Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) is a fellowship of men and women who have had a drinking problem. It is international, with members in the United States, Canada and countries around the world. More than two million people describe themselves members of A.A., according to the organization.
What is Alcoholics Anonymous?
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous share their experiences, gain strength and get hope from each other in order to find a solution to the problem they all have in common – a struggle with alcohol abuse. They help others who are also having the same problem.
The only thing required to start going to A.A. is the desire to stop drinking. Groups do not collect fees or dues from anyone, which means ability to pay is absolutely not a factor in seeking help. All A.A. groups are self-supporting through their own contributions.
Non-Denominational and Non-Political
Alcoholics Anonymous is not affiliated with any religious group or charity. It does not take stands on any political issues, nor do groups accept any outside funding. The organization remains firmly neutral and entirely focused on its mission, which is to help alcoholics achieve sobriety.
History of Alcoholics Anonymous
The organization was founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. Both men were alcoholics.
Wilson was born in Vermont in 1895 and had was raised by his maternal grandparents after his parents abandoned him and his sister. He flourished during his teen years, becoming captain of his school’s football team as well as the principal violinist of its orchestra. Wilson also experienced a severe bout of depression triggered by the death of his first love, who died from complications during surgery. Her name was Bertha Bamford.
Wilson enrolled in Norwich University but had to withdraw due to depression and panic attacks in the second semester. He returned to school, but was suspended with a group of students due to a hazing incident. During military training with the Illinois National Guard, Wilson was introduced to drinking, which he described as “the elixir of life.” He married and served in World War I.
Upon his return, he was not able to graduate from law school due to being too inebriated to collect his diploma. Instead, he started working as a stock speculator and travelled throughout the country with his wife. His job involved evaluating companies for prospective investors. Unfortunately, Wilson drank constantly, which made it impossible for him to conduct business, and he ruined his professional reputation as a result.
In November 1934, Wilson was visited by a former drinking buddy, Ebby Thatcher, who told him about a group that had helped Thatcher stay sober for several weeks. The Christian Oxford Group interested Wilson, but he did not immediately follow up. He was admitted to the hospital due to his drinking instead.
During his stay in hospital, Wilson had a type of epiphany, where he told God that he would stop drinking if only the deity would make His presence known. Wilson then described experiencing three things:
- A sensation of a bright light
- A feeling of ecstasy
- A new serenity
He never took another drink of alcohol for the rest of his life.
Wilson joined the Oxford Group, intending to help other alcoholics, but found his efforts only succeeded in helping himself to stay sober. While in Akron, Ohio, on business, Wilson found he was tempted to drink again, and he thought that to remain sober he needed to help another alcoholic. Wilson called phone numbers from a church directory and made the acquaintance of Dr. Bob Smith, who was also an Oxford Group member.
Dr. Bob Smith
Robert Holbrook Smith was born in 1879 in Vermont. He came from a strict religious background and, as a result, decided that as an adult he would not attend religious services.
Smith started drinking when he was a student at Dartmouth College. His alcohol use was an issue during his studies at Rush Medical College. Smith had to remain in school for two extra quarters and remain sober in order to graduate, leading to two key developments:
- He managed to stay away from alcohol during his internship.
- He opened a surgical practice specializing in colorectal surgery.
Smith resumed his heavy drinking. He realized he had an issue with alcohol and checked himself into several hospitals seeking help. This was during Prohibition in the United States, which did help somewhat in limiting his alcohol supply. However, exceptions were made for medicinal alcohol. Smith was able to get a steady supply from bootleggers and continue to drink.
Smith started going to Oxford Group meetings in 1933 as part of his attempt to find a way to stop drinking. He met Bill Wilson in May 1935.
After speaking with Bill Wilson, Smith stopped drinking. Smith asked Wilson to stay at his home. Smith did have a relapse about a month later while he was at a convention in Atlantic City. When he returned to Akron on June 9, 1935, Wilson gave Smith a couple of drinks so that he would not go into severe withdrawal (delirium tremens).
Smith drank one drink the next morning so he could settle down in order to perform surgery. That was the last time he ever drank alcohol in his life. That date, June 10, 1935, is considered the anniversary of the founding of A.A. The two worked on a set of guiding principles for those struggling with alcoholism and pledged to support each other and those who joined their group in overcoming their addiction.
What Are the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous?
Alcoholics Anonymous was the first 12 step program – others which have been developed to help people with addiction are based on its premises. Here are the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:
“We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”
This step may be the most challenging one, since it is extremely difficult for someone struggling with alcoholism to admit, “I am an alcoholic.” No one else can do it for you. It’s a deeply personal moment. However, once you can admit you are powerless over your addiction, you can accept help for it. The time for excuses and denial are done at that point.
“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
The second step is all about hope that there is a better life waiting in recovery. The life of an alcoholic, which often includes the cycle of drinking, being hung over, and drinking again, is not really living. If, as the first step states, you are powerless over your addiction, then it is time to enlist some help from outside yourself.
The reference to a power greater than ourselves is not necessarily meant to have a religious connotation. It can be interpreted in any way that is meaningful to you.
“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
At this point, people following the 12 steps start to take some action. It’s time to start to “let go and let God” look after things in your life, however you interpret Him to be. Life should start to become less worrisome because you are less focused on the results and are enjoying being in the moment more often.
For those who have no particular religious affiliation or are agnostic or atheist, this step can be interpreted as turning your life over in order to achieve a more positive result. It is not necessary to believe in a religion to complete this step. Reaching out and asking for help, talking with your sponsor, attending meetings — these are all examples of using resources available to you in order to help your recovery.
“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Step 4 is an opportunity to examine your relationships. You are asked to look at your current and past dealings with family and friends, and examine your reactions to times when you have been hurt:
- Have you hung onto those experiences and used them as justification to drink?
- How long have you been sucking on these particularly juicy lemons?
- Is it time to accept responsibility and get on with your life?
When the time comes to share the results of this step with your sponsor, you may feel awkward. Don’t. Your sponsor has completed this step and knows what it feels like. He or she will likely share some personal information too, in order to help you feel more comfortable.
“We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
They say confession is good for the soul. The fifth step is about telling God, another person and yourself the “exact nature” of your wrongs. Don’t make them worse than they really are or beat yourself up over them. If you have chosen the right person to be your sponsor, he or she will just listen without judging you for what has taken place in your past.
“We became entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
In order to be ready to have your character defects removed, you need to first understand how you have used them in the past. Your old ways of behaving are no longer appropriate. You will need to learn new ones. This step is about a commitment to try, so that God or your higher power is at least being met half way.
“We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”
Now that you have done the work to identify your shortcomings, it is time to specifically ask they be removed. This is the part of the 12-step program where you ask to be made better.
The opposite side of this step is you strive to accept other people as they are. If you notice a shortcoming in someone else, look inside yourself to find out why it is triggering something in your behavior. More than likely, it is because you have the same defect yourself. When you accept the same shortcoming in others, you are increasing awareness of it in yourself.
“Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
This step is rather self-explanatory. The first part is simply making a list of everyone who has been harmed due to your alcoholism. Then go through the list and look at all the names and think about how you could make amends to everyone on the list.
There will be some people for whom you can never make amends for various reasons, such as they moved away, can’t be located, passed away, etc. Part of this step is about learning how to forgive yourself for your past conduct as well. Carrying around guilt when you have no reasonable way to make amends for something is not healthy.
“We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when doing so would injure them or others.”
If this step is worked properly, you will feel much better for having made amends to those who have been hurt. It is not about trying to relieve your guilt but about doing the right thing. Making amends should be something you do in a thoughtful and controlled manner, so it is meaningful in each instance.
“We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
If your recovery is going to be successful, you will need to be continually conducting self-checks on your behavior. Step 10 reminds you that you need to be vigilant about taking stock regularly.
“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
By this point in the recovery process, you will likely be praying or taking some time out for some type of spiritual activity regularly.
“Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
The last step calls out to those who have completed the previous ones to reach out to others who are actively using to let them know they don’t have to stay in the throes of alcoholism. Recovery is possible. You can do this by continuing to attend meetings, telling your story to newcomers, and acting as sponsors to newer members if asked to do so.
Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings
Meetings can be held in person, online through anonymous chats, and by phone. Making a choice to go to a meeting is not an obligation to join A.A. The organization does not keep any membership or attendance records. You are never required to say anything you do not wish to reveal about yourself or even to declare you are an alcoholic. Only you can make that decision.
Open vs. Closed Meetings
At an open meeting, non-alcoholics are welcome to attend. It’s an excellent way to understand what happens in a meeting and what A.A. does. Closed meetings are limited to people who have a drinking problem only.
The specific format of a meeting may change, but you will find people sharing their experiences with alcohol abuse, how and why they came to A.A., and how their lives have become different since joining this 12-step program. In some meetings, one person may lead a discussion on a particular issue or one of the 12 steps may be the focus for the session.
Since each group is self-supporting, a collection will likely be taken up at some point during the meeting. Attendees contribute if and as they can and want to. No one is required to contribute in order to continue attending meetings.
How Does Alcoholics Anonymous Help People with Alcoholism?
A.A. helps people with alcoholism by providing them with support from others who have the same problem with alcohol. Members are not therapists, nor do they claim to be, but by sharing their stories, they develop a fellowship. One of the worst facets of addiction is that people affected by it feel like they are alone. The drop in self-esteem that goes along with that feeling is debilitating.
Attending A.A. meetings serves to bust that myth wide open. The people that you will meet there look like your neighbors, coworkers and friends. You may even see someone you know at a meeting, but you can rest assured they will not disclose your identity to anyone. You will be expected to keep anything you see or hear at a meeting confidential, including the identity of anyone you see. Everyone is there for the same reason. You all want to get help for a drinking problem.
Why Does Alcoholics Anonymous Work?
The 12-step model works on changing a person from the inside and giving them a new outlook. It treats alcohol as a disease and allows an alcoholic to get out of the cycle of blame and shame. With help from a higher power and by following the steps, which allow the person struggling with alcoholism to take responsibility for his or her actions, there is hope for recovery.
Some people like the fact that they get to “work the steps” to recovery:
- It is a self-paced program you can follow at your own rate. No one pushes anyone to get finished within a set amount of time.
- There is no “pass or fail” within A.A.
- You work through your own recovery on your own time and follow your own journey, but you are not alone.
Since A.A. has chapters worldwide, it’s possible to travel and find a meeting where you will be welcomed. You can move to another city or another part of the country and find a meeting to attend. If you are going through a rough patch and need to attend meetings every day, or even more than once a day, you can do that. Help is available to you if you are having cravings where you are tempted to drink or are having difficulty coping with life stresses and going back to drinking seems like a viable solution.
Alcoholics helping other alcoholics to get and stay sober. This idea has formed the basis of numerous other groups since it was founded. The model has helped a number of people to stop drinking and get on the road to sobriety.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, you don’t have to face this disease alone. Visit our list of top-rated rehab centers to find a program that can provide effective treatment.