Not all users can afford to go to rehab. But there's another way - and it's never been so much in demand. Ed Caesar pulls up a seat for an addicts' self-help session

I do not introduce myself. In the tight world of Cocaine Anonymous, outsiders are not countenanced. A sense of shared experience is at the heart of the meetings, and The Independent is only being tolerated because it might help to reach addicts looking for a way to be clean.

Like many people, I didn't know that Cocaine Anonymous existed. But it does, and it's thriving. CA started in the UK in January 1992, with just one meeting in London. There are now 90 meetings from Brighton to Aberdeen.

While celebrity drug users such as Kate Moss and Pete Doherty have access to expensive private clinics to treat their habits, CA is available to users of any means.

CA has borrowed its structure from Alcoholics Anonymous. Like AA, the only prerequisite for membership is "a desire to stop using mind-altering substances". As in AA, addicts are encouraged to focus their recovery through the Twelve Steps. So, starting from the first - "We admit that we were powerless over cocaine" - they work their way to the last: "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practise these principles in all our affairs."

There are addicts here from every area of society; the pretty mix and the not-so-pretty, the very old and very young, the professional and the homeless. Cocaine, it seems, is a classless drug. Tonight's "chair", and the member who will be telling us his story, is 75, and, for the purposes of anonymity, called Brian.

Brian is a recovering alcoholic, gambler and crack addict. But what destroyed his family more than anything else was the discovery that he had also been seeing prostitutes for many years.

Brian takes the group through his childhood - his sense of alienation, his abusive, cheating father. He has been clean for years now, but he talks compellingly of the need to continue attending the CA fellowship. After 25 minutes, Brian's tale is over. His narrative will be the focus of the meeting.

Earlier, I had the chance to talk to two other regular contributors to CA meetings. Their stories were not that different from Brian's. Daniel, 43, runs a taxi business in Brighton. He started abusing cocaine seriously when he was 23 years old. He has been clean for more than six years, but he still goes to three or four meetings a week. He talks about his addiction in minute detail: what it was like for him - "Terrifying, I thought I was going to die" - and what it was like for his loved ones.

"I stole a lot of money," Daniel says. "I had businesses that were running with debts of a quarter of a million pounds. I was being threatened, sometimes physically. The police and bailiffs were after me. But I still didn't think my life was out of control. I couldn't work out the connection between the drugs and the mayhem."

Daniel entered the CA fellowship in May 1999, having tried and failed on several occasions to kick the habit. So what changed? "I don't know, really," he says. "I'd given up trying to give up. But one day, my dealer was away and I'd run out of coke. Something inside my head - call it what you want - said, 'Go to a meeting.' I suppose I still had a little bit of hope left through seeing people I had used with go clean. And I went. And I've been going to the meetings in Brighton ever since."

Natalie, who has been nodding her way through Daniel's account, came from a different background. Now 35, she has been clean for 11 months. She regularly attends four meetings a week.

Before her rehabilitation, she had been at rock bottom. She started using crack cocaine at 18, followed and augmented by heroin abuse. At the height of her addiction, she lost custody of her two children and was prepared to resort to prostitution, mugging and shoplifting to get her fix.

For Natalie, the most important thing about CA has been finding her own story replicated a thousand times. "It's not like going to a well-meaning doctor, who's trying to help you but doesn't understand what you've been through," she says. "At CA, these addicts are being honest and open and helpful. It can be overwhelming. When you walk into these rooms, people have..."

Natalie does not finish her sentence. She doesn't need to; at CA, people have encountered the same demons. Most importantly, their stories become crucial possessions - a tortured first or second act in a life that they hope will blossom in its third and fourth.

Back in the meeting, the floor is open. The 30 or so members have a chance to respond to Brian's opening narrative, and discuss how they associated with his story. This, Daniel says, is what is called "traction" - the binding of one member's story to another's, and the unification of the group through so doing.

It becomes apparent, to an outsider, that the CA meeting bears more than a passing resemblance to a church service. There are readings at the start and finish. There are catechismal responses during those readings, where members recite passages from the Alcoholics Anonymous Bible. And there is an iterative, psalmic quality to the individual accounts heard in the room.

The notion of service is important. Cocaine Anonymous has no governing body. The groups are run by the members themselves, who take up key positions, from handing round the collection pot to making tea and coffee. At tonight's meeting, an announcement is made that a Treasurer is needed for a Friday group, and there is no shortage of enthusiastic volunteers.

CA is not a religious organisation, but God - or "a God as you understand God" - makes frequent appearances in the Twelve Steps. Does this religious aspect cause problems for a membership that largely arrives with no formal religious ties?

"At CA, no one is taking you to your local church or synagogue," Daniel says. "Although it's fine if you want to go. The wording is careful; the solution is in 'finding a power greater than yourself'. What's emphasised is that it's really about living by the principles of honesty and unselfishness."

"It's really individual," says Natalie. "But CA, however you look at it, is a spiritual programme. I know now that I need to live my life by spiritual principles because I've never done that in my life before. Most people who come to the meetings have been lying, cheating, stealing good-for-nothings. CA's a process of getting connected to life again, of clearing out the bad attitudes we all had to life."

In the meeting room, though, the interpretation of God - practically the only aspect of the CA literature that opens itself up for interpretation - causes differences of opinion. One man talks about how CA had led him to a Christian God: "I was worshipping the steps, worshipping the programme, and it led me to the one thing I should have been worshipping all along." But one young woman, in her statement, says unequivocally: "I don't do God."

At the meeting, one thing is much more striking than this understandable divergence of theological opinion - how many times madness is referred to. "My life was, just... mad," says one member. "It was mayhem," says another. "I don't know how I lived in that madness," says a third.

It's striking because of the way the evening is organised. We start with one central story, and then members of the group reflect and react to that one story with stories of their own. Everyone present at CA tonight is creating a structure with which to subsume "the madness", the hurly-burly of their addicted lives. It is done in an effort to contain their addiction, to put it in its rightful place - as a part of their past, not their future. In the story CA is writing, drugs don't play a part from now on. Watching this collective exercise in scriptwriting, this will to shape a brighter collective future, is deeply moving.

We're coming towards the end of the meeting. Administrative notices are announced, and smiles are exchanged. One member is given a round of applause for reaching six months clean. As we filter out of the meeting room, other members of the group congratulate her on the achievement.

I'm exhausted. It's a draining experience being among so much inner turmoil. It is clear, from the faces of the CA members, that they too have found the meeting hard work. But there is also a sense in which the group has become stronger as a result of sharing intimate details of the past. Even so, it is difficult to see how CA regulars can go to four of these 90-minute sessions a week.

"If someone told you your life depended on going to four meetings a week, you'd go," Daniel says. "I honestly believe my life depends upon it." He and Natalie have reaped the rewards of their commitment. Daniel's partner, who had left him in 1999, came back when he mended his ways through CA, and is now his wife. Natalie has won back custody of her children, and is devoted to them. Both hold regular jobs. "You see miracles in that room," Natalie says. "Absolute miracles."

Cocaine Anonymous National Helpline; 020-7284 1123. A one-day convention takes place in Brighton on 15 October; for details visit or call 07775 556 974

Cocaine: the facts
By Louise Jack

Cocaine use is increasing in dance clubs alongside Ecstasy and other drugs. Surveys show that seven per cent of 20- to 24-year-olds in England and Wales have taken cocaine.

Eighty per cent of Britain's cocaine comes from Colombia. Thousands of Colombians pay a high price for its easy availability.

To get to your pocket, cocaine has passed through many hands. It is diluted at each stage to increase profit; a gram is usually between 20 and 65 per cent cocaine, and the rest may be corn starch, Vitamin-C powder, sugar, talc, baby-milk powder or local anaesthetic (to simulate the numbing effect).

It works by interfering with the action of neurotransmitters. When cocaine is taken, it speeds up brain activity as well as heart and breathing rates. It tricks the brain into thinking it's been furnished with something pleasurable, like sex. Symptoms from an overworked heart and high blood pressure can include chest pain, muscle spasms and nausea.

Generally, cocaine produces feelings of well-being and exhilaration. One might feel energetic, talkative and alert. It inhibits the appetite and the desire for sleep.

It is unclear whether cocaine is physically addictive, but there is a compulsion to use it. When some users stop taking it, they experience depression. Intense psychological dependence and cravings often occur in regular users.

Longer-term effects include insomnia and paranoia and can progress to hallucinations and delusions. This usually disappears if use ends, but permanent mental health problems can occur. Death can come about from convulsions, heart failure or the depression of breathing.