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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, estimates that 10% of the population will experience drug use disorder in their lives. In Canada where I live, the number is estimated by the Canadian Government Statistics Canada much higher at 21.6%. Addiction is a serious condition that exists in our society today but it isn’t a new problem. A hundred years ago, most addicts primarily abused alcohol due to the wide availability and social acceptability of the substance, but many other drugs were also available. The Sears catalog offered heroin for sale during the 19th century as an example of the ease with which you could find other drugs. Addiction, and the treatment of the disease looked very different a hundred years ago. Addiction was not seen as a disease but more as a moral failing, lack of character or weakness. Addicts were put into institutions or jailed but the vast majority silently suffered in society until death took them. Many attempts have been made to help those who become addicted with the focus being on the worst cases. Some of the attempts have been misguided, like the development of heroin to treat morphine addiction in 1874. Today, treatment for addiction has mushroomed into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Are we further ahead or have we simply upgraded our addicts with new technology?
In the 1930’s a new movement offered real hope for those effected by alcohol addiction. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, both long time alcoholics found sobriety, and founded the twelve-step approach known as Alcoholics Anonymous. Their first act was to repeat their success with others by seeking out fellow alcoholics. AA’s twelve step model was adapted from the experiences of others to improve the lives of alcoholics and evolved from an earlier attempt by an organization called the Oxford Group. AA struggled tremendously as a fellowship until the twelve traditions were created which allowed individuals to work together in small groups with a purpose of helping other alcoholics. For the first time a complete solution presented itself that many agreed was both effective and repeatable. Alcoholics learned spiritual principles in the twelve steps and applied those principles in the twelve traditions adopted by their groups. AA sprang up across the United States and spread to other parts of the world. Unfortunately, AA did not seem to offer much hope as a solution to all addicts, but some found benefit in attending. By 1953 a second fellowship emerged that built on the success of AA by adapting the steps and traditions into what is known as Narcotics Anonymous. Both organizations have since grown tremendously, span the globe and offer separate methods of recovery based on the twelve steps and twelve traditions.
The unrelenting storms of change continued in other areas of the treatment industry as well. Many saw the early successes of AA and sought to incorporate the guidance of healthcare professionals. The "Minnesota Model" addiction treatment emerged in the 1950’s, where professionals would employ a group setting, aspects of the twelve steps, counselling and peer-based support. More than 80% of the treatment options available today use this model. At the same time, healthcare was also transformed by the early successes in the evolving pharmaceutical industry. Penicillin/Insulin were wildly successful, pain management, and treatment of many diseases were improved. The development of Disulfram (Antabuse, 1948) for alcoholism, Methadone (1964) for heroin abuse and hundreds of other drugs emerged to treat a wide range of other addiction and mental health issues. Today’s addict has a vast assortment of options available and a variety of recovery outcomes. What works and what are the potential outcomes of each person’s choices is often unclear in early stages of recovery.
I consider myself fortunate to have found recovery in Narcotics Anonymous. When I first started attending, a big meeting was 8 people where I lived, but the gift of desperation is that we clung to each other like survivors in a life raft. I have done some counselling and on the advice of my doctor, took anti-depressants for the first few years for Seasonal Affected Disorder in the spring. One of the readings in NA says that ‘for the first time in man’s entire history, a simple way has been proving itself in the lives of many addicts’. Things have changed a lot since I started both personally and within the Fellowship of NA. Addicts who have been around for a while will freely offer opinions about what works and what does not, and I am blessed to have the opportunity to write about mine. Opinions can be dangerous. I was told early in my recovery that if you see a drug addict at an AA meeting, he is probably using. I have witnessed what can only be described as miracles as addicts come to a treatment center, get engaged in a solution and flourish. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen treatment and rehabs have become a endless cycle of abuse, a chemical prison of medication, more rehab, treatment and back out to relapse into active addiction and eventually death. Many of the choices I made are uniquely personal, designed to improve my lifestyle but can lead to increased self-obsession. Is recovery as simple as an end to the obsession and compulsion of alcohol and drug use or can addiction manifest in other areas of our lives? Who benefits from an end to active drug abuse when it is replaced by a healthier physical body, increased financial wealth, or a drive to manipulation and control? Complacency in my recovery is always a danger so I try and stay connected and involved in an NA group that meets regularly and work with other addicts who want to be of service to others. Working with others can be a challenge. I have found healthy boundaries to be beneficial. The outward appearance of success could mask deeper issues. Finding a balance is between personal recovery and participation in a group can be difficult.
One opinion that is dear to my heart, and a great accomplishment in the fight against addiction is the production of the Narcotics Anonymous ‘Basic Text’ in the 1980’s. You can read a long version of the story behind the creation of the book at the Upper Cumberland Area of Narcotics Anonymous website. The Basic Text (all versions, Chapter 6, ‘Tradition 2’) warns us about addicts; the ‘Self-seeker.’
“Some will resist. However, many will become the role models for the newcomers. The self-seekers soon find that they are on the outside, causing dissension and eventually disaster for themselves.”
And another group of addicts (Basic Text, all versions, Chapter 7, ‘Recovery and relapse’);
“By the same token we have observed some members who remain abstinent for long periods of time whose dishonesty and self-deceit still prevent them from enjoying complete recovery and acceptance within society.”
My knowledge gained in the spiritual principles I learned from completing the twelve Steps, and the application of those principles in applying the Twelve Traditions is a blessing to my recovery. Perhaps the greatest principle discussed in the book and the last one listed is ‘Sharing and caring’ or the action of generosity and compassion; the virtue of gratitude. My recovery suffers when I lose sight of this simple concept. I can quickly form opinions and become judgmental about what works and what does not, then try and impose my views on others. The abundance of my recovery can flow to the things I hold dear and without consideration of those around me. Self-obsession, dishonesty and self-deception become part of my character again. I have spent months and years locked into thoughts and patterns of behavior that gave the outward appearance of recovery but masked the inner turmoil that I felt. I am likely not the only one who suffers from this struggle.
There are organizations, large and small that have imploded as the true motives of the individuals involved became apparent but opinions and rumors about the organization might have existed for a time. One of my favorites is the ‘Playa Del Carmen Elite’ who are supposed to control and promote the Narcotics Anonymous World Service corporation (NAWS). This small group of addicts manipulate the corporate controlled image, promote NAWS products, speak at conventions, chair workshops all of which benefits the secretive, highly profitable non-profit corporation. Estimates are that 30% of the revenue was used to cover travel costs for this special interest group prior to the pandemic. I am excited to watch the David and Goliath scale battle of the Autonomous Region of Narcotics Anonymous’ petition of the NAWS corporation and the efforts to bring to light the dark secrets of the NAWS corporation. The COVID 19 pandemic has stripped NAWS of the profits and travel perks available to a select few so the timing is particularly good if you support their cause.
Members of Narcotics Anonymous have risen collectively as a fellowship and quickly become virtual due to the pandemic. I believe the greatest unity in the history of the Fellowship since the Basic Text was written has emerged. It would seem to me that the abuses of truth are as big as the truth itself and NAWS has questioned the validity of virtual groups. Between my truth and yours is where we find reality. Understanding reality can be a significant part in the recovery of addicts in NA. It is good when we continue to talk, or I have nothing but my own opinion. It would seem to me that opportunities to upgrade my addiction are everywhere. What is the truth about recovery? When Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith understood what they had accomplished, was their efforts to repeat the process simply an attempt to validate their opinions? Was it for some higher purpose? A vibrant, growing Fellowship may be all the reality I need to validate the work that I have done. The only sacrifice I make is the lies and self-deception which I can see with the help of others as we work to a common purpose.