ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS® is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for AA membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.
“We alcoholics are men and women who lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining control, but such intervals—usually brief— were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.” Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 30
“Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic.” (ibid, p. 31)*
More About Alcoholism
What is alcoholism?
As A.A. sees it, alcoholism is an illness. Alcoholics cannot control their drinking, because they are ill in their bodies and in their minds (or emotions), A.A. believes. If they do not stop drinking, their alcoholism almost always gets worse and worse. Both the American Medical Association and the British Medical Association, chief organizations of doctors in those countries, also have said that alcoholism is an illness.
The definition of alcoholism as defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence: “Alcoholism is a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial. Each of these symptoms may be continuous or periodic.” (1992)
The explanation that seems to make sense to most A.A. members is that alcoholism is an illness, a progressive illness, which can never be cured but which, like some other diseases, can be arrested. Going one step further, many A.A. members feel that the illness represents a combination of a physical sensitivity to alcohol and a mental obsession with drinking, which, regardless of consequences, cannot be broken by willpower alone.
What are the symptoms?
Not all alcoholics have the same symptoms, but many — at different stages in the illness — show these signs: They find that only alcohol can make them feel self-confident and at ease with other people; often want “just one more” at the end of a party; look forward to drinking occasions and think about them a lot; get drunk when they had not planned to; try to control their drinking by changing types of liquor, going on the wagon, or taking pledges; sneak drinks; lie about their drinking; hide bottles; drink at work (or in school); drink alone; have blackouts (that is, can- not remember the next day what they said or did the night before); drink in the morning, to relieve severe hangovers, guilty feelings and fears; fail to eat and become malnourished; get cirrhosis of the liver; shake violently, hallucinate, or have convulsions when withdrawn from liquor.
What can the families of alcoholics do?
A.A. is just for the alcoholics, but two other fellowships can help their relatives. One is Al-Anon Family Groups. The other is Alateen, for teenagers who have alcoholic parents.
Impacts of Alcoholism
Alcoholism is recognized as a major health problem. In the U.S., it is the third greatest killer, after heart disease and cancer — and it does not damage alcoholics alone. Others are hurt by its effects — in the home, on the job, on the highway. Alcoholism costs the community millions of dollars every year. So whether or not you ever become an alcoholic yourself, alcoholism still can have an impact on your life.
We have learned a great deal about how to identify and arrest alcoholism. But so far no one has discovered a way to prevent it, because nobody knows exactly why some drinkers turn into alcoholics. Doctors and scientists in the field have not agreed on the cause (or causes) of alcoholism. For that reason, A.A. concentrates on helping those who are already alcoholics, so that they can stop drinking and learn how to live a normal, happy life without alcohol.
By 1934 alcoholic Bill W. had ruined a promising Wall Street career because of his constant drunkenness. He was introduced to the idea of a spiritual cure by an old drinking buddy Ebby T. who had become a member of a “first century Christian movement” called the Oxford Group. Bill was treated at Charles B. Towns hospital by Dr. William Silkworth, who promoted a disease concept of alcoholism. While in the hospital, Bill 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, Bill W. felt the urge to drink again and in an effort to stay sober, he sought another alcoholic to help. Bill was introduced to Dr. Bob S. Bill and Dr. Bob co-founded AA with a word of mouth program to help alcoholics. Dr. Bob’s last drink on June 10, 1935 is considered by members to be the founding date of AA. By 1937, Bill and Dr. Bob determined that they had helped 40 alcoholics get sober, and two years later, with the about 100 members, Bill 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 over alcohol, moral inventory, and asking for help from a higher power. In 1941 book sales and membership increased after radio interviews and favorable 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 Bill W. 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 Bill W. turned over the stewardship of AA to the General Service Conference. In this era AA also began its international expansion, and by 2001 the number of members worldwide was estimated at two million.
Interested in reading more about AA history? Check out the AA History Timeline on the GSO website.
In 2006, 1,867,212 members in 106,202 AA groups were reported 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. Beyond 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.
The two most common kinds of A.A. meetings are:
OPEN MEETINGS: As the term suggests, meetings of this type are open to alcoholics and their families, and to anyone interested in solving a personal drinking problem or helping someone else to solve such a problem. During the meeting there is usually a period for local A.A. 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 A.A. 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 no one can speak for the local group or for A.A. as a whole.
CLOSED MEETINGS: These meetings are limited to alcoholics. They provide an opportunity for members to share with one another on problems related to drinking patterns and attempts to achieve stable sobriety. They also permit detailed discussion of various elements in the recovery program.
There are meeting groups for men, women, LBGTQ, and speakers of minority languages. Most AA meetings begin with socializing. Formats vary between meetings, for example, a beginners’ 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 about 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 (practice varies by meeting). 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 group members follow. Many groups celebrate newcomers, visitors, and sobriety anniversaries with rounds of applause.
Following announcements, donations are collected, usually by passing a basket around the room. There is no requirement 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, 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, or the attendees follows. The “no crosstalk” suggestions, where responding to another member’s comments is discouraged, is a hallmark of AA meetings. 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.
In many meetings, in order to encourage identification, members confine their comments to their alcoholic drinking and recovery, following the guidelines of “what we were like, what happened and what we are like now”. This format is intended to avoid 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 a nearby coffee shop.