AA vs. NA—What's the Difference?

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AA vs. NA—What's the Difference?

By Jaime Neptune 11/25/13

How Narcotics Anonymous scratches the itch that AA never quite reached

stick with a winner

“The difference between drunks and junkies? The drunk steals your stuff, but the junkie steals your stuff and then helps you look for it.”

Chuckles from the back row. See, the chucklers know. They remember crawling around on the carpet, flipping up the comforter as they mumble syllables of hope to the frantic victim. The rose gold earrings are in the pocket of their greasy jeans.

This proverb suggests, of course, that the artless drunk steals your earrings and then has the sense to pass out on the couch or simply leave the bedroom.

Another related joke: “While the drunks were sitting in an AA meeting, the junkies were breaking into their houses.”

More laughter, coming from those who dumped AA (at least temporarily) and started going to Narcotics Anonymous.

These jokes suggest that: One, drunks may be thieves, but junkies are devious. Two, drunks got a program; junkies, by turn, got a house to rip off. And three, there is—or was—an age and class difference between the two fellowships. AA was founded in 1935 by two nice professional men. Some Scottish guy from Southern California founded NA in 1953 as an offshoot of AA, but NA didn’t solidify or have steady meetings until the early 1960s. By my blurry math, that gave junkies almost three decades with a great excuse for not getting clean. And look! So many nice, spacious, and empty alcoholic homes, ripe for the ripping.

Someone will actually make a cake instead of buying one with food stamps.

Both jokes, heard exclusively in NA, are important now because they recall a time quickly fading from 12 step memory: The time when membership in AA and NA was mutually exclusive in the best possible way. Members were either in one program or the other, but not both. Those jokes are careworn now but NA members with long term memory function still use them, for they separated NA’s fatally hip criminal element from the social acceptability of AA. Twenty-plus years ago, when NA membership meant you were a heroin addict and you bought your drugs out of a hole or a bucket, it was cool to be an outcast, a rebel without a church basement.

NA members didn’t go to AA because they didn’t have an alcohol problem. They had an attitude problem. They had a death problem, man. “Sober” was something for a judge, not a junkie. Similarly, AA members didn’t go to NA, because, well, they were drunks. For AA members, drugs were for when you had a bad cold (a swill of Paregoric will do the trick) or a sore shoulder (you never had a problem with Percodan). Now there’s a flow of membership between the two programs—perhaps to the detriment of both programs and its members.

Because people are going to both programs the NA freak flag doesn’t fly as high anymore. Now, the new member slouches in the back row of the back row, and no one has taught them how to be arrogant or how to take someone’s inventory. “Clean,” that sine qua non, once so black and white, is now a relative term. NA membership now means that you used to take a lot of pills and now you’re on Suboxone, an antidepressant, and something to counteract the antidepressant’s side effects. You buy your drugs from a nice, clean supermarket pharmacy and go to NA meetings until the court says you can stop.

By contrast, AA’s freak flag is flying a bit higher. AA has self-described “alcoholic and addicts” (an NA friend gave these hybrids the epithet “andas”) streaming into the halls. NA was too dysfunctional for these members. They have issues and they’re talking about them. Loudly. Alcohol wasn’t their drug of choice. A few years from now, when they’ve pissed off enough people in AA, they’ll take their weed and their self-actualization talk and go back to NA. Meanwhile, the oldest AA members shrug, cough wetly, and grow mold in their personal chair at the homegroup. The youngest member of the homegroup has prostate cancer. Hey, by the way, Put the Plug in the Jug is celebrating its 47th anniversary next month. Someone will actually make a cake instead of buying one with food stamps.

Despite the cross migratory habits of the new breed of AA and NA members, there still are some crucial differences between the two programs. For the confused dual member who wishes to know the correct language and actions and not seem like they just fell off the golf cart or limped out of lockup, for God’s sake, just pick a program and stay there. Or memorize the following:


 Alcoholics AnonymousNarcotics Anonymous
 You are: Sober


"I am a(n):"Alcoholic


SloganOne Day at a TimeJust For Today
Inappropriate PDA:Holding hands in the front rowHandjobs in the back row
Text:Alcoholics Anonymous, aka The Big BookNarcotics Anonymous, aka the Basic Text
First step:“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol. . .”“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction...”
Rock bottom:Homelessness, pissing yourselfCouch surfing, pissing on someone else
New drug of choice:PoetryMail-order muscle relaxants
Enemy:Al-AnonGirlfriend’s sponsor
Code phrase:“Are you a friend of Bill W.’s?”“Wanna go to a meeting?”
Foreplay:Going out for coffeeEye contact at meeting
Crush:BukowskiLesbian supermodel sitting behind you
Old timer’s profession:ActorDoes intake at local halfway house
Newcomer’s profession:Writer



Jaime Neptune is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about going from methadone to marathons.

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