Admitting that you’ve struggled with alcohol or drugs is a lot less shameful than it used to be. But despite huge strides in pop culture and science, coming clean still isn’t always easy.
In the pantheon of difficult things to talk about, admitting that you’re a recovering alcoholic probably falls somewhere between “I’m a Wiccan” and “I’m a serial killer” on the shameful-revelation scale. After all, alcoholism is a disease, according to the American Medical Association, like diabetes or arthritis—a painful but treatable illness. Except, of course, that alcoholism is different. People don’t tend to weep when you tell them you have arthritis.
Alexandra, a 32-year-old advertising executive from the Bay Area, sobered up at 29 after a decade of abusing alcohol and cocaine. She’d hoped for support and encouragement from her girlfriends; instead she was greeted with incredulity and iciness as they interpreted her admission of alcoholism as an indictment of their behavior. One friend sarcastically asked, “So does that mean I’m an alcoholic, too?” They spent most of their time trying to convince her that she wasn’t actually alcoholic—despite her serious depression, expensive drug habitand a near-fatal car accident.
In treatment, this unexpectedly common scenario is described as “the lobster effect”: supposedly, in a tank full of lobsters, when a particularly adventurous one tries to claw its way to freedom, its tank-mates will tug it down back into the water in an attempt to hinder its escape. In Alexandra’s case, as she continued working on her recovery, she discovered that “the cost of hanging onto those friendships hurt me more than letting go of them.” Her coming-out ended up being a turning point in her least healthy relationships and freed her to form new and more appropriate friendships.
Michael Cohen, the executive director of Florida Lawyers Assistance, a non-profit corporation that offers assistance to bar members who suffer from substance abuse disorders and other mental issues, says that the situation should be dealt with on a case by case basis. “There isn’t any need to tell people if you were treated for another illness,” he says. “This is no different, except that if you’re going out socially and someone asks what you’re drinking and you say, ‘Diet Coke,’ you may get asked what’s wrong with you.”
While being forthcoming about recovery can be liberating, there’s no need to be too candid. William, a 28-year-old logistics coordinator from Indiana, wasn’t completely frank with his family about the extent of his drinking and drug use. To spare them pain, he “censored some of the details”—like exactly how many different drugs he was using and how often. In doing so, he followed an important tenet in announcing sobriety as editing the goriest details is practically a prerequisite for “The Big Talk.” After all, how appropriate is it to announce to your mother that your alcoholism led you to a series of soul-crushing one-night stands with strangers or that you once found yourself locked in the trunk of a car after an unfortunate encounter with a heroin dealer? Tact and sensitivity are key, especially considering the instinct many newly sober people feel to regurgitate every last horrific tidbit from their drinking and drugging careers.
An additional complication for those who get sober through AA is that they have to face the inevitable Cult Question: “Don’t you have to believe in Jesus and hold hands and give money?” well-meaning friends will ask. The unavoidability of these questions means that a big part of the process of coming out as a recovering alcoholic for 12-steppers can be explaining what, in fact, Alcoholics Anonymous actually is. Yes, it’s a spiritual program, but no, it’s not religious. Yes, members donate money to AA, but it’s totally optional (and nobody could argue that a dollar or two per meeting breaks the bank). Sure, there’s hand holding in the meetings, but not always and you don’t have to participate if you’re uncomfortable. Many AA members find the easiest way to explain the program to so-called normies is to just invite them along to an open meeting. Once families and friends can see that it’s not even remotely Jonestown-esque, they may even find themselves enthusiastic about the program they once judged as being just south of Scientology.
Perhaps even trickier than coming out to friends and family is announcing to colleagues that you’re in recovery—the worst-case scenario being, of course, that you may lose your job. But Madison Miller, the HR Coordinator at an LA talent agency, says that under the Family Medical Leave Act, an employee can’t be fired for suffering from addiction and going to rehab. “Being up front with your boss is the best approach,” she says. “I prefer employees to be honest with us and allow us to work with them on a safe recovery plan.”
Yet Michael Cohen cautions that in more conservative industries—such as law and finance—whether or not you should come clean depends on the culture of the company. While a week-long detox shouldn’t be an issue, a three-month stint in rehab might pose a real threat to your job security. He, like Miller, says that the best way to come out to a boss is “to be honest and say, ‘I’m having a problem. I don’t want to do anything to hurt the company and I think if I can get better, the chances of me remaining a productive member here are much better.’”
The great news is that we live in a recovery-saturated time, where watching celebrities in treatment on television and reading addiction memoirs is the norm; as a result, alcoholism and addiction doesn’t carry the stigma they once did. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy or comfortable to admit you’re in recovery. Metaphorical lobsters abound, as do misinformed family members, judgmental colleagues and angry friends. The first defense against misunderstanding is discretion. Then, with a big dose of courage, a few well-chosen euphemisms, and a good sense of humor, the process can feel like a liberation instead of an albatross.