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Being “in recovery” is a catch phrase we hear a lot these days as people make the decision to ‘get clean’ without really ever understanding what that phrase means. Deciding to get out of addiction and into recovery is a confusing time. The transition feels like being caught in a vast whirlpool, the water spiraling around, collecting the other people who are facing the same reality of lives in active addiction. It is a struggle to rejoin the living whilst swirling into an abysmal vortex. The multitude of lives converge at our transition points, which is often jails, institutions, and for some, death. The dead perhaps have it easy, no longer having to live like hungry ghosts (Dr. Gabor Maté); except it’s not at all easy for the survivors who struggle to find some acceptance and make sense of the senseless. The dead have already found a way out…with forced acceptance: they have moved on. Some addicts are fortunate to have choices about treatment and can explore the variety of options. This can include treatment centers, detox facilities, counselling, and a myriad of support groups including Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. However, there really is only one choice for the addict caught in the vortex, especially today-either stop using or die.
Too many addicts are court ordered into a system that is built for the willing and able (ie voluntary commitment). A system that will never be able to help them until they are willing to be helped. Willingness is the PIN that unlocks the addiction cycle and allows the transition to take place. Unfortunately, the system is starting to clog with the unwilling-those showing up to get a signature on a court card that says, “I’m willing!”, even when the card holder is not. There is little hope to be found for the unwilling, and 12 Step groups might be better off having someone outside the door signing those cards proving the addict had showed up and thus allowing those committed to the process of recovery inside the rooms to remain pure of focus. That’s why storm drains have debris catchers-to filter out the debris that would clog up the system and keep the waters muddied - to filter out the those not willing to get clean, and allowing those who are ready, to get on with the business of living. Luckily, in Narcotics Anonymous they apply Tradition Three, which states that “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using” (Narcotics Anonymous, Basic Text, page 92, 6th Edition, published 2008 by NAWS). For without the sincere desire to stop using, the addict won’t get clean.
When I arrived at my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting, my only measurable willingness was the fact that I showed up. I had every intention of using in the future and I would learn that many of my current behaviors were signs of the disease. I learned that using was simply a symptom of the disease. For now, I was exploring some solutions to what I had discovered might be a problem. I was in recovery and staying clean as best I knew how for the moment. I wasn’t even sure what ‘clean’ meant some days, particularly if I stopped to examine my behaviors or thoughts. The judgements I inflicted on others in my thoughts, and the troublesome gossip I often engaged in added to the confusion. Sometimes when I was particularly unsure about something, and shared with someone my current insecurity, it was very easy to find the embrace of stigma and judgement from another person. Apparently having desire was something only I could measure. I was told that nobody could question my desire because who knows what desire looks like for another person. All I had to do was show up and say, “I’m willing”.
Claiming to be clean seemed to be open to interpretation and judgement from others. We seem to be quick to judge the behaviors of others, distancing ourselves as if we were somehow elevated and not subject to those same behaviors. Sometimes I didn’t see comparable behaviors within myself that were equally destructive. Contempt was comfortable regardless of whether it’s self-loathing or for another person. Judgements about what ‘clean’ looked like were everywhere and I learned a lot about what people thought just by listening. Fortunately, there is a lot of great literature available, so I could read and decide what clean looks like for me, and what recovery could look like for you with each Step taken. That’s what I started to do. I watched others and learned about myself in doing the Steps and applying spiritual principles to my life. I learned a lot from the honest sharing of others. Staying humble and relating to others’ suffering as well as sharing in their successes was a deeply spiritual experience. Living by my higher powers’ will and by my ability to be present was the daily challenge and seemed to be a better definition of recovery-regardless of clean time.
‘Just for today’ took on new meaning when I finally understood the significance of putting a few days together, and thankfully there were reminders- one of them being key tags. They were small but remarkably powerful symbols of milestones in early recovery to remind us of how far we have come. Key tags in my early recovery came with a healthy dose of humility. Any pride about my accomplishment distanced me from others who struggled, and I was taught to avoid those feelings. Humility is one of the key benefits of giving away to newcomers what I have come to cherish in my recovery. Many newcomers will readily point out my shortcomings and defects and appreciate my strengths and abilities. It’s a tremendous gift, being able to keep what I have by giving my recovery away. Some of the simple acts- like answering the phone to talk to someone struggling, or going for coffee, or discussing spiritual principles at a group business meeting are so profoundly life altering. My self-seeking behaviors prevented me from carrying a message or I was back to focusing on the ‘I’, not the ‘we’. Pride creates a false self-reliance that prevents us from turning to our higher power. Love and pride are like oil and water, never mixing well. Love seems to be the only thing you get more of by giving it away. Who lived by that in active addiction? I wonder if ‘clean’ is simply the absence of the bondage of self.
“We find that our lives steadily improve, if we maintain abstinence from mind-altering, mood-changing chemicals and work the Twelve Steps to sustain our recovery.” (Narcotics Anonymous, Basic Text, page 40, 6th Edition, published 2008 by NAWS). Fortunately, being clean isn’t specifically defined in our literature, as we live ‘just for today’, so maybe it is measurable with willingness and has that elusive quality that only I can gauge. Could it be as simple as I’m clean when I say I am? Unfortunately, due to health issues, some of us who live with addiction experience lapses in our improvement. We suffer from accidents, mental health struggles, cancers (like anyone else), and require medication that is prescribed by professionals. We maintain our clean time by surrendering to our sponsor, our support group, and our higher power about what is working for us today. We continue to work a program of our own choosing. Some choose to work with doctors who recommend Drug Replacement Therapy. I’ve seen people on methadone or subloxone who showed up for months, setting up chairs, making coffee, and slowly tapering off under medical supervision. Some claim to be clean, and I can’t really argue the point since their recovery is as good as any other member and often is improved by the open omission. Addicts under a doctor’s care can work a program just like other members, but unfortunately are labeled as ‘not clean’.
We have people who are devastated physically and mentally, that work with doctors to maintain a quality of life that include taking prescription drugs that others scoff at. Narcotics Anonymous clearly states in their literature that they are not professionals and have no opinion on outside issues, but individual members will readily debate another person’s claim of being clean. We see the sexual sociopaths cruising the rooms, feasting on newcomers like potato chips at a buffet table despite having professed to years of clean time. Some members with clean time run companies using the vunerable addicts in the room as cheap labor. It’s rare to question their clean time, except in whispered conversations we could label as gossip. In fact, many of the characteristics of active addiction (ie. the obvious behaviors of self-seeking), are the dangers we all face daily, and the only hope is in our unity which is the basis of Tradition 1: “Our common welfare should come first, personal recovery depends on NA unity” Narcotics Anonymous, Basic Text, 6th Edition (2008), and ‘It Works: How and Why’ (1993) that clearly explains the need for unity. Anonymity ensures that each day an addict is treated the same as any other addict at a meeting, even if our opinions vary about desire or clean time.
It’s only in service when we lose our anonymity. We no longer identify as just an addict but take on roles to serve the Fellowship. We start to list our contact information and fulfill service positions that require skills with physical and mental capacities. That’s why Version 2 of Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text (Narcotics Anonymous, Basic Text, page 78, 2th Edition, published 1982 by C.A.R.E.N.A. Publishing Co.) included the lines:
“What about our service committees, our offices, activities, and all the other things that go on in N.A.?” The answer is that these things are not N.A. They are services we utilize to help us in our recovery and to further the primary purpose of our groups. Narcotics Anonymous is a Fellowship of men and women; addicts meeting in groups and using a given set of spiritual principles to find freedom from addiction and a new way to live. All else is not N.A.”
An addict can be clean, but suffer from depression, other mental health issues, or physical issues to the point where they are not capable of being of service except by filling a chair at a meeting. We should always strive to be inclusive. Diversity ensures our group does not become prideful, developing cliques, and ostracizing individuals. We proclaim to put spiritual principles before personalities and diversity is key to this concept. We develop policies that are in place to protect the Fellowship when we are of service in the Fellowship. An addict with physical or mental afflictions that is incapable of being of service in a certain way is no more or less than any other addict and labeling them as ‘not clean’ doesn’t benefit anyone.
On the World Board of NAWS, members are identified by name and no longer have anonymity. They are required to have 10 years of clean time to serve at this level, despite having no clear definition of what that means. They issued Bulletin #29 regarding the matter of Drug Replacement Therapy. These are members of Narcotics Anonymous, who are clearly in violation of our traditions by being identified publicly and no longer are anonymous sitting in judgement of one segment of our Fellowship. As Addicts we start each day as equals, living ‘just for today’ with no emphasis on clean time. The board produced literature that is not the reflection of our fellowship when Bulletin #29 was issued. If an individual group wants to address local concerns regarding who shares at a meeting or how service is performed, that is well within their rights, but our literature must be approved by the Fellowship before it can be distributed. That’s why we don’t have a definition of clean time, because we live each day as addicts, no better or worse than the one next to us. We start each day as equals, in recovery, and clean.
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