The Recovery Closet: Reflections on Coming Out, PART 1 (Bill White, Tom Hill, and Greg Williams)


Unmasking.jpgTo Reveal, or to Conceal, that is the Question--
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?
-Shakespeare, Revised Hamlet soliloquy

To display or not to display, to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when and where (Irving Goffman, Stigma, 1963, p. 42).

This week's blog is the second of a continuing meditation on stigma, recovery concealment/disclosure, and its personal and social effects. Here are some random thoughts we would like to share for your reflection.

Recovery Status versus Recovery Affiliation Each person in addiction recovery faces questions of disclosure of his or her recovery status--decisions that are different than the question of disclosing how one supports his or her personal recovery (e.g., disclosing one's affiliation with a 12-Step program at the level of press). Such a distinction has been made clear both by recovery advocacy organizations and by recovery mutual aid fellowships. The observations that follow are about disclosure of recovery status, not disclosure of affiliation with a particular recovery mutual aid group.

Addiction / Recovery Stigma The stigma attached to addiction is more than a social designation of difference; it is an imposed stain of shameful difference. This ascribed defect is not visible; its application is contingent on disclosed or discovered knowledge of one's addiction/recovery status. Recovery concealment is a stigma avoidance strategy; recovery disclosure can be a powerful stigma protest strategy.

Pro and Con Analysis There are potential benefits and problems associated with both recovery disclosure and recovery concealment, with the elements of, and ratio between, benefits and disadvantages varying over time based on one's personal circumstances and evolving cultural attitudes. Recovery concealment and disclosure represent different styles of recovery self-management. To date, there is no checklist available of factors to consider related to recovery disclosure decision-making, nor any scale that could help evaluate different levels of disclosure. The development of such tools would be a valuable contribution.

Concealment Advantages Disclosure of recovery status can elicit negative personal, social, and occupational effects that can be avoided through careful concealment of such status. Disclosure of any such otherwise concealable condition risks social rejection and discrimination.

Disclosure Advantages Disclosure of recovery status can lead to increased levels of self-acceptance (i.e., diminished levels of shame, decreased feelings of imposterhood from "passing," liberation from secret-keeping, and lost fear of discovery) and imbue positive feelings from the belief that disclosure is an act of service that will help carry a message of hope to others and help alter public attitudes and policies towards addiction and recovery.

Disclosure Decisions and the Health of the Self Decisions about recovery disclosure need to consider the effect of disclosure on one's sense of self and the stability of one's recovery. Disclosure effects exist on a continuum. At one end of the continuum, recovery disclosure can be a means of needed self-assertion--shedding addiction baggage via creation of a new and valued self-identity--and as an act of service to others. At the other end of the continuum, recovery disclosure could lead to ego-inflation and a destabilization of recovery via increased narcissism and grandiosity. The stakes of recovery disclosure are important and thus deserving of careful consideration.

The Disclosure Experience Recovery disclosure at the public level often flows from the transformation of personal experience into political awareness. Disclosure of recovery status at the public level is commonly followed by a period of acute self-consciousness that can give way to a feeling of personal liberation--what some experience as a "state of grace" (Goffman, 1963, p. 102).

Social/Political versus Personal Effects Social benefit from disclosure (e.g., changing public perceptions of addiction recovery) does not mean untoward personal effects can be avloided as a result of recovery disclosure.

When the ultimate political objective is to remove stigma from differentness, the individual may find that his very efforts can politicize his own life, rendering it even more different from the normal life initially denied him--even though the next generation of his fellows may greatly profit from his efforts by being more accepted (Goffman, 1963, p. 114).

Recovery Disclosure and Recovery Advocacy Movement Changing attitudes and policies towards addiction and recovery do not require that everyone in recovery disclose their recovery status at a public level. Such changes require only a vanguard of people in recovery who are temperamentally suited for such a role and whose life circumstances minimize any harm to self or others that can result from disclosure.

Personal versus Collateral Effects Recovery disclosure decisions--their timing, depth, and setting--have ripple effects beyond self--to family and extended family members, friends, employers, and others, including communities with whom one is linked. The needs of these other parties must be considered within disclosure decisions.