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As many seek to put a face on addiction and recovery, anonymity gets a second look

No one is debating the impact of a personal story like Betsey DeGree’s, but some in recovery circles wonder if the trend to tell compromises the recovery journey.

The DeGree family, from left: Gus, Betsey, Bob, Millie, and twins Frank and Charlie.
Courtesy of the DeGree family

Betsey DeGree initially hoped that she could have her face blocked out and her voice disguised for an interview that she’d agreed to do with ABC-TV’s “Nightline.” But a producer convinced the White Bear Lake mom that her story of abusing her son’s Adderall would be more honest and compelling if she revealed her true identity.

“How is anything going to change if everyone remains anonymous?” the producer asked her.

Prompted by a press inquiry through the Hazelden Foundation’s alumni network, DeGree had wrestled with the decision to come forward. Friends in recovery challenged her to examine her motives: Was she looking for attention? Did she think she was superior to others? No, she finally decided. “I wanted to reach people who think they are alone,” she said.

The initial fallout after the segment aired in June of 2012 wasn’t pleasant. “My whole family was mortified, and my daughter was furious,” said DeGree in an interview this week. “But I didn’t want to be ashamed of my addiction anymore. And I just decided that it was OK for me to be me.”

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DeGree is part of a nationwide movement to reduce shame and stigma, extend the hope of recovery, and increase access to treatment — partly through personal stories, including first and last names. The movement began to find expression more than a decade ago in Faces & Voices of Recovery, a national advocacy and education nonprofit with roots in St. Paul, and more recently in the documentary film, “The Anonymous People” (who are anything but anonymous).

No one is debating the powerful, destigmatizing impact of a personal story. Betty Ford comes to mind, as do a host of Minnesota figures: former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, Vikings wide receiver and Hall of Famer Cris Carter, newscaster Don Shelby, New York Times columnist David Carr, and Hazelden executive and author William Cope Moyers — to name just a few.

But some in Twelve Step recovery circles wonder if the trend to tell amounts to “breaking anonymity” and compromising the recovery journey.

‘My name is Larry’

Larry, a longtime professional in rural Minnesota, is not given to public disclosure and is a strict constructionist when it comes to the “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.”

For him, the original intent of anonymity — to protect those in Alcoholics Anonymous from public scrutiny, to encourage a state of humility in the face of the disease of addiction and to protect the organization from political skirmishes — is the single most important factor in sustaining his more than 30 years of recovery.

“I am not going to quarrel with them,” he says of those who share their stories publicly. “But I am not going to do that.”

Larry’s embrace of anonymity occurred on his second day of treatment and first AA meeting at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. While waiting for the program to begin, a motorcyclist in black leathers sat down next to Larry. When the biker was introduced as the featured speaker, Larry said to himself, “Oh [expletive], this will be a waste of time. There is no way that I will have anything in common with him.”

The minute the biker began to speak, Larry discovered that his judgment had been wrong. “Lo and behold, he was telling my story: What he had done, I had done. What he had felt, I had felt. What he had thought, I had thought. And right then I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.”

In that circle of anonymity, without title or station, stripped of pretense or defense, Larry reached his turning point. “No one ever said anything about, ‘I’m a banker, I’m a farmer, I’m a professor.’ That never entered into what was going on. In an AA group, we are all anonymous to one another. That is a very powerful common denominator.”

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To this day, even as he comes to know the personal stories and family histories of his fellow travelers, Larry finds strength in anonymity.

“We are here because we have abused alcohol badly and it is ruining our lives. We are here to stop drinking — to not drink. Your resume, your position in the community, has nothing to do with whether you drink or not.”

Of Larry, nothing more will be disclosed in this article.

The ‘antidote to shame’

William Moyers, vice president of public affairs and community relations for Hazelden and a driver of the Faces & Voices movement, has given a lot of thought to anonymity and its relationship to advocacy. The two do not necessarily contradict one another, he says, and the argument that personal stories pose a threat to anonymity is a false dilemma.

Courtesy of the Hazelden Foundation
William Moyers argues that anonymity and advocacy do not necessarily contradict one another.

“Anonymity is important,” he says, “but it doesn’t apply to people who choose to stand up and speak out of their own experience and without representing or speaking for any entity such as AA.” (Faces & Voices provides a guide to how this can be done.)

He admits to a contradiction in crafting his memoir, “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption,” in which he reveals his affiliation with a Twelve Step group.

He reasons: “If I was going to write in graphic detail about my addiction, and I did, then I felt I owed it to the reader and the public to write in graphic detail about how it is that I recovered. Because the solution is as important as the problem. There was no way I could talk about recovery without talking about how I recovered – that it’s not a magic bullet or injection, that it’s a process, and that process is involved. I need people to understand that recovery is hard work, and that hard work is reflected in my program through the Twelve Steps.”

Overriding all the complexities and subtleties of the debate, Moyers says, is the urgent need to stand up and speak out. The whole battle for parity in insurance coverage for mental health and addiction depends on it.

“There’s no doubt that the task of the moment, this moment, is to reduce stigma and promote the reality that addiction doesn’t discriminate and recovery is possible for all. And stigma has shrouded this illness in secrecy and shame and hopelessness. The antidote is to get people in recovery to stand up and speak out and say, ‘Hey, it’s me, too. And you can get well.’”

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Proceed with caution

Courtesy of RS Eden
Dan Cain

Dan Cain, president of RS Eden in Minneapolis and an expert in the recovery field since the early 1970s, agrees with Moyers that going public with personal stories does not necessarily violate the principle of anonymity.

“There’s nothing in AA or The Traditions that says I can’t disclose my recovery,” he says. “There are things in AA that say: Don’t use us for political reasons. Don’t use us for fundraising. And don’t bastardize the movement and the concept by taking it out of context and putting it out there in the world.

“And for good reason.”

Times have changed — people tell more about themselves, and there are more channels for telling, he says.

“Before there were any steps, there were just two guys,” Cain said. “And then there were four. And they wrote down what was working for them based upon the world that existed at their time. You know, I mean it’s like you don’t drive a 1935 car.” Disclosures once meant that you “ran the risk of somebody making judgments about you that were unfair,” he said. “It used to be that ‘once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. And once an addict, always an addict.’ ”

Though that might not be true anymore, the urge to tell can backfire, he says, especially for those who are early in recovery, under stress or at risk of being exploited. “The danger of disclosure for people who are early in recovery is they don’t understand that it’s not something to be worn as a merit badge. If you do that, you are practicing some of that same kind of dangerous behavior that we used to practice when we were using.”

Others, too, including Hazelden and Faces & Voices, counsel those who are early in recovery against media exposure. Hazelden, for example, will not connect a willing alum with a media outlet unless the person has been sober for at least two years.

Lessons learned

As for DeGree, she has no regrets, in spite of some hard lessons learned after her initial disclosure of Adderall and meth addiction to ABC-TV. Some of the follow-up media attention caught her by surprise. She was horrified, for example, to see this headline after granting a community newspaper’s request for an interview: “Former addict seeks the limelight.”

She has continued her campaign of passionate advocacy in her frank and forward “Mom Off Meth” blog and as a student working toward her bachelor’s degree in alcohol and drug counseling at Metropolitan State University. If she could have done anything differently, she would have been more discerning about the media, and she would have prepared her husband and four children a little better for the publicity.

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Their mortification, by the way, has turned to pride.

Said DeGree: “A few weeks ago, I just got this random text from my daughter that said, ‘Thank you for being sober, and thank you for not using anymore. I’m really proud of you and I’m happy.’ Of course, I was in tears.”

Next week: Reducing stigma around mental illness