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What Is Alcoholics Anonymous?
Alcoholics Anonymous – one of the most famous addiction treatment programs – is a spiritual community-based path to recovery. It emphasizes individual powerlessness and the need for help from a “Higher Power” in combating alcohol addiction.
The History of Alcoholics Anonymous
Alcoholics Anonymous was born in 1935 from the minds of two men, known as Bill W. and Dr. Bob, who were struggling with alcoholism and looking for a path to recovery. After rediscovering his relationship with a “Higher Power,” Bill quit drinking and decided to help the surgeon and fellow alcoholic Bob quit drinking. After working together for 30 days, Bob quit drinking and the beginnings of AA meetings were formed.
Bill and Bob began to hold informal AA meetings at hospitals in Ohio, New York, and Cleveland. The duo had soon helped their first 100 people find sobriety through what would become the teachings of AA.
In 1939, Bill and the founding members penned what would become the AA handbook, otherwise known as The Big Book. Since then, AA has not stopped growing. Now, AA meetings are attended by about 2 million members across 180 countries worldwide.
The Big Book
Written in 1939, the first 164 pages of AA’s core text have remained relatively unchanged since then. Back before there were over 118,000 groups holding AA meetings around the world, people seeking to stop drinking would meet with an AA member and be given The Big Book.
The Big Book is the cornerstone of AA, and in addition to AA’s methodologies, philosophies, and case studies, it also includes AA’s famous 12 Step Program.1
The Benefits of AA
There are numerous reasons AA is preferred by so many people around the world. AA provides members with a life-long support system that provides an external source of motivation and help when times get tough. Having a sponsor who understands your journey firsthand helps many people trust the process of letting go and relying on others.
Learning to ask others for help is vital so that members accept that they are powerless in the face of their addiction, leading them to seek support in a “Higher Power” and in those around them. This support system helps members grow deep and meaningful connections with other individuals in AA, thereby increasing their motivation and resolve to stay sober. Alcoholics Anonymous also provides a positive community that helps each member stay busy.
To make this support network more accessible, many groups now also offer online AA meetings. <sup2 Additionally, AA’s 12 Steps have been easily adapted to help with other addictions, including sex, overeating, gambling, and narcotic addictions like heroin or marijuana.
Why Some Prefer Alternatives to AA
Although Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are attended by thousands, some people find AA just isn’t for them. Alcoholics Anonymous’s foundation in spirituality and reliance on accepting that you are not in control of yourself or your addiction does not appeal to everyone. Instead of feeling supported by a “Higher Power,” some find the process of accepting powerlessness very demotivating and damaging to their recovery journey.
Additionally, AA’s use of the labels “alcoholic” and “addict,” and their view of alcoholism is that it is a disease rather than a habit. Some individuals recovering from alcohol abuse do not prefer this mindset. Many people would rather choose programs that take a more empowering approach to their recovery and hold them accountable as they strive to achieve their goals.
Ultimately, the question of whether alcoholics anonymous will work for you depends on your personal preferences, and there are alternative support groups that may better fit your journey.
Studies on the Effectiveness of AA
In a systematic review of all the scientific research on the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous, researchers found AA as effective (if not more effective) at maintaining long-term sobriety than many other programs.3
Led by the director and founder of the Massachusetts General Hospital Recovery Research Institute, John Kelly, the team of researchers analyzed research from over 10,000 subjects, spread across 67 different institutions.
The study found that Alcoholics Anonymous and their 12 Step Program:
- Produces higher rates of long-term sobriety
- Reduces the rate of relapse
- Reduces the use of costly hospital stays, emergency room visits, mental health services, and addiction treatment clinics
John Kelly attributes the reduced need for health services to the long-term support system provided by AA, saying, “when you’re treating an illness like AUD, which is susceptible to relapse over the early months and years of recovery, having an engaging, widely available, and free recovery-specific support option like AA can help sustain behavioral changes.”4
Just as important as the economic benefits AA touts are its high rate of successful long-term sobriety and reduced rate of relapse.
Other Peer Support Groups for Recovery
There are many paths to sobriety. The only distinction that matters is which program provides the right support for you.
Women for Sobriety
Women for Sobriety is a women-only support group focused on transforming women’s negative self-image and worldview, empowering them to take control of their lives. The group was founded in 1976 as the first alcoholism support group strictly for women and emphasizes self-control, rationality, and responsibility for oneself and one’s actions through reflection on 13 acceptance affirmations.
Founded in 1994, Moderation Management is a secular program that helps non-dependent “problem” drinkers who want to change their behaviors surrounding alcohol but don’t want to stop drinking entirely. Moderation Management encourages members to set personal drinking limits and change habits through goal-setting techniques and a nine-step cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) program.
Rational Recovery was created in 1986 in direct response to Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead of AA’s spiritual road to sobriety, Rational Recovery is a for-profit that guides quieting the “addictive voice” within. The group prioritizes identifying your “addictive voice” and learning to dissociate from addictive impulses and cope with triggering emotions.
Officially founded in 1994, SMART Recovery (Self Management and Recovery Training) employs research-backed, secular, therapeutic techniques to create individualized paths to sobriety. SMART Recovery believes the path to recovery is unique for each person. It uses a 4-point program to strengthen motivation, learn to cope with triggers, increase self-awareness, and set realistic expectations for sobriety.