Narcotics Anonymous is a worldwide support program from people who struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. It was founded in 1953 and employs a Twelve Stop Model similar to its sister program, Alcoholics Anonymous. They have over 61,000 meetings in 129 countries across the globe. It has helped tens of thousands of people get and stay clean. In other words, they’re not a passing fad.
Why then are there so many misconceptions about it?
The media plays no small role in perpetuating myths about Narcotics Anonymous. I was a member for many years. I worked all twelve steps, had a sponsor, and sponsored others. I’ve attended more than 2,500 meetings in five cities across two different states. Hollywood is more than welcome to contact me if they ever need pointers.
While I am sure that meetings vary from town to town and from country to country, the program follows a code of conduct. In addition to the Twelve Steps, there are also Twelve Principles, Twelve Concepts, and Twelve Traditions. Think by-laws, and you’re in the right zip code.
TV and movie depictions of meetings completely ignore these rules, especially the Twelve Traditions. The Traditions essentially govern how the entire organization operates – and by extension their meetings. Members consider them sacred. So whether the meeting is in Spokane, Washington or Helsiki, Finland, meetings are all run in the same basic way. This is how I can state with confidence that movies and TV almost always get it wrong. Here are 6 myths they portray as fact with their ridiculous and perhaps even dangerous depictions:
1. Narcotics Anonymous is only for junkies and crackheads.
In the 1998 movie Half Baked, Dave Chapelle’s character attends a meeting where he is booed off the stage because his drug of choice is marijuana. More recently, AMC’s Breaking Bad depicts Jesse attending a similar meeting that is clearly populated with junkies and crackheads. There are similar scenes in two different Showtime series, Nurse Jackie and Dexter. There are plenty of other examples. The implication here is that Narcotics Anonymous is only for heavy drug abusers, and the insinuation is that more mainstream substances like marijuana are somehow not addictive. While the severity of addiction may vary from drug to drug and from user to user, the fact is that people from all creeds and colors abuse all sorts of different drugs.
In a membership study conducted by in 2013, participants were asked which drugs they had used on a regular basis. 59% said Crack; 35% said Opiates, which includes heroin. Alcohol (90%) and Cannabis (68%) were the top two most commonly used drugs. Booze and weed, it seems, is what brings most people to their meetings.
These numbers directly contradict the messages we get from the media. While I get that Half Baked is a comedy, the reaction he gets from the other addicts in the room is the most unbelievable thing about that entire movie. Which is saying something.
And as for Mr. Chapelle’s treatment…
2. You don’t have to give a speech at your first meeting (or ever)
Newcomers – those who are attending their first meeting – are considered to be the most important person in the room. It says so in the Literature. So when Mr. Chapelle is booed off the stage for “only” being addicted to marijuana, or when Dexter is forced to tell his story, what you are seeing just simply does not happen. The last thing these meetings want to do is scare off new members, and making someone give a speech at their first meeting is a great way to do just that.
Some meetings do have speakers, but this is considered a voluntary honor, and is usually reserved for members with a significant amount of clean time. But even if that weren’t true, the Twelve Traditions are very clear about who can attend meetings. Tradition 3 states: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using.”
If you re-read that sentence, you might notice two things. First, it does not mention drugs. Second, it says the only requirement is a “desire” to stop using. There is nothing in the Traditions about having to speak from a podium, nor does any of the literature suggest that there is some sort of drug hierarchy.
And speaking of drugs…
3. It really has very little to do with drugs.
Any number of movies and TV shows depict Narcotics Anonymous meetings as places where drug addicts gather to talk about drug use. I can understand why people would think this – drug use, after all, is the common denominator. But once you start attending meetings, you learn very quickly that drugs are actually a taboo subject.
This is not to say that drug use does not come up. It absolutely does. Generally speaking, the newer members are the ones talking about drugs. After meetings, their sponsor, or someone with a little more experience, may come to them in private to let them know that meetings are really not a good place to talk about meth, crack, and heroin.
When you are trying to break an addiction to any drug, you learn to avoid triggers. Triggers can be anything, depending on the person. Obvious examples include the drugs themselves, the dealer who sold you the drugs, and the places you used to use them. Often times, though, even talking about using drugs can be a trigger. It is for this reason that drugs are not discussed nearly as much as you might think.
When any movie or TV show depicts a character speaking openly about drugs in a meeting, I cringe. I’m certain the writer has never been anywhere near an actual meeting. It would be like a group of combat veterans sitting in a room explaining to one another what it’s like to be in combat. There’s no point. Every person in the room already knows what you’re going to say. You might have one or two blowhards who love to tell war stories, but they are the exception, not the rule.
In reality, Narcotics Anonymous meetings are about living in a world where you do not have drugs as a coping mechanism. People do talk about their struggles to remain clean, but so much of it has to do with the realities of life that we all face – job searching, problems with their children, a friend who is sick or dying. These types of life events are that much harder for a recovering addict because many of them have no idea how to deal with problems without using drugs. Meetings become more about the solution and less about past. And those members with clean time share their “experience, strength and hope” to the younger members, and they talk about how they turned their life over to a Higher Power.
Which leads us to the next myth.
4. Narcotics Anonymous is not a religious organization
When I first started going to meetings, I’ll admit that this one had me confused. How can they talk about God and a higher Power and NOT be religious? It took me several months to figure it out.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists – you will find them all at these meetings. What you will not find is an actual Narcotics Anonymous meeting using religious texts in any way. Some Churches do have support groups based on the Twelve Step model, but these are not official meetings, per se. You will not hear the Lord’s Prayer at a meeting. You will not listen to readings from the Bible, or the Torah, or the Koran. Individual members may talk about their religious faith, but the organization is very clear about this in their literature. Their Tenth Tradition even states that Narcotics Anonymous “has no opinion on outside issues” and religion is definitely an outside issue.
Alccoholics Anonymous has its Big Book. Narcotics Anonymous has The Basic Text. If anything, those two books are the Bibles of those respective organizations. And as far as God goes, He is mentioned throughout the literature, but God – or a Higher Power – is not clearly defined the way it is organized religions. Instead, members can essentially select what or who they will choose to call their “Higher Power.” For some, God may literally be the God of the Bible; for others, God is an acronym that stands for Good Orderly Direction.
You might be wondering why they even talks about a higher Power in the first place. There is a good reason. The idea is that addiction, as a force, is something that we cannot confront on our own. In order to fight our addiction, we must enlist the help of a Higher Power, as we cannot do it alone. The Higher Power, then, is whatever helps the addict get and stay clean.
In the end, it’s just one addict helping another that makes the program work. Which leads us to…
5. Professionals do not lead these meetings
Several TV shows, including Nurse Jackie and Breaking Bad, depict Twelve Step meetings as being run by mental health clinicians – experts in the field of addiction. While it is true that hospitals and agencies have support groups that model themselves Twelve Step programs, actual meetings DO NOT have professionals running them. Once again, their Literature is very clear about this issue. The Tenth Tradition says they “should forever remain nonprofessional.” In other words, nobody is in charge. Meetings do have a chairperson, but their job is to call on people who want to share, welcome newcomers, and make coffee. Anything more than that is really pushing it.
There is nothing wrong with attending as group session run by a psychologist or counselor. It’s just not an Narcotics Anonymous meeting. And once again, there is a reason for this. In the Basic Text, it mentions that many of the members had tried religion, psychiatry, medicine, all to no avail. It does not want to associate itself with any form of professional organization, because of the stigmas they sometimes carry. It is a support group, plain and simple. The only professionals in the room are addicts themselves, there for the same reason as any other.
The closest thing Narcotics Anonymous has to a counselor-client type relationship is the one a member has with their sponsor. A sponsor is someone who has been around the program longer than you, preferably worked all or most of the steps, and has something that you want – namely, their “brand” of recovery. We all have different styles, and recovery is no different. Addicts pick sponsors to guide them through the Steps and to be their role model as they go through the process of recovery. Which leads us to our final myth:
6. You Will Not End Up Sleeping With Your Sponsor
Showtime’s Dexter was an engrossing and well written TV show with a curious twist. Dexter, the titular main character, is a forensics expert for the Miami Police Department and moonlights as a serial killer who hunts other serial killers. As a fan of the show, I could accept that premise, as far fetched as it was. But of all the bizarre things that happen in the 8 year run of Dexter, none of them are as stupid as the show’s depiction of sponsorship in Narcotics Anonymous.