition before you have all gained either monetarily or professionally through sharing about AA publicly.  That’s my problem with what you’ve done.  You could have done an anonymous blog.  You could do PR work within AA.  So, please know, that you have broken the 11 Tradition – and you know that – but it’s not okay for some of us that you did.  And, no, there’s nothing I want to do about it (again, I love that you can break it, freely), but as this was written a year and a bit ago, I’d be interested to see if your views on this have changed as you’ve maybe become more comfortable being one of many, not Jen McNeely, the recovering alcoholic in AA.

    Best, SLH

  2. April 29, 2016

    The awareness Jen McNeely has created for tackling health
    issues head-on with the goal of a better life is inspiring for anyone trying to
    overcome anything. I was bulimic from the ages of 14 to 24 and the whole time I
    just wished I could hear from someone who’d been there and back so I could
    believe I could get better too. And more than anything, I wanted to know how
    they got healthy. I wanted to know the steps they took to regain their life. I
    started a blog about my eating disorder and recovery and for about 3 years I
    did it anonymously. Putting my face and my name on it took ages. But I realized that being able to say “Hey, I’m Kelly and
    I had an eating disorder” is part of acknowledging and accepting the experience. Then I could begin understanding it and that’s when I stopped being ashamed. And anyways, we all have
    hurdles in our lives. They help us learn more about ourselves, the world and
    where we fit in it.

    Depending on a person’s stage of recovery (of anything) being open also builds in accountability. 
    For me, another part of recovery was finding a way to make all the time I was sick *not* a wasted experience. My tag line is “Sharing what I learned makes those 10 years worth it.” When you can use what you learn to help others it turns something that was destructive into something productive. 
    I feel that attaching a name and face to information makes people trust what they’re reading a lot more. It’s important to me that people who come to my site know I’m a real person. It’s a lot of work to write posts and I want them to have maximum impact. My hope is for others to accept themselves, recognize that discussing obstacles is something to be proud of and be proactive.
    Jen’s choices have helped her get and stay healthy and they
    have helped others figure out how to get and stay healthy. Her courage has
    spotlighted an issue that has been largely overlooked in a certain demographic.
    It makes her a wonderful role model to many and gives them hope. We need more
    positive role models! 
    All of this is just my opinion based on my experience. Different things work for different people.

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