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Narcotics Anonymous: Near-Death Experience


Between 1953 and 1958, the fledgling NA group in California continued to meet, but meetings were, at best, “periodic or sporadic.” Several factors contributed to the dissipation and near death of NA, including NA coming under the influence of Cy M., who took over the chairman role on Sept. 23, 1954. Cy was an AA member who had also been addicted to painkillers following wartime combat injuries. Jimmy recruited Cy to be the speaker at the first meeting that was held on Oct. 5, 1953, because of Cy’s history and his previous comments that addicts should find another place to go besides AA. Cy’s dominance (he sometimes referred to himself as the “founder of NA”) and aggressive promotion of NA extended NA’s early reach into places like San Quentin Prison, but the resulting personality conflicts engendered by his leadership style led to the resignation of all of the original founding members. Jimmy later described this period:

So, the very first meeting, it wound up, oh God, it was a riot. Everybody was fighting with each other. Within two weeks, we only had one or two people left of the original group.

Several changes in NA philosophy and practice occurred during Cy’s leadership tenure. The new directions unfolding in these years are indicated by a description of an NA meeting appearing in a Nov. 7, 1957, article in the San Fernando Valley Mirror. The article describes those at the meeting setting forth a three-part plan to solve the nation’s drug problem: 1) create a nationwide network of clinics where confirmed addicts would be administered free drugs under medical supervision; 2) create a “crash program” for treatment and social rehabilitation; and 3) introduce a course in narcotic education into the schools with the goal to “scare the hell out of them.” There were also reports during this period that the tenor of NA meetings changed when Cy began using a  confrontational “hot seat” technique in the meetings – before such techniques were popularized by Synanon.

By 1959, the only NA meeting was at Shier’s Dryer, and Jimmy K. had stopped attending that meeting because of his strong feelings on the need for NA nonaffiliation and self-support. The notes Jimmy K. would later use to guide his presentations on early NA history contain references to this period that are telling, e.g., “One Man Domination—No Growth,” “Personalities—Resentments, Resignations,” and “new committee almost completely dropped traditions.” A critical final turning point in NA’s 1959 collapse was Cy and another member (who was suspected of being loaded at the time) appearing on a television show in the fall of 1959. As conflict grew, Cy withdrew from leadership, and NA meetings ceased for a short time.

When NA ceased meeting in late 1959, Jimmy K., Sylvia W. and Penny K. met to see what they could do to rekindle NA. There were no existing members, no money in the treasury and no literature. NA was reborn when they started the Architects of Adversity NA Group at Moorpark, later known within NA as the “Mother Group.” Members came and went in this reborn NA, but it was Jimmy’s tenacious presence that held the group together. Bob B., who was in and out of NA at that time before becoming one of NA’s long-term members, later reflected:

… there was only usually one or two of the old crowd still there at any given time. Every time I’d go out and come back to see who was still there, there was usually Jimmy and one other … Jimmy always seemed to be the one who was always standing there with the door open saying, “Come on in and have a cup of coffee.”

NA learned painful lessons through its near-death experience, including the dangers of relying on a single, dominant leader, the risks of abandoning adherence to NA traditions and the need for a distinctive NA culture. NA was reborn in late 1959 with those lessons in mind. NA’s near-death experience cleaved its history into “before” and “after,” with the phrase “NA as we know it today” used to denote the new NA that rose in 1959 from the ashes of the old. As earlier members returned and new members joined, NA began its slow growth into the present. By 1964, NA had grown to a core of 20 to 25 members in the L.A. area, most of whom had histories of intravenous heroin use and past jail or prison experience. The severity and chronicity of their past addictions offered living proof of the transformative power of NA as a framework for long-term recovery. 

This collapse and rebirth of NA in California occurred at a time when Addicts Anonymous meetings continued at Lexington and NA meetings continued in New York City and other Eastern cities. Whether any of these groups would survive was still open to question. To survive and grow, NA – like AA before it – needed a core body of literature to help carry its message and prevent corruption of its basic program.

NA Literature and NA’s Basic Text

The book Narcotics Anonymous, commonly referred to as the Basic Text, is for many NA members as much a part of their recovery as meetings, sponsorship and service work. NA literature evolved through the substitution of words within or mimicking of AA literature to the emergence of authentic voices of NA recovery experience.

The first generation of literature written by and for addicts originated from the Addicts Anonymous Group in Lexington, Kentucky. Though the publication date is unknown, the initial attempt to create special recovery literature for addicts began in 1949-1950 with the pamphlet Our Way of Life, which was adapted directly from the Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet, A Way of Life. By 1950, Our Way of Life was adapted by Lexington alumnus Danny C. for use in New York NA. Our Way of Life – An Introduction to Narcotics Anonymous evolved further when revised by NA in Cleveland after its founding in 1963, with all references to AA deleted.

A significant development in the history of literature for recovering addicts occurred between 1954 and 1956 when the California-based NA developed a pamphlet authored by Jack P., Cy M. and Jimmy K that is variably known as the Little Brown Book, the Buff Book or the Little Yellow Book. In addition to the “addiction” terminology appearing in Step One, the “Just For Today” passage from this pamphlet continues to be a mainstay in many NA meetings.

Following the near death of NA in 1959, Jimmy K., Silvia W. and Penny K. undertook the writing of new NA literature. Who Is an Addict?, What Can I Do?, What Is the NA Program?, Why Are We Here? and Recovery and Relapse were all written during 1960, and We Do Recover was completed in 1961. These writings, along with the Steps and Traditions, were consolidated into a publication called the Little White Booklet – also known as the White Book – which was first published in 1961 and to which personal stories were added in 1966. The White Book served as the primary piece of NA literature for the next 20 years and provided the framework for the later development of NA’s Basic Text.

In 1971, NA Trustees explored publication of a book intended to be “somewhat analogous to AA’s Big Book.” A proposal to just edit the Big Book to read more like an NA publication was rejected, and in 1972, a letter was sent from the “Book Committee” at the NA World Service Office asking the Fellowship for help in preparing a hardcover book to be titled Narcotics Anonymous that would “present the NA program of recovery and way of life in terms that are meaningful to the newcomer who cannot identify with alcoholism.” The lack of response to this letter from NA membership provided no means for the Committee to move forward with the book project at that time. A more modest effort emerging from Northern California NA in 1972 was This Is NA, which involved minor word substitution from the This Is AA pamphlet – a fact that led to its later removal as NA literature.

Despite these early 1970s efforts, the only significant literature developments in the next 10 years were five informational pamphlets printed in 1976 (We Made A Decision, So You Love An Addict…, Another Look, Recovery and Relapse, and Who, What, How and Why). Renewed effort to create the equivalent of AA’s Big Book for NA came from NA members in Atlanta, Georgia. The spark for this project was ignited when Bo S. attended the 7th World Conference in San Francisco in 1977 and spoke with many of those present about the need for an NA Basic Text. Bo returned to Atlanta with the support and validation to pursue work on the Basic Text from two influential California NA members, Jimmy K. and Greg P. The book was written between 1979 and 1982 over seven World Literature Conferences that involved over 400 recovering addicts in NA. NA’s Basic Text was approved in 1982 and officially released in 1983.

The writing of the Basic Text was achieved through a massive grassroots effort characterized by inclusiveness and great sacrifice. The 1st World Literature Conference (Wichita, KS, 1979) resulted in the Handbook for Narcotics Anonymous Literature Committees. The handbook established certain values that guided the process of creating a book for the NA Fellowship. All members were encouraged to contribute material with the hope of being able to create the best possible book.

Sally E., who attended three World Literature Conferences, recalls barely legible input submitted on a napkin that was carefully deciphered because of its potential import. Jim N., who hosted the 2nd World Literature Conference (Lincoln, NE, 1980), needed postage in order to send flyers about the upcoming conference to every known group. Sitting around the kitchen table, he and four other members realized that they had sold blood to support their habits and that they could do the same to support their recovery in NA. They each donated a pint of plasma and received $15.00, which they used to pay for the mailing. Registration flyers for upcoming World Literature Conferences included the option of staying in an NA member’s home. During the 3rd World Literature Conference, Greg P. in Oregon dictated an entire chapter over two phone calls that totaled over 9 hours to Molly P. in Memphis, Tennessee. Molly sat on a suitcase while members held the phone to her ear. Greg’s phone was disconnected following this effort due to the long-distance expenses incurred. Typical of the dedication that went into this process was Doug W., who rode his bicycle from Lincoln, Neb. to the 6th World Literature Conference in Miami, Fla., staying in NA members’ houses along the way.

Following the publication of the Basic Text, NA focused much of its publication efforts on It Works – How and Why, a collection of essays on the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. Just for Today, a book of daily meditations, followed closely afterwards. Further efforts included a workbook on the steps titled The Step Working Guide and a collection of sponsorship experiences simply called Sponsorship. Currently in development is Living Clean –The Journey Continues, a collection of experiences from NA members – many with 20, 30 or more years clean – on a variety of topics that many addicts face as they mature in their recovery.

Similar to other mutual aid fellowships, NA experienced internal conflicts related to its literature approval process, the cost of literature, and the reproduction and distribution of literature by members. NA entered uncharted waters in 1990 when a civil lawsuit was brought against one of several NA members who were reproducing and distributing a free, unauthorized version of NA’s Basic Text. Individuals involved with the reproduction and distribution of the “Baby Blue” text justified their actions on grounds that the Basic Text was overpriced and that unauthorized changes had been made to the Basic Text without approval from NA groups. The lawsuit finally resulted in a negotiated settlement that led to the Fellowship Intellectual Property Trust (policies protecting NA’s name, trademarks, and recovery literature) and a literature approval process that today involves input, review and approval at the group level.

NA’s Basic Text was the first substantial piece of literature created by addicts for addicts, and marked the emergence of NA’s own language and culture. It provided a vehicle for NA growth throughout the world, and income from its sales provided the support for NA’s subsequent growth. Since its initial publication, more than 7.3 million copies of the NA Basic Text have been distributed in 18 languages.

Explosive Growth

NA faced unique obstacles to growth from its earliest days: 1) the problem of members getting high together after spending time in meetings recounting episodes of drug use – before there was a well-developed NA recovery culture; 2) the presence of drug dealers and undercover agents at or near early NA meetings; and 3) the lack of sufficient personal clean time and maturity to sustain the functioning of local groups. Jimmy K. reflected on these early days:

Nobody trusted nobody – you know they thought it was staked out. They wouldn’t  believe us when we told them there was no surveillance. And we weren’t just too sure in the beginning ourselves.

After nearly dying in the late 1950s, NA growth extended from five meetings in 1964 to 38 meetings in 1971, 225 meetings in 1976, 2,966 meetings in 1984, 7,638 meetings in 1987, 15,000 meetings in 1990, 19,000 meetings in 1993, 30,000 meetings in 2002, more than 43,900 meetings in 2007, and 58,000 meetings in 2010.

There are many contributing factors to the growth of Narcotics Anonymous. One that cannot be overstated is the tireless support and encouragement from Jimmy K. to addicts living in communities that lacked NA meetings. Jimmy consistently encouraged lone addicts to start meetings in their local communities. He would even record meetings and talks that he would send to emerging groups in order to provide them with the NA message of recovery. Another significant event was the decision to hold the 8th World Convention in 1978 in Houston, Texas, the first time it had been held outside of California. Growth of NA occurred wherever a World Convention was held as isolated addicts found one another, exchanged phone numbers, and began to see tangible evidence that recovery through NA was a reality. The expansion of NA groups was stimulated, in part, by growth of the addiction treatment industry and the growing cooperation between NA and treatment institutions. Such cooperation began early, with NA working with the Chrysalis Foundation – the first addiction treatment program to specifically emphasize NA philosophy.

The profile of members also diversified over the course of NA’s history. The latest (2009) NA membership survey reveals a membership that is gender balanced (58 percent male, 42 percent female); predominately middle-aged, ethnically diverse (73 percent Caucasian, 14 percent African American, 10 percent Hispanic, 7 percent other); and highly productive (71 percent working full- or part-time, 7 percent retired, 7 percent full-time students, 4 percent homemakers). Members attend an average of 4.2 meetings per week, with 57 percent of members having six or more years of continuous recovery.

Comparison of membership surveys from 1989 to present reveal increased involvement of women and Caucasians in NA and a membership that has more average clean time and is getting older – due in great part to members remaining involved in NA through the transition from recovery initiation to longterm recovery maintenance. This is evident in the growth of average clean years of NA members from 7.4 years in 2003 to 9.1 years in 2007. NA recovery feeds on itself – with those first attending NA due to the influence of an NA member increasing from 29 percent in 1989 to 58 percent in 2007. The influence of treatment center referral has also continued to increase between 1989 and 2007.

Growth of NA outside North America began slowly, with NA meetings in only three foreign countries in 1972, and then accelerated to more than a dozen countries in 1983, 60 in 1993, 127 in 2007, and 131 in 2010. NA literature is now available in 39 languages with translations into an additional 16 languages in process. A landmark was reached in 2009, with more NA meetings being held outside the United States than in the United States. Equally remarkable, and deserving of its own written history, is the fact that 28.9 percent of all NA meetings now occur in one country outside the U.S. – Iran – where NA growth has been explosive since its inception there in 1994.

The sustained growth of NA exposed long-standing problems with NA’s organizational and service structure – problems NA sought to solve through creation of the NA Tree. 

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank all of those who agreed to be interviewed for this project and the many NA members, especially: Benny L., Bo S., Bob G., Catherine R., Chris B., Chris M., Dale S., Danny M., Dave F., George H., Joe P., Jim H., Jim N., Johnny S., Kermit O., Mike R., Ron H., Roy P., Steve and Lois R., Stuart S., and Walter D, who provided us copies of archival documents, tapes, photographs, or connections to oral history resources. We also extend a special thanks to Anthony Edmondson, Stephan Lantos, and Steve Rusch of Narcotics Anonymous World Service, Inc.; Michelle Mirza and Steven D’Avria of the Archives of the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Office; and Scott Bedio of the Salvation Army Archives and Research Center for their assistance in acquiring copies of key historical documents. A special thanks to Dr. Al Mooney, Jimmy Mooney, Dr. Robert Mooney, Fred Morrison, Barbara Morrison, Nancy Morrison Baird, Virginia Coker, Dr. Sid Sewell, Geraldine Sewell, Sally Sewell Hudson, and Mary Smith. Finally, an enduring debt of gratitude to the many NA “long-timers” who served as reviewers of early drafts of this history.