All Photographs + Text Copyright 2012 Christopher Keeley

  • Paradise Life

  • dead friends


    Stumbling in wasted, after the bell rang, to my high school freshman English class wasn't unusual. When I walked in that day, I realized that something was different. The class was quiet and some blond-headed woman, not a student, not a teacher and too cool looking to be a parent was talking to the teacher.

    I made my way to the back corner. Other druggie students, trying to avoid my frequent hostility, moved out of my way until I picked the desk I wanted. I was just wiping the sweat off my sunglasses when the teacher introduced us to the lady. Her name was Tammy. She was a former drug addict and she was going to tell us about her drug problem. Everyone near me started cutting up after I asked her if she'd brought us any of the drugs she had left over.

    Tammy started talking about her childhood. I wadded up paper in my mouth and shot it toward her with a straw. Someone threw a crumpled up home work assignment at her as she talked of her D.U.I. arrests and drug overdoses. I laughed and encouraged everyone to be as disrespectful and obnoxious as possible. The whole time we taunted Tammy but her voice remained calm and steady. That pissed me off even more. Despite my apparent lack of interest, I heard every word of what Tammy said every word!

    In English class the next day there she was again. The teacher said that Tammy was going to finish her story by talking of her struggle and success at stopping her drug use. I told the teacher that I was going to the bathroom. She said, Not today. I told her I didn't feel well and asked if I could go to the clinic. She looked dead at me and said, No, I think you really need to hear this.

    Later that day two of my 'clean' friends who had tried many times to help me clean up by lying for me, carrying me into class or home, begging me to quit, stealing my drugs and threatening to snitch, approached me. They asked me to skip my next class to meet someone. When we got there it was Tammy, the lady that both fascinated and terrified me. I had already wanted to, tried to and promised to stop using drugs but I always failed. Incredibly I came from a wonderful family with loving parents and two older brothers whom I admired. My closeness to them was being destroyed and I felt totally unable to do anything about it.

    My mind went back to my first drug experience at age six. Even with sexual contact forced on me at the time, now I thought back about the drug high, the emotional escape I felt. But wait, she to had gone through some type of abuse too, yet today she was here in front of me, clean and talking about it. I certainly wasn't.

    Tammy handed me the NA white book, which at the time was NA's main piece of literature (this was before the Text or any of our current books were available).

    Suddenly my years of drug abuse stung worse than my first scorpion encounter as a child. Yeah, the first high was great, the first high. Sometimes a new drug was good again, for a while anyway. It never was as good or for that matter never lasted as long. Truthfully the high was less and less, even with different and stronger drugs. From age six to nine I abused an acceptable drug. At age nine, I graduated to harder drugs, street drugs. With the drugs came sexual abuse again. This time it wasn't only once. It went on for years and this time I was often the one putting myself in those situations in order to get drugs.


    Yeah, I answered as I came back to the moment. It was Tammy. I was in my steamy south Florida high school's gym alone with her. I felt like I needed to puke and she saw it. Only one week out of a 28-day treatment program, she was authorized to be a guest speaker for each English class in grades eight through twelve. I later found out that I was the only student who had talked to her for help. Before I left the gym that day Tammy told me she would like to take me to a meeting…a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. She said words that would later give me comfort, but at the time she said them I felt an arctic blast chill on my sweat soaked skin. She confidently said, You never have to use again, just for today.

    My first NA meeting with Tammy was in Miami, FL May of 1983.

    It was about an hour and a half’s drive north of my island of Key Largo. The NA fellowship was young and there were as yet no meetings close to us. The group, Survival, had an appropriate name for helping addicts survive but also because it is still alive in 2008 although it has gone through several relocations. We got there late. About sixty recovering addicts packed the room. I walked in and felt incredible energy as I sat down to listen.

    The speaker talked about his addiction and recovery. At the end of the meeting I found myself in the front of the room with a plain white poker chip in my hand. Everything was moving so fast I wasn't even sure what the chip was for. Everyone went wild cheering and clapping. In a panic I searched the faces for Tammy's.

    She was there. She smiled. For some reason I knew that I was okay; that I had found help. Stranger than that though, at age fourteen, knowing nothing about NA, I felt that I had found something that would change my life, forever!

    I didn't know that I would one day hear the news that Tammy relapsed, overdosed and drowned in a Jacuzzi, after having had three years clean. Or that I would pick up a 24th anniversary medallion at Clean Conchs, the group that Tammy had started, my home group to this day. I had no idea of how fortunate I was for grabbing on to NA's lifeline not only at my young age, but at a time when the NA fellowship was yet young.

    I attended lots of meetings in many areas and also many conventions. I listened and stuck with the winners like I was told to do. This enabled me to meet many NA members from around the country who were serious about recovery. Many are still clean today. I consider them to be my brothers and sisters through that special bond that recovery fellowship forges. I have also watched many addicts whom I love die.

    Women started wanting me to sponsor them, locally, long distance and even other countries. This was another unforeseen gift, the opportunity to be a sponsor to women over the years, having something worth giving and being willing to give it as a result of someone else having given it to me so freely. It is another program miracle that when you give back you are enriched so much more.

    I didn't know that one day I would carry the NA message as someone who believes it to my core. Not a belief stemming only from all the gifts of recovery but a belief that comes from the terrible pain I've faced and over come through recovery.

    The lonely horrible times that I didn't want to live through and the times that I couldn't hold on but somehow God, the Twelve Steps and other recovering addicts pulled me out of it, clean! The Narcotics Anonymous message that I strive to live each and every day is 'That an addict, any addict can stop using drugs, lose the desire to use and find a new way to live'.

    Any addict even a fifteen year old girl from an island in south Florida who learned to drink coffee and hang out with mostly thirty year olds because she knew her recovery depended on them. Even when they hit on her, teased her about getting clean so young, telling her that she was lucky that she did not have to through 'real pain' (as they had) as she suffered silently from her past: the sexual abuse, the heavy duty drugs, the overdoses, promiscuity, arrests, violence, loneliness, guilt and paranoia.

    The thing she wanted to say so desperately was that although she was different (younger) in their eyes, her pain was just as devastating to her as the pain of a homeless junkie or anyone else. She was ready to quit and she was asking for help.

    There were NA members who told her she was too young to be an addict and others shunned her for wanting to hanging out with them. Fortunately there were those who told her that she earned a seat in NA and that she should stay and fight for it.

    This process taught a valuable lesson: to be accepting of any person who comes to the rooms seeking help and to allow each person to be their own judge as to weather they belonged in NA. Our third tradition says: 'The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using.' When addicts seek recovery, we should not focus on the differences between us no matter what they are but rather on what binds us together. One teenage girl almost died. The Twelve Traditions are there for a good reason.

    After that first meeting at 'Survival', a group of about twenty of us went out for cheesecake and coffee. I listened but didn't understand. As we drove home I asked Tammy what a sponsor was. She told me. I looked at her and wondered how she had staid clean for over thirty days. I heard myself asking her if she would be my sponsor. Before I had time to fear rejection, she said, I’d love to.

    This is how my recovery journey began, leading me to places I never could have imagined and I know the journey has just begun.

    Note: After picking up my first white chip in May 1983, I relapsed numerous times close together including during a two month treatment stay. On August 7, 1983 in Orlando, Florida, I picked up my last white chip. As a consequence of my repeated using I was transferred to a locked treatment center in Atlanta, GA when I had just two and a half weeks clean. I was able to stay clean the whole year I was there (yes, you can manage to get drugs even in a locked facility if you want to) due to my strong desire and H&I outreach. This year at age 40 I will celebrate 25 years clean at my home group, Clean Conchs.

    I have attended meetings in Atlanta and my area of South Florida for the past 25 years (since 1983). Service work, conventions and strong alliances with other recovering addicts have helped me to realize that I am a part of something much bigger than myself and my own problems. Here are some of my experiences during this time in NA.

    My home group in the Florida Keys, Clean Conchs, now holds five meetings week in Tavernier / Key Largo. It is the only meeting group within 40 miles in either direction. Clean Conchs was started by Tammy F. held at the Burton Memorial Church in Tavernier on a Saturday night in May of 1983, only one week before I attended my first meeting. There were between one to three members with a couple people from another fellowship coming down to offer support to get us started.

    I had a rough start to my recovery and was put in long term treatment in Atlanta for a year where I picked up my one year medallion. At that time NA groups did not have metal medallions. We used blue poker chips engraved by year and home group. My birthday meeting was held at a clubhouse, and as was their custom, they made it special for me by giving me a chance to pick the topic, the people I wanted to share and who gave me my medallion. Everyone who spoke said something about --the birthday person.

    When I returned to the Keys, the Clean Conchs meetings were being held in the garage of an un-air-conditioned Chevron gas station. Our group had only a few members so we traveled together by car to Marathon, Homestead and South Miami (40 to 90 miles) to have an expanded fellowship. Over the next months we had our meeting moved from place to place: from the gas station to the Senior Citizen building and Convalescent Center on Plantation Key and to the Ambulance Building in Key Largo.

    Our early meetings were held using the only available literature, the White Book and several I.P. pamphlets. There was no Basic Text in our area. Meetings consisted of ‘war stories’ and because of how small a group we were, we clung to each other for our lives. We traveled to Miami for fellowship functions such as picnics, dances and the 24 Hour Room. There was a workshop held in the Keys led by out of town members in which we were able to give input for one of the I.P. pamphlets.

    We got so enthusiastic about having our meetings grow to seven members that we had elaborate refreshments. On Wednesdays we had coffee, decaf, tea, soda, cookies, cake and punch to choose from…all this for just seven people. In 1987 Clean Conchs got a clubhouse. It was a store front office upstairs at the Vaughn Building in Tavernier which we arranged for by forming a corporation to rent and insure the room. Board members donated large amounts of money to keep the room open. The rent in 1987 was $600 a month plus yearly insurance. We grew to 30 members which swelled to 50 on weekends as visitors came down from Miami for support. I was treasurer of the corporation and saw it become harder and harder to collect enough dues to keep it going. The corporation conflicted with the NA Traditions of being self supporting and controversy arose.

    We lost the room in 1992 and our Clean Conchs NA group almost died out. For three years, I and another addict met three days a week at the Spirit and Truth Church on Plantation Key in a small office room. We had three to four members and it never seemed to grow. We traveled when we could to other groups to expand our experience and fellowship. In 1995 we secured a room at the Keys Jewish Community Center in Tavernier. For ten to fifteen years our meetings were stable with about six members plus visitors who came and went.

    In 2007 membership really grew. Newcomers started taking responsibility and the group really started to flourish. Now we have five meetings a week: three at the KJCC, one at the Rusk Clubhouse and one at Mariner's Hospital. We have about twenty-five members that regularly attend all of the meetings. We have a group activity to fellowship together almost every week. Some of the female members meet separately to work the NA Steps together. In May 2008 Clean Conchs will be 25 years old. When we started in 1983 we belonged to the Dade Area Service group then we joined the rest of the Keys in the previously formed Conch Republic Area.

    The Conch Republic Area was sluggish too. It held a convention, The Last Resort, in Key West at the Casa Marina Resort annually for five years but that died out in the mid 1980’s. Then the Conch Republic Area started an annual Spiritual Retreat in 1998. This is now a major very popular event drawing people from many areas of the country to our resort setting for a camping weekend with food, fun, excellent speakers and workshops on spiritual growth in recovery.

    It originally started at Knights Key, in Marathon, and when that campground closed it moved to KOA on Sugarloaf Key. Because the Keys are a string of islands 112 miles long, its groups are isolated from each other outside of the larger city of Key West. For Clean Conchs' anniversary each year we held our own event to expand our contacts.

    Although we were small we attracted crowds from all over Florida and even out of state by sending fliers to other groups and holding our celebration at a park or location that provided a lot of Keys type fun. We had snorkel trips, fishing trips, campouts at the KOA campground, lobster dinners with fresh caught Florida lobster, cookouts at Harry Harris Park and Founder's Park in Islamorada.

    The most widely attended anniversary functions were between 1988 and 1991 at the Plantation Yacht Harbor, a full weekend of meetings and fun…pool parties, snorkeling, fishing trips, floating meetings, prizes and our own famous fish fry with fish caught and cooked by members. We had a mascot designed, a cute Conch character waving an NA pennant, and we had tee shirts printed which we sold at the functions. One year when I was treasurer we collected $2,000 donations in one weekend with a home group numbering only 20 to 30 members within a 50 mile drive. The profit was $1,000 which we sent to Area in Key West.

    The Florida Keys have their unique struggles because of their isolation. Isolation that is a lot like that of addiction. It's hard to find sponsors, there are not multiple groups to choose from and locally no service structure because the main part of that is located 90 miles away in Key West. That is the drive our GSR has to make every month to attend Area meetings.

    In my service tenure I've held the positions of setting up meetings, making coffee, cleaning ashtrays, greeting newcomers, sponsorship, GSR, alternate GSR, group secretary, treasurer, chair of H and I, PI, helpline contact, area vice-chair and area chair. When you don't have a large group you get to do it all! For three years I traveled the 90 miles to Key West each month to attend area.

    As early as 1984 I got involved in literature work shops (in Miami) where I was paired off with more experienced members to help write some of our literature which was just being created. I inputted for literature such as 'It Works', different IP pamphlets and the 'Just for Today' book. In my first five years I attended fifteen major conventions including GRCNA, FRCNA and WCNAs in Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando and New Orleans, the London Alternative Convention and many Spring Service Break Conventions.

    I witnessed NA get kicked out of many major hotels in Georgia and some in Florida because of irresponsible addicts selling, buying or using drugs on the property, having sex in hotel hall ways, throwing ice down atriums into the lobby, throwing napkins and silverware during banquets and other acts that reflected badly on NA as a group.

    During my adolescent treatment in Atlanta, I was fortunate to get to know Scott A. and Greg P. both chemical dependency counselors and more importantly NA members. Greg P. had a great influence on my recovery.

    When I went to the World Convention in Chicago with my sponsor, in 1984, just three days after I had been released from treatment, I herd Greg speak at the banquet meeting.

    In treatment he had spoken of Jimmy K.'s illness then in 1985 about his death and how it impacted Greg. He told me that when I got clean there were only 3,000 NA meetings worldwide. He had a love for NA history. I caught his ‘bug’ and saved all my memorabilia since 1983.

    I recently sent Scott A. my collection of mugs, tee shirts and tapes and convention schedules dating as far back as the world convention in Atlanta in 1983 to be added to the NA archives in which he oversees. Greg taught me more than anything else about spiritual principles, not just by talking, but by example.

    That was his life’s focus. We did step work together until three weeks before he died. He was a great man with so much humility that I did not realize until years later just how great he was. He was an inspiration to help me continue to focus on spiritual principals in my life. That is the essence of my recovery too. The past 25 years have been quite a journey for me. I have had to learn with the help of the program and my Higher Power to face life on life’s terms and to continue to apply the spiritual principles to the best of my ability regarding all these challenges:

    My suicide attempt at two years clean that left me electrocuted, burned and clinging to life.

    My continuing struggle over the years regarding the need to take medication in recovery for my diagnosed brain disorder after my first suicide attempt and the various mental breakdowns and re-hospitalizations due to my repeated attempts to stop my prescribed medications because I felt it would somehow make me more clean.

    The two attempted suicides of my first husband when I found him and had to call 911 then having police find him dead of suicide in a motel room.
    The unexpected prison sentence of my second husband coming to us just three days after our honeymoon.
    Then for the three years he was away, the need to care for our house and dog and live alone, attend NA meetings and travel to Miami several days a week to visit him in the federal prison camp.
    The hard work and joy of re-establishing a relationship with my husband when he returned home.
    The auto accident that left a drunken pedestrian dead and me having an emotional breakdown and almost committing suicide due to the guilt of the accident even though it was not my fault.

    In other words I have been through much turmoil in recovery. The joys have far outweighed the sorrow I’ve passed through. I have a life I wouldn't trade for anything. I have a wonderful husband, dog, family and friends that love and care about me. I've seen the ugly side of life therefore now I see its beauty. I am a miracle because of God working through the NA program, other recovering addicts and most importantly what Greg P. taught me: to try to live my life by spiritual principles found in the Steps of Narcotics Anonymous.

    Marie F

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