Horror Stories
True Tales of Misery, Betrayal and Abuse in NA, AA and 12-Step Treatment

Rebecca Fransway
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This book is here courtesy of See Sharp Press and Rebecca Fransway, Ed.

43. Cliff Walker
NA Suicides

I was court ordered to NA. When I objected to that, on religious grounds, I was put in jail on a 30-day hold. I was not in a position to fight at that time. There had been no such cases before, and my lawyer said: You're right, but we don't have anything to work on -- I'm just a defense attorney here.

After I got out to jail, I went to NA. I got use to it, and decide to make the most of it. I didn't like a lot of what I saw in NA, so I got involved with the literature committee. One guy had said: This is where you can make changes, and there's no one on the literature committee but me; if you join, there will be two of us.

So, there I was on the literature committee. I like to write, and I learned to write properly. The NA WSO (World Service Organization) sends out literature they are proposing to the literature committees, and they wanted us to comment on it. I loved doing that; I like to straighten things out, to look at something and give it my best, I'd found my niche in Narcotics Anonymous.

I started out at the local level, and later I became part of the NA service structure on the state level. I worked on a couple of very long projects myself, and I sent reviews and analyses to WSO as an individual. The smaller projects were pamphlets, the kind you see on the racks at NA meetings. The big projects were books and service manuals. WSO did not give us much time to review final projects, and quite often we didn't even have time to schedule a review meeting, so I would review many of the projects by myself. I was very stringent in my reviews.

I had to be stringent; some of the material they sent us was shockingly religious, dogmatic, and fundamentalist. There was one passage I recall -- and this one actually made it into the Basic Text -- that if you don't work the fourth step (the searching and fearless moral inventory) you will relapse. I know that most people who get clean and sober -- and I knew this back then -- don't even go through 12-step programs. So that was just plain false.

Of course, most of the folks in NA are deeply religious; they believe in a supernatural, rescuing deity. Also, you can't take religion out of the steps, because, really, religion is what the steps are about. You can say, I believe my Harley can restore me to sanity. You can believe in the ashtray or the light bulb as your Higher Power. But by the time you get up to step six -- We became entirely ready to have our Harley remove all our defects of character -- you aren't talking about some abstract concept anymore. It doesn't fit step six. It doesn't in step seven, and it doesn't fit step eleven. Like Jack Trimpey says -- it's a bait-and-switch head game. It's not for me anymore, and if you push most people, they'll now admit that 12-step programs aren't the only thing that works.

But because of my beliefs, some of the NA steppers want to accuse me of being a murderer. These fundamentalists aren't usually the respected folks of mainstream NA -- rather, they are those who often hold leadership positions in rural areas or isolated communities, and they're also well represented in the committees. Because the representatives on the committees are usually hard-core NA loyalists elected by the individual groups, you find a lot of fundamentalists in them.

I spent about 11 years in NA, although for many of those years I was also highly involved with Rational Recovery. I quit just before my 11th-year anniversary. I was basically driven out of NA by whisper campaigns. All this time, however, I was, and still am, supportive of NA as part of American culture; I still think it helps more people than it hurts, so it deserves to exist. But I don't have a black-and-white outlook on NA; my view of it can't be reduced to a bumper sticker. So, anyone like myself who tries to make changes ends up with fundamentalists in their face saying: If yer not fer us, yer agin' us. Many people develop an approach to the 12-step model where they think the 12 steps are all you need. They won't talk to people who are on psychiatric meds. They won't go to their clean-and-sober anniversaries because they think those people are "on drugs" and "not working the program" because they are on prescription medications. There are many who think you need to turn in your clean and sober key tags if you're on pain medication as well.

These kinds of groupers told a man I knew that he needed to abstain from all drugs -- including psych meds. He followed their advice and eventually pulled his own plug. They had a big NA meeting after the funeral and were so sad. But nobody brought up the meds issue. There are lots of steppers who still believe this: Don't take psych meds, because they are drugs. Some of them kill themselves when they can't handle depression.

There was a piece of literature, "In Times of Illness," that WSO proposed as a replacement for an older piece, "The Use of Medication in Recovery." This new pamphlet was supposed to give detailed "dos" and "don'ts" about using medication. One of the statements in this proposed pamphlet was: "Your brain does not know the difference between over-the-counter medications and street drugs." But they said nothing new about the proper use of prescription drugs. I wanted them to add something I thought was very important: There are two things about prescription drugs you must remember -- follow the prescription instructions as written, and don't stop taking any prescription without first consulting the doctor who prescribed it.

Several of us from Portland thought this was so important that we drove about 100 miles to a meeting in Salem to help hammer out the directions in this pamphlet. We spent much time on this one proposal about following the prescription instructions and to avoid deviation or termination without consulting the doctor. But WSO just ignored it.

This ties in with one of my earlier experience with NA in 1983 in San Diego. I was on antidepressants, and group members told me in no uncertain terms that I was not working the program if I remained on those drugs. I was on those drugs for depression and suicidal ideation. I see my depression differently now, but I think if someone is going to go off prescription drugs, they need to talk to the doctor who prescribed them first, and to be a real stickler about following the doctor's instructions. I think that added recommendation would have been very helpful, particularly for those who tend toward fundamentalism, those who want someone to tell them what to do. Without such written instructions, they're going to do what their sponsors tell them. The whole 12-step philosophy encourages that way of thinking -- don't trust your own thinking; get a sponsor; rely on a higher power. If the WSO would be specific about sticking to the doctor's instructions when it come to psych meds or any medication, a large number of people could be helped.

Within a year after WSO ignored our recommendations concerning the drug pamphlet, yet another group member -- someone who had previously been helped by psych meds, but went off them -- killed himself. That's not uncommon in NA. Ironically, he had been the husband of one of the women who drove down to Salem and fought hard for the changes that could have helped save guys like her husband.

Though I was, as I've said, run out of NA by a whisper campaign, it was, of course, ultimately my decision to leave. That decision was based on how much abuse am I willing to endure vs. what am I getting out of this, and what can I give? If someone comes up with a whisper campaign, and it isn't true, but it is something most of the others in the NA community believe, what good can I do there? Someone said I went on TV and said 12-step programs ruin lives. I challenged the rumor monger and told him I'd get a copy of the TV program and we'd sit down and watch it. But it's very hard to fight NA fundamentalism. I finally said, My friends are right. I shouldn't be involved in this. And I stopped.

When I left, I was preparing to recommend to the NA Board of Trusttees that they recommend to the groups that they stop signing attendance slips of those forced to attend AA by the courts, because it is compromising the tradition of voluntarism inherent in all 12 traditions: We are here voluntarily. As long as we're signing these forms, we're telling the agencies who coerce people into attending NA that it's okay if they force people to come to our program.

This is unlikely to change. The groups want to survive, and coerced attendance helps them get members, so they use the excuse: Any way you can get people in here and exposed to this might help someone So what I had to say about this was viciously unpopular. These guys would come into this meeting I loved. As soon as I showed up, this one guy would leave. Then he'd be back in 10 minutes with a bunch of bikers. They'd wait until after I spoke, then one by one they'd start talking -- they'd hog the baton, and just denounce me, openly threaten me in the meeting. And so I stopped going to that meeting. At the same time, I was still hanging around the local committee meeting, but it was no fun because I was not elected; I was just there because someone had resigned. Every time I made a report, this one gal would, month after month, make these niggling corrections. Finally,because of the whisper campaign, the bikers, etc., I told myself: No, there's a limit. I've hit it. If I give everything, I won't have anything left to give.