Narcotics Anonymous is a worldwide support program for people who struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. It was founded in 1953 and employs the same Twelve Stop Model used by Alcoholics Anonymous. They have over 61,000 meetings in 129 countries across the globe. It has helped tens of thousands of people get and stay clean. It is not a passing fad.
Why then are there so many myths about it?
One of the culprits is the media. TV and movie depictions of meetings completely ignore the rules that define them, especially the Twelve Traditions. The Traditions essentially govern how the entire organization operates — and by extension their meetings. Members consider them sacred.
So whether the meeting is in Spokane, Washington or Helsinki, Finland, meetings are all run in the same basic way. This is how I can state with confidence that movies and TV almost always get it wrong. Here are 6 myths they portray as fact with their ridiculous and perhaps even dangerous depictions:
Myth 1: NA is only for junkies and crackheads.
In the 1998 movie Half Baked, Dave Chapelle’s character attends a meeting where he is booed off the stage because his drug of choice is marijuana. More recently, AMC’s Breaking Bad depicts Jesse attending a similar meeting that is clearly populated only by heroin and meth addicts. There are similar scenes in two different Showtime series, Nurse Jackie, and Dexter. There are plenty of other examples. The implication here is that Narcotics Anonymous is only for heavy drug abusers, and the insinuation is that more mainstream substances like marijuana are somehow not addictive. While the severity of addiction may vary from drug to drug and from user to user, the fact is that people from all creeds and colors abuse all sorts of different drugs.
In a membership study conducted by NA in 2013, participants were asked which drugs they had used habitually. 59% said Crack; 35% said Opiates, which includes heroin. Alcohol (90%) and Cannabis (68%) were the top two most commonly used drugs. Booze and weed, it seems, are what brings most people to their meetings.
These numbers directly contradict the messages we get from the media. While I get that Half Baked is a comedy, the reaction Dave gets from the other addicts in the room is the most unbelievable thing about that entire movie.
Myth 2: You don’t have to give a speech at your first meeting (or ever)
Newcomers — those who are attending their first meeting — are considered to be the most important person in the room. It says so in the Literature. So when Chapelle is booed off the stage for “only” being addicted to marijuana, or when Dexter is forced to tell his story, what you are seeing just simply does not happen. The last thing these meetings want to do is scare off new members, and making someone give a speech at their first meeting is a great way to do just that.
Some meetings do have speakers, but this is considered a voluntary honor and is usually reserved for members with a significant amount of clean time. But even if that weren’t true, the Twelve Traditions are very clear about who can attend meetings. Tradition 3 states: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using.” Dave Chapelle is welcome to attend.
If you re-read Tradition 3, you might notice two things. First, it does not mention drugs. Second, it says the only requirement is a “desire” to stop using. There is nothing in the Traditions about having to speak from a podium, nor does any of the literature suggest that there is some sort of drug hierarchy.
And speaking of drugs…
Myth 3: It really has very little to do with drugs.
Any number of movies and TV shows depict Narcotics Anonymous meetings as places where drug addicts gather to talk about drug use. I can understand why people would think this — drug use, after all, is the common denominator. But once you start attending meetings, you learn very quickly that drugs are taboo. This is not to say that drug use does not come up. It absolutely does. But it is newer members who tend to fixate on drug use. After meetings, their sponsor, or someone with more experience, may come to them in private to let them know that meetings are not a good place to talk about specific substances.
When you are trying to break an addiction to any drug, you learn to avoid triggers. Triggers can be anything, depending on the person. Obvious examples include the drugs themselves, the dealer who sold you the drugs, and the places where you used them. Often, even talking about using drugs can be a trigger. It is for this reason that drugs are not discussed nearly as much as one might think.
When any movie or TV show depicts a character speaking openly about drugs in a meeting, I cringe. I’m certain the writer has never been anywhere near an actual meeting. It would be like a group of combat veterans sitting in a room explaining to one another what it’s like to be in combat. There’s no point. Every person in the room already knows what you’re going to say. You might have one or two blowhards who love to tell war stories, but they are the exception, not the rule.
Narcotics Anonymous meetings are about living in a world where you do not use drugs as a coping mechanism. People do talk about their struggles to stay clean, but so many discussions center on the realities of life that we all face — job issues, problems with children, a friend who is sick or dying. These types of life events are that much harder for a recovering addict because many of them have no idea how to deal with problems without using drugs. Meetings become more about the solution and less about the past. And those members with clean time share their “experience, strength and hope” to the younger members, and they talk about how they turned their life over to a Higher Power.
Which leads us to the next myth.
Myth 4: NA is not a religious organization
When I started going to meetings, I’ll admit that this one had me confused. How can they talk about God and a higher Power and NOT be religious? It took me several months to figure it out.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists — you will find them all at these meetings. What you will not find is an actual Narcotics Anonymous meeting using religious texts in any way. Some Churches do have support groups based on the Twelve Step model, but these are not official meetings, per se. You will not listen to readings from the Bible, or the Torah, or the Koran. Individual members may talk about their religious faith, but the organization is very clear about this in their literature. Their Tenth Tradition even states that Narcotics Anonymous “has no opinion on outside issues” and religion is an outside issue.
Alcoholics Anonymous has its Big Book. Narcotics Anonymous has the Basic Text. If anything, those two books are the Bibles of those respective organizations. And as far as God goes, He is mentioned throughout the literature, but God — or a Higher Power — is not clearly defined the way it is in organized religion. Instead, members can essentially select what or who they will choose to call their “Higher Power.” For some, God may literally be the God of the Bible; for others, God is an acronym that stands for Good Orderly Direction.
You might be wondering why they even talk about a higher Power in the first place. There is a good reason. The idea is that addiction, as a force, is something that we cannot face by ourselves. To fight our addiction, we must enlist the help of a Higher Power, as we cannot do it alone. The Higher Power, then, is whatever helps the addict get and stay clean.
In the end, it’s just one addict helping another that makes the program work. Which leads us to…
Myth 5: Professionals don’t run meetings
Several TV shows, including Nurse Jackie and Breaking Bad, depict Twelve Step meetings as being run by mental health clinicians — experts in the field of addiction. While it is true that hospitals and agencies have support groups that model themselves Twelve Step programs, actual meetings DO NOT have professionals running them. Once again, their Literature is very clear about this issue. The Tenth Tradition says they “should forever remain nonprofessional.” In other words, nobody is in charge. Meetings do have a chairperson, but their job is to call on people who want to share, welcome newcomers, and make coffee. Anything more than that is really pushing it.
There is nothing wrong with attending a group session run by a psychologist or counselor. It’s just not a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. And once again, there is a reason for this. In the Basic Text, it mentions that many of the members had tried religion, psychiatry, medicine, all to no avail. It does not want to associate itself with any form of professional organization, because of the stigmas they sometimes carry. It is a support group, plain and simple. The only professionals in the room are addicts themselves, there for the same reason as any other.
The closest thing Narcotics Anonymous has to a counselor-client type relationship is the one a member has with their sponsor. A sponsor is someone who has been around the program longer than you, preferably worked all or most of the steps, and has something that you want — namely, their “brand” of recovery. We all have different styles, and recovery is no different. Addicts pick sponsors to guide them through the Steps and to be their role model as they go through the process of recovery. Which leads us to our last myth:
Myth 6. Sleeping with your sponsor is not normal.
Showtime’s Dexter was an engrossing and well-written TV show with a curious twist. Dexter, the main character, is a forensics expert for the Miami Police Department and moonlights as a serial killer who hunts other serial killers. As a fan of the show, I could accept that premise, as farfetched as it was. But of all the bizarre things that happen in the 8-year run of Dexter, none of them are as stupid as the show’s depiction of sponsorship in Narcotics Anonymous.
Dexter starts attending meetings for his addiction to heroin, at the behest of his fiancé Rita. Dexter is not addicted to heroin but to serial killing, but for some reason, Dexter admits to using heroin, so he ends up in Narcotics Anonymous.
Shortly afterwards, he meets up with a brunette bombshell named Lila who promptly becomes his sponsor. Rita is not wild about this pairing, and for good reason. They have one fight, and Dexter heads over to Lila’s house, and they end up in bed.
Rita has good reason to be upset. First, Lila is a gorgeous predator who is clearly attracted to Dexter. And second, the sponsorship relationship has rules. Opposite sex pairings, while not forbidden, are actively discouraged, for exactly this reason.
It’s not like it never happens. But Dexter portrays it as the norm, which is as dumb as it is insulting to all the people struggling to get clean. Narcotics Anonymous offers several recommendations to newcomers (like Dexter) — one of them is no relationships for a year. So right off the bat, Dexter’s got a female sponsor, and he’s sleeping with her. That’s careless writing. The show doesn’t even attempt to make their relationship seem unusual. It is.
Unless you have been to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, you probably have no idea what they are really like.
Ask yourself this: do you know someone who is struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction? Are you? There’s a fantastic chance that at least one person in your life has a problem with drugs, and what would you do if that person came to you and asked for help?
If the only information you have is the garbage that media feeds you, you are not able to give good advice. Addiction ruins lives, families, careers, and marriages. And it can kill you dead. Myths do nothing but harm those who need help.
Narcotics Anonymous is not for everyone. It doesn’t claim to be. But twelve-step groups across the world have saved tens of thousands of lives, and they do not deserve to be ridiculed on the big screen for our amusement. If you are struggling with an addiction, try out a meeting. You can get all the information at www.na.org. They are free and if you don’t want to go to another one that is your choice.
What has been your experience with NA? Leave a comment below.
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