Alcoholics Anonymous or “AA” is a common part of addiction recovery for many individuals who have struggled with Substance Use Disorders. It is “an international fellowship of women and men who have a drinking problem.” It was founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio and has spread globally since. AA maintains a group identity that is “nonprofessional, self-supporting, multiracial, [and] apolitical”, and the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.
The book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (commonly referred to as the “Big Book”) was published in 1939, and the original text has been preserved in subsequent editions. It outlines 12 steps for achieving and maintaining sobriety. The 12 steps are
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power created than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
In meetings, participants study the Big Book and the 12 Steps, share their stories (often called “giving a lead”), offer support and encouragement to one another, and build a community of individuals committed to sobriety. Most active participants work with a sponsor to serves as a point person when support is needed, as well as a mentor in the recovery process.
There are many similar programs modeled after AA including Al-Anon (for family members of alcoholics), Overeaters Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and others. Additionally, there are other 12-step fellowships that are partially modeled off of AA including Celebrate Recovery.
Due to emphasis on confidentiality and anonymity as well as inaccurate depictions of 12-step groups in film and television, there are many misconceptions about AA. At best these misconceptions simply misrepresent the fellowship. At worst, they hinder those in recovery from accessing potentially beneficial support and healing.
Myth #1: I can’t go to AA because I don’t go to church.
Many people in recovery believe AA is not for them because they do not participate in organized religion, have left or been separated from their faith community, or feel uncomfortable in church. The reality is that ANYONE who is interested in recovering from a substance use disorder can participate in AA, regardless of their spirituality. It is actually Step 2 which emphasizes the belief in a Higher Power and Step 3 which encourages surrender to it. While the Big Book uses the word “God”, this is not necessarily restricted to the Judeo-Christian God. The text actually emphasizes the ides of God “as we understood Him”, which allows room for an individual and evolving relationship with a Higher Power. Many AA meetings take place in church buildings, but membership to a particular religion is not required.
Myth #2: After I complete the 12 Steps, I’m done.
An expression commonly used by AA participants is, “I’m working the steps.” Most people work on the 12 Steps with the help of a sponsor. A common misconception is that once a person gets to Step 12, they graduate or finish AA. In reality AA is intended to be an ongoing process. Steps 10, 11, and 12 are actually more like maintenance steps. Step 10 is intended as a method of ongoing self-checking, emphasizing self-accountablity and honesty. Step 11 is the practice of continued seeking, growth, and relationship with the Higher Power. Step 12 calls for service, sharing, and ongoing sober living. Much like a car requires routine maintenance and care, a person in recovery (and I would argue, everyone) needs habits that encourage healthy self-awareness, an ongoing journey or personal growth, and a commitment to relationships and community.
Myth #3: All AA meetings are the same.
There are a variety of types of meetings, each with a different goal, feel, and dynamic. Closed Meetings generally consist of a specific and limited group of people. Open Meetings are just that – they are open for anyone to participate, including observers who are no struggling with a substance use disorder. Speaker Meetings (sometimes called Gratitude Meetings) tend to feature a visiting member who shares the story of their experience with addiction and recovery. Big Book Meetings center around a certain section of passage of the Big Book and group discussion. 12-Step Meetings typically focus on a specific step, and in larger meetings participants may even divide into smaller groups based on the specific step they are working. There are even online meetings. While AA meetings are generally inclusive, there are some meetings aimed at a certain demographic or population (gender, sexual orientation, profession, language).
As with any community of human beings, there is variance in dynamics and group culture among AA meetings. Sometimes it takes a few tries before an individual finds a meeting where they feel “at home.” Unfortunately, not all AA meetings are created equal. There are some that remain very faithful to the original intents of the AA founders and others that stray from the tenants of the model. Similarly, some groups naturally foster an atmosphere of mutual support, respect, and healing, while others can become distorted by unhealthy interpersonal dynamics or even toxically distorted interpretation of AA tenants.
Myth #4: AA is only for alcoholics.
Again AA is generally very inclusive. Many indivuals in recovery have struggled with multiple substance, no just alcohol. It is not uncommon for a participant in a meeting to identify as “an alcoholic and an addict.” AA and its related groups can be very helpful to individuals who struggle with a variety of addictive behaviors (e.g. overeating, gambling, sex, illicit drugs). Open meetings, again, welcome nonalcoholic observers, and meetings like Al Anon, Alateen, and Adult Children of Alcoholics cater to friends and family members of people with substance use disorders.
Myth #5: AA is treatment.
AA and treatment are two different things. AA is more accurately understood as a “spiritual program of action.” It is the adoption of and practice of keep beliefs, behaviors, values, and traditions in the context of a community. AA is peer-led and self-supporting. Treatment on the other hand is facilitated by trained professionals in clinical settings with a prescribed set of interventions (e.g. medical detoxification, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, and psychotherapy). Treatment can be finite, whereas AA in its truest form is an ongoing process. AA and formal treatment can work beautifully together, along with other community and interpersonal supports, to help a personal on the path of healthy and whole hearted living.
If you’re interested in learning more about AA, consider starting with the main website at www.aa.org. There you can locate meetings near you, access the Big Book and other AA related literature, read daily reflections, make contributions, find other ways to get involved.
Alcoholics Anonymous: The story of how more than one hundred men have recovered from alcoholism (4th ed.). (2001). New York City, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
Marich, J. (2012). Trauma and the twelve steps: A complete guide to enhancing recovery. Warren, OH: Cornersburg Media.