From heroin to hope: Narcotics Anonymous helps addicts stay drug-free

Montville — Seven men and women stood in a loose circle outside the Mohegan Church in Uncasville on a recent summer evening, their coffee cups balanced on the bed of a pickup truck.

The four men and three women, ranging from 29 to 66 in age, and from student to retiree, belong to a fellowship in which they greet one another with hugs and smiles and find strength by talking about their common experiences.

They are drug addicts who have, in the parlance of recovery, "put together" years of clean time with the help of Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

The nonprofit fellowship, known as NA for short, sprang from Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1950s and now has meetings in 120 countries. Members support one another and share their experiences as they work through a 12-step recovery process that starts with an admission that they are powerless over their addiction. Narcotics Anonymous has 350 meetings in Connecticut, a state where the number of fatal overdoses in 2015 and 2016 was higher than the national average.

"The only requirement to come to NA is the desire to stop using," said Lee, 31, who has been clean for four years.

Like the others who filed into the church where that evening's meeting would take place, she thought she was going to die using, and that when she started attending meetings, she felt she "belonged" for the first time.

"There's nothing like when you walk into your first meeting and you're at the end of the road and other people are talking about where they've been," she said. "You'll be telling a story and people will be nodding."

Angel, 29, started attending NA at age 19 and wondered if she had hit a low enough "bottom" to begin recovery. A high school honor student who ended up going to rehab instead of college, she said she didn't want to believe she had a problem with drugs.

"I remember people saying, 'You don't need to wait to go to jail, to kill someone driving drunk to get help," she said. "Now, because people are dying as teens, it's important to tell people they're not different (than other addicts)."

She has remained clean for 10 years, and is happy her son has never seen her high. She is now attending college and working.

Anonymity is a foundation of the program, but the group agreed to speak publicly, provided they were identified only by their first names and ages. They said they are not allowed to promote NA, but they want to make people aware it is possible for addicts — they prefer that term over more politically correct phrases, such as "people who suffer from substance abuse disorder" — to achieve long-term recovery if they are willing to do the work.

During a 1½-hour interview, they chose to talk about recovery rather than the drugs they took, but nobody corrected Stephen, 63, when he said, "I think it's safe to say that all of us used heroin." It used to be rare that somebody they knew would die from an overdose, they said, but with all of the synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and carfentanil, on the streets, it's become all too common. They said they "just buried somebody" three weeks ago.

The NA members want users of heroin and any other substances to know there is hope of recovery.

"No addict seeking recovery need ever die of active addiction," said Al, 66. He once "lived to use, and used to live" but has been clean for 33 years. He had a 25-year career working at a state detoxification facility. He continues to show up at meetings and perform service work, such as going into area prisons to conduct Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

"When I buried my mother and father, members came to the funeral and we had a little meeting right in the corner of the funeral parlor," Al said.

Other treatment, too

Lee is a full-time student who works three jobs. 

"I've been around the world since I got clean," she said. "It was always something I wanted to do. I truly believe this program works for people who are willing. If you really want it to work for you, it will work for you. It's the only thing that ever worked for me, seeing that people could live clean."

She was still detoxing from heroin and suboxone when she started attending meetings. She had a bad case of restless leg syndrome and strong cravings to use drugs to make herself feel better. She talked about her feelings, and people in the meeting rooms told her, "Just keep coming."

All of those gathered this August evening said they underwent other types of treatment, including inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation programs and individual therapy. They said those treatments serve a purpose, but what really helped them stay clean was Narcotics Anonymous. Some used medication-assisted treatments, like methadone or suboxone, but NA in general strives for "total abstinence."

The members say attending meetings and listening to others' stories is key, along with using NA literature, such as the "Basic Text" and "Just for Today" book of daily meditations, to help navigate recovery. NA is not a religion, and the meaning of the "higher power" referenced in the 12 steps is open to individual interpretation.

"Our message is hope and the promise of freedom," said Mike, 35, who has been seven years clean. "And that's it."

Stephen got clean when he was 30. Addiction is a lifelong disease, and even after 33 years of being drug-free, he said his recovery remains his "number one priority."

"They told me in rehab that number one is recovery, number two is your significant other, number three is your children and number four is work," he said. "If I don't stay clean, I lose all of that stuff. The wife will be gone. The kids won't talk to me and I'll probably get fired."

He has worked at a manufacturing facility for 15 years.

'I was loaded'

Mike, who works in construction, owns a small business and is a stepfather, said he grew up in a normal household. He went to college, where he had "a higher blood alcohol level than grade point average." Over the 10 years that followed, he used various chemicals, including opiate painkillers. Like many others, he moved to heroin as a cheaper alternative.

His parents convinced him to go into inpatient treatment, where he said drugs were easy to find and he started shooting heroin. His parents had started attending NA meetings without his knowledge, and when he came out of treatment, he went too, even though he was still using.

"I was loaded, but I came. I kept coming," he said.

People who are high are welcome to attend meetings as long as they aren't disruptive. They're often greeted at the door with a hug and told, "We love you. Keep coming back."

Mike said it was fun to use drugs with other people, but awkward to go to a meeting with 50 people who were not using. After six months, he snapped off the top of a hypodermic needle he had been holding onto "just in case" and threw it away.

He now belongs to NA's public relations committee and sometimes speaks at schools. On one outing, a little girl tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a folded note thanking him for coming, because her mother also is in recovery.

Mark, 38, with four years clean, grew up the oldest of eight children in a chaotic household. He started using drugs at an early age.

"There was abuse. There was addiction. That's how things were," he said.

He stole his mother's cocaine and in the years that followed would use any drug available except prescription painkillers. Then, while working as a steel worker, he was hurt on the job and prescribed Oxycontin after surgery. The road, after that, was downhill, he said. He landed in prison, where he detoxed and got involved in NA.

"These are the people I go to when I'm down in the dumps or having a good day," he said of the fellowship. "Because of NA, I get to have my kids, a small business, a place to live. I get to have sanity."

'Recovery is possible'

Katie, 33, with 4½ years clean, works as an assistant deli manager and is grateful to the manager who hired her 10 years ago despite having a felony conviction related to her drug use. 

"Recovery is possible, and for me, personally, Narcotics Anonymous is what helped me stay clean and repair my life," she said.   

She had loving parents who pushed her to do everything right and still became an addict. She started using heroin at 20 and that, she said, was when her life became unmanageable. While trying to get clean, she told herself she could use other drugs, but that didn't work. She said she caused serious harm to somebody because of her using, got in legal trouble and caused a lot of damage in her family.

Service work with NA helped her keep clean. She joined the activities committee, which organizes a monthly event, such as bowling or a luau/kickball game. She wanted to get high for the first nine months, but kept telling herself, "I'll just make it to the next activity, then I'll get high." 

Instead, she stayed clean.

k.florin@theday.com

More information

For more information on Narcotics Anonymous in Connecticut, call the regional phone line at 1 (800) 627-3543.

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