Story of a Recovering Addict

Following is an interview that I did with a recovering addict. He now has over 13 years in recovery, and has a master’s degree in addiction counseling.  His history demonstrates how NA can help an addict, and illustrates some of the main tenants of 12-step recovery.

JB: What kinds of drugs did you use?

ML: Everything. I shot cocaine, Dilaudids, heroin, quarter-grain morphine tablets, and always alcohol. Alcohol and marijuana were just a given. They were daily.

JB: Can opioid addicts get clean just using NA?

ML: Yeah. My sponsor did, and other people [have].

JB: What percentage of people in NA used opioids?

ML: Back in1982, when I entered recovery, it seemed like seventy-five percent of people in NA used opiates. Then in the 1980s, more people addicted to crack came into NA, so now I’d estimate about fifty percent or less. But there’s no numbers [statistics kept by NA].

JB: How else has NA changed?

ML: Back in the early days of NA, most addicts hit a low bottom, before coming to NA, but now, with the growth of treatment centers, drug courts, information on the internet…when my father told me I had to leave the house unless I got help, I looked in the phone book and there were only two numbers to call for help. I called the Council on Alcoholism and got directed to AA. There’s been such a growth in [addiction treatment resources]. Every family has had experience with some kind of addiction. There’s more acceptance and knowledge now. People get to NA before they hit the kind of bottom that I did. That’s a good thing.

JB: How effective is NA? Some people say that only two percent of people who go to a twelve step meeting stay clean. What do you say to that?

ML: (laughs) I’d like to know where they got their numbers.

A lot of people get their start in NA and find other means to recover…other fellowships, churchs,…it’s an individual thing. It depends on what kind of living situation the individual is in, how willing the individual is [to get clean], and what kind of recovery the people at those [NA] meetings have. It depends on how deeply they get involved in that fellowship [NA].

In my case, I went to meetings for more than a year, but I didn’t work any steps. But I stayed clean, by going to meetings and getting support from the people at the meetings. Then I moved away and didn’t have that support. It didn’t take long for me to relapse. I was around old friends I used with, old sights and sounds…It takes more than just going to meetings to be successful. There are always exceptions, though. Some people have stayed clean for years that way.

In my case, the seed was planted. I wasn’t at a point where I could honestly look at my situation. So after I skinned my ass up [experienced consequences from using drugs], I went to inpatient treatment and then a halfway house. Plus meetings [Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous]. I had a little more honesty, a little more willingness. But that second time, I didn’t work all the steps. I had three and a half years clean, got to the fourth step, and I relapsed. That relapse happened when my priorities shifted from going to meetings five or six times per week to relationships, working twelve hour days, hunting and fishing. Looking back, being surrounded by people in recovery was carrying me along.

It wasn’t long. I hadn’t experienced the change that comes from working all of the steps. It was only a matter of time before the self-deception set in. How in the hell could I talk myself into thinking I could sell dope, without using it? I was dissatisfied with my job, went traveling, and met “X.” He knew I’d hauled dope out of Florida in the past, for my brother in law. He asked about my connections and asked if I could help him move some kilos. I told him I still knew a few people, but I can’t be handling the stuff. I talked myself into believing I could sell that stuff and not use it. Insane.

That led to two and a half years in state prison. This put me in a controlled environment. I knew enough about recovery and the twelve steps and the change that can happen. I’d heard enough about it that I reached out and asked people I knew in NA to get me some [recovery reading] material. That was in 1988. They didn’t have as many 12-step meetings or substance abuse programs [in jail] then like they have now. I had to reach out and ask for help. I paid “Y” [an inmate] a candy bar so he would allow me to have an NA meeting in his cell, because it was the biggest. I paid a candy bar to him each meeting. He’d never been to a meeting in his life. This was in the county jail.

When we both got to state prison, they had NA meetings there. He got real involved. He got clean and is still clean today! He has twenty-one years in recovery, works in construction, and travels the world. I went to an AA meeting a few years ago, when I was visiting a town in Alabama, and it turned out he was speaking that night. He pointed to me and said, “That man is one of the reasons I’m here.” (At this point, ML tears up and takes a pause).

I had regular correspondence with friends, who sent me recovery literature. There was a “black market” step working guide. I used it and that’s the first time I did a “fearless and searching moral inventory” of myself. I didn’t have anyone to do my fifth step with [this is the step where the addict admits to God, himself, and another human being the exact nature of his wrongs].

At this point, I was in the county jail, about to go to state prison. This guy from Minnesota was in jail for thirty days for old warrants. It turns out he had a few years of recovery. He heard my fifth step and guided me through step seven. He mentioned his dad got [was sentenced to] forty years for murder. In the late 1970’s, when I was bringing cocaine out of Miami, the guy who set me up with the Columbians was named “Z”. I would meet him in a field [to exchange drugs] and he had a young boy with him. The guy who heard my fifth step was his son!

I’d been going in the front door of this state prison for six years, as an NA member, bringing meetings to the prisoners. Now I was in that prison. I progressed on through the steps, and experienced a change in my being…a real deep change that I can’t put into words. I recognized it was the beginning of a change that would continue to occur over a lifetime.

I relapsed once more, after nearly ten years clean. I got away from people in recovery, quit doing all the things I’d done on a regular basis, like prayer and meditation, meetings, contact with people in recovery. That relapse lasted a year. I was rescued by the Macon County Sheriff’s Office. I knew I was going to die. I was waiting for the overdose, the gunshot, whatever. I had no hope.

An addict always has the potential for relapse. I don’t care who they are, where they are, how long they’ve been clean or whatever. But once I experienced change on a deep level, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and then used drugs again…you’re not the same addict. You don’t have the hustle. You can’t be as thoughtless, selfish, and solely self-focused as you were, before you experienced that change. I knew I couldn’t use drugs successfully, and I knew it was going to kill me. But when I lost that support, when I pushed away that foundation, that God of my understanding…That allows self-deception. It might be only momentarily, but you forget. You forget who you are, and if you’re where substances are available, you’re deceived.

JB: How’s your recovery now?

ML: Awesome. If you’d asked me in 1999 how I’d be doing now, I wouldn’t have gotten close. My life today is better than it’s ever been. I’m extremely blessed and grateful to be where I’m at today. I’m blessed to have the work, the people, a wonderful fiancée … I’m blessed to be able to share my life with the people I have in my life.

JB: What kind of work do you do?

ML: I work as a counselor. I work in a jail’s substance abuse treatment program. Looking at what they have available in jails now…fully staffed treatment programs, right in the county jail! From having to pay a candy bar to hold a meeting to where they have whole dorms in the county jail to treat addiction…the change has been awesome to see.

            This addict, ML,  described how his recovery progressed over time, and how he had setbacks and relapses. Obviously, given the morbidity and mortality of active addiction, treatment professionals and addicts prefer relapse-free recovery, but for many, relapse is part of the recovery process. Many fortunate addicts are able to get back into recovery, before catastrophe occurs.

ML is also a good example of how 12-step recovery meetings can help. Addiction treatment professionals should always inform addicts seeking recovery about these meetings, and encourage addicts to go to at least a half-dozen meetings, before deciding if 12-step recovery is right for them or not.

There are many recovering opioid addicts who used 12-step resources or other counseling to become completely opioid free and were able to get through both the acute physical opioid withdrawal and the more prolonged post-acute opioid withdrawal. Therefore, it does appear that drug-free recovery may be a reasonable goal for some opioid addicts who are motivated to do the work of recovery. For addicts who find the spiritual theme of 12-step recovery unacceptable, secular recovery groups are available.

            12-step recovery is free, widely available, and proven to work. It’s still the best deal in town.

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