An Addict's Dilemma: AA or NA? - Page 2

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

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That run lasted another year. My parents and Hazelden Chicago intervened and sent me up to Hazelden inpatient, the kiddy Hazelden, in Plymouth Minnesota. I went because I was broken and dying, too apathetic to fight or put up an intellectual defense.

I shot up before getting on the plane and landed in Minnesota. I cringed, instantly fighting any spiritual AA jargon the clinical staff could throw at me. They beat me over the head with step one and I’d yell about how step one was not my problem: I know I am a junkie, I just don’t care and nobody can save me. No counselors, doctors, or parents, especially no God. But that's what I needed. I needed to be saved.

The decision I made was a no-brainer. The evidence was clear that AA just worked. 

Finally feeling better after kicking (that only took three weeks), I had some decent nights of sleep and ate some food. I was sent to the extended stay unit for three extra months on top of the 28-day original stint. The kids in that unit were dubbed, "the sickest of the sick." I had accepted a few things by that time: I cannot keep living like this, and I cannot do this to my family anymore. Those two sentiments were enough to have me comply with the rules and do the assignments, grudgingly.

In that four months of inpatient they took us to four meetings a week, one of which was NA. That NA meeting was more amusing than therapeutic. Eccentric characters would yell sayings that didn’t make any sense. A seriously unhinged man shouted, "You don't go to a whorehouse to play Chinese checkers!"

Being in treatment I felt more like an observer than part of the meetings, so I just began to make naturalistic observations. At NA, very few people were willing to be sponsors, maybe the same two or three people would raise their hands, and word got around that they already had 20 sponsees each and couldn't help any more people. Others would get up to collect their 30 or 60 day key-tag and then disappear. After four months of that NA meeting I just weighed empirical evidence: NA (that meeting at least), was just not effective. And I still hated the hugs.

The three AA meetings that we went to each week were loud and vibrant. They were big meetings with a lot of young men and women collecting serious time, many of whom said that both drugs and alcohol had beaten them down. When the chair asked who could sponsor, over half of the room raised their hands. In some meetings, practically the whole room, with the exception of us treatment kids, were willing to be sponsors.

The decision was a no-brainer. The evidence was clear, for me, that AA just worked. I even saw some atheists/agnostics picking up medallions, right alongside the fanatic believers. My only out had been that I didn’t believe; after witnessing these likeminded people stay sober, I realized I could too.

My existential dilemma has gotten easier to deal with. I still don’t understand why AA works, but I find myself caring less and less. AA and NA meetings do not save me, but they help. It's also clear to me that drugs and alcohol were never my problem—they were my only solution. So it makes little sense to me that AA and NA would have a beef with each other. Some alcoholics still scoff when they hear someone introduce themselves as an addict in their meeting. I just say "Zach, alcoholic" now. Some people in NA will look visually disturbed when someone says they have been sober for a while, the correct terminology for them is "clean." What's the difference?

Beyond the trivial differences between AA and NA, the real selling point for me is the literature. Reading AA's Big Book has helped me understand the nature of my condition more than years of studying psychology and philosophy. Universities gave me a fancy vocabulary at best, resulting in zero understanding of my insanity. The NA text reads much like a dull, diluted "brief-overview" textbook.

I haven’t gone to an NA meeting in months, and have little desire to try it out again. I found my niche being a junkie in AA. The substance is only the tip of the iceberg, and below is a madness that drove me to do absurd things just to feel OK. I feel OK most of the time now, and picking up a needle no longer seems like my only solution.

Zachary Seigel is a writer based in Minnesota.

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