The Recovery Blog

What are your thoughts about addicts in AA instead of NA?

There is absolutely no reason why addicts shouldn’t attend AA meetings.  However, AA has traditions that are important to the fellowship and to many of the members.  One of those is that they generally confine their discussions to alcoholism and recovery from alcoholism.

Disregarding the fact that alcoholism is an addiction like any other, and disregarding the “a drug is a drug is a drug” of NA, keeping drugs out of the conversation is the custom at the majority of AA meetings.  Everyone attending — cross-addicted people like me, and people not addicted to alcohol at all — should follow that custom in most cases.  It’s simply good manners.

There are, however, situations where a person is in crisis, and simply needs a meeting of whatever kind.  In that case it is perfectly proper — hell, it’s a life-threatening emergency — to say whatever we need to say in order to get whatever kind of support we need.  What I would do in that situation is simple.  I’d raise my hand and say “I’m not an alcoholic, but I really, really need help because I’m about to use.  Will someone come outside and talk to me about it?”  I would probably be invited to stay and say what I need to say, and if not I’d have a horde of people headed for the door with me.

Really, the substance has nothing to do with it.  What matters are the emotions, the behaviors and the solutions.  Those are the same for all addictions, and anyone should be able to talk about them in any meeting without ever mentioning alcohol or any other drug.

Just One Won’t Hurt

In the Atlanta area Sunrise Detox center, a recent conversation turned to relapse, and the “just one drink” question.

Suddenly it seems totally logical. It won't hurt to have one. Of whatever. You've been working so hard to abstain from substances or behaviors that are detrimental to you, yet suddenly it seems rational to the point of thinking, “Why didn't I realize this before?”

Relapse Reasons: There are Many

It’s likely that two things have happened. You have changed circumstances, such as getting a job where everyone goes out together for happy hour or running into an old friend you used with, and hanging out. Maybe you've been listening to someone who takes their own relapse lightly and doesn’t admit to the pain it has brought him/her. Or you may have tapped into resentment or rage. You may, for example, feel self-pitying, jealous or vengeful. Perhaps you've skipped a meal and your blood sugar is low. Whatever has happened, has created in you a change of perspective. Your thought process shifts. What seemed like anathema before, now seems like your birthright, suddenly revealed.


The first step reminds us that going back is not an option.

The First Step: We Need to move Forward

But I said two things have happened and the other is that a reservation has been nurtured deep inside and today is it’s day. A justification, a loss of perspective, and a treasured belief immersed in the the shadowy recesses of your consciousness: the perfect storm is born. Supporting relapse.

Just One Drink can lead to Relapse

That one pill, toke, beer, scratch-off ticket or chocolate cake ala mode immediately activates the brain’s addictive response. You may never know exactly when the relapse began but you can be sure of the moment it became official. Your thinking may be that just once is worth a little discomfort and after that one time, you'll stop. It’s a hard way to learn about powerlessness but once the addiction is triggered you can't possibly predict where the relapse will end.

Figuring Out Why is the Key to Success

If you've gone to the trouble of working your recovery with the Step-work, the meetings, the lifestyle changes and more, there must be a very good reason. You were motivated to change because it finally became (clearly) more painful to continue with your addiction than to stop. At some point you must have become aware that you could not do this on your own, that it was too great a battle, this fight with yourself. You had to have help because, whether you used that word or not, you were powerless. You were beaten.

If You're Not Moving Forward, Are you Moving Backwards?

A reservation can’t exist in the same mind that is firmly convinced it is powerless over the outcome of any sort of acting out that you might do. You may have heard in the rooms of AA, NA, OA or whatever A you attend, that if you're not moving forward in your recovery, you're moving backward. There is no standing still. If you begin to believe that using one of anything that you are addictively drawn to is OK and that you are not powerless over your activated addiction, you simply can’t be moving forward.

Your First Recovery is a Gift

It’s worth remembering, too, something else you've heard in the 12-Step rooms. That the first time you're in recovery it is a gift. After that, after you relapse, you have to do the work to get back into recovery

Honest, Open, Willing – READY

We see the acronym “H.O.W.” on the wall of just about every 12-step club we enter, and often in church basements, treatment centers and other places where meetings are held. Honest, Open and Willing are the cornerstones of recovery. Without them, there’s little to no chance of our getting and staying sober.

An Honest Challenge

We need to be honest with ourselves and others. To begin with, this is hard. The farther we get from our drinking and drugging the easier it gets, but honesty doesn’t come naturally to alcoholics and other addicts. We've become accustomed to protecting our drugs and justifying our behavior by half-truths, downright lies and omissions that dishonesty is our default mode, at least in some things. The old AA saying, “I used to lie when it would have been easier to tell the truth”, is dead on for most of us.

To start with, honesty is easiest with folks who don’t threaten us much. That’s why it’s important to open up in meetings and begin to practice telling the truth. No matter how unpleasant it may seem to us, there will be people in the room who've been there, done that, and will be unsurprised and non-judgmental. Once we’ve become accustomed to the idea that the sky isn’t going to fall on us, we can consider expanding our truth-telling to others in our lives. We can learn to become more open with whomever we’re with.

be-honestLearning to Tell the Truth

That doesn’t mean that we spill the beans to everyone and his brother. Although the relief we feel in early recovery may cause us to lean in the direction of over-disclosure, it’s probably not a good idea to shock the civilians—certainly with no forewarning. What is important, though, is that we begin to incorporate honesty into our dealings with everyone. Just as lying is learned behavior, so must we learn to tell the truth automatically (as scary as that may be to begin with).

We have to be willing to make the changes necessary in allowing us to be honest and open with others. This requires a firm understanding of the damage our opposite behavior has had in the past, and the potential for further harm. Part of this will come more or less automatically as part of our 4th and 5th Step work, but it is never too soon to consider the value of honesty in our program. If I lie about selected things, then I have to lie to cover up the lies, and sooner—rather than later—I’m so wound up in my stories that the whole thing falls apart. Where do I have to go from there? All too often, it’s back to the old ways of coping with a life gone out of control.

Living Honestly

We need also to be willing to allow others to be open and honest with us. Addicts are experts at getting folks to leave us alone. We withdraw, change the subject, lash out, become amorous, walk away and use a variety of other tricks to make confrontation difficult for others. But if we expect to become clean and sober, to take our place in the real world we must become willing to learn from others and accept their feedback. We've been living in our own heads for far too long. Now it’s time to find the real us and live that story, instead of some drugged-out fairy tale.

Creativity in Substance Abuse Recovery

In treatment we are often exposed to “art therapy.” This usually involves crayons, paper maché, watercolors, scissors, old magazines and a variety of other things that we can use to express what’s going on inside – if we choose to participate. It’s usually fun after we get started, and it actually does help us reveal to ourselves the things that are on our minds. One of its biggest benefits is that it requires us to think about our issues in a different way, rather than simply allowing the hamster cage in our head to spin…and spin…and spin….

Everyone is Creative

All human beings have a creative side. It may be art, dance, custom cars, writing, cooking, photography, building cabinets, poetry, carving wood, music, gardening or any number of other areas, but if we look for them we will eventually find them. And we need to look, because art taps a part of our minds that we can’t access completely when we are doing other things. It helps us let go of rigid thinking, releases our spontaneity, and is a good opportunity to turn off the cares of the world and allow our minds to rest for a bit. The important part is to create, not simply let someone else do it for us.

Creativity expands our body, mind, and spirit, allowing us to create beauty that never existed before -- inside and out.

Creativity is an extremely helpful outlet, particularly when working toward recovery and sobriety.

Creativity is an Important Outlet

It’s important to find things that nurture the spirit and widen our possibilities. Artists don’t paint the same masterpiece over and over. Writers don’t rewrite their novels. We need activities that challenge us to do better without putting us on a competitive basis with others. We don’t want to be in a position where we believe others are judging us; that creates stress. But the haiku that no one else will read until we are good and ready, the rose bush that didn’t make it (this time) or the drawing we botched can be set aside until we are ready to laugh at ourselves – and that time will come.

Because we are sober now, we can feel the simple pleasures that we may not have noticed when we were looking for the next high, the next thrill. Being able to notice the beauty in life allows us to connect with the joy of others, expanding our spirit to meet theirs, and to connect with the satisfaction of a job well done just because we wanted to do it.

We're Our Own Greatest Creation

In recovery, we get to work on our greatest creation – ourselves. We get to decide on the changes we are going to make in ourselves and our lives, and then we get to see them happen as we work our program and move toward sobriety. Instead of the facade we built to deceive the world in our addiction we can become who we really are, but we can only achieve this if we allow ourselves to have fun. We need to fill the time that we formerly used for acting out in our addictions, and we need to give ourselves time to relax. Anything we enjoy can help us achieve this, as long as it is not “work” but something that we do for ourselves. Creativity expands our body, mind and spirit, and by doing so allows us to create beauty that has never existed before, inside us and out.

Gratitude Lists

The good things in our lives are easy to overlook while we concentrate on the negative, and if we do that a lot our outlook on life can become generally negative. That path leads to “I might as well drink or use drugs, because I’m miserable anyway!”

Meditation Equals Happiness, Positivity

Gratitude lists are a powerful tool in recovery, and it’s always a good idea to make one out when we’re feeling sorry for ourselves.It is equally true that some time spent meditating on the good things in our lives can make us far more happy and positive individuals—grateful for that which we have, instead of mourning all the things we don’t. Gratitude lists are a powerful tool in recovery, and it’s always a good idea to make one out when we’re feeling sorry for ourselves.

Many of us concentrate on what we want, instead of what we have. Our Western society is based on consumerism—desire for the next great thing—and many billions of dollars are spent supporting the frame of mind that keeps us wanting, and spending, and wanting again. The same is true of other parts of life. Popular entertainment and society combine to make us believe that certain things mean success, and that we need those things to be happy. Along those lines, it is worth noting that people in Third World countries tend to report that they are generally happy more often than people in the US, despite their much lower standards of living.

The Root of Unhappiness

We may have been led to believe that no matter how hard we try, we’ll never be good enough. This is a dangerous expectation.Unhappiness arises from expectations. We expect other people in our lives to behave in a particular way, and they persist in doing things that go against our wants. We may have been allowed to grow up believing that only a certain amount of effort is needed in life, and after that we’re entitled to reap the benefits—regardless of reality. This is guaranteed to make us bitter when the rest of the world doesn't see things that way. Or we may have been led to believe that no matter how hard we try, we’ll never be good enough. This is a dangerous expectation indeed, because it leads to a feeling of defeat that pretty much guarantees that the prediction will prove to be true. Reality is in the middle: if we work hard, we’ll gain what we need, and what we need is usually good enough.

Oftentimes, we spend many years being  ‘more, more, more' types of people, and there is always the temptation to believe that things can make us happy. Fortunately, it is possible to learn that isn't the case — ever —and that we can often improve our mood, demeanor and serenity by bringing our thoughts back to the basic fact that we may or may not be responsible for the ideas we've allowed to be poured into our minds, but we are responsible for how we choose to deal with them.

Small Things Can Help Create Happiness

Sitting down with pen and paper, and concentrating on writing a list of things that we're grateful for can offset the idea that happiness is dependent on things outside of ourselves—that we can buy happiness, or that someone else can fill us with it. It can help us to appreciate what we already have, and also to decide what’s really important and what isn't. In my life, I can choose to have an “attitude of gratitude,” or I can let my demons drag me around by my wants. It’s up to me.

Newcomers Get on My Nerves! Perspective on 12 Step “Newbies”, from a Person in Recovery

Cancer patients didn’t plan their journey. Diabetics didn’t eagerly await a restricted diet and daily medication. People who use alcohol and other drugs never, ever expect to become addicted. It’s a rare person who has never tried a potentially addictive substance. For those with a genetic predisposition, a few tastes of something that fulfills a need and makes them feel better in some way and the ball is rolling.

It's important to remember that addiction is a disease, even as it affects the most cherished aspects of our lives.

It's important to remember that addiction is a disease, even as it affects the most cherished aspects of our lives.

The Disease Model of Addiction

Addiction to alcohol and other drugs is recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the Centers for Disease Control and many other reputable organizations. Many well-documented studies support this stance.

It happens instantly for some, far in the future for others, but usually somewhere in between. Maybe it’s a few cocktails. Maybe it’s sniffing a little heroin. Maybe a doctor has prescribed opiates for severe pain, or benzos for anxiety or sleeplessness. If a genetic predisposition is present, or if these substances are consumed for an extended period, physiological changes will occur and the user will develop tolerance. Their brain adapts by increasing the number of receptor sites responsive to the molecules of that substance, and then requires more of the drug to achieve the same result. That is tolerance, and the beginning of dependence.

The brain doesn’t differentiate between legal and illegal drugs. It doesn’t care if they’re socially acceptable. Words written by a doctor on a piece of paper have no effect whatsoever on how that drug will change brain chemistry. In fact, abuse, per se, does not need to occur to produce dependence. Taking an addictive substance as prescribed, for a sufficient length of time, can be all it takes to produce the changes we call addiction.

Denial is a huge feature of addiction, and newcomers may not be aware of how fearful they are.

Denial is a huge feature of addiction; newcomers may not be aware of how fearful they are.

Identifying as an Addict

According to the Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous (NA): “Who is an addict? Most of us do not have to think twice about this question. We know! Our whole life and thinking was centered in drugs in one form or another – getting and using and finding ways and means to get more, We lived to use and used to live. Very simply, an addict is a man or woman whose life is controlled by drugs. We are people in the grip of a continuing and progressive illness whose ends are always the same: jails, institutions and death.”

Knowing how bleak the outcome can be, it’s heartening to hear a recovering addict say, “I was a hopeless dope fiend; now I’m a dopeless hope fiend.” But that comes later, after abstinence, work, and change. Those are probably not the folks we’re talking about. For addicts, stopping using substances is a frightening experience even for the ones who are highly motivated to get clean/dry out/get into recovery. Denial is a huge feature of addiction, so they may not even be aware of how fearful they are; they just know they’re feeling something uncomfortable and want it to STOP —NOW! Until we educate them otherwise, they only know one way to make that happen: use drugs, be they liquid or “dry goods”.

A Perspective on Newcomers to 12 Step Meetings

Of course, some newcomers really just want to get high. They are still “in the grip of that continuing and progressive illness” and haven’t yet reached a point where they are motivated to seek recovery because they want it for its own sake. They may never be ready. They may die first. Their motivation for going to detox, to treatment, to meetings is probably about making the consequences stop. That’s pretty normal, don’t you think? Pretty human? If they’re lucky enough to stick around for awhile, they may come to understand that the consequences are waiting just outside the door for those who don’t do the necessary work. If only we could reach them all!

Using was a Full Time Job. So is Recovery.

It’s good to remember as well that when human beings spend most of their time thinking about/obtaining/justifying/hiding their substance, actually using it, and recovering from using, they have little time for introspection, development of social skills, or learning how to cope with life. Using becomes a full-time job. Much of what might be termed personality or behavior is actually fear-based camouflage, a desperate attempt to look and/or feel okay.

Newcomers' masks are still evident, but to lecture or scold someone who is beginning recovery is will threaten their precarious facade.

Newcomers' masks are still evident. That's why 12 step programs work so well. Sharing helps to shed inner light on the person beneath the facade.

Sharing is Helpful – Letting Everyone Share Experiences

To lecture or scold someone who is at this newcomer level is to threaten their precarious facade. Addicts are very sensitive, though they will go to great lengths to avoid showing it, and they will raise an invisible fortress when a finger is shaken in their direction—usually unaware that they’re even doing it. Then they can’t hear a thing!

That’s probably why 12-step programs work so well. The theory is that we share only our experience, strength and hope, and who can feel threatened by that? Of course, at times advice shows up in the rooms, even directives! But after all, recovering people, even those with time, are human, too.

12 Step Newbies are Good People with Illness

Possibly the most useful approach when working with newcomers (or just being around them) is to view them as good people with an illness that affects them emotionally and behaviorally. Hopefully they have begun their journey in recovery, but they are still in the grip of insanity. If you can blend empathy and compassion with vigilance and skepticism, and if you can remain aware of the unfortunate fact that we can’t fix anyone but ourselves, you may find newcomers just a little less trying.

The Wrong Side Of The Bed

Those in recovery have to be especially mindful on bad days.

Some days, there are four wrong sides to the bed and we crawled out of every one of them.

The way we feel when we wake up gives us an idea of how our day may go. Sometime we just feel off-balance, edgy and out of sorts. Little things bug us: the water in the shower takes too long to get warm; someone forgot to put the cap back on the toothpaste for the thousandth time, “someone” (certainly not us!) forgot to fill the coffee-maker last night so we have to wait ten f****g minutes for our first cup! We’ve all been there; there are mornings when there are four wrong sides to the bed and we feel as though we crawled out on every one of them.

We all have bad days; it’s part of the human condition. Maybe we didn’t get enough sleep. Maybe the baby woke us up with an earache and we hardly got any sleep at all. Maybe we had a fuss with a partner, or too much coffee. Or maybe we don’t know why we’re in a bad mood. It happens.

Better Choices May Offset Bad Days

But one thing is for sure: starting the day that way means that something’s up, and because we aren’t at our strongest emotionally, we have to take special care with our recovery. We can start by eating a decent breakfast instead of coffee and a doughnut at the local fat dispensary. Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired is not just a cute acronym for clubhouse walls. Sugars and fats mess up our blood sugar, helped along by caffeine, and that kind of breakfast can create a rough morning all by itself. Combine it with tired and grumpy, and lonely is right around the corner, because no one likes a grouch.

So what we need to do, whether we feel like it or not, is reach out to others in the program. We can make a phone call to someone we know is also an early riser (or late, as the case may be), read some program literature, or journal about how we’re feeling. If we know we have things ahead of us that we’ll have difficulty addressing, like a chat with the boss, we can journal about ways to handle it. That forces us to think more or less clearly about it, and we will likely approach the meeting – or whatever – better prepared. We can write some affirmations to take with us and read just before we go in.

Feeling Irritable? Watch Out for Triggers

If our issues seem to be related to wanting to act out in our addictions, we can make more phone calls, plan the night before to hit an early meeting, and call our sponsor and let him or her in on the planning. We need to be especially careful about people, places and things that can trigger us. A shaky day is not the time to have lunch with people who will order a drink, catch a burger at the local sports bar, or spend time in places where we used to act out our addictions, whatever they may be.

If we have been in the program for a while, we will likely do these things almost automatically, but even old-timers have bad days, and everyone needs to be careful when those times come along. We can think ahead, prepare for rough spots, and act before we are triggered – or worse. It’s much easier than picking up the pieces afterward.