What Are the Differences Between NA and AA?

When I first tried getting sober, I knew I liked to drink, but more often than not, powders won out. Drinking had become more of a side option that I used to control, slow down, or use it as a time-waster until I was able to get my drugs of choice. 

Because of this, I always thought I belonged in NA, rather than AA. At the time, I identified more with the folks in the rooms of Narcotics Anonymous. We spoke the same language, did drugs the same way, and seemed to be after the same things. 

After relapsing several times in a year on alcohol, since I hadn’t been convinced that it was a problem for me, I landed up in a treatment center once again followed by AA – a place I never thought I belonged. I ended up staying here because I found the solution I personally needed, and I just recently spoke on a panel at a young people’s conference about being an addict in AA and it got me to thinking, what are the differences between Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous?

The Short Answer

There aren’t any. Not at their core at least. The same fundamental ideas are present in both throughout. They are:

  • Work the 12 steps with a sponsor
  • Find a community and become a part of the fellowship
  • Stay clean and sober from all mood and mind-altering drugs

At the fundamental level, both NA and AA are rooted in the same belief structure that by abandoning the self, the ego, and of course, addiction, we are placed in a position to be of service to the world around us. 

The steps are the same, the idea of meetings are more or less the same, and the traditions are the same. NA is the sister program to AA and was created for people with the same basic troubles to find the same solution to their problems.

So – Why Ask?

I’m not sure when it developed, but there is an obvious stigma between the two programs against each other. It may have started with the AA old-timers when a new fellowship was created, or it may be more recent than that, with addicts feeling out of place in AA as I did. Either way, the only “differences” between the two programs are the perceptions of the people in them. 

Some people will tell you that people in NA don’t work a program, other people will say that people in AA are stuck up – but the important thing to remember, is that the people saying these things are addicts and alcoholics, so ego, perception, and “humanness” are weighing factors in these statements. 

Breaking the Stigma

To be frank, it is actually quite sad that the stigma is there. However, if you ask anyone from either side about the other, the chances are you good that you will hear some sort of horror story about a time they felt less than during a meeting in the other fellowship.

Lord knows I love the old-timers in AA. I respect them to the ends of the earth and I admire the experience and wisdom they have about the program. Many of them are fine and dandy with addicts working the AA program, but there are still a few out there, all over the country, that feel very very strongly about this topic. 

The problem with this is that it continues the feelings of isolation for the addicts out there who are just looking for a solution, and it widens the gap between the two. In this day and age, when so many people are dying, it shouldn’t matter what drugs they did or how much they drank. What matters is that they are welcomed into the only community that understands them. 

In order to continue working towards breaking the stigma between NA and AA, those of us who have experience with both need to work towards:

  • Advocating for both groups
  • Sharing experience strength and hope in regards to addiction and alcoholism
  • Sharing the knowledge that both diseases are 100% the same 


Relating rather than Comparing

When we first come into either program, one crucial piece of advice we are given is to practice relating to the other people in the meetings, rather than comparing ourselves to them. When we hear their stories, their shares, and their experiences, to focus on how we are the same. 

It is easy to compare. It is comfortable for us to distance ourselves from others. We feel that we are better or worse, compared to what drugs we did, how much we drank, and how much trouble we did or did not get into because of it. 

This idea should transfer over between the two programs, as the end result is the same – don’t die, and try to become a good person. 

The Meat and Potatoes

The only thing that REALLY matters, is working the steps with a sponsor and staying in the middle. Regardless of what program you work, or how long it takes you to finally get in here, what matters is that you stay. 

If it is your first time, focus less on the differences, less on what kind of addict you are, and more on finding a sponsor. The only qualifying factors that matter in a sponsor are:

  • They have worked the steps with a sponsor of their own
  • They continue to actively work the steps
  • They have had a spiritual experience as a result of working the steps

As soon as you enter the rooms, focus on making meetings, making connections, and getting a service position. These are usually the last things we want to do, but they are the actions to take in order to stay in the middle. 

If you aren’t sure whether you belong in AA or NA, go to as many meetings as you can in both. Hell, get a sponsor in both. It doesn’t matter to anyone else as long as you are working a program and not causing harm.