An Addict’s Dilemma: AA or NA?

My five years as a junkie was a mass of contradictions. Today, over a year clean, life can still be that way.

I remember sitting on the Green Line heading west from downtown. I’d melt as soon as I sat down in the plastic seat with gang signs tagged in sharpie all over it. The train’s clashing metal blared from the tracks, interrupting my nod. In a junkie daze I’d look up at the other passengers—one time, I remember looking up and the entire car was filled with fiends. Gaunt features, pin-wheeled pupil eyes and dejected stares, we’re easy to spot. We were all heading to the West Side to get off at the same stop to cop on the same corner.

That’s how it is in Chicago, and things don’t seem to be changing anytime soon. I just turned 24 and I look back on those times as profoundly beautiful and wretched.

I was in the dope scene in Denver for a little while too. I was 21 at the time. Several times a day I was getting balloons delivered to the front door of my Capitol Hill apartment. I remember trying to cook up that soupy brown liquid dope that reeked of vinegar and burnt marshmallow just barely seeing the blood squirt back when I registered the shot. I always preferred Chicago’s pristine white powder so I could see it shoot back into the hypodermic, the solution turning into a red tie-dye for a second, until it disappeared inside me.

At 22 I tried to kick and get clean back in Chicago, where I grew up. My first honest attempt started in detox, then intensive outpatient and sober living, while attending several meetings a week. I told myself and everyone else that I was committed.

I hit both AA and NA meetings all the time. I couldn’t stand NA. But I was a dope fiend and I thought it was where I was supposed to go. I love narcotics, and I could care less about alcohol. The NA meetings were about 45 minutes of reading literature, and I never understood how that was helping anybody. The people with a lot of clean-time would also shout sidebar comments in unison throughout the readings—it all felt churchy. Then another half-hour on key-tags with clever sayings for each “milestone.” I never stood up to get one. I didn’t want to be hugged, nor did I want to sport a bright key-chain that would out me. Finally, at the end of the meetings, with 20 minutes to spare, people would share their experience of getting clean. It all seemed backwards and ineffective, so I quit going to NA.

The AA meetings I attended were quicker and straight to business. I still identified myself as, “Zach, addict.” Intellectually I told myself that these people were just addicted to alcohol, so they’re addicts too, and that “alcoholism” is just an antiquated label. I felt like an outlier, given that I was younger than most and lacked an extensive drinking history. But at this point, I was desperately clinging onto anything that could save me.

Though the AA meetings were a bit more “buttoned-up” than NA, I felt that I related to a lot of their thought patterns and shared similar debacles, despite my lack of drinking. Like how we all just seem to go on a binge at the most inappropriate times—right before a job interview, or right when school starts, or at a family gathering. However, the meetings were not giving me much relief. I still felt like I was in a fog and that life was just a bad dream. I then got a sponsor and tried to work the steps. I tried to believe that a God would come and swoop down from the heavens and relieve me of the obsession. I tried believing in a God who knew my name, and could hear my thoughts, answer my prayers.

“Fake it till you make it,” they told me. I faked it until I went mad. I realized that when I’m shooting smack I’m unconsciously lying to myself on several levels that are beyond my understanding. But lying to myself sober I became an even bigger phony than when I was using.

After getting honest, I gave up on both AA and NA. I started to shoot up again. I picked up right where I left off: hundred bucks a day straight into my arm. Back to riding the Green Line heading west in that train-car filled with junkies.

That run lasted another year. My parents and Hazelden Chicago intervened and sent me up to Hazelden inpatient, the kiddy Hazelden, in Plymouth Minnesota. I went because I was broken and dying, too apathetic to fight or put up an intellectual defense.

I shot up before getting on the plane and landed in Minnesota. I cringed, instantly fighting any spiritual AA jargon the clinical staff could throw at me. They beat me over the head with step one and I’d yell about how step one was not my problem: I know I am a junkie, I just don’t care and nobody can save me. No counselors, doctors, or parents, especially no God. But that’s what I needed. I needed to be saved.

Finally feeling better after kicking (that only took three weeks), I had some decent nights of sleep and ate some food. I was sent to the extended stay unit for three extra months on top of the 28-day original stint. The kids in that unit were dubbed, “the sickest of the sick.” I had accepted a few things by that time: I cannot keep living like this, and I cannot do this to my family anymore. Those two sentiments were enough to have me comply with the rules and do the assignments, grudgingly.

In that four months of inpatient they took us to four meetings a week, one of which was NA. That NA meeting was more amusing than therapeutic. Eccentric characters would yell sayings that didn’t make any sense. A seriously unhinged man shouted, “You don’t go to a whorehouse to play Chinese checkers!”

Being in treatment I felt more like an observer than part of the meetings, so I just began to make naturalistic observations. At NA, very few people were willing to be sponsors, maybe the same two or three people would raise their hands, and word got around that they already had 20 sponsees each and couldn’t help any more people. Others would get up to collect their 30 or 60 day key-tag and then disappear. After four months of that NA meeting I just weighed empirical evidence: NA (that meeting at least), was just not effective. And I still hated the hugs.

The three AA meetings that we went to each week were loud and vibrant. They were big meetings with a lot of young men and women collecting serious time, many of whom said that both drugs and alcohol had beaten them down. When the chair asked who could sponsor, over half of the room raised their hands. In some meetings, practically the whole room, with the exception of us treatment kids, were willing to be sponsors.

The decision was a no-brainer. The evidence was clear, for me, that AA just worked. I even saw some atheists/agnostics picking up medallions, right alongside the fanatic believers. My only out had been that I didn’t believe; after witnessing these likeminded people stay sober, I realized I could too.

My existential dilemma has gotten easier to deal with. I still don’t understand why AA works, but I find myself caring less and less. AA and NA meetings do not save me, but they help. It’s also clear to me that drugs and alcohol were never my problem—they were my only solution. So it makes little sense to me that AA and NA would have a beef with each other. Some alcoholics still scoff when they hear someone introduce themselves as an addict in their meeting. I just say “Zach, alcoholic” now. Some people in NA will look visually disturbed when someone says they have been sober for a while, the correct terminology for them is “clean.” What’s the difference?

Beyond the trivial differences between AA and NA, the real selling point for me is the literature. Reading AA’s Big Book has helped me understand the nature of my condition more than years of studying psychology and philosophy. Universities gave me a fancy vocabulary at best, resulting in zero understanding of my insanity. The NA text reads much like a dull, diluted “brief-overview” textbook.

I haven’t gone to an NA meeting in months, and have little desire to try it out again. I found my niche being a junkie in AA. The substance is only the tip of the iceberg, and below is a madness that drove me to do absurd things just to feel OK. I feel OK most of the time now, and picking up a needle no longer seems like my only solution.