I attended two Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings & here's what I learnt
The classroom fills up slowly. Every new entrant locates a friend and goes and sits beside them, exchanging smiles and handshakes.
There is no teacher is this classroom. There are few rules. And yet, everyone respects the silence.
Welcome to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Delhi.
Narcotics Anonymous or NA, is an offshoot of the more widely known Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The organisation, which aims to keep members from relapsing into drug use, made inroads into India in 1983, and, today, holds over 260 weekly meetings across 23 cities and towns in the country.
As noted in the Narcotics Anonymous India membership survey, the average age of an active NA member usually varies from 20-50 years, with the 20-30 age-group being the most common, closely followed by the 40-50 age-group.
While this may not be true for all meetings, it is certainly the general age distribution of the motley group seated in this South Delhi school classroom.
Happy sober birthday
The class of two women and over 30 men, other than meeting to talk about their own lives, are also, at this meeting, celebrating a member's 21st ‘birthday’. The 'birthday boy' has completed 21 years of sobriety, and that calls for some kaju barfi and a lot of cheering.
Turn by turn, the members speak, often staring at the floor, or a spot on the wall, only to momentarily look up and smile. A bell is rung when they get too lost in their tales, losing track of time.
Their stories are often punctuated with lines so often repeated that they sounded rehearsed -- the sort of rehearsed that comes with repeating oneself many times, over many, many meetings.
The 'birthday boy', in his forties, walks up to teacher's table to speak. “It's not easy,” he acknowledges. “It's still not easy.”
Recalling the beginning of his addiction, he says, “When I would see other addicts, I'd think I would never end up like them. That was my rationalisation.”
“I was down to 35 kgs,” he shares. “I had wounds on my legs that I wouldn't dress. I would bind them and wade through knee-deep rainwater to score, but I'd never have money for medicines.”
Towards the end of his inspiring story, he pauses, and says, “I felt great when I got a marriage rishta. I honestly never thought I'd get one.”
But 'birthday boy' isn't the only old-timer at these meetings. Over 23 years sober, a man sporting a warm smile and a cool hat, reminds all that being an old-timer has no real value. That one must take it a day at a time.
“Being an old-timer is nothing. You just keep coming, and don't die,” he says, laughing.
“I might have been a junkie, but I'm not junk. I always remember that. I'm a perfect creation of God,” he adds.
God is important at these meetings. A lot of the talk is to do with finding God, believing in God, letting God guide oneself.
As an NA public relations volunteer, Amitesh* tells Catch, “In NA we call God a higher power. And there are many references in NA literature that say your belief is for you to develop.”
“I know that my sponsor doesn't believe in God,” he confesses, adding, “But he believes in a higher power, something that's bigger than him.”
A once-regular user who doesn't attend NA meetings, on being asked about this need for God to kick addiction, says, “When one loses the drug, there's a vacuum. So they fill up that vacuum with a better drug – spirituality.”
The NA network
On being asked about the challenges NA faces in India, Amitesh says, “The problem in India is we [NA] haven't really penetrated into the tier 2, tier 3 cities. Even in Delhi, there are about 1500 [members], but it has a population of over 18 million. In Punjab we're growing rapidly.
“The Punjab government is in touch with them, and they're trying to work with us.”
“In the US, for instance, there are many groups and members. Iran, though, is a huge success story! There are about 500,000 addicts who are clean in Iran.”
On creating a functional network between police, hospitals and NA, he says, “We have about 45-50 posters in police stations. We've also directly asked for the police to send people our way, but that hasn't happened yet.”
“There is a hospitals and institutions sub-committee in NA. We work with a lot of detox centres, hospitals. So sometimes we get people from there as well,” he adds.
The women of NA
Catch spoke to some of the members after the meeting, and they patiently shared their stories. Almost all of them agreed that it was important to talk, as that's the only thing helping them.
Sunita*, who is over 50 years old, was addicted to sleeping pills for over 10 years, beginning with a bad prescription for a migraine. Having completed 7 years with NA sober, she recalls, “My husband saw me addicted for two years, he was quite distressed. He died of illness soon after.
“When he died, I felt nothing. Just some relief that he'd left me alone, that now I was free.”
Talking about her support system, she says, “My daughter looked up a lot of details on drug abuse online, she learnt a lot about NA. She continues to help me.”
“The support system [at NA] is great. I just need to reach out, everyone comes out to help. Be it anything,” she adds.
A young, shy girl, Tania* stands and smokes quietly. She allows herself cigarettes to make sure she stays off harder drugs.
At 22, Tania has now completed 10 months sober. “As a kid I used to watch English movies, and I used to see women using drugs on screen,” she shares, adding, “I had a wish that when I grow up I will do it. I wanted to be a bit different from the normal world.”
Recalling how that 'wish' soon turned into a crippling habit, she says, “After a while I needed to use drugs just to talk to people. Otherwise, I was very nervous, I couldn't communicate.”
Too cool for comfort
Thirteen months sober, 27-year-old Rishabh* can speak what seems a thousand words a minute. The current secretary of the Hindi NA meetings, he used drugs for 10 years before he got here.
“I ran away from home, my dad got a heart attack because of me. I wouldn't stop, I couldn't control. I had a case, hit-and-run. All of this was going on, but I never realised anything. All feeling was dead,” he shares.
“I was dead inside. My mother hit me, upset over why I'd done this. And I was threatening to jump off the balcony because she was hitting me. The emotional blackmail gave me an edge.”
Insisting that he was 'blessed' and had privilege and brains on his side, Rishabh says, “I was always a good student, but I started using while still in school. I used to think I'll do well even if I don't study.
“In 11th I did well [in Science stream], but in 12th boards I couldn't even score a 60. I got 59.8 or something.”
“In college, I was a cool kid. I could handle drugs better than the seniors. They'd call me 'Cheetah'. It only encouraged me.”
“When I started working, I was still using, but I was performing well. But with time, the chemicals increased. Coke, meth, all of them... So the office told me to get lost.”
It took multiple job changes and a caring friend to make Rishabh consider NA. “I really thought I was very cool,” he says, with a bitter laugh.
Quotes from the meetings
Attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting can be a deeply emotional experience. The room becomes a safe space sans judgement that allows all confessions to be accepted unquestioningly.
That such spaces exist is a huge relief, be it for drug control or otherwise.
Here are snippets from what 10 different members said over the two meetings Catch attended. Some quotes are moving, some frightening, and some, quite simply, encouraging.
1. “This place is giving me the strength to say 'no'. I don't know how it stops me, but I know it does.”
2. “After years of being distant, today I said 'I love you' to my dad. He was surprised.”
3. “I'm nineteen years sober and still so inspired that those who have got more years on me.”
4. “Even today, when someone loves me, I consider them my enemy.”
5. “At 51 years of age, I'm happy to share that I'm finally completing my 12th standard.”
6. “What do I get in the classroom? Hope.”
7. “It's a disease. It's a disease that results in physical craving, mental obsession and spiritual bankruptcy.”
8. “I used to look at normal people living their lives without drugs. I used to think they were crazy.”
9. “My family offered me 'one drink' this week. That's when I realised that even though they know, they don't understand how dangerous even one drink can be for me.”
10. “Ever since I've been sober, life's done a 360... and I'm just getting there.”
If you, or someone you know, feels the need to attend an NA meeting, or to just reach out, you can call them on their helplines: +91 9818072887 & +91 9990916671, email them on firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their website www.naindia.in
(*Note: All names have been changed to protect identities.)