Evening Post August 7, 1954
These Drug Addicts Cure One
Page 22, 23, 48, 49, 52 August
These Drug Addicts Cure One
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 cases of 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 be 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 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 violations
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 goof ball.
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 reaction; 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
winch conducts its own weekly open-to-the public meetings in the
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
Quincey 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 is addiction.
The alcoholic strand o£
the story may be token 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 ------
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
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 the 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
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 a 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 word.
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 to keep himself regularly supplied. An addict at the hospital
had taught him 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
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 or 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 vulnerability, N.A. members say, to the addict's inevitable
good resolutions. He has formed the habit of using his drug when
he feels low. If he breaks off medical supervision before he's
physically and mentally 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
re-established and his body calls for ever greater doses as the
price of peace.
Dan went through the cycle
dozens of times. Besides the half dozen with- drawals 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 canceled 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 few months 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
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 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 habit.
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 his 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 circulated 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. and 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
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
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 group's "psychiatry 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 multiplied.
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
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 son.
Besides the Friday open
meeting them 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 serf-recrimination and
do more harm than good. Old-timers asserted that this was not
its 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
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 to 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 meetings
of its own. Individual ex-addicts who are "making it"
the A.A. way include a minister in a Southeastern state, a politician
in the deep South, a motion-picture mogul in California and an
eminent surgeon of an Eastern city. The roll 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.F.D. 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 came 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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