Telling people you don’t drink can feel like an uncomfortable exchange in early recovery. One of the of the traditions of 12-step fellowships, like AA, is the principle of “anonymity.” Anonymity means that members of the fellowship don’t tell non-members that they practice 12 steps to remain sober. New members of 12-step fellowships can find this difficult to avoid and sometimes feel that they are walking on eggshells. This doesn’t need to be the case and, in fact, there are many ways to avoid the subject but still let people know that you are completely clean and sober.
In the case of immediate family, it’s actually OK to tell them that you participate in 12-steps. Anonymity is more important for new people you meet or for formal interviews like on the radio, tv, or written articles. It’s also OK to tell people that you support your recovery through a fellowship of other sober people. What’s usually important is to avoid saying that you specifically are a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, etc. These fellowships ask to avoid using their name.
For people in early recovery, they often feel that being sober is much more bizarre than it actually is. When I first got sober, I thought that people would think it is strange that I don’t drink. In reality, other people barely question it or think that it is weird at all. One way to tell people is simply to tell them, “I don’t drink.” If they ask any questions, you can just say that you don’t enjoy it, or that it doesn’t sit well with you. There are many people out there who don’t enjoy drinking.
If you feel more comfortable with sobriety, you can tell people that you are in recovery. It’s easy to tell people that you are in recovery from addiction or alcoholism without the need to say that you are a member of AA or NA, which would break anonymity. Many people haven’t even heard of these fellowships or unaware of their popularity.
Another way to keep anonymity is to tell people that you don’t use drugs or alcohol due to religious or spiritual beliefs. People will usually not ask any questions after hearing that because it is another very popular reason to not drink or use drugs. This also would not be a lie because 12-step fellowships are spiritual programs that are based on abstinence from drugs or alcohol.
If people specifically ask if you are in a 12-step fellowship, then it is OK to say that you are but you should try not to name the fellowship. There are many 12-step fellowships out there, so it would not be technically breaking anonymity if you don’t name which fellowship you are a member of. If the person insists or asks exactly what fellowship you are in, then you might have to actually explain the tradition of anonymity. Anonymity is important to uphold to protect the fellowships. The reason being, if you relapse, this could give the impression that it does not work. There is a possibility that the person you are talking to struggles with drugs or alcohol themselves, which could affect their decision to join a fellowship if you were to relapse or do something else that could tarnish the image of AA or NA.
In a scenario where a person insists you tell them, you can just say that 12-step fellowships are called “anonymous” for a reason and is a very old tradition. You can explain the reasons why these fellowships take anonymity seriously and that you respect the traditions of your fellowship. After explaining this, it is unlikely that the person will insist any further. Most people will understand your views and will move on.
Anonymity is easier to keep than one might think. It is actually very easy to people that you never drink. Many people who have never had drinking problems don’t drink either, which is why most people won’t question you when you tell them you don’t drink. If you still have concerns, ask your sponsor or other people in long-term recovery about their experience with telling people that they don’t drink. Anonymity is most important in the media and is usually only difficult for famous people like actors, musicians, and athletes. For the average person, anonymity shouldn’t be an issue. You should be proud to be in recovery, and though anonymity is important for fellowships, recovery from recovery should not be kept secret. You should feel comfortable and happy to tell people you have recovered from addiction and have turned your life around for the better.