By: Rose Pollard, BA
When asked to complete a group observation assignment for a social work practice class at Ohio University, I automatically thought of a local support group, specifically, a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting in my hometown. I chose this group because of my familiarity with it—although once a regular member, I had elected to stop attending years ago. My personal reasons for this will probably become evident through the tone of this article, in spite of professional attempts to remain objective.
I’ll admit that I procrastinated on this assignment, either because of dread or time constraints. I finally managed to attend the NA meeting on a Friday night at 7 o’clock. The time, day, and location are easily known when you are in “that loop.”
As I walked into the activities room of a nearby church, attendees had already begun brewing the coffee, placing day-old donuts by the pot, and moving tables together. This was new. I remembered other groups sitting in a circle. Perhaps this was a more relaxed—or possibly more guarded—atmosphere. People were all dressed in a casual manner, myself included. I spent some time talking to familiar faces and telling stories of how things had been since we had last seen each other. I asked a man what the name of this group was, and apparently this was a group of seasoned warriors, because he told me it was called “Win the Battle.” Thinking to myself, I remembered when I had waged my own war.
It wasn’t until someone announced, “Let’s get started!” that the voices quieted and body language shifted into an attentive position. An average built woman began the meeting by asking certain members to read a flier with various sayings and words of inspiration. This was a closed meeting, for addicts only, and most did not envy the ones who had been asked to participate in this ritual. I could not help but look around at the same crowd of people, the same culture that I had chosen to exclude myself from years ago. There were around 19 in attendance, all of whom were addicts. This description of them is not meant to be derogatory—these group members self-identify as addicts.
After the reading was finished, the next phase of the meeting began. A man sitting next to the leader began reporting that a group dance was forthcoming. I made a mental note to not attend. This man must be the secretary, I thought. I knew this because I am familiar with the various roles in this group. Two individuals usually lead the group, the chairperson and the secretary. At this point in my observation, I had learned that everyone, myself included, was in some stage of “recovery,” or however one would prefer to word it. It reminded me of a saying, or rather fundamental (unsaid) rule of this meeting: “Remember what you heard, not who you saw.” This is why only first names are used.
After the secretary’s report, the group leader pulled out a topic from a decorated coffee can. As some people started to fidget or take a break to the bathroom, the leader brought up the word “powerlessness,” and group members were invited to introduce themselves and comment on this word. This part of the meeting forced everyone to attempt to interact with each other. Around the table, starting with the young girl sitting across from me, the ritual began. Everyone knows the rules. First you state your first name and follow with a certain identifier. Everyone says “Hello” in unison. This girl began to talk about how her powerlessness over addiction had cost her many things. I could tell that she was early in recovery and may have had a personality disorder. Others must have already begun making assumptions about her, as it did not appear as though anyone was really paying attention to what she was sharing.
I couldn’t help wondering about the purpose of this group. The format is usually the same; someone once told me that a panel of local professionals decides how the meetings are structured and whether the meeting is open or closed. I remember being in a closed meeting before when someone did not identify himself as an “addict.” The person was kindly reminded when open meetings were held. It was then I realized the purpose of the NA group—to allow those labeled deviants by society to practice integration and rule adherence. At this point, I began to gain insight about the delicate and complex purpose of the groups.
Before I realized it, it was my turn to speak. Many of the attendees present had opted to pass and not comment. I heard my voice announce, “Hello. My name is Rose, and I’m an addict.” I waited for the group response of “Hi, Rose,” and then I also passed and elected not to comment on the discussion topic. As the group leader moved on to the next person, I felt as though my ears were on fire, and my gut wrenched. In a few seconds, I felt as though I had reduced myself. There are no professionals at these meetings, no hierarchy of accomplishments, except perhaps the amount of time clean. We were all just a bunch of addicts sitting around a table.
The discussion became more animated at the area of the table that others jokingly called the “Amen Section.” One woman mentioned how her “disease” was handed over to her “Higher Power.” This is accepted terminology within the group. In attempts to not force spiritual beliefs onto others, it is the rule that religion must be concealed in obscure language. However, these attempts are in vain. It is my opinion that even asserting that addiction is a disease is a belief and not necessarily a fact.
At this point, I remembered why I chose to stop going to these groups. The thought that I had a disease, which implied that I had no control over my actions, made me uneasy, to say the least. Yet, the rule of NA meetings is that if you are an addict, you are always an addict. There is no choice in the matter. There is no end to attending these meetings. No matter if you have 20 years clean, you still need the support that this group offers. It is a life sentence with no termination in sight.
I can guess that some at the meeting that night were mandated to attend an identified number of meetings in a month. But I also suspect that most were present on a voluntary basis. I can’t determine which of those two categories in which to place myself.
Although I tried to remind myself that I was only there to complete a class assignment, I became aware of an important variable that caught me by surprise. I was both a professional observer and a group member. I don’t know why I thought the two could be separated. Even though I had not attended this meeting in several years, it became obvious that there was no way I could have remained objective when I was so emotionally attached.
After the meeting closed with a prayer spoken in unison, it was as though social hour had begun. Some attendees headed for the door, and I tried to do the same. However, others were curious about me. Some invited me back, which is normal. Others asked how long I had been clean. I answered thoughtfully, always careful to not upset the established norms of the group. Talking to people, I knew that it would be rude to voice my personal beliefs about these meetings. I could only offer that I was about to celebrate eight years on August 3rd of this year, and that I just hadn’t been attending group like I should be. It is hard to explain how these norms were established. For me, and I can only speak for myself, I am so aware of how fragile addicts are that I would never say anything that might compromise their belief in this process, thus threatening their sobriety. I would like to think others feel the same way, but I cannot say for sure.
After taking a couple of days to process this experience, I can see that this group provides a lot of stability for those coming out of addiction. It is a welcoming group with the relaxed atmosphere and invisible hierarchy. It provides positive affirmation for clean time, even if the small reward is a token and an announcement identifying you as a success story. It allows addicts to feel less isolated and alone in their previous actions. For many people who suffer from impulsivity and uncertainty, these meetings create much-needed consistency and structure. I have to admit that the meetings demand a certain level of respect. I may attend that dance after all.
Rose Pollard is currently attending Ohio University seeking an MSW degree. She is employed at Shawnee Mental Health Center, Inc. in Portsmouth, Ohio.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER Fall 2011, Vol. 18, No. 4, pages 12-13.