In his new memoir “Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing,” Matthew Perry opens up about overcoming his drug and alcohol addictions – a decades-long struggle he attempted to hide from family, friends and co-stars.
Treatment centers and sober living facilities have helped him in his road to recovery, he told the New York Times earlier this week. In Alcoholics Anonymous, he sponsors three members, but he isn’t sold on the anonymous aspect of the program.
“It suggests that there’s a stigma and that we have to hide,” Perry told the Times Sunday. “This is not a popular opinion, by the way.”
For more than half a century, Alcoholics Anonymous has provided a sense of security, or as Perry called it, “the gift of anonymity,” for an issue that is still deeply misunderstood. Some experts worry the pressure to hide alcoholism may perpetuate internalized shame that prevents people from being treated in the first place. But this right to privacy is often a crucial impetus in seeking help.
“We want to create an environment where they actively want help,” says Keith Humphreys, a professor and director for Mental Health Policy at Stanford University. “So the fact that A.A. is saying, ‘Look, we know this is a condition that people judge harshly. We know you may feel ashamed of it and you may be worried your colleagues or family will judge you. So we’re offering anonymity,’ — having that choice is important.”
The role of anonymity in addiction recovery
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in Akron, Ohio, in 1935, and one of its core tenants is its dedication to maintaining personal anonymity. According to its website, this provides protection for all members and especially newcomers, allowing disclosure to remain their choice.
The word “anonymous” is an option, A.A. says, not an obligation. It’s meant to provide as much privacy as an individual may desire.
There are many reasons why people may opt to keep their addiction a secret. Most commonly, the fear of judgement is often all-encompassing, especially in a culture that still demonizes substance use as a “moral failing,” rather than a disease.
“A.A. provides safe spaces that people could go to, to identify and talk about their addiction because they may have felt ostracized by family members or society at large,” says Holly Sawyer, professor and director of the Masters in Addictions Counseling program at Drexel University. “So when you have this community where everyone can be anonymous, that makes you feel like you’re not alone, that you’re not being judged.”
However, there’s often an added layer of shame that comes from hiding things, Humphreys says. “It can make them feel more unworthy and paradoxically, the panic of ‘Do people know?’ or “What are they thinking of me?’ can make the issue uglier.” Some people, for instance, may isolate themselves or alienate loved ones who grow suspicious. The stress alone can also steer others to further cope with substances.
In an ideal world, people should feel comfortable and safe enough to disclose their addiction and recovery – publicly and without shame. But despite growing awareness, the stigma of substance abuse is still deeply ingrained in our society. According to 2019 NSDUH, only 7% of people ages 12 and older who had alcohol use disorder received any treatment.
And it’s likely many people still don’t fully understand the nature of addiction. Charles Ingoglia, president and CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, believes there’s a cultural emphasis on self-stigma, but what is more difficult to address is the longstanding societal stigma, in which negative attitudes about what addiction is – and isn’t – lead to discrimination. Past research has found that the majority of survey participants did not support insurance, housing or employment policies benefiting those dependent on drugs.
In his experience working with people in recovery, Ingoglia says often times, they wish to be transparent but “question how they will be perceived in society. ‘Will I be second guessed? How will I be discriminated against?’ They often have to wonder if they’ll lose their children or be denied job or housing opportunities.”
There is nothing wrong with wanting to conceal your identity in an A.A. meeting or being hesitant to tell your loved ones about your experience. But the way to break this pervasive stigma, Sawyer says, is not with silence and anonymity, but with openness and compassion.
“It’s not a matter of remaining anonymous, because if you choose to, that’s your right,” she says. “But we need to publicize and talk about it when it comes to destigmatization, especially with famous people who have such a bigger reach and can normalize it when they talk openly about it.”
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If you’re concerned you might have a problem with alcohol, the NIAAA Rethinking Drinking website can help you evaluate their relationship with alcohol and decide how to proceed. For information about alcohol treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator.