On Anonymity

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.

In solidarity,


13 thoughts on “On Anonymity

  1. Joe,
    I think you call them as you see them. You are not someone who can hide who he is, neither am I. I am often asked did I ever consider living in the closet… NO! is always my answer. I can no more hide who i am, who I love or our family dynamics than fly. I think you stated your case clearly and concisely. You did not out anyone but your self, and in doing so you gave a bold new face to an old problem. Alcoholism is rampant in our world (GLBT)… it is there for so many reasons… from good old genetics to abuse and not being excepted for who you really are by the very people who are suppose to except you no matter what. Kudos to you, for just being you. And for sharing your gifts and your journey with us. Love and hugs to you!

  2. It feels to me like “coming out” as an addict can be just as important to one’s recovery as “coming out” in other ways is to one’s mental health. Every part of me says, “of course!” You can be more authentic, you garner more support for the “real” you, you have more accountability, you increase your commitment and you move forward! Onwards and upwards courageous man! Hugs.

  3. I appreciate your words, Joe and the modern day take on anonymity. I have to say I agree with everything you have said. Keep speaking your truth. It will set you free.
    Keep up the good work. I support your mission.

  4. Thank you Joe. When you write like this, you hold hands with everyone and everything that is healthy in this world. Keep on keeping on.

  5. Dear Joe;
    Please carry a message to young adults about the adverse effects of long-term daily use of marijuana. Marijuana is a mind-altering substance. Long-term daily mind-altering causes mental illness. Occasional recreational or medicinal use can be safe, fun, and beneficial. But many people are using marijuana every day, and medical marijuana becomes legalized addiction. Please educate people, especially youths, about the dangers of using this, or any medicine, dependently.

  6. Thank you for your honest, well put words. You are someone who has inspired me to seek my own inner truth with your words, your songs, and now your actions. You have brought the world of transition to me through your voice. I thank you for that. Your opening up about your addiction will only continue to bring you further to your truth, and inspire more people to move towards theirs.

  7. Friend of Bill’s here. This was awesome to read. You’ve visited my campus a few times (CSU, Chico) and I know most of the folks who worked hard to get you to come to our campus! We love you basically. And I love you even more for your honesty. I totally relate to the part where you stop telling people you are going to quit…and then don’t. Again. and Again. and Again…and Again. It becomes embarrassing and hard to explain. I was also relieved when I found “my people” in the rooms….and not the old fuddy duddy’s who “drank more than I spillt” (I hate that one)…but that took me about 7 years of in and out. It’s a pain-filled journey, but one I am grateful for, especially in moments like these. Thank you for your sobriety ❤

    Sorrell B.

  8. Joe,
    I have seen your show a number of times and love your music… But as far as this goes… not so much… Read what you wrote…
    You defend yourself by saying that according to GS you did not break the traditions in this one instance but then break it according to your stated definition… then you point the finger at a politician and say now if you want to talk about breaking traditions look at him. The program is about principles not personalities… So my previous post was to point out the principles here… it is not about personalities and someone’s personal journey…. the traditions are about keeping the program focused… It is has been around longer than you have been alive….
    The public personalities… who are in the program.. don’t talk about it anymore (if they once did) … they live it…. the ones who talk about it are the onces that don’t get it and frankly don’t have what I want! Good luck to you Joe.. I will keep praying for you…!

  9. Ah, Joe, you are such an inspiration! I know that your journey has been difficult and continues to be, but the fact that you are so open and willing to share your experiences is so important because there are so many out there needing to hear the message, whether it is the LGBT message of acceptance, or the message that addiction is a challenge that you, like many others, face. I also understand the concerns expressed about anonymity, but truly I believe that your point about getting addiction out of the closet is so important – it is a medical conundrum that needs to be de-stygmatized (if such a word exists). You keep doing what you are doing – and thank you for doing it!

  10. “The Greatest Gift, is the power to believe. . .the ability to recognize our ceator, to find our place in the universe, to have some notion of why we are here, to find some way of doing the things we were put here to do…Sometimes those who are the poorest, the saddest, the most kicked-around, the most unloved, the most neglected and the most forgotten are precisely the ones through whom a great message may be given. .. ?And I’m not sure it’s an accident that this kind of message was given to Alcoholics. . People who were in the worst fix a human being can be in. . people who had absolutely nothing more to lose, nowhere further to go, who were almost the pariahs of our day – (We have been called moral lepers, you know, very often).. These were the people who received a message that said, “if you will believe and if you will follow out and act on your belief in loving others and in wanting to help others you will be healed.” This is not the first time that this message has been given to the world. . but this time it has been given a way that many can use. .and in this (AA) program, each of these people is a living instrument of a Divine Power”. By Marty Mann (one of the first AA women) Remember by Lois of California

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