Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
What’s the history of AA?
The story of Bill W. is entwined with the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In 1935, a recently sobered-up Bill W. was on a business trip. The bar in the hotel lobby triggered his craving to drink. A series of calls led him to Dr. Bob, an alcoholic surgeon, who met Bill to talk. The fifteen-minute talk turned into a three-week visit during which both men gained their sobriety.
For the rest of their lives, Bill W. and Dr. Bob helped other alcoholics achieve sobriety. They decided to publish a book to describe the Twelve Step program of recovery they used to help themselves and other alcoholics. The book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was published and has been in print ever since. It has been translated into many languages and is used by recovering people worldwide.
Word spread about the AA program, and its ranks swelled. By 1950, AA held its first International Convention with 3,500 member groups in attendance. Today, more than 98,000 groups across the world are registered with AA’s General Service Office, representing nearly two million members.
What’s the promise of AA?
The promise of AA is that those who follow the program will have happiness and a new sense of freedom. AA is an informal program whose members share a common goal: help each other stay sober. At AA meetings, the principles behind the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions are explored. Members tell their stories, emphasizing how they failed and how they succeeded. They answer the questions of newcomers and help each other stay sober just for today. They listen, and they keep what they hear private.
AA groups are run by members; no one person or group of people is in charge. Membership costs nothing; the groups are self-supporting through member contributions. AA is not religious and isn’t affiliated with any faith denomination; members are encouraged to define their own version of a Higher Power.
How are AA and the Big Book connected?
Alcoholics Anonymous, also called the Big Book, was created when early AA members, including Bill W. and Dr. Bob, wanted to spread the word. They felt that the number of alcoholics suffering and dying in America was tragic. They also thought that many of these people could get better if they had access to what the early group members knew. This deeply felt motivation to spread the word led to publishing the Big Book in 1939. The Central Office of AA was founded at the same time.
The goal of the Big Book—then as now—is to provide a step-by- step way to recover from alcohol use. The book explains addiction to alcohol, offers a practical solution, and presents ways to put the ideas into practice in your own life. But from the beginning, the authors cautioned that the Big Book must be read carefully and completely.
The first section of the Big Book (through page 164) clearly describes the program, the process, and all of the key concepts. This section is a must-read. Following this are three sections of personal stories from the founders of AA, as well as more current stories. This diversity of storytellers and stories underscores that alcoholism can and does affect those in all walks of life, all ages, male and female, all ethnic backgrounds, and so on. The stories also provide a tremendous sense of identity with and belonging to a group of people who are just like you.
What are the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions?
Originally, Bill W. summarized six Steps from all the suggestions made by early AA members. The emphasis was on admitting powerlessness over alcohol, getting honest with self and others, making amends, and working with others. Bill W. soon expanded the Steps to twelve as a result of adding the concept of a Higher Power and trying to make the Steps airtight, with no room for “the reader to wiggle out anywhere.” When finished, the Twelve Steps were widely approved by clergy members and psychiatrists.
The Twelve Steps of AA are a set of principles that present a design for a way of living—the problem, the solution, and a plan of action. The Steps are practical tools. Their underlying principles are couched in early slogans like “One day at a time” and “Take what works and leave the rest.”
The Twelve Traditions grew out of a need to apply the program. The question arose of how the wisdom of the AA program could be shared without setting up a central place or person to be in charge. The Twelve Traditions outlined the fellowship, or community, of AA as a way to protect unity through collective rather than individual emphasis. Individuals must be vigilant to avoid letting grandiosity and big egos get out of hand. Bill W. wanted to ensure that the AA organization avoided the same problem. The Traditions were meant to assure that the organization remain humble and true to its original purpose.
What are the different types of meetings?
The two most common kinds of AA meetings are closed meetings and open meetings. Closed meetings are for alcoholics only. Open meetings are for alcoholics, their family members, and anyone else interested in solving a personal drinking problem or helping someone else solve such a problem. During the meeting, there is usually a period for local AA announcements, and a treasurer passes the hat to defray costs of the meeting hall, literature, and incidental expenses. The meeting adjourns, often followed by informal visiting over coffee or other light refreshments.
Guests at AA open meetings are reminded that any opinions or interpretations they may hear are solely those of the speaker involved. All members are free to interpret the recovery program in their own terms, but none can speak for the local group or for AA as a whole.
At speaker meetings, one or two members share their stories of what they were like before AA, what brought them to AA, and what their lives are like now. At discussion meetings, group members explore a pre-selected topic.
Other meetings are devoted to study of the Big Book, the Traditions, or the Steps. A Twelve by Twelve meeting helps members explore aspects of both the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions. Other meetings take place for beginners, for group inventory, and for business. Some meetings gather together people who share a common bond in addition to alcoholism: meetings for women, men, gay men, lesbians, younger adults, older adults, and so on. None of these meetings, however, exclude anyone. The only criterion for attending AA is the desire to stop drinking.
Why is AA participation so important?
AA meetings are the backbone of the fellowship of AA. People who join this fellowship share the experience, strength, and hope they have gained by practicing the Steps. AA works because the program doesn’t judge and members are willing to help newcomers learn. It also works because of the poignant way in which one alcoholic understands the experiences of another.
The fellowship of AA is a critical part of the strength many members get from attending meetings. Isolation and loneliness are often intense for active alcoholics. You, like many others, may have felt as though you “didn’t belong” in your pre-drinking days. Drinking enhanced that sense of alienation a thousandfold. What is the best antidote to alienation and isolation? Friendship. When you make a connection with another human being, intense feelings of loneliness decrease. Suddenly if you have a problem, question, or experience you don’t understand, you can turn to your fellow AA members for help.
Alcoholics Anonymous The official AA website offers member guidelines, questions and answers, and a welcome message for newcomers.