An international fellowship of people who struggle or have had issues with alcohol abuse and/or addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has over 100,000 groups meeting in around 180 countries worldwide and more than 2 million members in its ranks as of January 2017, the General Service Office publishes. Founded in the early 1930s out of the religious movement the Oxford Group, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith started the first AA group in Akron, Ohio, in July 1935. It was based on concepts of spirituality, mutual support, abstinence, and the idea that alcoholism is a disease.
By 1939, two more AA groups had formed – one in Cleveland and one in New York – and Dr. Bob wrote and published the textbook Alcoholics Anonymous, detailing the fellowship’s principles and philosophies. Within the textbook, often called the Big Book (currently in its fourth edition), the “Twelve Steps of Recovery” were outlined, which are still the backbone of AA today.
By 1950, AA boasted over 100,000 recovering alcoholics in its membership, and they hosted their first International Convention in Cleveland where the 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous were adopted. These traditions explain that groups are to be anonymous, self-supporting, nonprofessional, and strive toward common welfare and unity while accepting God as the ultimate authority. AA groups have one major rule: Members must have a desire to stop drinking. Groups are free and open to anyone who battles issues with alcohol and wishes to achieve sobriety and remain abstinent.
AA can be a very beneficial component of addiction recovery as studies have shown that people who attend AA meetings regularly are about twice as likely to remain abstinent than those who don’t, the Journal of Addictive Disorders publishes. When used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, Alcoholics Anonymous can help people minimize relapse and sustain a long recovery.
Understanding the 12 Steps
AA has its members work through 12 Steps in a systematic manner as they move into recovery. These 12 Steps are meant to become a way of living life without alcohol. Individuals may spend more time on one step than another, or even come back and revisit a step after they have worked through others. Highlighted below are the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:
- Admitting to being powerless over alcohol and that life is out of control: A person does not have to hit rock bottom to realize that alcohol is an addiction that can take over and wreak havoc, disrupting normal life functions.
- Came to believe that a higher power can restore order to life: Spirituality is an important aspect of AA, and this step is about relinquishing control as a person grows in faith and belief. Spirituality is an ongoing and changing process.
- Agree to turn life over to a higher power (God as he is to be understood by the individual): Basically, this step is about making the decision to work through the program – a kind of call to action.
- Do a complete and honest inventory of self: Here, people are asked to write down fears, resentments, negative things that might have been done to others because of the addiction, and basically anything that makes it hard to connect with others.
- Admit shortcomings, failures, and exact mistakes to God, oneself, and one other person: During this step, an individual shares what they wrote for the previous step with their sponsor who can typically relate and help a person to understand that they are not alone and that God forgives them.
- Be ready to have God improve oneself: A sponsor will help individuals to understand what their character defects are and how to begin to work through them.
- Ask God humbly to take away moral failings.: An individual is strengthening their spiritual connection and allowing God to remove shortcomings, which can include sources of temptation.
- Write a list of all people harmed and be willing to make amends to everyone: A person is to take what they wrote in Step 4 and expand on these items to include direct harms to individuals. This helps the person to better understand how addiction has impacted loved ones.
- Make amends directly to those who were harmed unless doing so would harm them: During Step 9, individuals make direct amends to those who they detailed in the previous step, not just apologizing but actually reflecting on how they have changed. This step can take time and is all about reconnection and mending relationships. In some cases, it may be hurtful to bring up old wounds; when it is harmful to do so, it should not be done.
- Continue to take stock of oneself and fix any wrongs as they appear: Known as the “growth step,” Step 10 has individuals look at themselves critically and take inventory again. Any wrongdoing is immediately recognized and amends sought.
- Use prayer and meditation to enhance a connection with God (as he is understood), praying for God’s will and knowledge as guidance and the power to carry it out: Using prayer and talking to God on a daily basis to continue to live a spiritual life are the hallmarks of Step 11.
- Having experienced a spiritual awakening from working through the steps, continue to practice these principles in all parts of life and carry the message to others struggling with addiction: The spiritual awakening is an understanding that life has changed for the better. By continuing to live by these practices, growth will be ongoing. After working through all 12 Steps, a person is encouraged to serve others through sponsorship or other helpful service opportunities.
Components of AA
Anyone can attend an AA meeting; there is no fee to join and no sign up sheet. Meetings are often held in churches and meeting halls, and there are AA resources in most local communities that can direct individuals to nearby meetings.
In general, there are two main types of meetings: open and closed. Open meetings are for anyone wishing to attend, and closed meetings are reserved for those struggling with alcoholism directly. Family members, treatment providers, and loved ones may attend open meetings while closed meetings are typically “sharing meetings” and reserved for those who battle alcohol issues themselves.
Anyone who wishes to stop drinking can join an AA group at any point, and identities of members are protected. People can also choose to share their personal stories at meetings, although no one has to share if they don’t want to do so. AA does not outline a set length of time that people must attend meetings, and members can go to meetings as often or as little as they like and deem necessary. Individuals can attend multiple groups and different meetings as well.
Typically, AA meetings are very informal and about an hour in length, often beginning with the Serenity Prayer. These meetings may have a speaker, be more of an open forum for discussion, focus on working through the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions (12 & 12), or be bookwork sessions where members use the Big Book for study. There is often fellowship time before and/or after the meeting where people can gather with coffee and conversation.
A collection plate is also usually passed around during the meeting for those who wish to give in order to keep the group self-sustaining financially. Depending on the group, there are many options for service as well, be it helping to make the coffee, speaking on a particular topic, or helping with the group’s leadership and operations.
One of the big components of AA is sponsorship. This program matches up a newcomer with someone who has already worked through the 12 Steps, who has been sober for many months or years already. The sponsor offers support and encouragement, and is available 24/7 should the person need help at any point. Sponsorship is fairly informal, as is the rest of AA, and all a person needs to do is ask someone to be their sponsor. A sponsor should be stable in their life, lead by example, and able to provide the kind of support needed to sustain sobriety. Sponsorship can also be a great way for a person to give back, essentially a service opportunity for those who are ready.
Alternatives to the 12-Step Model
While AA is not a religious organization in and of itself, the spiritual aspects of the program may not be right for everyone. AA uses the label of alcoholic and requests that individuals admit they are powerless and need to relinquish control of their lives to a higher power. This may not resonate with everyone. There are several other alternative support and recovery groups that individuals may seek out instead of AA. A few of these are outlined below.
- SMART Recovery: A self-help and empowering program with meetings around the world and offered online, SMART Recovery uses a 4-Point Program to enhance recovery. This program helps people to build and sustain motivation to remain sober, learn how to control urges, lead a more balanced life, and manage feelings, thoughts, and actions. This is not a 12-Step program; rather, it uses scientific research in efforts to help individuals become independent from addiction.
- Secular Organization for Sobriety (SOS): A nonprofit organization with meetings offered in many locations around the globe, SOS is a secular alternative to the spiritual AA program. Anonymous groups are self-sustaining, nonprofessional, and free to attend. Groups provide peer support and encouragement to sustain sobriety.
- Moderation Management (MM): This program is entirely different in that it does not ask that members stop drinking altogether if they don’t wish to. Instead, MM focuses on teaching people how to moderate and control their drinking by working through the Steps of Change. MM asks people to keep a drinking diary at first in order to identify problems associated with drinking. People are also expected to go through a 30-day period of abstinence to work through controlling urges and getting a handle on how to drink safely in moderation in the future. Moderation Management helps people to understand how alcohol can be problematic and how to make its consumption less so.
- Women for Sobriety (WFS): The first women-only self-help group for those battling addiction involving alcohol, WFS uses 13 Affirmations for positive and encouraging thoughts and behaviors. Women are asked to go through these before beginning each day. WFS meetings are offered all over and provide support for a positive lifestyle free from the binds of alcohol and addiction.
- LifeRing Secular Recovery: With meetings around the United States and Canada, LifeRing is a secular recovery program that provides peer support with an abstinence-based philosophy. Members are encouraged by mutual support to grow personally and develop strategies to learn how to live a fulfilling and self-directed life.
Alcoholics Anonymous can be a very helpful tool for those who are wishing to achieve sobriety and sustain a long-term abstinent lifestyle. Connecting with others who have “been there” provides encouragement and hope for the future. By understanding that alcoholism is a disease, people can learn to accept that addiction has a hold on them and learn tools for coping and managing it to minimize relapse.
Other 12-Step groups for different addictions are options as well, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), and Marijuana Anonymous (MA). There are several secular alternatives to AA that may be appealing to people if the spiritual aspect of AA is off-putting. These self-help and peer support groups all have one thing in common: Members support each other in recovery. The groups help individuals to become self-reliant and contribute to healthy, fulfilled, and balanced lives in recovery.