An Addict's Dilemma: AA or NA?

By Zachary Siegel 07/08/13

My five years as a junkie was a mass of contradictions. Today, over a year clean, life can still be that way. 

Which way is recovery? Photo via

I remember sitting on the Green Line heading west from downtown. I’d melt as soon as I sat down in the plastic seat with gang signs tagged in sharpie all over it. The train’s clashing metal blared from the tracks, interrupting my nod. In a junkie daze I’d look up at the other passengers—one time, I remember looking up and the entire car was filled with fiends. Gaunt features, pin-wheeled pupil eyes and dejected stares, we're easy to spot. We were all heading to the West Side to get off at the same stop to cop on the same corner.

That’s how it is in Chicago, and things don’t seem to be changing anytime soon. I just turned 24 and I look back on those times as profoundly beautiful and wretched. 

I was in the dope scene in Denver for a little while too. I was 21 at the time. Several times a day I was getting balloons delivered to the front door of my Capitol Hill apartment. I remember trying to cook up that soupy brown liquid dope that reeked of vinegar and burnt marshmallow just barely seeing the blood squirt back when I registered the shot. I always preferred Chicago’s pristine white powder so I could see it shoot back into the hypodermic, the solution turning into a red tie-dye for a second, until it disappeared inside me.

I couldn’t stand NA. But I was a dope fiend and I thought it was where I was supposed to go. 

At 22 I tried to kick and get clean back in Chicago, where I grew up. My first honest attempt started in detox, then intensive outpatient and sober living, while attending several meetings a week. I told myself and everyone else that I was committed.

I hit both AA and NA meetings all the time. I couldn’t stand NA. But I was a dope fiend and I thought it was where I was supposed to go. I love narcotics, and I could care less about alcohol. The NA meetings were about 45 minutes of reading literature, and I never understood how that was helping anybody. The people with a lot of clean-time would also shout sidebar comments in unison throughout the readings—it all felt churchy. Then another half-hour on key-tags with clever sayings for each "milestone." I never stood up to get one. I didn’t want to be hugged, nor did I want to sport a bright key-chain that would out me. Finally, at the end of the meetings, with 20 minutes to spare, people would share their experience of getting clean. It all seemed backwards and ineffective, so I quit going to NA.

The AA meetings I attended were quicker and straight to business. I still identified myself as, "Zach, addict." Intellectually I told myself that these people were just addicted to alcohol, so they’re addicts too, and that "alcoholism" is just an antiquated label. I felt like an outlier, given that I was younger than most and lacked an extensive drinking history. But at this point, I was desperately clinging onto anything that could save me.

Though the AA meetings were a bit more "buttoned-up" than NA, I felt that I related to a lot of their thought patterns and shared similar debacles, despite my lack of drinking. Like how we all just seem to go on a binge at the most inappropriate times—right before a job interview, or right when school starts, or at a family gathering. However, the meetings were not giving me much relief. I still felt like I was in a fog and that life was just a bad dream. I then got a sponsor and tried to work the steps. I tried to believe that a God would come and swoop down from the heavens and relieve me of the obsession. I tried believing in a God who knew my name, and could hear my thoughts, answer my prayers.

"Fake it till you make it," they told me. I faked it until I went mad. I realized that when I’m shooting smack I’m unconsciously lying to myself on several levels that are beyond my understanding. But lying to myself sober I became an even bigger phony than when I was using.

After getting honest, I gave up on both AA and NA. I started to shoot up again. I picked up right where I left off: hundred bucks a day straight into my arm. Back to riding the Green Line heading west in that train-car filled with junkies.

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