What Is Alcoholics Anonymous?
Alcohol is the most frequently misused substance in the United States, and if you are struggling with a drinking problem, you are far from alone. In fact, according to statistics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 14.5 million people ages 12 and older have an alcohol use disorder in the U.S. Though you may be in good company when it comes to struggling with alcohol, being reliant on alcohol can be destructive. The consequences of alcohol use disorder can be devastating, and they can put you and the people who love you in harm’s way.
The Challenge of Alcoholism
Often, people who self-identify as having a problem with alcohol have tried many times to quit drinking on their own. They may have been able to achieve sobriety but then had difficulty staying sober over the long term. Having the desire to stop drinking is a critical step for people looking to recover from alcoholism. However, doing so by yourself can often be extremely challenging.
Recognizing the challenge of independently maintaining sobriety from alcohol and building back a meaningful life after it has been altered by alcoholism, the group Alcoholics Anonymous was founded more than 80 years ago. Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as AA, is a fellowship of people who come together anonymously to support each other through the challenge of alcohol addiction and the period that comes after addiction. This fellowship of people collectively sharing their experience can be transformative, and it has helped scores of people recover from alcoholism and stay sober.
Here’s what you need to know about Alcoholics Anonymous and how it can help if you have the desire to stop drinking and would like help staying sober.
What Is the History of Alcoholics Anonymous?
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 as a result of a meeting between two men who found themselves in the throes of alcoholism. They had been independently seeking help for their condition, and one was succeeding in staying sober, while the other—who happened to be a doctor—was not. When the two men met, they spoke at length about alcohol abuse as a disease of the body, and this conversation led to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. They began helping other people struggling with alcoholism, and the group grew steadily, with 100 people successfully achieving sobriety after 4 years. Realizing that they were onto something, they wrote the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous, known as the Big Book. Published in 1939, this book laid out the basic principles of recovery from alcohol, as they saw it, in twelve steps.
What Are the Basic Principles of Alcoholics Anonymous?
The basic idea of Alcoholics Anonymous is that one person with an alcohol use disorder can help another person to become and stay sober. The one-on-one connection is a strong bond that can help people take accountability for themselves and each other. By sharing and becoming vulnerable with each other, people can help each other succeed in their goal to abstain from alcohol.
You may be familiar with the twelve steps that form the structure of an AA program. Each step is a spiritual principle. When AA members use these steps to guide their daily life, it can help them focus on their sobriety, and reduce the fixation that they have with alcohol. Because AA groups have formed all over the country and world, other guidelines are helpful to help groups stick together and maintain unity—these are known as the Twelve Traditions. Over the 80 years that Alcoholics Anonymous has been successfully running, these guidelines have helped groups maintain consistency and effectiveness.
Although AA groups are hyper-local and relatively decentralized, there is a General Service Office (GSO) in New York City that is a touchpoint, or headquarters of sorts, for AA groups located in the US and Canada. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, which is the group that is responsible for the publication of AA-related literature such as the Big Book, is located at the General Service Office. Individual groups throughout the country can reach out to the GSO whenever they encounter difficulty within their group and then benefit from the shared experience that is collected in the GSO's central location.
What Are the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous?
When you are participating in an AA program, the 12 Steps form the basic path forward to overcoming your addiction to alcohol and staying sober. Here is a breakdown of these twelve steps, rooted in spirituality.
In this step, members admit that they had been feeling powerless over alcohol and that their lives had gotten uncontrollable because of alcohol’s presence. This first step, the acknowledgment of the extent to which alcohol has been in the driver’s seat, can often feel intimidating, and people may be reluctant to acknowledge just how buried they had become.
In this step, members acknowledge that there is a power greater than themselves that can help them reclaim their lives and sanity. This step is key in allowing people to relinquish their need for control, and to accept that there is something bigger than themselves that can help guide them.
In this step, members make a conscious decision to turn their free will and life over to the care of a higher power. In this step, which dovetails closely with Step 2, members decide to rely on something other than themselves to help them stop drinking.
In this step, members review their past misdeeds and wrongdoings, creating a “moral inventory” of themselves. It takes bravery and courage to confront oneself and one’s wrongdoings in totality, and this step demands a great deal of personal discovery and growth.
In this step, members share their wrongdoings with a higher power and another person. This is a confession of sorts, making members feel that they are coming out of hiding and truly bearing themselves to another person and a higher power.
In this step, members recognize that they are ready to have a higher power remove their character defects. The keyword is “ready,” which means that a member must be willing to change, instead of simply acknowledging the patterns of their past.
In this step, members ask a higher power to remove their shortcomings. To complete this task, members must be in a position of true humility, which is an elimination of pride or arrogance.
In this step, members make a list of all the people who have been harmed by their wrongdoings, particularly as they relate to their alcoholism, and then develop a willingness to make amends.
In this step, members attempt to make direct amends to the people in their lives who have suffered harm from their alcoholism, making sure not to make these overtures if it would cause further harm or personal injury.
In this step, members continue taking a personal moral inventory and work to admit their wrongdoings at first recognition.
In this step, members seek prayer and meditation that will enhance their connection to a higher power. This step is about accepting that there is a plan for one’s life that has been designed by a higher power.
In this step, members acknowledge the spiritual awakening that has been delivered to them through the twelve-step program and make a vow to carry forward the positive message to help others and embody the principles moving forward.
Who Can Participate in AA Meetings?
If you are looking to attend AA meetings, you may be wondering about AA membership requirements. AA members are invited to join if, quite simply, they have a desire to stop drinking. During an AA group meeting, AA members share their experiences. There is no cost of attending AA meetings, and anyone with the desire to stop drinking can attend regardless of profession, age, gender, race, income level, religion, or otherwise. Your level of participation in meetings is also elective—you can participate and share your story with the AA group, or you can simply sit and listen to others share their stories.
What Are AA Meetings Like?
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings can vary based on who is in the meeting, and where the meeting is located. When searching for an AA meeting, you may see descriptors that indicate whether the meeting is “open” or “closed.” An open meeting can be attended by an observer who is not an alcoholic but who may be curious about the format, or seeking information. A closed meeting is only for people with desire to stop drinking. During each meeting, it’s most typical for members to share stories about how their drinking patterns affect them or have affected them in the past. Members may also share stories about what events or circumstances led to their decision to stop drinking and then how their process of alcohol cessation proceeded. To inspire others, many members also share stories of how their lives have changed for the better after having stopped drinking.
What Happens During an AA Meeting?
According to the official Alcoholics Anonymous resource, there is generally a designated leader of an AA meeting who opens the meeting with a preamble and a moment of silence or serenity prayer and then introduces the format of the meeting and the topic of discussion for that particular session. These topics may be derived from one of the pieces of AA literature, such as the Big Book, or a book known as the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. The meeting’s format may be a discussion wherein all are invited to share their experiences. Or, it may be more geared toward a particular speaker or toward helping newcomers get on board. Groups may cycle through the 12 Steps, focusing on one or two steps at a time. After the meeting, there is usually an unofficial gathering in which people can socialize with one another. This may be a way for people to follow up on each other’s stories and share experiences that they may not have been able to share with the whole group. This time is not mandatory and—just as it is your choice whether or not you introduce yourself or speak up in a meeting—it is also your choice whether you linger afterward.
How Effective Is Alcoholics Anonymous?
An AA program can be a highly effective way of helping you address a drinking problem. Research has shown that AA interventions, and others that use a structured program of twelve steps, can be more effective for helping people maintain their sobriety than other standard treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Researchers have even found that, compared to other methods used to help people maintain their sobriety and avoid relapse, AA is superior. Alcoholics Anonymous is not only effective for helping people overcome their alcohol problems but also has been shown to help with conditions that can accompany alcoholism, such as depression.
How Many People Are Involved in Alcoholics Anonymous?
As a self-help organization, the popularity of Alcoholics Anonymous has increased greatly since its founding 87 years ago, spreading across the country and world. According to Alcoholics Anonymous data, there are AA groups in 180 countries worldwide, with AA literature having been translated into 100 different languages. Overall, there are an estimated two million AA members spread across 123,000 AA groups.
How to Learn More about Alcoholics Anonymous
If you are struggling with an alcohol use disorder, it’s hard to know where to turn. There are many effective treatment facilities available for detoxification and the immediate aftermath; however, the challenge for many people is often staying sober over the long term. Research continues to show the importance of aftercare when a person has completed treatment for an alcohol use disorder. This is why a fellowship of people holding each other accountable and sharing vulnerability, such as that found within Alcoholics Anonymous, can be so valuable.
If you would like help finding a support group, this support group locator tool can help connect you with the resources you need; make sure to check it out today.