The History Of Alcoholics Anonymous
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) got its start in 1935 when two individuals who had both struggled with alcohol addiction, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, became introduced and began brainstorming theories about addiction and about the best ways to help those working hard to achieve sobriety.
Four years later, Alcoholics Anonymous (also known as “The Big Book”) was written by Wilson and published. The book contained the now famous 12 Steps, a doctrine of how to get and stay sober, and allowed AA to reach more people than ever before. Nowadays AA claims more than 2 million adherents worldwide, distributed across hundreds of nations and thousands of support groups. Read on to get an idea of how AA helps people get sober, whether it’s been shown to work, and some drawbacks and alternatives to the program.
The Philosophy Of Alcoholics Anonymous
Alcoholics Anonymous’ core philosophy is based around admitting that one is “powerless” over one’s addiction, calling on a higher power to help in the quest for sobriety, self-actualization, and seeking to “make direct amends” to all those one has hurt due to addiction. These principles are expressed in the 12 Steps, which are often read aloud during meetings.
Meetings themselves are a central component of AA’s recovery philosophy. The only requirement for entry is a desire to stop drinking – if one meets this description, one can join an AA meeting (for free) even if one is still using alcohol. Note that individuals may be asked to leave an AA meeting if they are drunken to the point of distraction and disruptiveness, but that those same individuals will also usually be welcomed back upon sobering up and/or collecting themselves.
Once at a meeting, individuals in AA may share stories about their experiences with alcohol and offer accounts of strength and hope for those that have maintained sobriety. These stories can highlight the negative effects of alcohol, allow group members to connect around shared experiences and common identity, or act as catharsis for both the speaker and the listener. Meetings may also cover the 12 Steps or other AA-related literature, and typically include a request for small donations so that the activities of AA can continue.
Does Alcoholics Anonymous Work?
One study conducted at the Stanford School of Medicine declared Alcoholics Anonymous “the most effective path to abstinence,” and hailed the program as being even more effective than psychotherapy when it came to treating alcohol addiction. Another study, which examined individuals who struggled with moderating their alcohol consumption over the course of several years, found that subjects who regularly attended AA meetings maintained their sobriety at nearly twice the rate of those who did not attend AA.
In short, it appears that AA works for a significant number of participants. One theory behind AA’s efficacy is that it provides a steady support group of sober individuals who can provide meaningful social connection and a sense of belonging to those who attend meetings. The use of a sponsor, typically a more experienced member of AA who provides guidance and advice to a more junior member, may also play a pivotal role in AA’s success.
Criticisms Of AA
Though some could rightfully consider Alcoholics Anonymous an historic institution that has worked for many people, the program is not without its criticisms. Some may be skeptical of AA’s more spiritually minded principles. For example, while the program claims to be non-religious, it does involve fostering a belief in or a reliance on a “higher power” through the 12 Steps. This could alienate nonbelievers or the empirically minded who may not believe in such a power, even when allowed a rather open-ended definition. That being said, the Big Book of AA addresses and embraces agnostics.
Additionally, some women participants in AA have reported that meetings can sometimes be a predatory environment, and that there’s a danger to young and vulnerable group members who may be preyed upon by older and more influential group members. It’s worth noting that AA offers women-only groups, which may help alleviate the concerns of a prospective group member concerned about harassment and toxicity.
Finally, some say it’s simply impossible to determine whether AA really is effective or not scientifically. Researchers without alcohol addiction problems are not allowed into AA meetings, and many studies into the efficacy of AA can be flawed with selection biases or the lack of a control group. Fortunately, AA is not the only game in town, meaning individuals who share the above concerns still have a wide variety of options when it comes to recovering from alcohol addiction.
Alternatives To AA
For those who’d like the benefit of a robust mutual aid group or new social network in order to achieve sobriety, but who are reluctant to try Alcoholics Anonymous, there are a few viable alternatives. Just two of these are SMART Recovery™ and LifeRing, both of which focus on a program of recovery without as much emphasis on spirituality’s role in recovery.
SMART Recovery™ is a nonprofit organization that helps individuals conquer all means of addiction, not just alcoholism. Their philosophy is based around identifying one’s reasons for quitting a destructive behavior, finding ways to manage cravings, learning coping strategies for the stressors of everyday life, and finding a well-rounded existence free of drugs or alcohol.
LifeRing, on the other hand, is short for LifeRing Secular Recovery. It’s a group that allows members to host or attend meetings either face-to-face or online, and has a tripartite philosophy based around 3 core components: sobriety, secularity, and self-help.
Both alternatives to AA are likely to produce some positive result for the participant, with researcher John Kelly of Harvard Medical School telling Vox News that, “common therapeutic factors… which are incorporated into all of these mutual help groups” will benefit the individual regardless of which program they choose.
Achieving Lasting Sobriety
If there’s one takeaway from these thoughts on addiction and support groups, it’s that individuals in recovery see the most progress when they have good company and good help. Contact a treatment provider today to discuss available treatment options.
Author: William Henken | Last Edited: August 9, 2022
Medical Reviewer: Dayna Smith-Slade