STARTING OVER: Drug addicts find help from organization

Staff photo by Jeff Mulfinger A member of Narcotics Anonymous stands in a cemetery where he said he has seen a lot of recovering addicts, who lost the fight with addiction, laid to rest.

The active drug addict has three things to look forward to in life -- jail, institutions or death. That may be a cliche among members of Narcotics Anonymous, but many members of the organization know it as one of life's cruel realities.

"I've been to more funerals in my short time in NA than I went to in the previous 30-some years of my life," said Greg K., an NA member for more than a year. "I've gone to a lot of funerals."

Surprisingly, most funerals weren't for the newcomers who were unable to resist the temptation of narcotics. Instead, they were for longtime members who had been clean for some time and suffered a relapse.

"A lot of addicts expect their tolerance level to be the same," he said. "When they do relapse they tend to overdose quite a bit."

Those who do relapse make up but a small minority of NA members. A survey taken at a world conference revealed an average clean time of five-and-a-half years.

Public perception

Narcotics Anonymous has been around for roughly 50 years, first beginning in the Los Angeles area as an answer to the number of people attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to speak about drug addiction. The organization modeled itself after AA, though there are some differences between the two.

The group grew slowly at first, expanding to 200 groups in three countries by 1978. Last year more than 19,000 groups held 28,000 weekly meetings in 113 countries.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the organization is the stereotype of the drug addict and the organization is not exempt from that stigma.

"When NA first began it was somewhat of a spin-off of AA," said Jeff Gershoff, coordinator for group services. "It was a hardcore heroin-addicted group and an image seemed to form around that. It's no longer really representative."

The difference in perception between an alcoholic and a drug addict is often shaped by the media, where the laughable drunk, such as Foster Brooks or Dudley Moore as "Arthur" is contrasted against the addict, who resorts to a life of crime to support their habit and is typically the villain.

Many would be surprised to learn that the unemployment rate of NA members is lower than the national average or that more than 40 percent of its members are female.

While Gershoff and others in the NA organization would like to see that perception change, it's difficult to see lifelong opinions vanish quickly.

"We do a number of things (to change that perception,)" he said. "We've gained consultation status at the United Nations. We have a public relations plan to get more accurate information to the professional community. We hold national and international conventions and organizational meetings."

Yet the perception the organization is most interested in is that of the addict, particularly if that person is undecided about the program.

"The most important person at any meeting is the newcomer, because we can only keep what we have by giving it away," Greg said. "By helping newcomers you also reinforce your commitment to the program."

Hitting rock bottom

All great journeys begin with a single step and the road to recovery is certainly no different. But often the traveler is unwilling to go, finally moving forward through no choice of their own.

"I didn't want to go to NA meetings but I had to, that was one of the requirements of detox," Greg said. "I didn't believe I was an addict. I wanted to for a while and then go back to using. I thought I could control it."

But it was at those meetings when Greg learned that his problems weren't unique and perhaps more importantly, that there were people willing to help.

"The people that spoke there could have been talking about me," he said. "It intrigued me that my life had been such a mess, and here were all these people talking about the same problems I had and yet they managed to turn their lives around."

After attending NA for a while, not only did Greg's outlook about the future start to change, but also his perception of the past and present.

"An addict looks at the past with resentment, they look at the present with anger and they look at the future with fear," he said. "An addict in recovery looks at the past with forgiveness, looks at the present in a rational way with help from their higher power and then we let go and look to the future with hope."

While the recovering addict may look to the future with hope, they also are the first to point out that they also look into what's ahead with an amount of caution, not only from drugs, but also from all things that can be addictive.

"It's so easy to fall back into those old habits and it's something I constantly have to guard against and I know I will for the rest of my life," Greg said. "Addiction can take on many forms, whether it's overeating, work or sex. The difference between people who aren't addicts and people who are is the addict will keep on even when it's destroying their life."

Religious or spiritual?

Perhaps the most frequent complaint against NA, or any 12-step program, is that it's a thinly veiled promotion of Christianity. What is referred to as a "Power greater than ourselves" in the second step, becomes "God as we understood him" in the third step. In steps five and six references are made solely to "God" although the "God as we understood him" is used again later.

NA goes out of its way not to promote itself as a religious organization, but it isn't enough to offset some criticism.

"Religion means many different things to many different people," Greg said. "There are people who don't believe in the traditional God per se, but they believe in a life force. I believe it's a program of spirituality."

But many do come away from NA with either renewed strength of their belief in God, while others have been introduced to the concept for the very first time.

"When I first joined the program I had a very hard time using God as my higher power," Greg said. "I was angry with God; I blamed God for my predicament. It took me a long time to get over that."

Although some will criticize the organization for their mention of God, the possibility of there being a higher power to help restore the addict to sanity is the backbone of any 12-step recovery method. Without that belief the program would be destined to fail, as NA members not only depend on that higher power to help them recover from their addiction, but also for their very survival.

"Addicts are God's chosen people because we were forced to find God or we would have died," Greg said. "In order to survive we have to find spirituality because it's the only thing that keeps us alive."

A lifelong commitment

With NA viewing addiction as a disease that can be controlled but never cured, the recovering addicts find themselves tied to the organization for life. Most often that isn't a problem for the addict who has found solace with the organization, new friends to depend on and a whole new method of living.

Others, such as Greg, feel the program has done what it could for them and are ready to face the challenges of the world alone. One of the NA cliches is about returning the addict back to a productive life, something some believe is easier accomplished by themselves.

"I wanted to be around people who weren't addicts," he said. "There's nothing in this world that could make me an active drug addict again, but when I'm talking to people who are, that's when I feel tempted. I still live the NA way, I just give back to the program in a different way."

While Greg may disagree with parts of the program, he is still one of its most adamant supporters as a result of his personal experience.

"If you hit bottom and you think you're an addict, you go to NA because they will save your life," he said. "They'll teach you a whole new way and you'll be amazed at how your life improves."

Information about local meetings can be found on the Internet or by calling NA at (818) 773-9999.

"At this point most people have heard of NA but don't know how to refer themselves," Gershoff said.

Presently there are meetings in Pendleton, Hermiston, Pilot Rock, Milton-Freewater, Irrigon, La Grande, Heppner and John Day. Some cities have many meetings each week, while others meet weekly.

"We like to stress we're a non-professional group, there's no fees," Gershoff said. "We're a 12-step self-help group."

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Reporter Allen Moody may be reached at 276-2211 or 1-800-522-0255 or via e-mail at amoody@eastoregonian.com.  

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