Alcoholics Anonymous is the earliest incarnation of the 12-step group, developed by two people – “Dr. Bob” and “Bill W” – in the 1930s. It was originally part of the Oxford Group, but by 1940 it had established its own niche in the alcoholism recovery community. Over time, the AA model was applied to other addictions and compulsions including narcotics, gambling, and sexual addictions (Donovan et al., 2013). A parallel organization, Al-Anon, grew out of the realization that the families (and sometimes close friends) also needed recovery principles as a result of their close contact with the alcoholic.
The “Big Book” called Alcoholic Anonymous was the first text to set down both the basics of AA and stories of the early pioneers. Although the language of the Big Book sometimes seems stilted, and it contains assumptions and concepts that don’t apply well to the 21st century, it is still read privately by AA members (as well as members of other 12-Step organizations) and read aloud in AA meetings every day (Greenfield & Tonigan, 2013). The other main text of AA is Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which goes through the steps and traditions one at a time, providing additional commentary and explanation for each. Although the 12 Steps get the most attention, the Traditions are an important part of the foundation upon which recovery rests. Two Traditions that have considerable influence are the traditions of anonymity and self-sufficiency. AA members maintain anonymity and the organization as a whole does also (Wilson, 2015). AA does not have a public presence other than its service organizations. Self-sufficiency dictates that AA does not seek donations but subsists on contributions taken at meetings. There is no fee for AA membership – anyone who sincerely wants to stop drinking can attend, even if he or she cannot contribute (Greenfield & Tonigan, 2013; Wilson, 2015).
In addition to the two main texts, AA uses prayers, slogans, and the concepts of a Higher Power (God “as we understand him”), alcoholism as an illness, meetings, sponsors, and the home-group. The main prayers used are the Serenity Prayer, which is part of every AA meeting, the prayer of St. Francis, and special prayers that correspond to particular Steps. For example, the Fourth Step prayer asks the person’s Higher Power for the courage and strength to thoroughly and fearlessly examine the person’s faults and defects. Slogans are short statements such as “Easy does it,” “But for the grace of God,” “This too shall pass,” and “Just for today.” AA meeting rooms often have some of these slogans posted as reminders (Wilson, 2015).
The concept of the Higher Power or “God as we understand him” can be the most difficult for AA members, whether they believe in a personal God or not. For those who are agnostics or atheists, relying on a Higher Power of any sort can seem crazy, while people who are strong on the mainstream concept of God may find it difficult to accept AA members who do not share their beliefs (Arnaud, Kanyeredzi, & Lawrence, 2015). All members need to develop tolerance. The slogan “Live and let live” is often used in this context. It may be a struggle, but in most cases, if the AA member can find some Higher Power whom he or she can believe in, success in the program is possible (Kurtz & White, 2015). In AA, alcoholism is viewed as an illness created from a physical compulsion and a mental weakness. It is not the individual’s fault, but it is the person’s responsibility, since only he or she can make the decision to “let go and let God (Higher Power).” Once this truth is accepted, and the Higher Power identified, it is much easier for the person to move on with the steps and enter recovery (Greenfield & Tonigan, 2013).
A common instruction for those who are new to AA is “90 meetings in 90 days.” Although this sounds daunting, it is helpful because it is similar to language immersion. The individual quickly learns the steps, traditions, principles, and slogans, which are extremely helpful in the beginning. Open meetings can be attended by anyone, even those who are still drinking and aren’t ready to stop. Closed meetings, however, are only for problem drinkers who have a sincere desire to stop drinking (Greenfield & Tonigan, 2013). New people are encouraged to visit as many different meetings as possible before choosing their home-group. This is the group that the new AA member will attend most frequently and in which they will do service. It is not only a location but also a time, because each group is unique. In addition to home-group, the AA member might go to meetings at other times in the same location as well as meetings in different locations. AA members who are traveling for business or pleasure try to find out where and when they can attend meetings in other places. That is how important meetings are to the AA member who is utilizing the program to the fullest. Technological progress has allowed the introduction of telephone and Internet meetings so that even people with no face-to-face meetings within 250 miles or more can have the benefits of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. Also, the concept of a sponsor – a person who has achieved success within AA and willingly works one to one with another alcoholic who is just starting – can be utilized face-to-face or via email, chat, or telephone (Donovan et al., 2013).
The Twelve Steps are a sequence of actions developed by the AA founders and designed to lead the problem drinker to become “happy, joyous, and free.” The first three steps consist of statements concerning powerlessness and the need for a higher power to aid the person in recovery. The 4th step gets into the nitty gritty as the person must conduct a searching and fearless moral inventory of him- or herself. In the 5th step, the person shares the step 4 with God and another person. In the 6th and 7th steps, the person asks the Higher Power to remove their character defects. The Eighth step involves making a list of persons harmed, and in the Ninth step, making amends where appropriate. The 10th and 11th steps continue personal inventory as well as prayer and meditation to improve conscious contact with the person’s Higher Power. Finally, the 12th step asks the person to spread their spiritual awakening to other alcoholics by doing service (Wilson, 2015).
- Arnaud, Y., Kanyeredzi, A., & Lawrence, J. (2015). AA Members Understandings of the Higher Power (HP) A Qualitative Study. Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy, 2015.
- Donovan, D. M., Ingalsbe, M. H., Benbow, J., & Daley, D. C. (2013). 12-step interventions and mutual support programs for substance use disorders: An overview. Social work in public health, 28(3-4), 313-332.
- Greenfield, B. L., & Tonigan, J. S. (2013). The general alcoholics anonymous tools of recovery: the adoption of 12-step practices and beliefs. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27(3), 553.
- Kurtz, E., & White, W. L. (2015). Recovery spirituality. Religions, 6(1), 58-81.
- Wilson, B. (2015). Alcoholics Anonymous: Big Book. AA World Services.