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

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

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.”

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.”

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.’”

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.

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

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/01/2013 - 11:36 am.

    my glory hound blog

    These people can freely tell their stories of addiction and recovery. But there is no need, other than their desire for the limelight, to reveal their faces and/or names

  2. Submitted by Tim Nolan on 11/01/2013 - 12:36 pm.

    Addiction is a Family Disease

    I lived in a house we had a bomb in the basement,not what if rather when will it go off again. My father’s addiction was gambling we rode the roller coaster when he was winning we all lived well.Losing we all suffered the loss.Communication we don’t talk, you shut off your emotions.When I first used alcohol it was a good feeling numb all emotional pain and fears from my past. Pushing himself in sports if he would only say he was proud that would have felt better than the roar from the crowd.Finally my back gave in trying to prove I was his son. Injuries introduced me to Demerol, pain? what pain then became my own chemist trying to find that prefect mix.More to the story. short learning that life is a journey not a destination.Finding “WE” is the key. Getting out side of ourselves having a quiet place that opened my heart to find the light. Living in the joy of TODAY life has such real meaning. Love & Peace Tim Nolan PS. reading Betsey’s daughter text I cried tears are so healthy and healing

  3. Submitted by Susan Herridge on 11/01/2013 - 01:31 pm.

    Is this the debut article?

    Is this the debut article to the mental health and addiction beat? I hope I haven’t missed any posted earlier. Anonymity is a complicated issue in the recovery community and I think you did a nice job of exploring the many issues surrounding it. I look forward to your future articles, Sarah.

  4. Submitted by Dan Cain on 11/01/2013 - 03:52 pm.


    Our community is one that is rife with slogans. One we often overlook is, “don’t take someone else’s inventory”. To suggest that someone is a ‘glory hound” for disclosing their recovery status is doing just that. The fact is, being in long term recovery is akin to being the tallest midget (don’t come with the politically correct comments, I know the proper term). The only thing that makes it relevant is the fact that you were a screw up to begin with. I doubt whether Jim Ramstad disclosed his recovery because he was a glory hound, or that it helped advance his political career. He did it to put a face on recovery, and to let people know that addiction can strike anywhere and people can recover. And furthermore, those in recovery can and do make a positive impact on our society. Most everyone knows someone who has tried recovery and had setbacks. But knowing that Dan C. is in recovery, to most people is the same as knowing some people believe they have seen bigfoot. The decision to disclose is personal one. Faces and Voices along with AA International have put out suggested guidelines if your decision is to disclose. I will never judge someone who chooses to disclose his or her recovery, nor will I judge someone who chooses not to.

  5. Submitted by James Halverson on 11/01/2013 - 05:55 pm.

    Good debate

    I think this is an important article that brings up good debate on the issue of anonymity in the recovery community as there are obviously many polarizing elements to be examined. My own two cents: I think those that come out of the recovery closet need to be careful about their ultimate intentions long term. I have seen too many in the positions of those in this article who use their time in the limelight to repeat and repeat and repeat their own personal addiction stories. I can see how this may benefit those in active addiction or recovery in reducing social stigma and provide insight into steps to take towards successful . However, I feel that, sadly, too many that have taken steps into the limelight to showcase their stories of addiction and recovery just simply stop there. Why not take some steps further to use this established limelight to provide more accessible information to the public about the prevalence of addiction. Give the public facts, recovery rates post-treatment, etc., there comes a point when we have to accept that most of the public knows that addiction does indeed exist , can those who have established their ‘fame’ in this article speak on how addiction changes the brain, can they inform the public on ways they can help their loves ones (or selves) access treatment, can we reach out to lower income communities about means in which they can access treatment, etc? We hear these stories of addiction and redemption over and over, but how useful are they to the public in actuality? Not trying to make judgement, just trying to ask some questions and share thoughts. Good article.

    • Submitted by Anita Newhouse on 11/01/2013 - 08:32 pm.

      Antidote to Shame

      I find it interesting that some folks believe a recovered addict sharing their story would be seeking “limelight”. Are they not an expert in their own individual recovery while at the same time shining daylight onto the disease that infects and festers, at least in part, due to the shame and stigma hanging over it? Rather than expecting that they speak for the whole of a disease with respect to data and recovery statistics, indeed they respect that each individual’s recovery process is unique and in turn we should simply give them the same respect. Not everyone may be called to share their experience but those who do do so at a cost of their privacy among other things. Even in our cult of personality, false meritocracy, culture of celebrity society, I don’t think this is “seeking the limelight”.

  6. Submitted by John Bradford on 11/01/2013 - 06:15 pm.

    I respect other’s anonymity and decide my own

    The article is terrific. And the common sense this lady showed is one of many elements that will serve her continued recovery. The AMA and all rehab places – as well as insurance companies – call this a disease. We do not have to release our medical records – but if we want to talk about our TB or bad back, maybe it’s useful to do so.

    It’s our call – and no one else’s !

    There is shame here and there about being fat, having cancer, or being addicted. Yet they are part of the human condition. We are no longer hiding under black wraps and denying real human issues as was the norm in the 19th century.

    It is kind to allow people to quietly resolve their personal problems, including health matters, if they so choose. But this does not translate to forcing me to stay quiet about my own personal matters. AA members have too long confused these topics as combined. Related? Yes. But not identical.
    We’re encouraging humans to be honest, avoid shame, notice delusionary thinking, and forgive themselves as core to their recovery process. How in the name of God does it help to insist they (the recovering folks ) may not discuss their personal matters publicly?

  7. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 03/27/2014 - 02:16 pm.


    To quote an old guy who lives in Rome: “Who am I to judge?”

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