My Journey from AA to NA, with Stops Along the Way

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My Journey from AA to NA, with Stops Along the Way

By Brian Michael Riley 08/29/18

While making my own transition from one fellowship to another, I interviewed people with experience in both AA and NA to find out what's working for them, and what's not.

Image: 
A man stands on a hilly path, surrounded by other paths.
Thoroughly advised on what to expect, I was excited to head over to NA and start sharing from the heart again.

For a long time, I considered myself an alcoholic with drug addict tendencies. This is why, for the most part, I was a member of AA exclusively for the first six years of my sobriety. Besides, where I lived in Connecticut at the time, Narcotics Anonymous meetings were too far and few in between - as is often the case in more rural areas of the country.

Also, while in AA I’d heard things about that other fellowship.

Yes, I was fine right where I was, thank you very much. Like my mother and my uncles and my grandfather before me, AA would remain my easier, softer way til death do us part.

And then I relapsed: a year and a half bender in which my disease had progressed to include cocaine and prescription pills and after which I was detoxing from alcohol and benzos.

That’s when the rooms of recovery turned strangely uncomfortable.

I can’t say it was because I was no longer welcome. No, my mutual friends of Bill were there with open arms when I came back from the relapse… As long as I didn’t share openly about the drug problem.

“I came to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting,” an old-timer quickly informed me, “because this is where I come to hear about alcohol - not pills!”

This got me to thinking. (Not about the chapter in AA’s Big Book entitled Acceptance Was the Answer in which an alcoholic physician describes in painstaking detail his struggles with prescription pills. No, why would I think of that? The old-timer certainly wasn’t.) 

No, I was thinking I ought to give Narcotics Anonymous a try for a while. Not only would I be able to share more candidly about my relapse but I’d have some time to work through the little resentment I’d suddenly copped against AA and its old timers.

So, I began asking around. I knew the best way to transition between fellowships was to look to the rooms themselves for advice and guidance. I found four people in recovery, each of them knowledgeable about both AA and NA, who were willing to share their experience not only with me - but with you as well.

About the Personalities:

“I had been in AA for 11 years and just kept relapsing,” recalled Christy, 45, from the San Francisco Bay Area. Hers was a vicious cycle of diet pills and wine, always using one to offset the other. “I was sure that people were sick of hearing me talk about how I just couldn’t get it. Well I was sick of talking about it, anyway, at least to the same people again and again. It was embarrassing.”

 Taking the advice of her husband - a former amphetamine addict of 15 years - Christy decided to give NA a try.

The kinship she felt was immediate, not only because she felt able to share more freely in a room full of new faces, but also because “NA’s a little bit ‘roughie-toughie’ and I liked that. NA had more people with missing teeth,” she joked. “There were so many people just totally out of their minds - exactly like me - and everyone seemed ok with it.”

Three years later, Christy’s bond with NA is stronger than ever.

“I find myself spiritually connected to that craziness,” she said. “There’s stories of abuse, there’s sharing about the prison time. It helps keep my recovery feel fresh. NA reminds me of how bad it can get out there.”

For Johnny L., 39, from New England, the NA group in his area had a more adverse effect.

“Well there I was, a newly clean and sober gay white man in a heavily black, heterosexual, inner city NA meeting,” he laughed. “I really gave it a shot, too, but after about three or four meetings I still wasn’t relating at all.”

Thankfully Johnny found himself having to move for work to a more rural area within that first year of recovery and along with the change of geography came a new atmosphere within his meetings. Though he considered himself dually addicted (meth and drinking), Johnny ultimately settled into the rooms of AA, finding the comfort of a home group he’s still part of to this day.

Back in California, Trey S., a 22-year-old addict, compared the members of fellowships like this: “NA is definitely more of a mixed crowd. There’s a lot of diversity, incorporating more experiences with much heavier drugs, and I think there could be stronger personalities in the rooms because of that. This means a lot more opportunities for conflict.”

As is so often the case with young people with substance use disorders, Trey was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous through a rehabilitation center at the age of 16. He eventually gravitated towards NA, identifying more strongly with those rooms, particularly young people’s meetings.

“At the time AA felt more rigorous and less free-flowing. And I think in general NA attracts a younger recovery crowd, which makes sense because of the pill problem these days. I mean, I was on Adderall at 5 years old and I think that’s fairly common for my generation.”

As for the old-timers, like Red from the West Coast who has been a member of AA for over three decades, it’s often their job to remind us of that tried-and-true adage, principles before personalities, regardless of the fellowship.

“Whether it’s AA or NA, as long as you’re living your life according to a program of spiritual principles you’ll do okay,” he told me. “It doesn’t matter what gets you into the rooms, but what you do with yourself once you get here.”

About the Literature

Of course, changing recovery programs also means a change in the accompanying literature. After six years of study groups, sponsor assignments, and constant references to the Big Book, I had developed a deep appreciation for AA’s “bible” and was hesitant about NA’s basic text as well as the rest of the program’s literary canon. 

“So many people claim that all the answers are in the Big Book,” said Christy. “But Living Clean - it seems like every time I pick it up, whatever I read feels like it was written just for me.”

Living Clean is NA’s version of AA’s book, Living Sober, and both address the nitty gritty of living in recovery. Like instruction manuals for the soul and mind of an addict, both publications offer insights on topics such as relationships, aging, failure, and isolation.

I quickly learned that my AA books had NA counterparts that were just as valuable and respected. 

According to Trey, “Even though AA’s literature has more program history, it has more character. It actually feels more playful to me - while NA’s stuff strikes me as much more serious.”

But when Trey does his step work, he combines the books of both fellowships, studying all the information each program has to offer. “They each bring their own material to the table and all of it is important.”

“But the NA basic text is so much more international,” Johnny told me. “It feels all-inclusive. Through it I get an idea of what it’s like to be an addict in Iran, in Africa, all around the world. It makes the Big Book feel very old. Like an older language.”

When it comes to step work, Johnny also works with the writings of both fellowships, first reading what the Big Book and Twelve and Twelve lay out and then hitting the NA’s Step Working Guide afterwards.

This workbook is the most significant difference in program offerings.

“That thing makes you feel like you’re in a Master Class for sobriety,” Johnny claimed. “It challenges you to think things through more deeply.”

Finding that the Guide has become such a big part of his recovery, Johnny has begun searching for a new AA sponsor who would be willing to integrate the book and its myriad of intensely provoking questions into his program; a sort of AA/NA fusion.

Christy felt just as strongly about the Step Working Guide:

“Going through it reminds me of the kind of effort I put into my recovery at the very beginning,” she said. “My self-awareness is much higher because of it. And I’m sure my recovery is evolving more strongly as well.”

Like Johnny, Christy found that mixing and matching materials gave her a more balanced and satisfying program. In fact, while Christy’s primary fellowship was NA, she continued to go to one weekly AA meeting.

As for Johnny, his six meetings a week were equally split between AA and NA (Crystal Meth Anonymous, more specifically).

Trey was the purist of those I’d talked to, attending only NA meetings.

At this point in the conversations, I felt ready to start altering my own meeting schedule. Thoroughly advised on what to expect, I was excited to head over to NA and start sharing from the heart again.

But first I would have to learn how to talk.

About the Language

“We are presented with a dilemma; when NA members identify themselves as addicts and alcoholics or talk about living clean and sober, the clarity of the NA message is blurred.”

From NA’s Clarity Statement, read out loud at a meeting’s start. The gist of the announcement, from what I could gather, was that I was to no longer call myself an alcoholic because: “Our identification as addicts is all-inclusive.”  

And all I could think was, Here I go again.

“I was stopped mid-sentence at an NA meeting when I tried talking about the Promises,” said Johnny, referring to AA’s 9th step list of spiritual and material rewards. “I was disappointed in that. It was embarrassing and awkward. I wound up never going back to that particular meeting.”

Of course, censorship within the rooms goes both ways:

“I once saw someone completely shut down in AA when he mentioned his struggle with crystal meth,” Trey told me. “The chairperson interrupted him, saying, ‘Sorry, we don’t talk about that here.’”

That chairperson had been acting in accordance with the Singleness of Purpose, AA’s version of the Clarity Statement: “We ask that when discussing our problems, we confine ourselves to those problems as they relate to alcohol and alcoholism.” Remember the scolding I’d received from the old-timer when talking about the pills?

“In my first year of sobriety I was going to all the A’s - AA, NA, CA (Cocaine Anonymous),” joked old-timer Red. “I found out real quick that I couldn’t say this or I couldn’t say that, depending on where I went. In NA I couldn’t claim I was an alcoholic, and vice versa in AA and on and on and on. I don’t know about you but in the beginning I just wanted to say what I needed to say in order to get better!”

Trey agreed. “Sometimes you can feel negativity in the air when the Clarity Statement is read. I worry it stops people from speaking from the heart. I mean, as long as they’re sharing about appropriate behaviors and it’s coming from a loving and caring place, that’s great.”

About Recovery

As I compiled all my notes, the quotes and information, I was relieved to find an absence of what I’d feared most. Nowhere in my talks with these four fellow people in recovery did I find any negativity or slander from one fellowship against the other.

“I’ve always been aware of the contention between AA and NA,” Johnny had told me, “but I’ve been lucky to stay out of it. The groups I go to are small and intimate and I don’t have to hide whatever I may be struggling with, alcohol or drugs. They’re very supportive regardless.”

Christy agrees: “I can say that both AA and NA are responsible for saving my life and I gladly still participate in both.”

With Trey, one of the things he’d always admired most about NA is how the program openly acknowledged its roots. “Right on the first page of the introduction of the basic text, Narcotics Anonymous expresses gratitude towards AA for‘showing us the way to a new life.’

Yes, by the end of my inquiries it was clear that the fellowships of AA and NA can work together well, with a combined effort and goal of unity, service, and recovery.

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