Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an informal meeting society for recovering and recovered alcoholics, with the stated purpose to help its members “to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.” AA suggests that alcoholics follow its program of recovery and abstain from alcohol in order to recover from alcoholism, and share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem.
AA was the first twelve-step program and has been the model for similar recovery groups like Narcotics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. Al-Anon/Alateen are programs designed to provide support for relatives and friends of alcoholics.
Organization of AA
In 2006 there were a reported 1,867,212 AA members in 106,202 AA groups worldwide. The Twelve Traditions informally guide how AA groups function, and the Twelve Concepts for World Service guide how AA is structured globally.
A member who accepts a service position or an organizing role is a “trusted servant” with terms rotating and limited, typically lasting three months to two years and determined by group vote. Each group is a self-governing entity with AA World Services acting only in an advisory capacity. AA is served entirely by alcoholics, except for seven “nonalcoholic friends of the fellowship” out of twenty-one members of the AA Board of Trustees.
AA groups are self-supporting and not charities, and they have no dues or membership fees. Groups rely on member donations, typically $1 collected per meeting in America, to pay for expenses like room rental, refreshments, and literature. No one is turned away for lack of funds.
At above the group level AA may hire outside professionals for services that either require specialized expertise and/or are full time responsibilities, as of 2007 GSO in New York employees 40 or so such workers.
AA receives proceeds from books and literature which constitute more than 50% of the income for the General Service Office (GSO), which unlike individual groups is not self-supporting and maintains a small salaried staff. It also maintains service centers which coordinate activities like printing literature, responding to public inquiries, and organizing conferences. They are funded by local members and responsible to the AA groups they represent.
History of AA
By 1934 alcoholic Bill Wilson had ruined a promising Wall Street career with his constant drunkenness. He was introduced to the idea of a spiritual cure by old drinking buddy Ebby Thacher who had become a member of a Christian movement called the Oxford Group. Wilson was treated at Charles B. Towns hospital by Dr. William Silkworth, who promoted a disease concept of alcoholism. While in the hospital, Wilson underwent what he believed to be a spiritual experience and, convinced of the existence of a healing higher power, he was able to stop drinking.
On a 1935 business trip to Akron, Ohio, Wilson felt the urge to drink again and in an effort to stay sober, he sought another alcoholic to help. Wilson was introduced to Dr. Bob Smith. Wilson and Smith co-founded AA with a word of mouth program to help alcoholics. Smith’s last drink on June 10, 1935 is considered by members to be the founding date of AA. By 1937, Wilson and Smith determined that they had helped 40 alcoholics get sober, and two years later, with the first 100 members, Wilson expanded the program by writing a book entitled Alcoholics Anonymous which the organization also adopted as its name. The book, informally referred to by members as “The Big Book,” described a twelve-step program involving admission of powerlessness, moral inventory, and asking for help from a higher power. In 1941 book sales and membership increased after radio interviews and favourable articles in national magazines, particularly by Jack Alexander in The Saturday Evening Post.
By 1946, as membership grew, confusion and disputes within groups over practices, finances, and publicity led Wilson to write the guidelines for noncoercive group management that eventually became known as the Twelve Traditions. AA came of age at the 1955 St. Louis convention when Wilson turned over the stewardship of AA to the General Service Board. In this era AA also began its international expansion, and by 2001 the number of members worldwide was estimated at two million.
AA promotes the idea that beating alcoholism entails more than not drinking, and, to this end, suggests a program of action which has the goal of producing a “personality change sufficient to recover from alcoholism”. While abstaining from alcohol, one day at a time, the personality change is believed to be brought about by means of a spiritual awakening achieved from following the Twelve Steps, helping with duties and service work in AA, and regular AA meeting attendance or contact with AA members. Members are encouraged find an experienced fellow alcoholic called a sponsor to help them follow the AA program, ideally one that has enjoyed sobriety for at least a year and is of the same sex as the sponsee, and who does not impose personal views on sponsees. The AA program is distinct from the fellowship of AA. The fellowship includes meetings and friendships with other AA members, whereas the program refers to the course of action outlined in the first 164 pages of the book Alcoholics Anonymous.
Anyone, including non-alcoholics, is allowed to attend “open” AA meetings, while “closed” meetings are reserved to those who have a desire to stop drinking. There are groups for men or women, groups angled at gay people, and groups for speakers of minority languages. Most AA meetings begin with socializing. Formats vary between meetings, for example, a beginner’s meeting might include a talk by a long-time sober member about his or her personal experience of drinking, coming to AA and what was learned there of sobriety. A group discussion on topics related to alcoholism and the AA program might follow.
In a typical meeting, the chairperson starts by calling the meeting to order and offering a short prayer, meditation, and/or period of silence (actual practice varies by region). Then, a section from the book Alcoholics Anonymous may be read aloud, usually the beginning of Chapter Five, entitled “How It Works”. Announcements from the chairperson and/or group members follow. Many groups celebrate newcomers, visitors, and sobriety anniversaries with rounds of applause. Following the announcements, donations are collected, usually by passing a basket around the room. There is no requirement on anyone to make a donation. Most members contribute a small amount, often just some loose change. The making of large donations is actively discouraged in AA Depending on the type of meeting, there follows either a talk by a speaker relating their personal experience with alcoholism and AA or a discussion session with topics chosen by the chairperson, the speaker, and/or the attendees. A hallmark of these types of AA meeting is the “no crosstalk” suggestion, where responding to another member’s comments is discouraged. In many meetings, in order to encourage identification, members confine their comments to their alcoholic drinking and recovery, following the guidelines of “what it was like, what happened and what it’s like now”. This format is intended to avoid wide ranging debate of other topics from distracting the group from its primary purpose. After the discussion period, the meeting is typically ended with a prayer, usually the Serenity Prayer or often in the US, the Lord’s Prayer. These ending prayers are sometimes undertaken by the entire group forming a circle and holding hands. More socializing typically follows the close of the formal meeting, and it is common for members to gather at nearby coffee shops. Other meeting formats also exist where specific AA related topics are discussed in more detail. A common example is a Step Study meeting where one or more of the 12 steps are discussed at length.
Disease of alcoholism
AA regards alcoholism as an illness and uses the concept to challenge the belief of chronic, compulsive drinkers that they can stay sober by willpower alone. Dr William Silkworth introduced to Wilson and AA the idea that alcoholism is an illness consisting of an obsession to drink alcohol, and an allergy, which was the compulsion to continue drinking once the first drink had been taken. (Silkworth’s understanding of an allergy in the 1930s differs from that used in modern medicine today.) Alcoholics, he argued, can never safely use alcohol in any form at all, since once forming the habit, they cannot break it.