For most people, the first step toward recovery is acknowledging that they have a problem with chemical dependency. From there, an individual may choose to pursue a detox program, or an inpatient or outpatient treatment.
Traditional treatment aims to help patients restore their physical health and set into motion healthy habits. That said, rehab tends to look a lot different than real life, and patients may have trouble adjusting once they've completed the process.
After treatment is complete, that's when the real work begins. The patient returns to their usual responsibilities, to groceries, routines, and to-dos. Work and relationships pick up once again and people need to face the problems that potentially triggered the alcohol problem in the first place.
AA can help people return to a productive life, while reinforcing the lessons learned in treatment with a support group of people who are dealing with a similar set of challenges.
What is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)?
Alcoholics Anonymous (1) is a global organization that was founded to help alcoholics maintain their sobriety. The program allows people to lean on one another for support. The program was founded by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio in 1935. These days, the organization spans cities all over the United States and beyond--and doors are open anyone, regardless of age, race, religion, or gender. Family members may attend meetings as well.
AA group members must commit to stop drinking and maintain sobriety from both alcohol and other controlled substances.
The meetings aim to provide ongoing support during recovery, and are given a set of steps to work through on an individual basis. The series of steps begin by having the alcoholic work address that they have a problem, and from there, look inward to take on the problem.
The 12 traditions (yes, traditions, not steps) of AA serve as the backbone for the program, and are designed to keep out external influences. Because AA is classified as a peer support group, ran by people who are former alcoholics themselves—volunteers, as opposed to paid counselors.
Becoming a member requires nothing, aside from a desire to stop drinking and meetings take place in public spaces like schools, churches, and community centers.
While you must be an alcoholic to join AA, anyone can attend an open meeting. If you’re dealing with a separate substance abuse problem, there are similar programs like Narcotics Anonymous that follow a similar structure.
The program follows a spiritual approach—the founders were Christian—but today, they focus on a higher power, not necessarily a Judeo-Christian god.
What are the 12 Steps?
The 12 steps of AA discuss how to recover from alcoholism and prevent triggers. Often, they are introduced while the patient is in rehab, and they'll continue to work through the steps after the clinical treatment has concluded.
These steps are used in a number of situations and serve to keep people on track and help them move forward with their lives.
Here are the 12 steps associated with the AA process.
Admitting powerlessness over alcohol--essentially acknowledging there is a problem.
The understanding that a greater power could help us gain control. Doesn't have to be a Christian god, per se, but the program does have a known spiritual element at is core.
A conscious decision to turn oneself over to the Higher Power.
Looking inward to take a personal inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to ourselves, to others, and to the higher power the nature of all wrong doings.
Were open to having God remove these defects of character.
Asked the higher power to remove shortcomings.
Listed all people who have been hurt by the addiction.
Made amends with people who have been hurt because of the addiction. The exception, here being, if there is risk of personal injury or hurting that person by doing so.
Continued taking personal inventory and admitted wrong-doing.
Use of prayer and meditation to connect with the higher power, using this newfound connection to seek knowledge and spiritual understanding.
Finally--a spiritual awakening after going through the previous steps. In this final stage, many AA members may become a sponsor or try to help other alcoholics.
The Twelve Traditions
Lesser known than the 12 Steps, but a key element of the program are the Twelve Traditions. These governing principles address the group as a whole, rather than the inner life of the individual and set the stage for how AA meetings work no matter what city, country, or language they're in.
The Twelve Traditions Summarized
The common welfare must come first. Individual recovery depends on group unity.
For the group, there is a single, loving ultimate authority. Again, this may be a Judeo-Christian God or a more abstract higher power. Group leaders are considered servants. They're here to lead discussions and provide support, not to govern the group or change the rules.
The only prerequisite for AA membership is a sincere desire to quit drinking.
Each group must be completely autonomous. The exception is if there are larger matters that concern AA as an organization.
The primary purpose of each group is to spread the message to alcoholics that are still suffering.
AA groups may not endorse or finance any other organization or facility, nor can they use the name, AA in association with any outside organization. The idea is to leave finances out of the equation, instead focusing on fostering a genuine environment.
AA groups must be self-sufficient and cannot accept outside donations. This is why meetings take place in public spaces--free of charge.
Alcoholics Anonymous must remain an unprofessional organization. In some cases, service centers employ some staff members.
That said, AA may put together volunteer committees or assemble boards that directly serve their group or chapter.
Alcoholics Anonymous does not take a public stance on political issues or other concerns.
AA’s public relations policy focuses in attraction, not promotion. It's tricky because the foundation of the group is based on anonymity--so AA can't really run ads or promote their services on the radio.
Anonymity is at the heart of all AA traditions. The idea is not only to make sure AA is a safe place but also to remind members that principles are more important than personalities.
In all, the 12 traditions serve as a guiding set of principles aimed at maintaining the free and anonymous status that has been in place since the group's 1930s inception.
History of AA
AA was initially founded based on the principles of a Christian self-help group, The Oxford Group.
An American missionary named Frank Buchanan founded the Oxford Group. Buchanan believed that fear and selfishness caused all personal problems. Like AA, the group aimed to solve problems by taking self-inventory, making amends, admitting wrong, and using prayer and meditation.
AA's founder, Bill Wilson had long struggled with drinking problems and found it difficult to remain sober long-term. Wilson felt that the Oxford Group's methods had allowed him to get sober and stay that way.
It was suggested that Wilson pay more attention to the scientific aspects of alcoholism treatment rather than the Christian elements of recovery.
Soon after, Wilson traveled to Akron, Ohio, and met Dr. Robert Smith, another man who was having trouble maintaining any long-term sobriety. Wilson worked with Smith for 30 days until he finally gave up drinking.
Dr. Smith and Wilson worked with others, citing their affiliation with the Oxford Group. But, the group was controversial in several ways, and the two broke away in 1937.
While Dr. Smith and Wilson kept several Oxford Group methods, they made a lot of changes. For example, the informal meetings, working through a series of steps, and working for free all came from Buchanan's group. Smith and Wilson added more steps to the program as well as the meetings and the sponsors. Since then, the organization has become synonymous with organization become recognized as an active support group for millions of people worldwide.
AA in Conjunction with Treatment
Is AA treatment? The short answer is no. It’s essential for those seeking treatment to understand the difference between alcohol treatment and AA.
AA based on principles of science. Founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith discovered that this spiritual method worked for them, and wanted to share their findings with others.
The two men found that helping each other maintain their sobriety was a powerful way to help them retain their abstinence, and thus started marketing AA as a peer-delivered self-help program. The organization has never claimed that it may be used as a replacement for professional treatment, but some people use it as an alternative to traditional methods, as well as a supplement. (5)
Many former alcoholics say the program has helped them overcome severe alcoholism, and as a result, many professional programs use some of the guiding principles of AA to deliver service.
For example, the Minnesota Model (Hazelden/Betty Ford) has long used the 12-step model in conjunction with their therapy methods.
Most addiction professionals will recommend that patients attend AA meetings as a way to bolster success. Often professional substance abuse counselors recommend patients go to AA or another peer self-help group. While meetings aren’t necessarily therapy, they provide that “in it together” –ness that motivates many to stay sober long-term.
How to Find Meetings
Naturally, you can find AA meetings by visiting the official AA website. The site breaks it down by state or province and makes it easy to see a chapter that’s convenient for you. Visit AA.org and find your city. You’ll then be redirected to your local AA office and can search by zip code, day, time, and whether you’d like to be in a single gender setting or are okay with mixed company.
While going through a few steps may be a little annoying to those who are used to slicker websites, the process is quite straightforward.
Additionally, Alcoholics Anonymous now offers online meetings, so if you can’t make it to an in-person session, you don’t have to skip out on the support.
There are also a lot of apps that make things easier—though not all meetings. Meeting Guide, for example, provides a database of 70,000+ meetings, so most people in the US can use the app on the go to find a meeting.
In the end, if you’re thinking about AA, you may want to seek professional treatment as well. While the group has done a lot of good for people with alcoholism, you’ll still need to detox under the watchful eye of a trained professional.