When to Break Anonymity – “Coming Out” as Alcoholic?

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A very pertinent topic this one in general, at present – two arguments here for us really 1. disclosing one is in recovery helps reduce the societal stigma surrounding addiction 2.  remaining anonymous is a personal choice, often taken in relation to the spiritual principles of 12 step groups.

Here we cite a study (1) which offers ideas for individuals in recovery to help them navigate the disclosure of their nondrinking status.

“What problem does this study address?

…not drinking may be seen as a departure from this norm, and individuals who do not drink may face stigma both because they are not participating in drinking behaviors and because of their prior drinking problem. In fact, a recent study reviewed in our April newsletter found that stigma may still exist even when someone enters recovery for a substance use disorder (see here). There has been little research on how former problem drinkers (including but not limited to individuals “in recovery”) that no longer drink navigate the social experiences around disclosure or non-disclosure of their status as a nondrinker. In the current study, Romo and colleagues provided insight into this issue through qualitative interviews with 11 former problem drinkers who no longer drink.

Why is this study important?

This study may offer ideas for individuals in recovery to help them navigate the disclosure of their nondrinking status, informed by the direct experiences of a group of former problem drinkers.

What did this study do?

Authors interviewed 11 problem drinkers, defined in the study as individuals who “self-described as recovering alcoholics or addicts, or acknowledged they quit drinking due to adverse effects, and/or because they were unable to control their alcohol consumption”. They were recruited as part of a larger study on individuals in the workforce who abstain from alcohol. Seven participants were male and four were female. They had between 1-19 years of sobriety, were 40 years old on average, and all were White. The researchers conducted individual interviews, lasting between 25 and 75 minutes, either face-to-face or on the telephone. The original intent of this study was to understand how “nondrinkers discuss nondrinking” but authors decided the importance of disclosure emerged as the most salient and informative part of the discussion and focused on this experience in particular.

In the current study, of course, the personal information of interest was participants’ status as a nondrinker or “recovering alcoholic” in some cases.

What did this study find?

Results showed that 10 of 11 participants felt stigmatized due to their status as a nondrinker and acknowledged the behavior as “culturally deviant” (i.e., departing from their experience of what is typical in their social lives). Participants’ disclosure was organized into three themes, two of which involved partial or non-disclosure and the third involving full disclosure. One theme was to maintain privacy around their nondrinking status to fit in with the group. In situations where participants felt benefits of disclosure did not outweigh risks, they might refuse a drink offered to them without explicitly identifying as a nondrinker, and, in some cases, addressed any discomfort by “passing as a nondrinker” (e.g., putting a lime in their non-alcoholic beverage). Authors noted participants with more time in sobriety were less likely to attempt to pass as a nondrinker.

Another theme from the interviews wascrafting excuses to maintain privacy, including personal reasoning (e.g., offering to be the designated driver) or humor (e.g., describing extreme negative consequences that may occur if they drink).

The last theme was disclosing to do right by self and others. Individuals chose to disclose their status as a nondrinker when benefits outweighed risks/costs, including situations where they disclosed to potentially help others with a drinking problem, to maintain their identity as a nondrinker when they felt their sobriety may be threatened (e.g., at risk of feeling an urge to drink if they did not disclose), to build closer and more intimate relationships, and on a “need-to-know” basis. Some individuals disclosed their nondrinking status more readily because they felt better being completely honest and doing so allowed them to be “true to themselves.”

It is also important to mention virtually all participants worked to convey an attitude of acceptance toward drinkers when faced with the decision to disclose. They did this to preemptively avoid the sense they might cause others to feel uncomfortable about drinking around them knowing their nondrinking status.

What does this study add to our understanding of recovery?

This study is rare and valuable as it attempts to understand a common challenge for individuals in recovery. Results suggest individuals have a range of strategies they use to navigate situations where they have an opportunity to disclose their status as a nondrinker. These strategies may also vary across different contexts within the same individuals, depending on the benefits of doing so in those contexts (e.g., at work, at social gatherings, in relationships) relative to risks or costs. In general, individuals are more likely to disclose if the benefits are greater than risks, and the likelihood of more open disclosure may increase as individuals become more comfortable with their nondrinking status over time…”


This study and the summary thereof interested us because it looks at and offers practical disclosure strategies for former problem drinkers to protect their private information, manage social interactions, and stay sober.

This seems an interesting counterpoint to taking a decision based on wider and at times polarized philosophical and spiritual standpoints encapsulated in movements advocating openly disclosing that one is in recovery (to reduce stigma surrounding addiction) and by 12 step traditionalists who urge caution in breaking one’s anonymity, respectively.

Our general experience, in the UK, is that most people in recovery disclose if and when necessary, in their own judgement, and more specifically, in order to help others who are suffering from addiction. This appears more commonly to be the guiding rationale rather than wider and overarching issues or viewpoints.




Original Study

Romo, L. K., Dinsmore, D. R., & Watterson, T. C. (2015). “Coming out” as an alcoholic: how former problem drinkers negotiate disclosure of their nondrinking identity. Health Commun, 1-10. doi:10.1080/10410236.2014.954090

Summary of Study and link used in this blog –


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