Cynthia D. reached the end of the line 10 and a half years ago. She can tell you the exact day: July 5, 1991.
She had just come off a month-long binge on crack cocaine, her drug of choice. At the end of it, she looked in the mirror, and at her 5-year-old son, and realized that something had to change.
“I’m a child of the ’70s,” Cynthia says. “I came up in an era when it was all about drugs, sex and rock and roll. My parents didn’t raise me that way, but it seemed to me that people who were getting high were having so much fun.”
“In the beginning, it was all right. Then I met crack.”
Cynthia says that her life had degenerated into an incessant, single-minded quest for the drug. She committed every crime in the book, except for rape and murder, to get her fix.
“I wasn’t a mother, I wasn’t a daughter, I wasn’t an employee,” she says. “I wasn’t even a friend.”
The contrast between the Cynthia of today and the stories she tells about her past are startling. Cynthia D. is a charming, confident, well-dressed woman who’s not shy about deploying a teasing gleam of the eye to underline a point.
But even more incredible than the apparent transformation is the fact that Cynthia turned her life around without going into a treatment program and without being thrown in jail.
She turned her life around, she says, through her own force of will, with a little help from Narcotics Anonymous.
Cynthia – who, in accordance with NA procedures, did not give her last name – says that NA provided her with a new life after she decided to discard the old one.
She met friends that she says she would “trust with her life” – even with that of her son, who is now a sophomore at Berkeley High. She says that sometimes, when she and her son get into an argument, he will call some of her NA friends and ask if he can stay at their house for the weekend.
“It’s like Hillary Clinton said – it takes a village to raise a child,” she says. “Well, this is my village.”
Cynthia points to a particular passage in the NA big book that she says explains the philosophy of the program.
“An addict who does not want to stop using will not stop using. They can be analyzed, counseled, reasoned with, prayed over, threatened, beaten or locked up, but they will not stop until they want to stop.”
NA, like other 12-step programs, emphasizes a person’s innate willpower. That, along with the fact that NA provides a ready-made community of leaders and peers that have been addicts, may account for the program’s success.
In May of last year, the Stanford University School of Medicine released the results of a year-long survey of drug addicts in Veterans’ Administration rehabilitation programs.
The survey found that 12-step programs like NA are over 25 percent more effective than more traditional, “scientific” approaches to addiction.
In addition, 12-step programs are free of charge.
But Robert Long, coordinator of the Berkeley Multi-agency Service Center, says that despite success stories like Cynthia’s, 12-step programs should never be considered a complete solution to addiction.
Once in a while, says Long, one of the homeless people who use the service center will tell staff that they want to clean up – to get off alcohol or drugs.
The staff of the service center will often refer these people to a 12-step program, says Long, as it is the only option available for people with no money.
However, Long says, a homeless addict trying to kick the habit is soon reunited with the street, cold nights and old friends.
“Alcoholics Anonymous is wonderful and NA is wonderful,” he said. “But in this situation, there are other forces that need to be addressed, and that’s housing.”
Cynthia says that her five brothers and sisters, are still, in one way or another, involved in the drug lifestyle.
“They call me Miss NA,” she says. “I just tell them, ‘that’s right.’”
But the rewards of being clean far outweigh jibes like this, she says.
“Friends and family who used to cross the street to avoid me now welcome me into their homes,” she says. “Now they say, ‘Come over to my house and stay for the weekend.’ I’m still amazed by that.”
For information on Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the East Bay, call (510)444-4673.