My dance with addiction started at around 13, and by 15 I was in my first treatment center (which I was promptly kicked out of. Way to go, Joe). Addiction – and recovery – and I have been duking it out ever since. It has been something that I have gone in and out of the closet about, depending on who’s butt was getting kicked worse. After a while I stopped telling people that I was trying to get sober; the inevitable embarrassment that comes when caught drinking or drunk got heavier and heavier with each disappointment, as well as with the growing audiences. For certain songs I had no clever introduction, and some I struck from the set list entirely. I can’t describe the internal conflict I experienced when trying to sing “Watering Down the Brandy” while on my fourth pint, not to mention the hairy eye ball I received from my all-knowing stage mate. Staying in the closet about suffering from addiction also allowed me to neatly evade accountability, each new venue’s drink tickets handed over without the slightest hesitation, although they were beginning to catch on. My decision to come out about it was largely based on self-preservation, and a deep desire to communicate why I have been so uncommunicative, unable to remember names, and why I have appeared to be generally disinterested or grumpy. And sweaty. That in its wake I might provide a mirror and a hope to others who are suffering is an awesome side effect. For as Viktor Frankl states, life feels worth living when one’s suffering has a purpose.
When I decided to speak publicly about my recovery, the topic of anonymity was bound to come up. Having been around AA for ten plus years, it was not a decision I gave little thought. Anonymity is also a hot topic in the recovery community, I have found, and I have come up with my own personal philosophy on the matter.
According to the General Service Office (GSO), “A.A. members may disclose their identity and speak as recovered alcoholics, giving radio, TV and Internet interviews, without violating the Traditions—so long as their A.A. membership is not revealed.” Now in my last post, I neither mentioned AA nor the 12 steps. I used no names. I technically did not break the tradition of anonymity. I have mentioned AA in other posts and this one, but I haven’t stated that I am a member. So I could say “my name is Joe Stevens and I am part of a 12 step group and it has changed my life,” or I could say “my name is Joe S and I am a member of AA and it has changed my life.” Either way, my life has been changed for the better, and the more important aim is that other folks might find a way to change their lives for the better. When AA first began, discrimination against alcoholics/addicts was potentially life threatening and certainly job threatening. Discrimination is still rife, albeit much better than it was, but I don’t think the way to combat it is to stay silent about how we have changed our lives.
Another point that has greatly changed my attitude towards recovery is that AA neither “works” nor “doesn’t work.” It is a tool, an incredibly powerful tool to unite people and help them overcome a hard-wired condition that as of yet has no medical remedy. “It works if you work it”, as they say. I don’t believe AA is the only way to sustain abstinence and recovery, it is not the golden path to salvation. But it is an incredible grassroots organization that was created to address a very dire need, and I challenge anyone to find a member-run institution that has so successfully survived with zero profit interest for anyone, with its sole purpose being the heath and well being of its members and the greater community. A recovered drunk is certainly a blessing to society. So when people fear that a public figure’s relapse might turn off alcoholics to AA, it is based on an underlying misconception. And honestly, people are more turned off by AA when they assume its only members are old dirty skid row drunks drinking coffee in dingy church basements and have miserable boring lives. It took me a long time to figure out that there are cool, alternative, queer and otherwise young people in AA doing awesome fun things, and had I known that it might have not taken me so long to embrace it.
As a spiritual principle, in think anonymity has a very real place. The emphasis in AA about being “right-sized”, about being “a worker among workers”, deflating one’s ego and seeing things as they are, being of service to your fellows; all of these would do wonders for our world if embraced. Newt Gingrich’s claims (speaking of broken anonymity) that AA saved his life don’t exactly show in his behavior. “Love and tolerance is the code of AA.” He may have missed that chapter. But many recovering alcoholics didn’t miss it, and the quality and quantity of kindness and compassion shown by even the most unlikely characters is enough to reinstil hope in the future of our specie. I take that principle to heart; I am just little me, doing what I am called to do, keeping full awareness that when one person suffers, we all suffer. I did not know that I would grow up to be a public transman, working for visibility and equality by just doing what I want to do the most. I certainly did not know that I would grow up to be an alcoholic and a drug addict, and that it might actually serve some purpose in the world (I hope). People have their specific gifts to give the world (or crosses to bear, depending on how you look at it), and this just happens to be mine.
Here are some articles that have made a recent splash – a New York Times article that caused a furor, “What Would Bill W Do?”, thoughts about the NYT article, a writer’s view, and some reader’s thoughts. In an era where the ill-fated War on Drugs is not only failing but destroying families and communities alike, our prisons are overflowing with untreated addicts, science is advancing at an exponential rate yet politics and health care are stalemated, I think we need to adapt to be effective in the present. When AA began, there were no cell phones, no internet, no rehabs per se. There was also no Oxy, no meth, no boodbaths on the Mexican border with drug cartels. It was a very different time, and they freely admit that “we know only a little.” In my opinion, anonymity served its purpose, and is now contributing to the misunderstanding and stigma that surrounds addiction. America consumes the most intoxicants of any country by far; that is evidence enough of something screaming out to be addressed. I am going with my gut on this one. I have great respect for those who came before, and feel that the greatest way to honor them is to let their work evolve and be the most applicable and powerful in our current world.