The Only Requirement for Membership Is the Desire to Stop

By Tracey Helton Mitchell 02/12/18

My abstinence is not threatened by what other folks do outside of the meeting. A person can’t get clean if they are dead.

A person reaching out, trapped behind a blurred screen
Harm reduction is the better option--sometimes the only option--for many people and the stigma against it needs to end.

I am a Twelve Stepper.

I went to my first meeting in 1988. My friend had just been discharged from a rehab facility. She sheepishly asked if another friend and I would go to the meeting to “support” her. We humbly obliged. We hit the six pack in the parking lot then stepped into the meeting. Despite the fact that I was raised by one alcoholic and one long term member of alanon, I had never really understood what went on in these meetings. There were posters with “Easy Does It” and “Do the Next Right Thing” as well as the steps hanging on the walls. I was 17 years old. I had just started drinking recreationally because recreation meant downing warm beers in 20 seconds or less. No one made me feel less than. I heard a few things I related to that night. More importantly, I bookmarked that experience for later use.

Fast forward to 1998. I was 27 years old and beginning my journey to recovery in handcuffs. There is still a lack of clarity around my date; was the last day I drank and used February 25th? February 26th? Honestly, I was too fucked up to remember. The Last Day was like my Last Supper as everything was on the menu: speed, heroin, some weed, some crack, a klonopin (or two) and a 40oz to wash that down. As I was dragged off to the county jail, I made a commitment to follow through with my plan to attempt recovery.

The years had not been kind to me: broken teeth, 34 abscesses, no veins, hepatitis C, and the jail where I was being housed was concerned I was seroconverting to HIV. I had boldly requested to go to a treatment program in the face of a three and a half year prison term. I was trying to “demonstrate” my willingness by voluntarily being placed in the program section of the county jail. Lying on my bunk one night, I heard the sound of laughter coming from the other side of the deputy station. Curious about how anyone could muster anything that resembled happiness in that place, I dragged my blanket over and sat in the circle of what I now know to be a 12-step meeting. To say I was “willing” at that point is arguable. It depended on the day. Within 24 hours, I would cuss out the staff for suggesting I get up for an intake interview for rehab. I probably wanted to stop more than I wanted to use. What I did know was I wanted some of what was in that meeting that night. I stayed. I’ve stayed for nearly 20 years.

In the early phases of my recovery, anything besides what I considered total abstinence was using. Period. There was zero wiggle room in my perception of sobriety. If the rooms brainwashed me, maybe I needed my brain washed, I told myself. I was “clean” for the first time in my life. Adhering strictly to program guidelines was a part of my life and I made my commitment clear to anyone who cared to ask me for my opinion. In retrospect, I believe it was a form of self-preservation. My fear of medication-assisted therapies, of being around people in any state of intoxication, or any type of social drinking in my presence made me question the strength of my own sobriety. Instead of being based in love, my philosophy was based in both fear and a need to be right about my own personal decisions.

I am a Harm Reductionist.

In 2000, I found a message on my desk at work. A person named Jacob B. had called about a job. I knew right away this was my friend Jake. He had been featured along with myself in the movie Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street. He was in a program! He was looking for work, did I have anything? I was shocked at the transformation. Of all the folks people said were the least likely to stop using drugs, certainly anyone who knew us would have ranked us near the top. Yet here we both were, doing the thing. He was going to school, going to meetings, he even had a girlfriend. I was excited for him.

A few months later I saw Jake at Gilman Street, a drug- and alcohol-free venue in Berkeley California famous for punk rock shows. Jake was working the door as a volunteer. I was excited to see him in person. He caught me up to his current situation. He had finished his treatment program, was going to meetings, taking all the meds related to his multiple health conditions, and staying clean.

"I'm tapering off methadone too Tracey." For the first time, my visceral reaction was to wonder why he would want to taper off. It was clearly working for him. The evidence was in front of me.

"How come?" I asked, yet I already knew the reason. People are very judgemental about methadone. I was very judgemental. Realizing this made me pause. Jake explained that people told him he was not really clean because of the methadone, so he had been tapering slowly. But now he was starting to have a hard time. I wasn’t sure what to say that would have helped. I regret not saying more, supporting him. Instead, I wished him well and headed inside.

A few weeks later, I saw Jake for the last time. He was slumped down on Market Street wearing the same sweatshirt from the night at Gilman. He was dirty, his face was torn up. He looked defeated. Within a few weeks of tapering off the methadone, he had relapsed. I hoped the same people who encouraged him to get off the medication that had provided stability in his life would now help him get back on.

Jake died in his room alone. Two people from the 12-step meeting came and knocked on his door and when he didn’t answer, they called the police. The police forced their way in and found him. He had been dead for four days.

I was pissed, so pissed at his memorial service. Your judgements killed him, I thought bitterly. Advice was provided to him based on personal opinions, not facts. Why couldn't he be “clean” the way he needed to be? If the only requirement is a desire to stop, surely he met that criteria. He went to meetings religiously. Why was he made to feel less than for his medical decisions? I came to believe that the purpose of meetings was to make people feel welcome. Period. The attraction made him crave sobriety yet it was the judgements of others that drove him to make the decision that ultimately killed him.

When I say I am a Harm Reductionist, this means I am working to reduce the negative consequences associated with drug use. When I say I am a twelve stepper, that means I have chosen to join a program that is welcome and open to everyone seeking recovery. My abstinence is not threatened by what other folks do outside of the meeting. A person can’t get clean if they are dead. Harm Reduction is a continuum with abstinence at one end and active drug use at the other. In my work, we support healthy choices. Forms of Harm Reduction include: seat belts, sunscreen, syringe exchange, condoms—all the things that have managed to keep me alive and healthy.

Within a few months of Jake’s death, I got a part-time job teaching rescue breathing and overdose prevention. I still attend meetings, I still work with newcomers. I am much more mindful of any form of advice.

I will never forget Jake. His memory inspires my work today.

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Tracey Helton Mitchell is a harm reduction advocate living in the SF Bay Area. She is author of The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin and presents nationally on issues related to the opioid crisis. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.