THE members of a supportive North Shore community hope by speaking out, they'll shine a light on an important, yet virtually unknown, local resource serving the family and friends of those struggling with drug addiction.
Addiction affects more than just the addict, yet far too many extended family members and friends continue to not seek support, instead fixating on trying to change the individual and taking responsibility for them, all the while carrying the burden of helplessness alone.
Nar-Anon is a nonprofessional, free and confidential 12-step program for relatives and friends of people struggling with an addiction to narcotics. There are currently three weekly support groups held on the North Shore, two in North Vancouver and one in West Vancouver. The program, while independent, is based on the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous. Based on a set of spiritual principles, Nar-Anon has no basis in any particular religion. Group members include parents, children, spouses, partners, friends, grandparents or coworkers of drug abusers and an average local meeting could see anywhere from three to 25 people in attendance.
It's difficult to raise awareness of Nar-Anon due to its anonymity factor, however two West Vancouver women are speaking out as it's made a tremendous positive difference in their lives and they believe it has the potential to similarly impact others.
"There seems to be a real gap in knowledge about our specific group," says Ann, 62, (her real name withheld due to the stigma that is at times associated with addiction, as well as to protect the privacy of her family member who is affected).
People tend to be more familiar with Nar-Anon's counterparts - Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon and Narcotics Anonymous included.
"I'm always running into people who have never even heard the name of the group," she says. "Partly the principle of anonymity is a bit inhibiting about publicity, but there's been a big discussion recently about people doing things like what we're doing now. . . . That's why we're doing it, just to raise our profile so that people know that we're here."
When Ann attended her first Nar-Anon meeting nine years ago, she was skeptical.
"I listened to all these stories of recovery and I thought, 'Well, that's nice, but that's not going to happen for us,'" she recalls.
However, out of respect for those in attendance, she continued to attend and is glad she did.
"I feel relieved," she says. "I feel like I have a wound and it's been lanced after I go to a meeting. The situation hasn't changed, but I feel lighter."
Over the years Ann has worked to detach herself from her loved one's struggle with drug addiction. She has remained supportive of her family member, though has set a number of boundaries, and is focusing more on her life.
"Lo and behold, things started getting better (for the addict)," she says.
"One thinks that because somebody is addicted they can't make reasonable decisions for themselves, but often it's because you're in there trying to determine the outcome. And once you stop doing that, they've got to take more responsibility for the outcome. It doesn't guarantee that they're going to do that, but it allows them the room to do that and in our case, that's what happened," she adds.
Fellow North Shore Nar-Anon group member Kate, 83 (her real name likewise withheld), was a pioneer in the founding of the B.C. Region of the international organization approximately 24 years ago in light of her son's struggle with drug addiction. He encouraged her to start it, believing it would help them both through his recovery.
"Through this experience of living with my son's addiction, I found that I was as obsessed with him, and his every move, as he was with his addiction. I clearly needed help. When I (founded) Nar-Anon, I found people in the same desperate situation as I was in, who were willing to share their experience, strength and hope," says Kate.
From humble beginnings, the B.C. Region now includes 16 support groups across the province and Kate is an avid North Shore group attendee and helps with publicity.
"We'd like it to grow more, because we see the necessity," she says.
While he was able to find sobriety at different points in his recovery, Kate's son died of an accidental prescribed drug overdose following an injury three years ago.
"When I think about Nar-Anon, the benefits of it, the actual philosophy is a lifestyle that one can follow in everyday situations, just getting strength from how to look at a situation," says Kate.
"I'm very strong in keeping all of the meetings going," she adds.
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When people come to Nar-Anon for the first time, they're typically in a state of trauma.
"They're in a real state of desperation and they've spent months or years trying to solve the addict's problems," says Ann. "This is an activity that generally is not too successful, but when it's your family, you become obsessed with the problem."
A loved one's addiction can be all-consuming, taking over one's thoughts, causing things like their health and job to suffer, can result in feelings of shame and can lead to social isolation.
"A lot of these people don't talk to people about it, or if they do, they get pity rather than empathy," says Ann.
Nar-Anon meetings promote acceptance and understanding as addiction cuts across economic and age boundaries, having the potential to affect people in all walks of life.
Members share their variety of experiences and struggles, ranging from loved one's encounters with the law to leaving home. While each story is unique, there are countless commonalities. As individuals get more into the program, they tend to eventually focus less on their personal experiences and more on how they use the 12 steps to deal with the addiction and in other aspects of their life.
Anonymity is integral to the process.
"A person in that vulnerable state needs to know that you're not going to turn around and reveal their story," says Ann.
Group members work to help their peers accept the situation, change their behaviour and take responsibility for themselves and their own recovery. Members have often lost touch with what they used to enjoy in life and their lives overall, having become so focused on their loved one's actions.
"Just as the addicts do, we look at ourselves and that is probably the biggest change that the organization offers is a way to stop obsessing solely about the addict and look at your own life and your strengths and your weaknesses," says Ann.
Learning to set boundaries is another important focus.
Many people who attend Nar-Anon meetings express feelings of guilt related to their loved one's struggles.
"They feel like a failure, that they've been bad parents or bad spouses," says Ann.
A slogan, referred to as The Three Cs works to combat this.
"'We didn't cause it, we can't control it and we can't cure it.' Some people, when they're told that, a light shines and it really is not their fault and they're not to blame in any way," says Kate.
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Nar-Anon meetings on the North Shore include:
? Sundays, 7-8: 30 p.m. in Seminar Room A at Lions Gate Hospital, 231 East 15th St., North Vancouver.
? Tuesdays, 7: 30-9 p.m. at the Alano Club, 176 East Second St., North Vancouver.
? Thursdays, 7-8: 30 p.m. at St. Stephen's Anglican Church, 885 22nd St., West Vancouver.
For information on the local meetings, phone 604926-6453. For general information on Nar-Anon, phone 604-878-8844 or visit nar-anonbcregion.org or naranon.org.