The crowded road to recovery can become a lifestyle Step By Step

February 02, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

They have come by the hundreds to the Challenge for Change convention at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, a safe house where inner children can meet other inner children, cry, hug and confess with no sense of shame.

They are young and old, white and black, middle-class and blue-collar -- and all veterans of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous and other 12-step programs for compulsive behaviors.

The 12-step method, pioneered in the 1930s as a road to recovery for alcoholics, has become much more than a treatment. It's now a movement -- and a full-fledged industry -- with its own lifestyle, music, literature, jokes and lingo.

Nowhere was that more evident than this weekend at the Omni, where the movement's devotees came together to share.

"Addicts like to talk, and their favorite subject is themselves," says a woman at the registration table who identifies herself only as "Anita D," preserving the anonymity that is a cornerstone of the 12-step approach.

She cites a passage from the bible of the 12-step movement, the "Big Book," that compares the fellowship among recovering addicts to that of shipwreck survivors. "That's kind of what happens here," she says. "All of us have been through that shipwreck."

It is celebrating that survival -- not making money -- that is the real bottom line of such conventions, says Mary Raphel, a co-sponsor of this gathering organized by Recovery Convention Associates and the Harford County Task Force for Children of Chemically Dependent Parents.

Admission to the two-day convention ranged from $35 to $105, depending on activities attended. From those fees, event organizers had to pay overhead and fund partial scholarships that were offered to those who worked as volunteers that day. "We [only] want our expenses covered," says Ms. Raphel, a Towson therapist who is herself in recovery.

For convention attendees, 12-step meetings are no longer enough. They need more and more doses of the validation that comes from others who understand them. Some say those who so fully immerse themselves in the 12-step lifestyle are merely trading one addiction for another.

"The best friends I have are from the program," says Anita D. "They are trying to live life the same way, so I'm immediately comfortable with them."

Just to be in this place, among the fellowship, is "very centering," says Lisa Portera, 30.

For two days, a surprising cross section of people meet for workshops and to hear inspirational speakers -- like garrulous recovery guru Bob Earll from New Mexico, and Stuart Smalley, the lovable co-dependent character created by "Saturday Night Live" comic Al Franken -- and to attend 12-step meetings.

"You can come from any walk of life and have this common bond," says Ailie Ham, a 25-year-old multi-media artist from Baltimore.

Shy, shaggy guys with knapsacks, raw-boned men in sweat shirts and hunks straight out of Gap ads converge at tables of recovery literature, tapes, T-shirts, jewelry and bumper stickers proclaiming, "Relax, God is in Charge," and "Keep Coming Back."

Neatly coiffed women in their 60s, young women in bleached jeans and permed hair, college students in leather and leggings, and thirtysomething mothers take copious notes as they listen to talks such as "Gems of Recovery" and "Relationships: Having them Work." Some have brought infants, whom they rock gently on their laps while nodding in agreement with the speakers.

The conference has the air of an old-fashioned revival meeting, and indeed, "There is a lot of healing going on here," says Larry DeAngelis, co-owner of the Serenity Shop, a 12-step gift store in Baltimore. He's also a convention co-organizer.

When he was in the grip of drugs and alcohol, "I didn't know how to live, how to love, how to be available for other people as well as doing what I needed to do for myself," Mr. DeAngelis says. "I am just so grateful to be a part of this."

His sentiments are echoed over and over again. Denise Wyatt, 38, says she has found happiness beyond her "wildest dreams," thanks to NA. "I used [drugs] for 24 years, and today, I love myself," she says.

Throughout the weekend, appalling stories emerge in workshops and 12-step meetings. Some are told with wrenching emotion. Others are related in a numbed monotone. Miracles are sprinkled among the tragedies.

There is the mother of five who is celebrating her youngest son's 21st birthday. After his daunting bout with drugs, it's a miracle he's alive, she says tearfully.

One young man has lost a small fortune, his home and probably his business to a sex and love addiction.

There is the woman who passes around pictures of herself before a dramatic weight loss, a miracle that could have occurred only in the protective climate of the 12-step program, she says.

And then, there is the young lady with long curly hair and Valley Girl inflections who is conquering her addiction to an inhalant.

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