We spoke to a member of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to understand her story and her patron organization. When she was using, she never broke the law to feed her opiate addiction. Now, as a middle class retiree and grandmother, she looks even less like a stereotypical person in recovery. She is the real face of opiate addiction: our neighbor.
Disclaimer: Wording has been altered to preserve the interviewee’s anonymity. “Stigmatic: Our Opioid Crisis” gives voice to diverse perspectives, including faith-based programs like NA which adhere to strict anonymity and may not work for everyone.
Keith Schnabel: Would you say that addictive propensity runs in the family?
NA Member: Definitely. My aunt, uncle, and mother were all really bad alcoholics. Dad drank every day. Whenever he had surgery, they had to give him a drink so he wouldn’t detox. Seriously, they had to give him an IV of alcohol. So he was definitely an alcoholic, but his personality never changed. Still worked his tail off from sunrise to sunset.
My mother changed. I saw her drunk a lot and it was very hurtful. That’s why I stopped drinking years ago. When Mom was dying, I took care of her. She was on a lot of painkillers, but I never touched her stuff except for to stick it in her. My younger brother stole her morphine, though. His story is different than mine, but yeah, it runs in the family.
How did opiates enter your life?
This is the part I have a hard time sharing. When I was 34, I got hurt. They gave me a shot I could take at home. When I got migraines later, I was already on painkillers, so they had to give me even more medication for it. That’s how I wound up on both morphine and demerol: legal prescriptions. Then I would use over-the-counter stuff like sominex and benadryl to come down. It was a horrible cycle.
I had first gone to the neurologist for my migraines at the end of February. By May 27th, I was in treatment and almost dead. I had overdosed the night before and did not wake up for 26 hours.
Would you say that your doctors were negligent in continuing to prescribe you painkillers?
Yes. The doctor that gave me stadol was eventually raided by the DEA. He was taken out of all of the hospitals in the area and his rights to practice have been taken away. I didn’t sue him, but I was cheering when he got raided. He hurt a lot of people.
He put me in the hospital with methadone shots every four hours, didn’t even have to ask for it. After I got used to that was the closest I ever came to trying something off the street. It was a week later that I overdosed. I had a bottle of stadol that was supposed to last me two weeks. The last time I used it, it lasted me four hours.
Did you find treatment helpful?
Not at first. When I told my psychiatrist what had happened, he told me I belonged in an addiction treatment center. And I told him: “No I don’t! I don’t belong with those people.” I left treatment early, just couldn’t stand the people or the noise. The counselor said: “Take a book, read the first step.” I’ve got a college degree, I didn’t understand the first word! My head was all screwed up.
Mainly, I guess I left because I wanted to see my family. We were having our first reunion after my mom and dad died and I had to be there. In hindsight, I wish I had stayed because there was more to learn. But it seemed to me at the time that all they were teaching us was “relax, relax, relax.” I thank God I learned later from my NA sponsor.
Narcotics Anonymous is a huge part of your recovery story. What can you share about their process?
The meetings help a lot, they really do. But it’s all about the sponsors. They’re in recovery, too, so they get it. If you get a good sponsor, they can teach you so much about yourself and what’s happening to you. Mine is real good. I can’t tell you their name – there are lots of things about NA I can’t tell you – but I called them and they said that I can show you my keychain.
Every NA chapter around the world uses them. The chips on the chain represents different amounts of time being clean. They’re not not rewards, they’re tools you can hold onto if you think you might use.
The first chip is the white of surrender. It says “welcome” on one side, and “just for today” on the other, because you can only keep clean for today, one minute and one hour at a time. Believe me, sometimes that’s what it takes.
Orange is for “orange you glad you’re here?” You aren’t wearing orange in jail anymore, so to speak, you’re getting a new life. Green is for sixty days. “We mow the grass, we don’t smoke it.”
[Laughing, giving thumbs-up]
After ninety days, they try to get you more involved in the program. They suggest you get a sponsor, rely on a higher power, getting a home group, beginning service work, that kind of thing.
Blue is six months. Up to this point, they hand them out regularly, but you’ve really gotta work to get this one. This is what I held onto when wanted to use again. I was depressed and thought about going to the ER to get medicated. But the keychain was in my car. I looked at my cards and said: “Do I really want to blow what I’ve worked so hard for?” So I went back home.
Gold is for the sun shining on you, that’s nine months. Glow-in-the-dark for one year. And duct tape grey for…Do you want me to say it?
Oh yes, I do.
Duct Tape your ass to the seat, shut up, and listen!
[Laughing, giving two thumbs-up]
Then for multiple years of recovery, there’s black and gold, because you kept coming back. And they keep on going for every year of recovery. I hang them in my bedroom, now, to remind me of my journey in recovery. Nineteen years without a relapse. I am not going to lose them.
I’m just one drug away from relapse. My sponsor has been clean thirty years, but they’re still just a sip of wine away. Just a moment of not thinking clearly. My son doesn’t think of my prescription addiction as real addiction because I never broke the law. For him, to be an addict, you have to be out on the street. But anyone can be battling addiction. I was a teacher! Who would have thought?
This article is an extended look at an interview from Stigmatic: Our Opioid Crisis, which recounts the stories of law enforcement, medical professionals, educators, journalists, and many other personal accounts.
Keith Schnabel is a co-writer and producer for Stigmatic.