Pat had just intravenously injected heroin through his jugular vein.
He was in the Kensington neighborhood where he played as a child, not far from the house his mother still lived.
“I ended up sleeping on one of those benches in McPherson Square…[addiction] was a terrible life.”
Eventually Pat traveled to Montgomery County seeking treatment. “I had tried different things. None of the stuff worked for me at all.”
He had gone through several medication-assisted treatment programs using either suboxone or methadone as a substitute for heroin. Those work for some people. They didn’t work for Pat. He didn’t experience long-term recovery until he was introduced to a 12-step fellowship program called Narcotics Anonymous through Eagleville Hospital.
That was 36 years ago.
Now clean, Pat spent his next 36 years working in the treatment community, specifically, running Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Montgomery County, and within some of its prisons.
Narcotics Anonymous programs like these have by no means stopped the opioid epidemic. But in Montgomery County, they are an important piece of how the community is dealing with the crisis.
Pat invited a reporter to attend an Narcotics Anonymous meeting at a small brick church whose location has been withheld.
Walking into the building, two older men taking a smoke break were extremely friendly — in fact, the entire atmosphere was startlingly genial. People hugged and seemed happy.
To start the meeting, a few participants read text aloud from the Narcotics Anonymous handbook. Then, a 22-year-old man shared his story of sobriety to celebrate 90 days of being clean.
Subsequently, the floor was opened to anyone to share, although because this was a “new members” meeting, newcomers were invited to speak first.
One woman said that she had just begun her journey to sobriety, and had been sober for less than 24 hours. She, like others who followed her, was received by other members thanking her for sharing her story and encouraging her to come back.
When older members shared their stories, one man said that he had been sober for more than 40 years, and that coming to these meetings was his “medicine,” keeping him on the right path.
The philosophy of Narcotics Anonymous centers on understanding the emotional roots of addiction, and providing a community to aid in supporting those who want to recover and better their lives. Members work through the 12 Steps of recovery in order; they are instructed to admit they have a problem, seek a higher power, and create a “searching and fearless” moral inventory of themselves. A more experienced member, as well as the larger community, encourage them along the way.
Nowadays it is hard to find anyone who does not know someone affected by the opioid epidemic. Montgomery County has not been spared from what has become a nationwide fight against opioid-based drug addiction.
In fact, the county saw a 40 percent increase in drug-related deaths from 2015-2017, according to the 2017 report, “Tracking the Opioid Epidemic in Montgomery County.
When it came to opioids specifically, there was a 60 percent increase in deaths over that same time frame, according to information collected by the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office.
Since 2017, there has been a promising 13 percent drop in the number of opioid-related deaths.
The county has been making efforts to reduce harm from opioids and other drugs.
In October of 2018, Montgomery County received a $1 million grant (over 3 years) from the Federal Office of Justice Programs to combat drug overdoses.
The money was used to create a “multi-disciplinary” group of experts from fields such as law enforcement, emergency medicine, and social work to develop strategies to combat problems caused by the opioid crisis in Montgomery County. The group worked to compile new and old data on drug overdoses and drug-related injuries from 2002 to 2018. The county made the information public to allow solutions to be implemented and tested in the field as quickly as possible.
Other county efforts include regular public awareness events to educate people about opioids and instruct them on how to use naloxone (a drug overdose reversal drug) — a big part of the county’s response to the problem. Naloxone has also been supplied to emergency medical technicians, law enforcement officers, and has been advocated to public schools and college campuses for trained personnel.
According to county communications director John Corcoran, “In 2017, police alone administered naloxone 367 times, resulting in 97% reversals.” There is also a “drug take-back” initiative to collect unused medications that are vulnerable to abuse, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, and a “warm hand off program” to smoothly transition overdose survivors from medical care to drug abuse treatment.
But even with all these innovations, Narcotics Anonymous has remained a central part of the response to long-term recovery in the addiction community.
A proposal for a fellowship dedicated to drug addiction was proposed by a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, in 1944. In the following years, drug programs similar to Alcoholics Anonymous began to appear in the United States.
Narcotics Anonymous was founded in 1953 by a man named Jimmy Kinnon, or Jimmy K, as he was known because of the program’s anonymity principle. Today, according to Narcotics Anonymous World Services, over 70,000 meetings are held weekly in 144 countries. Five of these are hosted here in Montgomery County.
According to a study published in BioMed Central in 2019 on Narcotics Anonymous treatment outcomes, “being a member of NA, accepting oneself as an ill person, and receiving support from sympathizers (other treated members of NA) … lead to a change in the individuals attitude and self knowledge.”
While some believe in Narcotics Anonymous’s power to heal, others are skeptical about whether 12-Step programs are effective at all. The program does not require members to be affiliated with a specific religion, but does ask that you “surrender yourself to a higher power” (Step Two: ‘We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’), which may not align with the beliefs of all those seeking treatment. These faith-based ideas can view the disease of addiction as a failing of your soul or morality, rather than a disease of the brain.
It’s hard to say how many people Narcotics Anonymous helps, or with what rate of success, because the movement of members in and out of programs and anonymity of participants makes rigorous study difficult. However, personal accounts from those who have participated in the program demonstrate that it can work.
Ben Mosakowski, a former addict who now works in the Philadelphia addiction treatment community, has stated that Narcotics Anonymous was “the only thing that was ever successful [in getting me] to recognize that I had a problem and to identify with others, and really find a template for living.”
*Names of private citizens have been to protect their privacy