What is Alcoholics Anonymous?

Dr. Noah Kass

What is Alcoholics Anonymous?

With over 50,000 groups nationwide, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the most popular self-help program in the world. AA has its detractors, and it is certainly not suitable for everyone struggling with addiction. However, it provides millions of active users, caught in the addiction cycle, with an established recovery community and action plan for achieving sobriety. Additionally, it has been the model for other self-help groups, including Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Overeaters Anonymous (OA).

Overview of Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous is an international fellowship of men and women who have a drinking problem. It is the “largest community-based mutual-help program for alcohol-related problems” (Greenfield & Tonigan, 2013, p. 553). The majority of substance abuse treatment programs in the United States are based on the Twelve Steps of AA (Slaymaker & Sheehan, 2008; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2008). AA believes that “alcoholism is an allergy (in other words, alcoholics’ bodies simply cannot tolerate alcohol) that affects some individuals and not others, and it cannot be cured” (Franken, 2014, p. 24).

AA’s individual recovery program and its group philosophies are identified in its Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1981). The twelve steps cover a “program of abstinence from alcohol, acceptance of being alcoholic, honest self-examination, atonement for past wrongs, spiritual reflection, and service to other alcoholics” (Humphreys, 2000, p. 496). The twelve traditions apply “to the life of the Fellowship itself. They outline the means by which AA maintains its unity and relates itself to the world about it, the way it lives and grows” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1981, p. 15). Alcoholics Anonymous believes acceptance of a power greater than oneself is necessary to gain and maintain sobriety (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001); however, AA does not align itself with any religious organization. Still, six of the AA twelve steps refer to God, and the final step refers to a spiritual awakening that may help AA members sustain sobriety and that reportedly leads to profound life changes (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1981).


Alcoholics Anonymous Membership

Common characteristics of AA membership include attending frequent AA meetings, having or being a sponsor, and reading AA literature. In practice, anyone can self-identify as belonging to AA, which creates an inclusive environment. AA attendance includes the added benefit of being “free to its members, which means it does not prohibit individuals from attending based on financial resources” (Sharma & Branscum, 2010, p. 4). Alcoholism affects a wide cross section of the world’s population, resulting in AA being “open to anyone regardless of race, sexual preference, color or creed” (Dickerson, 2006, p. 69). Members coexist despite often coming from vastly different professional and socioeconomic background


Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings

AA meetings take place in various locations, including churches, basements, schoolrooms, community centers, and clubhouses. They vary in size; in bigger cities there may be up to 50 members in a group, while meetings in more rural sites may only have 2 or 3 members. In an AA group: “Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1981, p. 189). There is no formal application to join, because it is a fellowship of self-identification: “You are an A.A. member if and when you say so” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1980a, p. 4).


Common types of AA meetings include beginner, closed discussion, open, and literature meetings. Certain meetings may also exist for groups of only women, men, teenagers, young adults, or gay/lesbian populations. These AA meetings are the only ones with designated exclusion criteria.

The Role of Spirituality and God in Alcoholics Anonymous

AA identifies surrendering to a higher power and the occurrence of an individual spiritual awakening as cornerstones of an alcoholic’s recovery (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001). AA members “believe that we have found the solution to our drinking problem not through individual willpower, but through a power greater than ourselves” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1980a, p. 4). Step 2 of the program states that “we came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” while Step 12 affirms that “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” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, p. 59).


Alcoholics Anonymous (2001) refers to itself as a “spiritual program of action” (p. 85). The organization also believes that “Each Alcoholics Anonymous Group ought to be a spiritual entity” (p. 563) and further states that “We find that no one needs to have difficulty with the spirituality of the program” (p. 568), provided they stay open toward spiritual concepts and remain honest regarding their alcoholism.


Commonly Used Literature of Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous (1975) recognized that “there are many good publications on alcoholism,” but “AA neither endorses nor opposes anybody else’s publication” (p. 73). AA approved conference literature includes Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book); Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions; As Bill Sees It; Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers; Pass It On; Living Sober; Experience, Strength and Hope; Daily Reflections; Came to Believe; and A.A. in Prison: Inmate to Inmate (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1975). The AA Grapevine, known as the “meeting in print,” is considered to be the international journal of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a collection of articles written and edited by AA members around the world (Kurtz, 1991). Additionally, AA conference-approved pamphlets can be found on the official Alcoholics Anonymous website.


Alcoholics Anonymous and Psychotherapy

Alcoholics Anonymous and psychotherapy can work in tandem. Psychotherapy helps clients re-examine their relationships with substances while assisting them in managing their emotions and exploring areas of resistance. Alcoholics Anonymous establishes these clients in a recovery community, where they can witness and learn from others managing similar emotions and areas of resistance. It is important to choose a psychotherapist familiar with the recovery culture, and trained in clinical approaches to addiction treatment.

Dr. Noah Kass is a Psychotherapist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. To learn more about how mindfulness & hypnotherapy can help you or to make an appointment, please contact us here.

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