from addict 2 advocate

Stigma, NIMBY, and When to Quit Being Anonymous

By: Marilyn L. Davis

“I always find it amazing that we choose to be anonymous in our recovery when our actions in our use were so public.” ~Marilyn Davis, speech celebrating 20 years at HALT Club, 2008


Public Personalities Vs. Anonymous Addict?


How many of us:

  • Were picked up by the police for drunk and disorderly
  • Got a DUI
  • Made a fool of ourselves at an important dinner party
  • Nodded off at a staff meeting
  • Showed up high at the PTA gathering
  • Wore beer cans as jewelry at a football game


If you’re like me, you’re checking off more than one. And for the most part, all of those activities were public. We didn’t once think of the embarrassment until after the fact.  

Nobody Can See Me…Right?


But even these awkward situations didn’t stop many of us from using again; however, many of us get into recovery and remain hidden, secretive and don’t discuss our addiction or recovery except in the security and safety of meetings.  

Why is that?

  • We rationalize that only others like ourselves understand.
  • There’s comfort sharing our struggles and successes with like-minded people.
  • We know that those people reveal their problems and look for solutions from us.

Yes, there’s a commonality of the problem in meetings, and those people can relate to us. But there is a more significant issue. We have to stop contributing to the stigma by remaining anonymous.

Public at the National Mall


On October 4, 2015, tens of thousands of people showed up for a rally on the National Mall. These public displays of our numbers and normalcy go a long way to destigmatize addiction and recovery, but it’s one day and thousands of miles from home for most of us.

What Can You Do In Your Own Backyard


NIMBY (not in my backyard) was rampant when I was looking for a rental property to open a women’s recovery home in 1989.  I thought the correct way to approach prospective landlords was, to be honest.  

Even before seeing a property, many people said, “That wouldn’t be good for our neighborhood.”

I started realizing that there was a correct approach and a prudent approach.  But I couldn’t bring myself to lie about the intent. I decided that I’d take my father with me to look at properties.  He could count the mayor and several city councilmen as friends and fellow golfers. Since he was supportive of my recovery and understood the necessity of a woman’s house, he was willing to go with me to view properties.

However, even with his influences, I looked at 17 houses, and each time there was an excuse why they wouldn’t rent to me. Finally, in early 1990, I rented what would be our permanent home until 2011 when I closed the house to pursue other recovery options. One of the blessings is that blogging allows me to reach a wider audience.

No Longer Anonymous


Although I opened the house as a single proprietor, it became a 501(c)3 organization in 1994.  Many of my board members thought that I should speak to social service agencies to raise awareness and funds.

After two such speeches, I realized that many in the audience assumed I was some bleeding heart social worker trying to help those less fortunate than me.

I told my board that there needed to be a connection between an addict and the audience and that I needed to reveal that I am a recovering addict.

Families Learn to Accept the Term – Addict


I remembered my mother’s words when I returned from treatment in 1988, “Marilyn, it’s okay to say you’re an alcoholic but please don’t use the other A-word.” I initially thought she meant adulteress like Hester Prynne, but she corrected it to an addict.

When she and I were shopping for the house, I was on one aisle, and I heard her say from around the corner, “You’ll need to talk to Marilyn.  You know she’s a drug addict.”

Since we were near the front of the store, there were people in line to check out. Without phones to occupy their attention, many turned around and stared when they heard her say this.  I gave my Queen Elisabeth wave impersonation and wondered who my mother was talking to so loudly.

When I rounded the corner, there stood my mother and a friend.  Her friend had read the article about me opening a woman’s recovery home and had a question.  Satisfying her question, I asked my mother why she would publicly state that I was a drug addict. I was supposed to be anonymous.

As she pointed out, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist reading the article to realize that you’re not just doing this to be gracious to others. You’re doing this because you are addicted. I don’t want anyone to think less of you, so I’ve got to learn to accept that addict word, too.”

Shock, Wow, and Really? 


Feeling supported by my family was important to me, so I told my board that I would reveal my status the next time I spoke.  There were about 400 people in attendance.

One of them was the president of the college who staged an intervention on me. He laughed and said he still had his 3 x 5 card with my acting out behaviors on it. He didn’t have to use it as I acquiesced and went to treatment.  I was pleased to see him and offered another sincere thank you for his intervention.

As I started talking about the need for the recovery home, several people in the audience shook their heads in agreement. I then took a risk and asked for volunteers to tell me what they thought about addicts and alcoholics.

One elderly gentleman said,

“They are homeless, don’t work, and are a drain on society.”

Another raised their hand and said,

“It’s people like them that are tearing our country apart.”

A third said,

“They are criminals, don’t have good morals, and smell.”

Well, that got the requisite laugh. I then stated, “I am an addict and alcoholic, and the only thing I have in common with your perception is that I probably have a refreshing smell from my perfume.”

I was relieved when that got more laughs.

It opened up the dialog on perceptions of addicts and alcoholics. And just like 1994, we need to continue the dialog, use every opportunity given to us to discuss the realities of recovery, and stop contributing to the stigmas, attitudes, and actions that prevent people from getting treatment and shouting out loud.

When we remain anonymous, people don’t have a clue about what recovery looks like.


Challenge: Are You Still Anonymous?


  1. What are you doing in your sphere of influence to talk about recovery?
  2. Do you use Facebook, Twitter, or blog about addiction and recovery?
  3. Are your actions aligned with authentic recovery? 
  4. Do you support organizations that promote recovery? 

Let me know in comments.  I would appreciate knowing what others are doing to overcome the silence of addiction and recovery.

Writing, and recovery heals the heart.



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