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Everything You Need to Know About Narcotics Anonymous (NA)

Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is an international non-profit organization. Narcotics Anonymous comprises the 12 Steps and is a program of complete abstinence from all drugs.1,2

What is Narcotics Anonymous?

Narcotics Anonymous is a society of people for whom drugs have become a major dilemma. Members attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings regularly and help each other stay clean. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using.3

As a member of NA, you would strive to stop using drugs and participate in recovery-related behaviors. This would help you enjoy a healthy, sustained recovery.3

NA is active in over 132 countries. The principles of NA ask that you join with an open mind and try to stay away from being hard on yourself for your past decisions.3

NA offers a program that uses the 12 Steps that can be followed in your daily life to help you recover from the illicit use of drugs. If you decide to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings, it is encouraged that you attend consistently. This has been shown to have the best success rates.3

The History and Organization of NA

The formation of Narcotics Anonymous is attributed to Jimmy Kinnon. It was founded in 1953 following the success of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).4

Alcoholics Anonymous was co-founded 18 years earlier, in 1935, by Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith. Since AA had been able to help people struggling with alcoholism recover, NA adopted its 12-step model and developed it to help people recover from addiction to drugs.4

Both programs started as a grassroots movement and have grown. Today, AA is the world’s oldest and largest 12-step fellowship, with NA being the second. Narcotics Anonymous is well established throughout most of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Western Europe. NA is establishing itself in other parts of the globe as well including:4

  • Eastern Europe
  • Africa
  • East Asia
  • Indian Subcontinent
  • Middle East

NA literature and information have been translated into at least 49 languages.4

Is Narcotics Anonymous the Same as Alcoholics Anonymous?

Alcoholics Anonymous has a singleness of purpose—to help people with alcohol use disorder—while Narcotics Anonymous meetings help those with substance use disorders.5

Because AA focuses on recovery from alcohol and NA focuses on recovery from illicit drugs, sometimes they are referred to as sister programs.5 However, some members emphasize the difference. They ask that when you are in a AA meeting, only share about your recovery from alcohol. When you are in Narcotics Anonymous meetings, you will focus on sharing your recovery from illicit substances.5

What Narcotics Anonymous Does

Narcotics Anonymous has a methodology and format that includes offering regular meetings in your locale.6 Regular attendance at Narcotics Anonymous meetings allows you to build relationships with other members who have achieved and maintained abstinence. These members can be beneficial to talk to and share your struggles with. You can help each other as peers at the meetings.6

If you go 15-20 minutes early and/or stay 15-20 minutes later, you will get to know other members well and vice versa. This is important because you can talk to them if you are having a rough day. Also, sometimes they may be able to see you slipping into old behaviors or risk-taking decisions and hold you accountable, thereby helping prevent a relapse. 6

What Is a Sponsor?

You should complete steps one-by-one and in sequential order with someone who has already done so. This individual is often referred to as a sponsor.7 A sponsor is usually someone you have met at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and has achieved a level of recovery that you would like for yourself. This individual may inspire you based on what they share in a meeting, how they carry themselves, or the fact that they have achieved sustained recovery and abstinence. Since you are inspired by them, you can ask them to be your sponsor.7

Once you have successfully completed the steps, you could sponsor other members. Maybe this member is now inspired by your recovery and will therefore ask you to be their sponsor.7 Through completing the steps with another NA member and helping members complete the steps, you will form bonds and work on changing behaviors that are no longer supportive of your new lifestyle.7 Research has shown this is a very effective model for building self-esteem, which contributes to long-term abstinence. 7

Is NA Truly Anonymous?

Narcotics Anonymous encourages members to remain anonymous. This is done by only sharing your first name at meetings. Sometimes, members feel comfortable sharing last initials as well. This is useful if there are other members at the meeting who share a common first name.8,9

Narcotics Anonymous offers a safe space where members do not have to provide whole names or any other identifying information.8,9 Individuals may choose to share full names outside of meetings.8,9

NA meetings do not take roll, and there is no data collected from you to attend. There is no sign-in sheet. As such, there is no said paper trail or digital trail showing that you have attended a meeting. 8,9

There are no dues, pledges, or fees. The meetings are run by donations only, so you may choose to donate cash or not at all. If you donate cash, you will do so at the meeting itself, and no receipt is given that includes any personal identification on it. 8,9

NA’s 12th tradition states: Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities. 8,9

The traditions are typically read at the start of meetings. The 12th tradition communicates not to break each other’s anonymity. For example, if you go to a meeting and see a coworker there, tradition 12 serves as a reminder not to tell anyone at work that you saw your colleague there and vice versa.8,9

Anonymity in 12-step programs has not been extended to courtroom privilege/confidentiality. Since 12-step programs are not considered in the legal system as treatment programs and members of NA are not seen as treatment specialists/credentialed professionals, they are not protected by the same confidentiality laws.8,9

Who Benefits from Narcotics Anonymous Meetings?

The program of Narcotics Anonymous is open to people of all backgrounds, races, religions, socioeconomic statuses, ages, and sexual orientations.10 Therefore, if you have a desire to stop using substances, you could benefit from Narcotics Anonymous meetings. 10

NA is not considered a replacement for attending a treatment center. If you think you need additional support such as detoxification, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, or to work with a credentialed professional, you can attend NA as an added support to your treatment sessions.10

Not everyone who attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings has completed primary treatment. Statistics have shown sole attendance of NA meetings and engaging in its 12-step model can create abstinence and sustained recovery. However, that is not the case for everyone.10

If you have completed primary treatment and need community support, you could benefit from regular attendance at Narcotics Anonymous Meetings.10

Members of the professional community could benefit by attending open meetings. They would be able to gain firsthand experience of what goes on in Narcotics Anonymous meetings and can provide a more detailed and empathic referral.10 They would be:10

  • Credentialed therapists
  • Counselors
  • Behavioral health practitioners
  • Doctors
  • Nurses
  • Physician assistants
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Psychiatrists
  • Psychologists and
  • Other such members of the professional community

Educators and students of such fields would also benefit since they may one day be providing referrals. Members of your support group such as:10

  • Friends
  • Family
  • Significant other/spouse
  • Loved ones
  • Employers
  • Coworkers

If you are comfortable, they can attend an open meeting with you. Otherwise, they can attend an open meeting.

What Happens in Narcotics Anonymous Meetings?

Narcotics Anonymous meetings strive to start and end on time. This allows for a predictable, stable structure so you can plan your time accordingly around other responsibilities and obligations.6 They open with a moment of silence and readings from Narcotics Anonymous literature. The moment of silence allows you some quiet time to empty your mind, get grounded, or mentally transition from what you were doing before the start of the meeting.6

The reading of NA literature creates repetition and reminds members of the highlights of the 12-step model. Hearing literature consistently helps to form positive thinking habits.6

Once the literature is read, many meetings will pass a basket for cash donations. These cash donations are how the group supports itself and pays its bills. The bills would include rent, buying coffee and snacks (if the group chooses to), literature, and any other expenses.6 After these formalities which usually take 10-12 minutes, the meeting will start.6 The remainder of the meeting is usually 40-45 minutes, and the closing is 5-10.6

The closing of the meeting entails an opportunity for members to make announcements about any special events going on in the recovery community. For example, if a holiday is coming up, there might be a special picnic or potluck that is occurring. Another example is if a member is celebrating a milestone of continuous abstinence, they may choose to announce a celebration.6

What Happens During the Middle of the Meeting?

The middle of the meeting is where group members get to share openly about Narcotics Anonymous and recovery-related topics, what is happening in their lives, and/or any struggles they may face.6

There are many meeting formats. Some formats will allow you an opportunity to share, and others may be more conducive to your listening to other members share.6

Meeting lengths vary, but most are 60 minutes. Many meetings like to limit member shares to 2-3 minutes so that as many people as possible have an opportunity to share.6

Narcotics anonymous meetings formats:6

  • Open: These meetings are open to the public, professionals, members of Narcotics Anonymous, visitors, guests, family members, friends, loved ones, or anyone who would like to experience a meeting. This format may be a very useful one to attend as a newcomer or for the first time.
  • Closed: This means only members of NA can attend. Closed meetings of Narcotics Anonymous allow members a safe space to share about their daily lives, triggers, past actions, or whatever is on their minds regarding the use and misuse of drugs.
  • Women’s: These meetings would be open to women only. They can be women’s open or women’s closed.
  • Men’s: These meetings would be open to men only. They can be men’s open or men’s closed.
  • LBGTQ+: These meetings would be open to members of Narcotics Anonymous who identify as part of the LBTQ+ community.
  • Speaker: The format is that a member of Narcotics Anonymous will speak for either the entirety of the meeting or a large portion of the meeting. If the latter is the case, the speaker will choose a topic that is related to recovery, and other members will have a chance to discuss the topic for the remainder of the meeting.
  • Open Discussion: This format will usually start with a member of Narcotics Anonymous choosing a topic about recovery, and then members will take turns for the remainder of the meeting sharing about that topic and how they can relate to it.
  • Literature: In literature meetings, NA-approved literature is read for a portion of the meeting. Members of Narcotics Anonymous will then share on the topic.
  • Step: A step meeting would include a discussion about a specific step.
  • Tradition: A tradition meeting would include a discussion about a specific tradition.
  • Ticket: For this format, you would receive a ticket (like those used in a raffle). One part of the ticket will remain with you, and the other part will go in a basket with the rest of the tickets. During the meeting, tickets are chosen at random, and if your ticket is called, it will be your turn to share. This creates random shares, unrehearsed, from the heart.
  • Tag format: A person shares for 2-3 minutes and then tags someone. It is encouraged to tag someone you do not know, especially a newcomer (to get them comfortable sharing and opening up) or a celebrant so they can share their experience, strength, and hope.
  • Circle (smaller meetings): Members sit in a circle and share in order until everyone in the circle has had a chance.

This list is by no means all-inclusive. With NA growing, there may be more formats.

Why Are Meetings Important?

Meetings are valuable because they are run by members and involve several roles. These are:6

  • Chairperson: This role includes starting and ending the meeting on time, choosing members to do the readings, making sure the basket for donations is passed to members, giving the donation basket to the treasurer, ensuring the meeting runs as smoothly as possible and keeping to its format.
  • Treasurer: This person counts the money from the donation basket and makes sure it is utilized for bills and maintains the treasury.
  • Greeter: Some meetings will have a greeter who welcomes members at the beginning of the meeting.
  • Coffee maker: The coffee maker will come to the meeting early to make the coffee and set out any snacks if the meeting chooses to do so.
  • Cleanup: This role usually includes more than one member depending on the size of the meeting. These members will put away chairs, clean up any minor spills, and make sure the meeting location is left tidy for the next use.

Some meetings will create other roles as needed.

These roles are referred to as “service commitments.” Having a role in a meeting holds you accountable because the group is depending on your being there to fulfill your role. It also provides a sense of belonging and self-worth because you might have lost your job or community position, or you may have stopped fulfilling your family role as a byproduct of misusing/overusing drugs. 6

Having a role also provides you with a sense of responsibility and serves as a behavioral tool to relearn life skills such as being timely, dependable, and reliable.6

Finally, meetings are self-supporting through donations from members. When you first join, do not worry about donating any money if it is difficult for you to do so. Most members of Narcotics Anonymous will seek employment and regain healthy finances. When you do, you may be able to donate.6

What Are the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of NA?

The 12 Steps of AA and NA are its key components. They are the programs’ core, and research says utilizing them supports abstinence and long-term recovery. 10

Both AA and NA follow the 12-step program. A key difference between the two is how the first step reads for each one, respectively.

AA’s first step reads as follows: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol- that our lives had become unmanageable.11

NA’s first step reads as follows: We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction- that our lives had become unmanageable.

The main difference would be that in AA’s first step, you would admit powerlessness over alcohol, and in NA’s first step, you would admit powerlessness over your addiction. This is because NA adopted AA’s 12-step model and applied it to addiction to illicit substances.

The 12 Traditions of NA

When groups utilize the traditions, they are likely to stay unified. The applications of the traditions to group success help them to be a supportive and healthy environment for you, your recovery, and other group members.12

The traditions were developed after the steps were written, and several members of Alcoholics Anonymous achieved successful sobriety. The founders of AA created/formulated the traditions through tough learning experiences on the group level. Groups would struggle to get along, and in the beginning, there were no operating procedures. The most pronounced difference between Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous is how the third tradition reads for each one, respectively.

AA’s third tradition reads as follows: The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.11

NA’s third tradition emphasizes: The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using.12

This is because the focus of AA is to recover from alcohol misuse/overuse, and NA’s is illicit substances. Both the steps and traditions are guidelines and strong suggestions. There are no governing bodies in either AA or NA. Rather, members work together to use the steps and traditions as integral parts of their successful recoveries.11,12

How Effective is Narcotics Anonymous?

Narcotics Anonymous provides structure and a sense of community, which are key factors to successful recovery from the misuse/overuse of illicit substances.5

Studies have shown that the duration of abstinence and continuation of recovery could predict the psychological well-being of NA members due to their regular attendance of Narcotics Anonymous meetings.5

Research has also concluded that attendance at NA meetings helps:5

  • Reduce feelings of helplessness
  • Increase abstinence rates
  • Improve the quality of life satisfaction
  • Enhance social relations
  • Better decision-making skills
  • Lower risk-taking behaviors
  • Superior physical health
  • Healthier emotional and psychological well-being

Participation in AA meetings has been associated with reduced rates of depression and a longer duration of alcohol abstinence in participants.1

One point of contestation for NA and 12-step programs is its spiritual component. A literature review found that participants of 12-step programs credit cognitive, social, and affective benefits of the program versus the spiritual components to help them stay abstinent.13

Is Narcotics Anonymous Right for Me?

If you have a desire to stop using, then NA might be right for you. Meetings have their own flavor, so if you have special circumstances, you can visit several meetings to see which ones resonate with you the most. For example, if you are on Medicated Assisted Treatment (MAT), some meetings have a culture that is more supportive than others to this.

You can also take a self-questionnaire that may help you decide if attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings is right for you. This would not replace a full and proper assessment by a credentialed medical professional.

You could also view the survey, Am I an Addict?14

Another great resource discusses Is Narcotics Anonymous for Me?15

How to Find Narcotics Anonymous Meetings Near Me

To find Narcotics Anonymous meetings near you, you can do a meeting search here.16 You can also search the following keywords in your internet browser: “Narcotics Anonymous meetings near me.”

You can also download a Narcotics Anonymous meetings app. You can get a meeting list from community and treatment centers. If you are currently in treatment, you can ask your treatment provider for a list. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance misuse, please call 800-838-1752 (Who Answers?) to speak with a treatment specialist.

Resources

  1. Abdollahi, M., & Haghayegh. (2020). Efficacy of Group Therapy Based on 12-step Approach of Narcotics Anonymous on Self-control and Quality of Life in People with Substance Use Disorder Diagnosis During Recovery – Practice in Clinical Psychology (uswr.ac.ir). Practice in Clinical Psychology, 8(1), 17-26.
  2. Donovan, D.M., Ingalsbe, M.H., Benbow, J., & Daley, D.C. (2013). 12-Step Interventions and Mutual Support Programs for Substance Use Disorders: An OverviewSocial Work in Public Health, 28(3-4), 313-332.
  3. Narcotics Anonymous World Services, Reprinted from the Little White Booklet. (1986). What Is the Narcotics Anonymous Program?
  4. Narcotics Anonymous World Services. (2022). Resources for Professionals.
  5. Kelly, J.F., Humphreys, K., & Ferris, M. (2020, March 11). Alcoholics Anonymous and Other 12‐Step Programs for Alcohol Use DisorderCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews Review – Intervention, 3.
  6. Narcotics Anonymous World Services. (1997). The Group Booklet Revised.
  7. Narcotics Anonymous World Services. (2019). What is Sponsorship?
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Conference. (2019). Understanding Anonymity.
  9. Narcotics Anonymous World Services. (2012). NA’s statement on anonymity.
  10. Narcotics Anonymous World Services. Reprinted from the Little White Booklet, Narcotics Anonymous. (1986). How it Works- 12 steps of NA.
  11. Wilson, B. (1981). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: A co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous tells how members recovery and how the society functions. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.
  12. Narcotics Anonymous World Services Reprinted from the Basic Text, Narcotics Anonymous, Fifth Edition. (1988). 12 Traditions of NA.
  13. Kelly, J.F. (2017). Is Alcoholics Anonymous Religious, Spiritual, Neither? Findings From 25 years of Mechanisms of Behavior Change Research. Addiction, 112(6), 929-936.
  14. Narcotics Anonymous World Services. (1988). Am I an Addict?
  15. Narcotics Anonymous World Services. (2022). Is NA for me?
  16. Narcotics Anonymous World Services. (2022). NAWS: Find a meeting.

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