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These Drug Addicts Cure One Another

Source: The Saturday Evening Post, August 7, 1954

By Jerome Ellison

A new approach to a tragic social problem - drug addiction - has been
found by the ex-addicts of Narcotics Anonymous. Here's how they help
users out of their horrible habit - as in the case of the mining
engineer, the hot musician, the minister and the movie actor.

Tom, a young musician just out of a job on a big-name dance band, was
pouring out the story of his heroin addiction to a small gathering in a
New York City Y.M.C.A. He told how he started three years ago, "fooling
around for thrills, never dreaming to get a habit." His band went on the
road. One night in Philadelphia he ran out of his drug and became so
shaky he couldn't play. It was the first time the band management knew
of his habit. He was promptly sent home.

"Music business is getting tough with junkies," Tom said.

His audience was sympathetic. It was composed of former drug addicts who
had found freedom from addiction. They met twice weekly to make this
freedom secure, and worked to help other addicts achieve it. The New
York group, founded in 1950 and called Narcotics Anonymous, is one of
several which have been piling up evidence that the methods of
Alcoholics Anonymous can help release people from other drugs than
alcohol - drugs such as opium, heroin, morphine and the barbiturates.

The groups enter a field where patients are many and cures few. The
population addicted to opiates has been placed by competent but
incompatible authorities at 60,000 and at 180,000. The Federal Bureau of
Narcotics estimates that the traffic in illegal opium derivatives
grosses $275,000,000 a year. About 1000 people a month are arrested for
violation of Federal, state or local laws regulating the opiates.
Addiction to the barbiturates, it is believed, involves more people.
There are some 1500 known compounds of barbituric acid, some of them
having pharmaceutical names and others street names such as yellow
jacket, red devil and goofball.

Addicts work up to doses sufficient to kill a non-addicted person or an
addict with a lesser tolerance. In New York recently, three young
addicts met and took equal portions of heroin. Two felt no unusual
reactions; the third went into convulsions and in a few hours was dead.
Many barbiturate users daily consume quantities, which would be lethal
to a normal person. Others have demonstrated an ability to use
barbiturates for years, under medical supervision, without raising their
consumption to dangerous levels.

The drug addict, like the alcoholic, has long been an enigma to those
who want to help him. Real contact is most likely to be made, on a
principle demonstrated with phenomenal success by Alcoholics Anonymous,
by another addict. Does the prospect, writhing with shame, confess to
pilfering from his wife's purse to buy drugs? His sponsor once took his
children's lunch money. Did he steal the black bag of a loyal family
doctor? As a ruse to flimflam druggists, his new friend once
impersonated a doctor for several months. The N.A. member first shares
his shame with the newcomer. Then he shares his hope and finally,
sometimes, his recovery.

To date, the A.A. type of group therapy has been an effective ingredient
of "cures" - the word as used here means no drugs for a year or more and
an intent of permanent abstinence. - in at least 200 cases. Some of
these, including Dan, the founder of the New York group, had been
pronounced medically hopeless. The "Narco" Group in the United States
Public Health Service Hospital at Lexington, Kentucky, has a transient
membership of about eighty men and women patients. The group mails a
monthly newsletter, The Key, free to those who want it, currently a list
of 500 names. Many of these are interested but nonaddicted friends. Most
are "mail-order members" of the group-addicts who have left the hospital
and been without drugs for periods ranging from a few weeks to several
years. The H.F.D. (Habit Forming Drug) Group is a loosely affiliated
fellowship of California ex-addicts who keep "clean" - the addicts term
for a state of abstinence- by attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings
with volunteer A.A. sponsors. The Federal prison at Lorton, Virginia,
has a prisoner group which attracts thirty men to its weekly meetings.
Narcotics Anonymous in New York is the sole "free world"-outside of
institution-group which conducts its own weekly open-to-the-public
meetings in the A.A. tradition.

Today's groups of former addicts mark the convergence of two historic
narratives, one having to do with alcohol, the other with opium.
References to the drug of the poppies go back to 4000 B.C. According to
Homer, Helen of Troy used it in a beverage guaranteed to abolish care.
Opium was employed to quiet noisy children as early as 1552 B.C. De
Quincy and Coleridge are among the famous men to whom it brought
disaster. In its dual role it appears today, through its derivatives, as
the friend of man in surgery and his enemy in addiction.

The alcoholic strand of the story may be taken up in the Zurich office
of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, one day late in 1933. At that time
the eminent doctor was obliged to impart an unpleasant bit of news to
one of his patients, an American businessman who had come for help with
a desperate drinking problem. After months of effort and repeated
relapses, the doctor admitted that his treatment had been a failure.

"Is there, then," the patient asked, "no hope?" Only if a profound
religious experience were undergone, he was told. How, he wanted to
know, could such an experience be had? It could not be obtained on
order, the doctor said, but if one associated with religious-minded
people for a while _______

Narcotics Anonymous - A.A.'s Young Brother

The American interested himself in Frank Buchman's Oxford Group, found
sobriety, and told an inebriate friend of his experience. The friend
sobered up and took the message to a former drinking partner, a New York
stockbroker named Bill. Though he was an agnostic who had never had much
use for religion, Bill sobered up. Late in 1935, while on a business
trip to Akron, Ohio, he was struck by the thought that he wouldn't be
able to keep his sobriety unless he passed on the message. He sought out
a heavy drinking local surgeon named Bob and told him the story to date.
They sat down and formulated a program for staying sober-a program
featuring twelve Suggested Steps and called Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill
devoted full time to carrying the A.A. message, and the news spread. The
now-famous article by Jack Alexander in The Saturday Evening Post of
March 1, 1941, made it nationally known, and by 1944 there were A.A.
groups in the major cities.

In June of that year an inebriate mining engineer whom we'll call
Houston "hit bottom" with his drinking in Montgomery, Alabama, and the
local A.A.'s dried him up. Houston gobbled the A.A. program and began
helping other alcoholics. One of the drunks he worked with-a sales
executive who can be called Harry-was involved not only with alcohol but
also morphine. A.A. took care of the alcoholic factor, but left Harry's
drug habit unchanged. Interested and baffled, Houston watched his new
friend struggle in his strange self-constructed trap.

The opiate theme of the narrative now reappears. Harry's pattern had
been to get roaring drunk, take morphine to avoid a hang-over, get drunk
again and take morphine again. Thus he became "hooked"-addicted. He
drove through a red light one day and was stopped by a policeman. The
officer found morphine and turned him over to Federal jurisdiction, with
the result that Harry spent twenty-seven months at Lexington, where both
voluntary and involuntary patients are accommodated, as a prisoner.
After his discharge he met Houston and, through A.A., found relief from
the booze issue. The drug problem continued to plague him.

During this period, Houston, through one of those coincidences which
A.A.'s like to attribute to a Higher Power, was transferred by his
employers to Frankfort, Kentucky, just a few miles from Lexington.
" Harry's troubles kept jumping through my brain," Houston says. "I was
convinced that the twelve Suggested Steps would work as well for drugs
as for alcohol if conscientiously applied. One day I called on Dr. V.H.
Vogel, the medical officer then in charge at Lexington. I told him of
our work with Harry and offered to assist in starting a group in the
hospital. Doctor Vogel accepted the offer and on Feb. 16, 1947, the
first meeting was held. Weekly meetings have been going on ever since."

The Phenomenon of "Physical Dependence"

Some months later, in a strangely woven web of coincidence, Harry
reappeared at "Narco" as a voluntary patient and began attending
meetings. He was discharged, relapsed, and in short time was back again.
" This time," he says, "it clicked." He has now been free from both
alcohol and drugs for more than five years. Twice he has returned to
tell his story at meetings, in the A.A. tradition of passing on the good

In the fall of 1948 there arrived at Lexington an addict named Dan who
had been there before. It was, in fact, his seventh trip; the doctors
assumed that he'd continue his periodic visits until he died. This same
Dan later founded the small but significant Narcotics Anonymous group in
New York. Dan's personal history is the story of an apparently incurable
addict apparently cured.

An emotionally unsettled childhood is the rule among addicts, and Dan's
childhood follows the pattern. His mother died when he was three years
old, his father when he was four. He was adopted by a spinster physician
and spent his boyhood with his foster mother, a resident doctor in a
Kansas City hospital, and with her relatives in Missouri and Illinois.
When he was sixteen he developed an ear ailment and was given opiates to
relieve the pain. During and after an operation to correct the condition
he received frequent morphine injections. Enjoying the mood of easy,
floating forgetfulness they induced, he malingered.

Living in a large hospital gave Dan opportunities to pilfer drugs, and
for six months he managed keep himself regularly supplied. An addict at
the hospital taught him how to inject himself, so for a time he was able
to recapture the mood at will. He was embarrassing his foster mother
professionally, however, and though not yet acknowledging the fact to
himself, was becoming known locally as an addict. Sources of drugs began
to close up, and one day there was no morphine to be had. He went into
an uncontrollable panic which grew worse each hour.

There followed muscular cramps, diarrhea, a freely running nose, tears
gushing from his eyes, and two sleepless, terror-filled days and nights.
It was Dan's first experience with the mysterious withdrawal sickness
which is experienced sooner or later by every addict.

In one of the strangest phenomena known to medicine, the body adjusts to
the invasion of certain drugs, altering its chemistry in a few weeks to
a basis-called "physical dependence"-on which it can no longer function
properly without the drug. How physical dependence differs from habit
may be illustrated by imagining a habitual gum chewer deprived of gum.
His unease would be due to the denial of habit. If he were denied gum
and also water, on which he is physically dependent, he'd feel an
increasingly painful craving called thirst. The drug addict's craving is
called the "abstinence syndrome," or withdrawal sickness. In extreme
cases it includes everything Dan experienced, plus hallucinations and
convulsions. Withdrawal of opiates rarely causes the death of a healthy
person; sudden cessation of barbiturates has been known to. The violent
phase, which is usually over in two to three days, may under expert care
be largely avoided. Physical dependence gradually diminishes and
ordinary habit, of the gum-chewing type, asserts itself.

This is the interval of greatest vulner-ability, N.A. members say, to
the addict's inevitable good resolutions. He has formed the habit of
using his drugs when he feels low. If he breaks off medical supervision
before he is physically and medically back to par, the temptation to
relapse may be overwhelming. It is in this period, Dan says, that the
addict most needs the kind of understanding he finds in N.A. If he
yields to the call of habit, physical dependence is quickly
reestablished and his body calls for ever greater doses as the price of

Dan went through the cycle dozens of times. Besides the half dozen
withdrawals at Lexington, there were several at city and state
institutions, and numerous attempts at self-withdrawal. He tried sudden
and complete abstinence, the "cold-turkey" method. He tried relieving
the withdrawal pangs with alcohol, and found it only cancelled out his
ability to think, so he automatically returned to drugs. When he
attempted withdrawal with barbiturates he "just about went goofy."

All this, however, was to come later; in his early twenties he had no
intention of giving up the use of drugs. Having been spotted as an
addict in the Kansas City area, he sought fresh fields. He found a job
as a salesman and traveled several Midwest states. The demands of his
habit and his scrapes with the law made it hard to hold a job long.
Drifting from one employment to another, he found himself, in the early
1930's in Brooklyn.

His attempts at withdrawal resulted in several extended periods of
abstinence, the longest of which was three years. When off drugs Dan was
an able sales executive and a good provider. He married a Staten Island
girl. They had a son. Dan continued to have short relapses, however.
Each new one put a further strain on the family tie. For a time, to save
money for drugs, he used slugs in the subway turnstiles going to and
from work. He was spotted by a subway detective and spent two days in
jail. A month later he was caught passing a forged morphine
prescription. As a result, he was among the first prisoner patients at
the new United States Public Health Service Hospital for addicts at
Lexington, when it was opened on May 28, 1935.

After a year there, he made a supreme effort to be rid of drugs for
good. To keep away from the temptations offered by New York drug pushers
he found a job with a large Midwest dairy. He worked hard, saved his
money and sent for his family. By this time, however, it was too late;
his wife refused to come, and a divorce action was begun. "Her rebuff
gave me what I thought was a good excuse to go back on drugs," Dan
reports. After that, his deterioration accelerated. On his seventh trip
to Lexington, in 1948, he was in a profound depression.

After a month of sullen silence, he began attending the group meetings,
which were a new feature at the hospital since his last trip. "I still
wouldn't talk," he reports, "But I did some listening. I was impressed
by what Houston had to say. Harry came back one time and told us his
story. For the first time, I began to pray. I was only praying that I
would die, but at least it was a prayer," He did not die, nor did he
recover. Within six months of his discharge he was found in possession
of drugs and sent back to Lexington for a year-his eighth and, as it
turned out, final trip.

"This time things were different," he says. "Everything Houston and
Harry had been saying suddenly made sense. There was a lawyer from a
Southern city there at the time, and a Midwestern surgeon. They were in
the same mood I was-disgusted with themselves and really ready to
change. The three of us used to have long talks with Houston every
Saturday morning, besides the regular meetings." All three recently
celebrated the fifth anniversary of their emancipation from the drug

Dan, conscious of what seemed to him a miraculous change of attitude,
returned to New York full of enthusiasm and hope. The twelfth of the
Suggested Steps was to pass on the message to others who needed help. He
proposed to form the first outside-of-institution group and call it
Narcotics Anonymous-N.A. He contacted other Lexington alumni and
suggested they start weekly meetings.

There were certain difficulties. Addicts are not outstandingly
gregarious, and when all the excuses were in only three-a house painter
named Charlie, a barber named Henry and a waiter we'll call George-were
on hand for the first meeting. There was uncertainty about where this
would be; nobody it seemed wanted the addicts around. Besides,
missionary, or "twelfth step," work of the new group would be hampered
by the law. When the A.A. member is on an errand of mercy he can, if
occasion warrants, administer appropriate "medicine" to stave off shakes
or delirium long enough to talk a little sense into the prospect. If the
N.A. member did so, he'd risk a long term in jail. Drug peddlers were
not enthusiastic about the new venture. Rumors were circulating
discrediting the group.

Out of the gloom, however, came unexpected rays of friendliness and
help. The Salvation Army made room for meetings at its 46th Street
cafeteria. Later the McBurney Y.M.C.A., on 23rd Street, offered a
meeting room. Two doctors backed their oral support by sending patients
to meetings. Two other doctors agreed to serve on an advisory board.

There were slips and backslidings. Meetings were sometimes marred by
obstinacy and temper. But three of the original four remained faithful
and the group slowly grew. Difficult matters of policy were worked out
by trial and error. Some members once thought that a satisfactory
withdrawal could be made at home. Some hard nights were endured and it
was concluded that the doctors were right-for a proper drug withdrawal
institutional care is necessary. Addicts are not admitted to meetings
while using drugs. Newcomers are advised to make their withdrawal first,
then come to N.A. to learn to live successfully without drugs.

Group statisticians estimate that 5000 inquiries have been answered,
constituting a heavy drain on the group's treasury. Some 600 addicts
have attended one or more meetings, 90 have attained effective living
without drugs. One of these is a motion picture celebrity, now doing
well on his own. One relapse after the first exposure to N.A. principles
seems to have been about par, though a number have not found this
necessary. "A key fact of which few addicts are aware," Dan says, "is
that once he's been addicted, a person can never again take even one
dose of any habit-forming drug, including alcohol and the barbiturates,
without running into trouble."

The weekly "open"-to the public-meetings are attended by ten to thirty
persons-addicts, their friends and families and concerned outsiders. The
room is small and, on Friday evenings when more than twenty-five turn
up, crowded.

There is an interval of chitchat and visiting, and then, about nine
o'clock, the secretary, a Brooklyn housewife, mother and department
-store cashier, opens the meeting. In this ceremony all repeat the
well-known prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I
cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to
know the difference." The secretary then introduces a leader-a member
who presents the speakers and renders interlocutor's comments from his
own experience with a drugless life. The speakers-traditionally two in
an evening-describe their adventures with drugs and with N.A. In two
months of meetings I heard a score of these case histories. I also
charted the progress of a newcomer, the young musician named Tom, whose
first N.A. meeting coincided with my own first reportorial visit.

Within the undeviating certainties of addiction, individual histories
reveal a wide assortment of personal variations. Harold, an optometrist,
is a "medical" addict; he got his habit from the prescription pad of a
doctor who was treating him for osteomyelitis. An outspoken advocate of
psychotherapy for all, Harold absorbs a certain amount of ribbing as the
groups "psychiatric salesman." Florence, the
housewife-cashier-secretary, recently celebrated her first anniversary
of freedom from morphine, which she first received twenty-five years ago
in a prescription for the relief of menstrual cramps. Carl, an
electrician, became interested in the effects of opium smoke thirty
years ago, and reached a point where he could not function without his
daily pipe. He eventually switched to heroin and his troubles

Manny, an executive in a high-pressure advertising agency, and Marian, a
registered nurse with heavy administrative responsibilities began using
morphine to relieve fatigue. Don, Marian's husband, regards alcohol as
his main addictive drug, but had a bad brush with self-prescribed
barbiturates before he came to A.A. and then, with Marian, to N.A. Pat,
another young advertising man, nearly died of poisoning from the
barbiturates to which he had become heavily addicted. Harold and Carl
have now been four years without drugs; Manny, three; Marian, Don and
Pat, one.

Perhaps a third of the membership are graduates of the teen-age heroin
fad which swept our larger cities a few years ago, and which still
enjoys as much of a vogue as dope peddlers can promote among the present
teen-age population. Rita, an attractive daughter of Spanish-American
Harlem, was one of the group's first members. Along with a number of her
classmates, she began by smoking marihuana cigarettes-a typical
introduction to drugs-then took heroin "for thrills." She used the drug
four years, became desperately ill, went to Lexington and has now been
free of the habit four years. Fred, a war hero, became a heroin addict
because he wanted friends. In the teen-age gang to which he aspired,
being hooked was a badge of distinction. He sought out the pusher who
frequented the vicinity of his high school and got hooked. There
followed seven miserable and dangerous years, two of them in combat and
one in a veteran's hospital. In December of 1953 he came to N.A. and, he
says, "really found friends."

Lawrence's story is the happiest of all. He came to N.A. early in his
first addiction, just out of high school, just married, thoroughly
alarmed at discovering he was addicted, and desperately seeking a way
out. N.A. friends recommended that he get "blue-grassed," an arrangement
by which a patient may commit himself under a local statute to remain at
Lexington 135 days for what the doctors consider a really adequate
treatment. He attended meetings in the hospital and more meetings when
he got home. Now happy and grateful, he thanks N.A. His boss recently
presented him with a promotion; his wife recently presented him with a

Besides the Friday open meeting there is a Tuesday closed meeting at the
Y for addicts only. As a special dispensation I was permitted to attend
a closed meeting, the purpose of which is to discuss the daily
application of the twelve steps.

The step under discussion the night I was there was No.4:"Make a
searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." The point was
raised as to whether this step might degenerate into self-recrimination
and do more harm than good. Old-timers asserted that this was not the
proper application. A life of drug addiction, they said, often built up
an abnormal load of guilt and fear, which could become so oppressive as
to threaten a relapse unless dealt with. When the addict used step 4
honestly to face up to his past, guilt and fear diminished and he could
make constructive plans for his future.

The Narco meetings at Lexington have borne other fruit. There was
Charlie, the young GI from Washington, D.C., who once looted first-aid
kits in the gun tubs of a Navy transport en route to the Philippines and
took his first morphine out of sheer curiosity. After his Army discharge
his curiosity led him to heroin and several bad years; then to
Lexington, where the Narco Group struck a spark. He heard about Dan's
work, went to New York to see him, and on his return to Washington
looked around to see what he could do. He discovered that there was a
concentration of addicts in the Federal penitentiary at Lorton,
Virginia. Working with Alcoholics Anonymous, which already had meetings
in the prison, he obtained permission to start a group like the one at
Lexington. Now a year old, these meetings, called the Notrol Group-
Lorton backward-attract the regular attendance of about thirty addicts.
Washington has no free-world group, but Charlie helps a lot of addicts
on an individual basis, steering them to A.A. meetings for doctrine.

Friendliness of ex-drug addicts with former devotees of alcohol
sometimes occurs, though Bill, the same who figured so prominently in
A.A.'s founding, says a fraternal attitude cannot be depended upon. The
average A.A., he says, would merely look blank if asked about drug
addiction, and rightly reply that this specialty is outside his
understanding. There are, however, a few A.A.'s who have been addicted
both to alcohol and drugs, and these sometimes function as "bridge

"If the addict substitutes the word 'drugs' whenever he hears 'alcohol'
in the A.A. program, he'll be helped," Houston says. Many ex-addicts, in
the larger population centers where meetings run to attendances of
hundreds, attend A.A. meetings. The H.F.D. (Habit-Forming Drug) Group,
which is activated by an energetic ex-addict and ex-alcoholic of the Los
Angeles area named Betty, has dozens of members, but no meeting of its
own. Individual ex-addicts who are "making it" the A.A. way include a
minister in a South-eastern state, a politician in the deep South, a
motion-picture mogul in California and an eminent surgeon of an Eastern
city. The role call of ex-addict groups is small. There is the parent
Narco Group, Addicts Anonymous, P.O. Box 2000, Lexington, KY; Narcotics
Anonymous, P.O. Box 3, Village Station, New York 14, N.Y.; Notrol Group,
c/o U.S. Penitentiary, Lorton, Va.; H.D.F. Group, c/o Secretary, Bay
Area Rehabilitation Center, 1458 26th St., Santa Monica, Calif.

A frequent and relevant question asked by the casually interested is,
" But I thought habit-forming drugs were illegal-where do they get the
stuff?" The answer involves an interesting bit of history explaining how
opiates come to be illegal. In the early 1800's doctors used them freely
to treat the innumerable ills then lumped under the heading,
" nervousness." Hypodermic injection of morphine was introduced in 1856.
By 1880, opium and morphine preparations were common drugstore items. An
1882 survey estimated that 1 per cent of the population was addicted,
and the public became alarmed. A wave of legislation swept the country,
beginning in 1885 with an Ohio statute and culminating in the Federal
Harrison Narcotic Law of 1914. Immediately after the passage of this
prohibitory law, prices of opium, morphine and heroin soared. A
fantastically profitable black market developed. Today, $3000 worth of
heroin purchased abroad brings $300,000 when finally cut, packaged and
sold in America.

Among the judges, social workers and doctors with whom I talked there is
a growing feeling that the Harrison Act needs to be re-examined. Dr.
Hubert S. Howe, a former Columbia professor of neurology and authority
on narcotics, says the statute, like the Volstead Act, "removed the
traffic in narcotic drugs from lawful hands and gave it to criminals."
In an address before the New York State Medical Society he asserted that
the financial props could be knocked from the illegal industry by minor
revisions of present laws and rulings, with no risk of addiction
becoming more widespread. Doctor Howe proposes a system of regulation
similar to that of the United Kingdom, which reports only 364 addicts.

Meanwhile the lot of those who become involved with what our British
cousins rightly call "dangerous drugs" is grim. It is just slightly less
grim than it might have been five years ago. Since then a few addicts
have found a way back from the nightmare alleys of addiction to a normal
life which may seem humdrum enough at times, but which when lost, then
regained, is found to be a glory.


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