There are many differences between AA and NA, and many fundamental similarities as well. Whether you are trying to choose which fellowship is right for you, looking to become more educated in order to support a loved one, or seeking general information, it is important to be armed with the facts. Both NA and AA pride themselves on Anonymity and so you may find it difficult to know where to begin. The best place to start is knowing that both fellowships have the same purpose, and knowing a little more about what they aim to do.
Both NA and AA are 12-step fellowships, whose focus is to help those who struggle with substance abuse maintain long-term recovery. Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous both focus on community and sponsorship, in conjunction with the 12 steps, to help achieve this goal. They are not allied with any organizations or religions, and are not-for-profit. Both are self-supporting and altruistic fellowships and are open to anyone who thinks they may need help in overcoming their struggle with substance abuse.

History of Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous found its beginnings in Akron, Ohio in 1935. It was founded by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, and sprung up out of an overwhelming need for better treatment for alcoholics; prior to this the best and only treatment available to anyone struggling with alcoholism was the sanitarium. AA began with the principal of one alcoholic being able to help another through compassion and understanding, and around that simple principal the steps were created. Bill Wilson began writing the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1938 after his own experience with sobriety. In the Big Book he outlines the 12 steps and his own experience with them. From those first drafts and first meetings, an international organization was born. Hundreds of thousands of AA meetings can be found in almost every country on the planet today.

History of Narcotics Anonymous

Narcotics Anonymous began in Los Angeles, and was founded by Jimmy Kinnon in 1953. It is the second largest 12-step fellowship to date. Narcotics Anonymous was founded by members, many of who were originally in AA, who saw a need for a fellowship whose focus included narcotics and other substances not limited to alcohol. The fellowships literature [the Basic Text] was a huge collaborative effort and was written by hundreds of addicts. It was added to by anyone who wished to help. The literature itself was edited and approved through NA international conferences and was eventually agreed upon by every member of NA who wished to have a say. The 12 steps are similar to those in AA but the literature itself was written by many and includes inspiring biographical stories written by addicts from around the world.

What is Different?

The differences between AA and NA are subtle but definitive. AA uses the Big Book as their guiding literature, and its 164 pages illustrating all of the steps as outlined in its chapters. NA uses a workbook as well as the Basic Text, and there are questions for each step to be answered by the addict. Aside from the Big Book and the Basic Text, both fellowships also have an abundance of other literature specific to their fellowship covering a wide array of topics. NA meetings are sometimes 90 minutes long, depending on the area where you are attending the meetings, while AA meetings are usually an hour. The differences can change from area to area, and are sometimes less or more drastic depending upon where you find yourself attending meetings. AA focuses on Alcoholism, while NA focuses on all narcotic substances (including alcohol) as well as the disease of addiction. Milestones in AA are marked by coins, and in NA they are marked by key tags and medallions.

What is Important to Know

Both of these fellowships, as well as any others you may come across (hundreds of Anonymous fellowships exist today) pride themselves on first and foremost wanting to help and to welcome anyone who is struggling. Sponsorship, community, honesty and altruism are the main focus of most Anonymous meetings. The idea is that one person can help another, and everyone needed help at one time. There is no fee included in participating. No one is too young or too old to join. Often, there are meetings of specific fellowships that are men’s only, or women’s only, or LGBTQ only, but never are they meant to exclude anyone. They are different only so that a person who is struggling with substance abuse can find the place they feel the most comfortable to recover. Both NA and AA can agree that it is not so much the substance that is the problem as the underlying disease of addiction.

The important thing to remember, be it for yourself or for someone you love, is that substance abuse is seldom overcome alone. AA and NA both seek to support those who suffer, and the important thing is that a person who is looking for help finds a place where they feel at home. Moreover, there are also fellowships whose main purpose is to help the families and loved ones of those struggle with addiction but who are not addicts themselves. Alanon and Naranon are subsidies of both AA and NA and offer support to those who are affected but are not themselves afflicted.
Remember, it is important to do your own research as well as remain open-minded. Often, a person doesn’t choose a fellowship until they have tried both AA and NA for themselves. No one thing works for everyone. Both fellowships histories and practices are different but the message is universal; we can recover.