When Being Anonymous Helps, and When It Hurts

anonymous person

By Mandy Parsons

If you are someone who struggles with alcohol or drugs, acknowledging that you have a problem may be the simplest step on your journey toward health. In reality, deciding to pursue recovery and figuring out how to go about getting help may be the more daunting task.

Given the unfortunate stigma behind rehab, including potential negative consequences on your personal and professional life, there are many factors to consider when seeking help. Among those is whether or not to enter treatment anonymously.

In reality, deciding to pursue recovery and figuring out how to go about getting help may be the more daunting task.

Anonymous rehab is appealing to many who fear admitting their addiction to friends, family, or co-workers, especially in certain lines of work. However, there are definite disadvantages of those closest to you not being in the know. So how do you know when being anonymous helps and when it hurts?

The Anonymity Dilemma

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) refers to anonymity as “the greatest single protection the Fellowship has to assure its continued existence and growth.” Foundational to the AA program (“Fellowship”) is anonymity at a personal and public level, which serves to safeguard its members from identification as alcoholics. It also fosters a sense of equity and unity in the common bond of their recovery from alcoholism.

And while the right to privacy is often a crucial impetus for those considering treatment, the secret nature of anonymous rehab can exacerbate feelings of isolation and embarrassment.

In an interview with Matthew Perry about his book, Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing, he mentions how the “gift of anonymity” can be deeply misunderstood. Perry tells The New York Times, “It suggests that there’s a stigma and that we have to hide.” The pressure to hide alcoholism may perpetuate internalized shame that prevents people from being treated in the first place.

Reducing the Stigma Behind Rehab

According to John Hopkins Medicine, stigma toward people with substance use disorder is “persistent, pervasive, and rooted in the belief that addiction is a personal choice reflecting a lack of willpower and a moral failing.” It further explains that the stigma of addiction negatively affects the welfare of those with substance abuse issues and prevents them from receiving quality care.

What are some ways we can reduce these stereotypes? Here are a few ideas:

  • Eliminate Language That Perpetuates Stigma

Words like “drunk,” “junkie,” and “clean” only serve to reinforce ideas that someone who suffers from addiction is lazy, self-indulgent, or tainted in some way.

  • Acknowledge Treatment Effectiveness

Many patients who receive treatment for substance use disorders go on to live healthy, fulfilling lives. John Hopkins notes that FDA-approved medications for opioid use disorder can cut the risk of overdose in half but are underutilized due to stigma about their role in treatment.

  • Communicate the Positives About People with Substance Disorders

By sharing positive character anecdotes and stories of men and women who battle addiction, we are humanizing mental illness and giving it a face.

  • Educate Medical Students and Other Professionals

Hands-on training and increased education for professionals about substance abuse disorders is needed, extending beyond medical personnel to counselors and police officers.

  • Speak Out Against Stigma

Create a platform or take advantage of opportunities to speak out against the stigma of addiction and rehab, especially those biases portrayed by the media.

Recognizing When Someone Needs Help   

Being aware of the signs of substance abuse and rallying around those who need help can diminish the shame stigma behind rehab. Symptoms of addiction may include, but are not limited to:

  • The appearance of intoxication
  • Problems at work or home
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Lying about alcohol or substance use
  • Becoming angry when asked about their substance use
  • Changes in appearance or hygiene
  • Problems with cognition or memory

Encouraging someone you care about to seek treatment may be challenging. Be sure to gather your thoughts beforehand and have realistic goals for the conversation. Choose a time to talk with them when you won’t be distracted, and try to express all of your concerns without judgment. Also, seek support from others who are close to the situation. Above all, offer love and support. Remind them that you care deeply for their well-being and want what is best for them.

You never have to go it alone, nor should you.

For those of you who have completed one of our Meadows Behavioral Healthcare programs, we are here to help you when you need it. By continuing to stay connected with us through Onward, you have access to ongoing resources and education. We will also assist you in finding community and support to continue the good work you have started. If at any time you have questions, just reach out. You never have to go it alone, nor should you.