‘I was a middle-class junkie’

by The Listener / 05 June, 2014
A new generation of addicts are turning to grass-roots 12-step movements that offer hope for lasting recovery. One member tells his story.
Getty Images
Getty Images

This story was first published in the January 30, 2010 issue.

A dead rabbit saved my life. It was New Year’s Day 1975, a sunny morning, and out on Lake Taupo holidaymakers were splashing about. I, meanwhile, was gurgling my last in a bunkhouse in Acacia Bay, blue-black from a lethal cocktail of morphine, barbiturate and alcohol consumed the night before.

It was only when my hunting companion barged in with his catch that I was discovered. A doctor was called. I was pronounced dead, but just in case, injected with naltrexone, a narcotic antagonist. I came round on board a plane en route to Rotorua Hospital, where I lay in bed for several days.

I survived, but over the long years of misery that followed I became sure there was no way out of addiction, except death. Today, with the help of a 12-step programme, I am 22 years drug- and alcohol- free. It seems like a second life.

I attend meetings of Narcotics Anonymous, an offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous that gets little publicity but still has 1000 members in New Zealand and runs 90 meetings a week. Now, a new generation of young drugs users are turning up to our meetings for help in their battle with P addiction.

Back in Rotorua Hospital, still in my early twenties, I was a middle-class junkie convinced he functioned well on alcohol and drugs. A thousand promises to a cowering family, a jail term and 12 more years would pass before I could admit to a problem. I told everybody (myself included) that chemicals were the only thing holding my life together.

By 1987, my illusions were unravelling but I continued using. I took another near-lethal overdose, surviving by a thread in a second, equally miraculous intervention. I agreed to go to a rehab in exchange for being maintained on heroin-substitute methadone. Defeated by the drugs and convinced the end was years if not months away, I had little expectation that rehab could work.


Like thousands before me, I entered the gates of Queen Mary Hospital at Hanmer Springs, North Canterbury. As morphine addict and author Robin Hyde wrote in 1927, the physical surroundings were extraordinary: “The sheer beauty of the place saved my mind … in the grounds, daffodils and crocus burst up, a thousand flames, from the soil. The evening light on the mountains was that incredible Eastern blue.”

It soon became clear that despite the stunning scenery, rehab was no holiday camp. Long days were spent in group therapy where tough-minded counsellors challenged us on the issues that made us seek oblivion in the first place. Sleepless nights passed in smoke-filled dormitories. Naked without the anaesthetic that had numbed us, we struggled to cope. Some ran from the rooms in tears and took the first bus back to civilisation.

At Hanmer I first attended Narcotics Anonymous or NA. Members had driven from Christchurch to hold meetings on our behalf. The sessions were raw andconfessional, but there was a warmth, honesty and dark-hearted cynicism that rang true. There was no chest-poking, no therapy, no hierarchy. Drug-free men and women were living out the basic principle of NA – one addict helping another.

I was disbelieving, having never met anyone who had broken free of the drugs I used, let alone remained “clean” or totally abstinent. And what was this NA? I learnt it had grown out of the world-famous Alcoholics Anonymous. As with AA, the heart of NA’s self-help programme was 12 steps of recovery. Addicts work through the steps at their own pace, usually with the help of experienced members.

A central 12-step tenet is that to achieve and maintain abstinence, an addict must develop a spiritual connection with a Higher Power or a “God of their understanding”. An NA friend tells of walking in desperation into her first NA meeting, then hearing the word “God”. Her heart sank: “Had it come to this?” She feared she had wandered into a nest of Christians, where hymns would be sung and tambourines shaken. But nothing like that took place.

Like many addicts soured by organised religion, I found the “God stuff” difficult. But drawing on Eastern philosophies, I was able to achieve a spiritual practice that works for me. A popular NA saying is that “religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for people who have been to hell”.

After two months at Hanmer, I returned home, drug-free. As we left, counsellors urged us to attend regular NA meetings, warning us it would be hard to remain abstinent without the support of other recovering addicts. I heeded that advice, continued attending a minimum of two or three meetings a week, and have been “clean” ever since. That was 22 years ago.

Today I realise I have a living problem – not a drug problem. NA members often joke about secret handshakes. By this they mean the easy spark they believe exists between ordinary folks, the ability to connect with humanity that somehow passed them by. Addicts share how they were absent from school on the day the lesson on how to live was taught. And so drugs, including alcohol, numbed that pain, bridged that existential gap. Then one day they just didn’t work any more.

We encourage one another to speak from the heart. That’s the point of meetings. Every day of the week, in draughty church halls, schools and community centres in 118 countries around the world, NA members gather to help one another stay clean. In Iran, thousands of recovering NA addicts meet every night in public parks throughout the country. With the blessing of the Government, Iran now has an astonishing 380,000 members.

Twelve-step programmes like NA accept no government funding, do little advertising and are staffed by volunteers. Paradoxically, it has been a recipe for quiet growth in countries like New Zealand. NA doesn’t work for everyone, but for a surprising number, it does. The name Narcotics Anonymous is somewhat misleading; it is a movement with a focus on recovery from addiction rather than on a specific drug. Addicts with cannabis, alcohol, opiate and, increasingly, “P” problems all attend our meetings.

Having attended NA in New York, Barcelona and London, I can report that the message heard in Auckland is the same: drugs and alcohol nearly killed us. We can live rich and fabulous lives without them, but we need each other to do it. And so we meet on a regular basis.

It is hard to describe an NA meeting. The closest analogy is a beach bonfire. As people stare into the flames, they relax. Some open up and tell stories, aware they are participating in a ritual thousands of years old. Others prefer to keep their reflections to themselves, savouring the community that arises from being with like-minded souls.

Today I realise how lucky I was to find recovery. When I was introduced to NA in 1987, the local organisation was only five years old, with barely a dozen meetings. It has since grown exponentially. Today, hundreds of recovering addicts from Invercargill to Kaitaia quietly attend weekly meetings.

In line with AA rules, the writer is anonymous.

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