Think of an alcoholic, and the image of someone down and out on a park bench with a bottle in a paper bag might come to mind. Or someone standing up and stating their first name in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
But how about a mother? Parent? Pilot? Chemical dependency counselor? All who are open about their alcoholism and their recovery.
There’s a movement away from anonymity in the recovery community, as more alcoholics seek to remove the stigma often associated with the disease of addiction.
“There are 24 million people in recovery. We’re trying to change the tone of the negative into letting people know that people do recover,” said Kathy Frasier of Yelm, executive director of Change Addiction Now. “There are a lot of people in recovery, but due to anonymity they can’t speak out, and that keeps the stigma going.”
Alcoholics Anonymous first published its book in 1939, and anonymity has always been its keystone. It’s explained in a publication, Understanding Anonymity:
“Over the years, anonymity has proved one of the greatest gifts that AA offers the suffering alcoholic. Without it, many would never attend their first meeting. Although the stigma has lessened to some degree, most newcomers still find admission of their alcoholism so painful that it is possible only in a protected environment. Anonymity is essential for this atmosphere of trust and openness.”
It goes on to say that individual members may be as private or as open as they wish, but are obliged to protect others’ anonymity.
“AA didn’t want to be the catch-all, end-all,” said Kristy Dees. “It’s a fellowship and support group.”
A journey to sobriety
Dees, 53, has been sober for 28 years. She started her recovery with counseling and AA, but has found being open about it helps her live with authenticity.
She grew up in an alcoholic family and started drinking in college. At the same time, she was a high-performing athlete and student.
“I was winning track meets, on the dean’s list, an Academic All American. I high jumped drunk and won meets,” she said.
Her family was also highly religious. She remembers the only time her father would tell the children he loved them was when he was drunk.
“We got relief from the rigidness when he would drink,” she recalls.
The silence and denial in her family gave her no place to go with her questions and emotions.
She went to college “trying to be a good Christian girl,” but found hypocrisy in her prayer group there.
“I was fed up with it and went from one extreme to the other. I called a friend and said, ‘This is it.’ We got a bottle of Jack Daniels and a pack of cigarettes.”
She got a terrible hangover and didn’t drink for two months, she said. But the drinking resumed and also an eating disorder. She graduated with a 3.45 grade point average, married an athlete, and got a job with a company that did a lot of partying.
She eventually went to a counselor for her bulimia. “I paid $60 an hour for a year. She asked me how much I drank. I was trying to find the magic pill to get my husband and father sober. I just had to get them to quit drinking so my life could get better.”
She went to AA to find a way to fix her family. She was “white-knuckling” sobriety — doing it without support — and she rejected an offer of sponsorship.
But “I saw a light in their eyes,” she said. And eventually she called her counselor and said, “I think I’m alcoholic.”
Her counselor said, “Thank God, now we can get somewhere.”
Dees’ sobriety began Dec. 14, 1987. In addition to AA, she went into a two-week treatment program. She also realized she would have to leave her husband and her job.
“I didn’t do recovery halfway,” she said. “I did 100 meetings in 90 days.” She still goes a couple of times a month. And while she recognizes the safety of anonymity, she openly campaigns for recovery, so that people not only can find help with the disease, but can also find hope that recovery is possible.
Dees is remarried, a mother of three, and runs a nonprofit equine-assisted therapy program.
Matter of fact for most of her story, she teared up when she said, “The best gift I can give my family is my own recovery.”
Dees is comfortable telling her story, but careful to honor the anonymity of others.
“I felt my choice for recovery was so empowering, I didn’t suffer embarrassment,” she said.
A public voice for recovery
Mandi Maycumber, 29, will be sober for three years in April. She’s a chemical dependency counselor and active in Community United in Recovery, a grass-roots organization that meets twice a month at Pioneer Point Oxford House in Tumwater.
“We’re trying to continue the conversation in the public, not just keeping it behind closed doors,” she said.
The group hosted a 5K run/walk in September — National Recovery Month — and has arranged a showing of the film “Anonymous People” for March at the Olympia Film Society.
The film tells stories of people in recovery because “deeply entrenched social stigma has kept recovery voices silent and faces hidden for decades. Just like women with breast cancer, or people with HIV/AIDS, a grass-roots social justice movement is emerging. Courageous addiction recovery advocates have come out of the shadows and are organizing to end discrimination and move toward recovery-based solutions,” according to a synopsis.
“It took a certain amount of time to become comfortable talking in a public setting,” Maycumber said. “I didn’t start out feeling like it was a safe thing to do, and I don’t think everybody should have to. But for those of us who are willing to say things publicly, it can raise awareness and promote prevention and treatment.
“I keep my 12-step programs and my advocacy separated, and as an individual in recovery, I think there’s room for me to participate in both,” Maycumber said.
Combating ‘shame and blame’
Frasier, of Change Addiction Now, has a son in prison on various drug charges. Her national group was formed to bring the family’s voice to addiction and recovery. It runs primarily on social media and has 4,877 likes on its Facebook page. There are about 400 members, mostly in Western Washington, who gather in small groups and work to foster recovery legislation.
“We believe, speak out loud and proud, because what we seem to hear the most about is all the negative. Anonymity keeps people silent, so there’s a lot of misinformation,” she said.
Her group works with the families of substance abusers.
“We carry a lot of shame and blame because of ‘the way we raised them.’ Thousands of parents raised their families just fine,” she said. She has three children and volunteers for the PTA, Little League and the schools.
“They were raised all the same,” she said of her kids. “My son has substance-use disorder. He happens to have that disease.”
Frasier said there are many paths to recovery, not just 12-step programs.
“People are stuck on the moral thing on addiction,” she said. “I think a lot of it comes from 12-step. Sometimes they get started (using drugs) from a sports injury. For some reason, they become addicted, and other people don’t.”
It’s the disease of alcoholism that interests Chris Jellison.
Jellison, 54, is a commercial pilot who has been sober since June 16, 2012.
“My whole family is afflicted with it,” he said. “Genetically, I was predestined to be the alcoholic that I am.”
At age 12 he would drink three beers to his friends’ one.
“Long term, I just learned to drink that way. The good news is, my whole family is in recovery.”
Jellison, who is retired from the Air Force and now flies for an airline, said that although pilots follow the rules for not drinking eight to 12 hours before flying, “us pilot guys like to drink and talk about flying airplanes.”
His sobriety came after an arrest for driving under the influence. Grateful that no one was hurt, “That was the day for me that it changed.”
His recovery included AA, a peer monitor from the airline and counseling.
“I had to go to a treatment center. I had to submit to the FAA that I was arrested and had a DUI. I had to have an assessment, which determined alcohol abuse. Therefore I had to go to a treatment center.”
Jellison said the hardest part was admitting to being an alcoholic. “Anonymity wasn’t that big of a deal.”
“I can really relate to people in recovery, and I think helping another addict is the most helpful thing for me that I can do.”
▪ Community United in Recovery
Meets at Pioneer Point Oxford House, 4707 Cleveland Ave. SE, Tumwater.
▪ Anonymous People
Showing planned for March 25 at the Olympia Film Society, 360-754-6670.
▪ Change Addiction Now
▪ Alcoholics Anonymous