When they took drugs, members of Narcotics Anonymous preferred the society of other users. And now as recovering drug addicts, they also tend to seek each other's company in the struggle of recovery.
Narcotics Anonymous is "where I socialize, it's my friends," said Jim, 37, a plumbing contractor from Annapolis who has been free of drugs for more than 10 years. "It's what I base my life around."
Jim was one of more than 2,000 recovering addicts from around the country and Canada who attended a weekend conference that ended yesterday at the Omni Hotel in Baltimore.
The main business of the conference was to celebrate recovery, he said.
Some who attended the conference had been "clean," that is, free of drugs, for 25 years, others for only a short time. An addict who has been clean for as little as a day would be "the most welcome person here," Jim said.
Members guard their anonymity to prevent any one of them from gaining fame as a public spokesman or notoriety through a lapse in behavior. They observe these and other "traditions" to preserve unity and equality.
Narcotics Anonymous is a voluntary organization following the same 12-step program as Alcoholics Anonymous. The only criterion of membership is a desire to stop using drugs.
Narcotics Anonymous started in California in 1953 and came to Baltimore in 1979. The weekend conference was put on by the group's Free State Region that covers most of Maryland. Jim said more than 3,000 people attend meetings just in the greater Baltimore area.
Addicts begin the program by acknowledging their addiction and its power over their lives. They profess belief in "a Power greater than ourselves," a sense of a God as defined by each individual, who can help them recover. Eventually, they commit themselves to bringing the program to other addicts.
Workshops over the weekend dealt with aspects of the 12-step program. The events bore titles such as "Triangle of Self-Obsession," "I am the Problem," and "Spiritual Not Religious."
The speech of recovering addicts is punctuated with gratitude for small things and with slogans that emphasize continuing status as addicts. Recovery proceeds "one day at a time." They find parallels in listening to each other's stories.
"Hi, I'm Tony, and I'm an addict," said a man from Washington, giving the standard Narcotics Anonymous introduction. He was the featured speaker. To warm up his listeners, he urged them to "put some love in the room."
All rose from their seats for a round of embraces, which is the standard Narcotics Anonymous greeting. Even a non-addict visitor was urged to participate, "or else they're going to look at you strange," one recovering addict said.
Tony had been clean for about nine years. "I didn't have a substance or a drug of choice. I used anything I could get my hands on," he said. "That's the way it is, man."
Tony first encountered Narcotics Anonymous while undergoing in-patient treatment for his addiction. The program put him off at first. It violated his pride, his sense that he could take care of himself without the help of others.
When released from the treatment center, he feared going home to live his life without drugs. But he still scorned the 12-step program as too simple a remedy for a man of his complex problems.
Starting with the first step, acknowledging that he was powerless over his addiction, filled him with "a lot of humility," Tony said. "That feeling of powerlessness, it's totally devastating."
Events in his life have conspired to remind him of his need for the support of other recovering addicts. He said 1991 was a particularly bad year, and a busy one for his friends in Narcotics Anonymous.
They supplied space heaters when his furnace at home burned up. They supported him when his kitchen stove went up in flames Christmas Day. They steered him to drug rehabilitation programs for his nephew who called one day in tears. "He had been smoking crack all night, man, and there was nothing I could do," Tony said.
The boy's mother thought a six-month rehabilitation program was too long, Tony said, and now the boy is gone.
"I'm hurting. I didn't want to be here this morning because I wanted to find him," Tony said, though he knew the search could take him back to old haunts. "But the reality is, I might end up in the crack house and smoke some myself."
The crowd rumbled in empathy.
Bob, 47, of Baltimore County, who has been clean three years, had heard such stories before. The pain was similar to his own, he said. "It reassures me I'm in the right place when I see that pain."