Lessons from Narcotics Anonymous

Walking with people through stroke, disease, and terminal illness is a true calling. As an occupational therapist working in neuro-rehabilitation, it was a huge honor to assist people to independence. I loved watching patients discover strength, joy, and faith in the midst of significant obstacles, but it became extremely emotionally overwhelming particularly when they failed to meet their potential by their own lack of motivation/diligence. I was taking patients’ problems home with me. I had trouble sleeping. I obsessed over poor outcomes.

I confided in a professor about this struggle, and she recommended the 12 Step Alcoholics Anonymous Program.  I felt very misunderstood and didn’t take her advice.  Did she assume I was coping by drinking excessively?  This professor died a few weeks after this conversation. This is the rest of the story, one regrettably, I won’t get to share with her.

Five years later under difficult circumstances, I joined a 12 Step program for friends and family members of drug addicts. We sat in a circle, introduced ourselves by first name only, held hands, and said the Serenity Prayer. I wasn’t prepared for what would happened next-


Jesse from Breaking Bad. All the stereotypes of these programs are true.

Every new member walks through the door desperate to learn what they can do to “fix” the addict in his or her life. The program is extremely disappointing. The message is loud and clear: “You Can’t.” (They lose a lot of new people on the first night). To make it worse, they follow it with the bait and switch:

Because you “did not cause, cannot control, and cannot cure” the addict in your life, the program’s entire focus is on what is within your power to change: You. Your problems. Your weaknesses.

I learned to focus on myself.

It is so much easier to look at other people’s lives and point out the deviations, particularly when it is something you cannot fault yourself with, like a drug addiction. So instead of critically examining drug addicts, I found myself on a 12 step program with my own life under the microscope. Step #4- “Performing a searching and fearless moral inventory” on yourself sucks. It is really humbling. When I started “working the program”, it was really hard to let bad habits die-  unhealthy thought patterns, bad attitudes, and self-centerdness, to name a few. These habits hadn’t neurologically changed my brain chemistry and weren’t fueled by highly addictive substances, and yet, I majorly struggled.

Something beautiful happened in this process: I developed compassion and empathy for addicts people. Changing any bad behaviour is really difficult-  addictions and character flaws, equally. Relapse for all of us was highly likely.  I needed as much grace as any heroine, meth, or cocaine user.

I also quickly realised what my professor was hoping I would recognise: I cannot “fix” other people… my patients or the addict in my life. Instead, I needed to correct my own shortcomings. If my patients aren’t compliant with their home exercise program or involved in their plan of care, I cannot get all wrapped up in it. In the same way, members of the program cannot obsess over their addicts’ behaviours.

Mistakenly, I had thought controlling people was included in my job description as a therapist and as a loved one to an addict. I was kicking and screaming trying to get the proverbial horse to drink, ignoring how thirsty I was in the process. Instead, I learned that the horse has to recognise its own need for water and be willing and motivated to search for water his or her own self. That was a huge difference in mindset. It completely shifts the responsibility.

horse to water

I learned healthy emotional boundaries. 

Nar-Anon taught me healthy emotional boundaries, something the program calls “detaching with love”. It is all about untangling yourself from the mess of other people’s lives, giving people the dignity to experience the consequences of their actions, and stopping the downward spiral towards depression, anxiety, fear, isolation, manipulation, despair, and all too common, financial and emotional bankruptcy.

I learned to trust in my higher power.

To detach, the program puts a lot of stock in a “Higher Power” to whom you release people to for changing and guidance. In this step, I realised that in my struggle to rescue, change, and control other people in my life, I had a huge god/atlas complex. It took a lot of work to get over my ego issues related to my professional skills and my ability to relate to people I loved. Me and my ego do not rule the universe. Gulp.

My professor was so wise. Because I was working on my own character flaws, I didn’t have time to take my patients’ stories home with me. I didn’t have time to obsess over the addict’s pathway towards self-destruction. I had my own work to do, my own story to write and edit. I gave people over to my Higher Power and detached with love. I have to do it regularly. Maintaining healthy boundaries is tough work. It takes intention, but it is so worthwhile.

So although any 12 Step Program is hard, hard work, I recommend it to anyone struggling with addiction or anyone who loves someone struggling or anyone who finds themselves in co-dependent relationships or over-investing in problems that don’t have their names on it. It is powerful. It is the most raw, vulnerable group I have ever been apart of. There are so many other things I learned from listening to others’ evaluate their lives. I’ll share more in a future post. For now, consider this post part of my 12th step.


The Nar-Anon 12 Steps:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over the addict — that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

For more information on 12 Step programs:

Drug AddictsAlcoholicsFamily & Friends Drug of AddictsFamily & Friends of AlcoholicsCelebrate Recovery: Other addictions


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