Doctor Robert Smith, more commonly referred to as Dr. Bob, and Bill Wilson are probably two of the biggest names you will hear when talking about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). This is because they are the founders of AA, an organization that has helped millions worldwide. With its current membership estimated at around 2.1 million members, its Big Book which has now been translated into 70 different languages, and its philosophies and practices woven into different clinical treatment programs, AA is a powerhouse and the biggest name among self-help alcohol recovery programs.
Most, if not all, have heard about AA and know about its model of the local community and online meetings. One thing worth a deeper look at is the book that started it all. As one of the best-selling books of all time with 30 million copies in print, “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism”, or as people refer to it in the recovery community, the Big Book is the foundation behind AA’s philosophy.
The Big Book itself is over 500 pages long, but the book is set up in a specific way. The first 164 pages are considered the most critical, as they house the basic text which guides the philosophy behind AA itself. Essentially, it is the how-to guide used when working on the program. The rest of the text is dedicated to stories and issues that a person may face when working towards sobriety from alcohol.
The Big Book is currently being printed in its fourth edition, released in 2001. Previous editions of the Big Book were released in 1939, 1955, and 1976. Considering the trend of new editions being released every 20 years or so, there is a proposal that came from the SnoValley general service conference asking that a fifth addition be considered for release in 2022 or 2023.
It is imperative to consider the updates because the Big Book contains stories of people and how they found their way in recovery. These stories need to be updated routinely, as a person’s journey for recovery in 1940 is certainly going to be different than a person’s journey to recovery in the new millennium.
These stories are thoughtfully picked out by reviewing submissions. The last time the book was revised, there were thousands of submissions that the revision committee had to sort through. Ultimately, the committee ended up with what they felt would be the best stories to fully highlight everything the AA recovery program has to offer when working through the steps and utilizing the support within the AA community.
Many people find this section of the book helpful, as it is one thing to read the first 164 pages to understand how the 12 steps are supposed to work, but it is quite another to try and make that work in everyday life while working through an alcohol use disorder. These stories give men and women hope, and including them also makes the program more relatable, as it highlights real people going through similar situations. This is also why a new version of the book should be considered, as younger people wanting to get into recovery might have more of a difficult time relating to older stories outlined within the book.
In what some may consider being outdated gender-biased language, the Big Book’s Chapter Eight, titled “To Wives,” outlines what a person who lives with a significant other with an uncontrolled alcohol use disorder may experience. This is an incredibly helpful chapter for anybody who may be suffering or are struggling with codependent tendencies. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5), which is the manual used to diagnose mental health and substance use disorders, does not currently recognize codependency as a mental health disorder, but it is recognized as a unique psychological concept that shares significant characteristics with other personality disorders.
Significant others who stay in an unhealthy relationship often find themselves in a position where they stay in a relationship with someone who has an alcohol or substance abuse problem hoping they will change or blame themselves for the other person’s behavior. This characteristic could be a codependent trait, which is not healthy for the person with an alcohol or drug problem or for the person trying to manage their significant other’s issue.
The Big Book, while outdated with the language, does give good advice about what a person can do to help themselves and their loved ones out of the toxic situation and introduces the concept of Al-Anon which is a support group for people with loved ones suffering from alcohol addiction. Al-Anon can and has been a literal lifesaver for people that find themselves in this situation.
Chapter Nine of the Big Book is also worth looking at, as it discusses how addiction is truly a family disease. Even if the person with the identified alcohol use disorder becomes successful in recovery, the rest of the family will still have their own work to do to become whole again.
This work will not necessarily be easy and may even require professional intervention, but it is appropriate that it is mentioned within the Big Book, as everyone is affected when a family member struggles with addiction. The Big Book states that all members of the family should meet upon the common ground of tolerance, understanding, and love. This means that while there is understanding and acceptance of the turmoil the addiction has caused, the only way to heal is to start by finding common ground. Learning how a family functions again with a person successfully engaged in recovery will take some time, and the only way to make that happen is by everyone working together.
Chapter Ten is also worth highlighting, as it talks about employees and employers. It specifically talks about employers and what they can do to understand and be supportive of their employees suffering from addiction. It also talks about what happens when unfortunately a person will need to be let go due to their drinking. This is incredibly helpful as it gives the reader perspective from the other side of alcohol addiction. The person who wrote that chapter was named Hank Parkhurst, and he had worked in a big business with 6,600 employees. He talks of what it was like to lose people to an addiction to alcohol. He then goes on to talk about how he turned into an alcoholic and through AA was able to be successful in recovery.
Due to his experience, he gives good advice about understanding where an employee is coming from if they are suffering from alcohol use disorder. He also talks about the importance of understanding that a person needs to be in recovery if they are going to be successful. Threatening to fire someone if they do not stop drinking is often not enough to keep a person sober, and makes it harder, as there is now the added stress of potential unemployment.
Offering understanding and support is one of the best things that an employer can do to help an employee going through struggles with alcohol or substance use disorder. If the employee continues to ignore or even reject help even after support has been offered, the employer must let natural consequences take their course in the form of termination.
When you are working on the individual 12-step program, one of the very first things AA asks you is to admit powerlessness over alcohol. It is Step One., which forms the foundation for the rest of the 12 steps. It transitions directly into committing to Step Two which reads as follows:
• Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
This means that there needs to be a belief and acceptance of a higher power, as turning oneself over to this higher power will help with eliminating the stress of trying to control the usage. That stress is now in the hands of higher powers. Chapter Four of the Big Book talks about how people who do not believe or have a formal religious preference navigate Step Two. The main takeaway from Chapter Four is that you do not have to have a formal belief in God in the religious sense, but rather just a belief in a higher power. What exactly that higher power is can be different for anyone, as long as there is a belief in something bigger than the person who is trying to quit drinking.
Spirituality and/or the belief in a higher power has been one of the drawbacks for some people trying to be successful in recovery and continues to be a hot-button topic within the recovery community. Some who struggle with alcohol and drug abuse scoff at the idea of being forced to believe in God or that they must become religious to recover from alcoholism or drug abuse. Up until the mid-1990s, AA was the only widely and well-known recovery alternative, so those who struggled with Step Two were often left out in the cold. Thankfully, there have been different recovery groups that have evolved that utilize different approaches which do not require the belief in higher powers. That said, it should be reiterated that the concept of a higher power does not need to be religious, and should not be mistaken for a requirement to subscribe to any sort of a religious belief.
AA uses the number 12 a lot. Everyone has probably heard of the 12 steps for individual recovery. In addition, there are also the 12 traditions and the 12 concepts for world service. There are also the 12 promises and the 12 principles, however, they are not outlined in the Big Book.
The philosophy behind the individual 12-step program is successful because it is built using a scaffolding system. It is not uncommon for people to go back and revisit steps, but this is usually done because the longer a person is successful in their sobriety, the more they begin to learn about themselves and the world around them. Many times a person will go back because they realize they might have missed some concepts or pieces of information. To move forward without completing the previous steps, however, would be difficult, as the previous steps are required before being able to move forward with future ones.
The twelve traditions, which can be found on page 561 of the Big Book, cover the 12 best practice rules that everybody affiliated with AA should honor. It is essentially a guide that can be used to both teach proper conduct, and also provides a road map for how to keep the organization as a whole organized and focused on the fellowship at large. The 12 concepts for Alcoholics Anonymous World Services found on page 574 outline a higher-level organizational map that helps guide the AA structure as a whole worldwide.
Most people understand the 12 steps of AA, but the transitions and concepts are not as widely known or understood. The best way to conceptualize them is to think of a dartboard with the personal twelve steps in the center. Each subsequent ring on a dartboard gets larger and larger. Where individual 12 steps talk about each person in the program individually, the traditions can be viewed as the best practice for the operation of local AA meetings, and the 12 concepts can be viewed as the operational guide for logistical concerns or mitigations that occur on a much larger scale worldwide, such as national or global conferences.
What Happens Next
The information within the pages of the Big Book is incredibly valuable and offers a lot of wisdom. Anyone considering working AA program should have a copy. They are available for purchase at any bookstore or online. If you are going to meetings, members of AA may have a copy they might be willing to loan out. There should also be copies in the local libraries. If while reading through this book you or a loved one is still struggling with problematic drinking patterns, try finding a support group near you today.