Everything You Need to Know About 12-Step Programs
If you're investigating Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, odds are you know someone who is experiencing trouble with their drinking. Or you may be researching a treatment for yourself. If that's the case, then we want to wish you the best in that journey… seeking help is a big step and shows a lot of courage.
Regardless of the circumstances and whether it is for yourself or someone you know, overcoming an active addiction is one of the most challenging things a person can do. It is also one of the most rewarding.
Fortunately, we live in a time where there are numerous resources available to people who want to change their drinking habits.
Additionally, public awareness has removed much of the stigma surrounding those who are trying to get sober. There are plenty of programs and support groups that have sprung up over the last few decades, as people who are struggling try to make sense of it all while also trying to help others in recovery.
In this article, we'll examine the most famous of these programs, Alcoholics Anonymous, see what its program involves, whether it might be right for you or someone you know and a few of the popular alternatives.
What Is AA?
The basic premise of Alcoholics Anonymous is fairly simple.
Alcoholics meet with other alcoholics in a safe group setting. They help each other get sober and stay that way. They go through a program that involves “12 steps,” and then they work together as they enter into recovery.
The critical element of the organization is fellowship.
Isolation has been identified as a key trigger in addictive behavior. The AA model seeks to combat isolation through the use of regular group discussions and community support. AA participants will often get together outside of meetings to continue to support each other in their attempts to quit drinking.
Whether meeting in groups or one-on-one, anonymity is encouraged in the AA fellowship. This does not mean that an AA member can't tell another member their actual name. What it does mean is that members aren't supposed talk about what is said in meetings with outsiders. Because of this rule, AA groups foster an atmosphere of trust and safety.
If you live near a major city, there are almost certainly some Alcoholics Anonymous meetings near you. In fact, AA has members across the globe. And, there is no preparation required to attend. If someone wants to find help in quitting drinking, then he/she can simply find a meeting near them https://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/find-aa-resources and show up.
How Did AA Get Started?
Alcoholics Anonymous started in 1935 in Akron, Ohio. The initial founders are referred to as “Bill W. and Dr. Bob.” Both were alcoholics in a time when there was little hope for people trying to recover from alcoholism.
Back in the 1930s, addiction was not fully understood. Much of the treatment surrounding addiction encouraged commitment to sanitariums or sessions of electro-shock therapy, and these options were not nearly as specialized as modern methods. Sadly, alcoholics were often written off as “hopeless cases.”
Bill Wilson (Bill W.) came up with the idea for AA when he met a friend (and former drinking buddy) who claimed he had gotten sober through religion. Bill was skeptical, but he agreed to give his friend's method a try. He managed to get his drinking problem under control, and so he set about telling other people about his method.
One of the first people he worked with was Dr. Robert Smith ("Dr. Bob",) a surgeon who suffered from a terrible drinking problem. Smith managed to use Wilson's technique and became sober as well.
After their successes, the two men began to spread their personal stories and their methods for coping with addiction to others in their hometown. They organized an informal group, in which people who had quit drinking worked with those who needed guidance as they embarked on similar journeys. The core idea was that by adopting spiritual principles, and by working with other alcoholics in fellowship, they could help one another stop drinking.
Soon, they developed the "12-Step Method" for getting sober, and watched as their efforts became popular in cities across the country and, eventually, the world.
Who Goes to AA?
Alcoholics Anonymous describes itself as: “an international fellowship of men and women who have had a drinking problem. It is nonprofessional, self-supporting, multiracial, apolitical and available almost everywhere. There are no age or education requirements. Membership is open to anyone who wants to do something about his or her drinking problem.”
There are a few important things to note here.
First, AA is not politically or religiously affiliated. There is no need to believe in a certain kind of God. There is no need to vote with a political party over another.
Second, things like ethnicity, level of education and age are not considerations of the program. It is open to everyone.
There are no prerequisites, as the aim of the group is to help as many people as possible.
Why Do People Choose AA?
There are plenty of reasons why someone would try attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
There's absolutely no cost. Simply showing up does not equate in any way a long-term commitment to take part in future AA meetings. The informal setting is welcoming to anyone with an interest in getting sober, but who maybe does not have the funds or time for a full-fledged treatment program.
Maybe someone has been drinking a lot, but isn't sure if it constitutes a real problem. They might attend AA to find out more. Or, maybe the meeting was court-mandated for a traffic offense. Attendance is a frequent requirement for people who have a DUI.
Ultimately, the reasons why people walk into the rooms are as complicated and varied as the individuals themselves. The reasons why they keep coming back are usually a result of the fellowship and friendships they forge in their recoveries.
What About Those 12 Steps?
Although the meetings themselves are often informal and vary from one group to the next, there are similarities you'll find if you go to more than one meeting in more than one place.
The most apparent of these similarities are the “12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous” followed by all groups. These steps outline a pathway to guide someone from having a problem to living a sober life.
One common misconception is that Alcoholics Anonymous meetings offer a “cure.” AA does not claim to cure people of their addictions. If that were possible, then members would leave the group being able to drink responsibly and without incident. The 12 steps are a way of living happily without relying on alcohol; in AA's words, “happy, joyous, and free.”
The wheel at the top is a common thing in AA and you can replicate that if you like, but the important bit is outlining each of the steps.
So a header and then individual boxes that are numbered, for each of the 12 steps. Let's keep the idea of two portions of text, one for the step, and one for a short explanation. These can be paired either side by side or one on top of the other.
The Format of Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings
Meetings are very informal, but there are a few things that are fairly common to all of them.
Format of typical Alcoholics Anonymous meetings:
- A meeting will often open with some meditation, prayer or quote.
- Then it may move on to a check-in. People go around the room and state their names; this is the part that always shows up in movies where someone says “_____, alcoholic.”
- The meeting will often then include a topic, a reading or a speaker to give the meeting focus.
- Then people voluntarily share their individual thoughts with the group. This is known as sharing or “a share.” People can talk about whatever they want during their share. If you're sharing, make sure you're not hogging the spotlight. If you're listening, make sure you're really listening and don't interrupt.
- If there are any anniversaries or sober “birthdays,” those may be recognized by the group in the form of a chip. This is a small coin that has the number of months or years the person has been sober.
- The meeting may then close with another prayer, meditation or quote.
Within all the many AA groups, there may be a wide variety. Some groups may have four or five people, dozens of attendees or even more than 100 people.
All the same, many of these elements will be present in both the really big meetings and the smallest.
What Is a Trusted Servant?
One of the terms you might hear in AA is the term of the “trusted servant.” This is a holdover term from the program's early days. Although it sounds mysterious, it really just signifies the person who helps a smooth running of the meeting — a facilitator.
The trusted servant will usually plan a topic for the meeting, or delegate that to someone else. They're responsible for keeping the meeting on track. But the “servant” part is important; they are there to serve the group as a whole.
Groups will often rotate this responsibility every several months, as a way of making sure no one person has too much on their plate.
How Much Does AA Cost?
There is no cost for AA membership.
Many groups meet at a church, a community center or some room that asks for a small rental. As such, groups may pass a donation box around to cover the overhead.
These donations aren't mandatory. Lack of funds should never be a concern. The point of this structure is to make sure no one gets turned away, even if they have an empty bank account.
“Are You a Friend of Bill W.?” (How Does AA Stay Anonymous?)
The promise of anonymity is a big reason AA has thrived. Many people worry that if they seek help, everyone they know will find out and their lives will be even worse off than if they did nothing.
AA addresses this by making a clear expectation of its members that they should not share the names of other members. In addition, if a member says something in the group, it is not to be repeated outside of the group.
A good rule is “what happens in the meeting stays in the meeting.”
"Are you a friend of Bill W.?"
If one AA member meets someone they think might be in the AA program, but isn't sure, they might ask, “are you a friend of Bill W.?” This is a sort of code, to keep people from being embarrassed, especially in a public setting.
(As an aside, the name “Bill W.” demonstrates part of the way Alcoholics Anonymous fosters anonymity. Members are encouraged to refer to one another only by the first name and then the first letter of their last name.)
Requirements for Attendance
Alcoholics Anonymous states that “the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Anyone who has this wish can attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and consider themselves members, regardless of how long they've been sober.
Some individual meetings might serve a specific demographic. For instance, there are “women-only” and “men-only” meetings, as sometimes people feel more comfortable being open when not in mixed company.
There are also “closed” meetings. A closed meeting means that only people who identify themselves as having a problem should attend.
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings listed as “open” mean they welcome both alcoholics and their support networks of spouses, immediate family members, close friends, etc. Sometimes, new members don't want to show up alone, so these meetings are good for first-timers.
In addition, there are often groups geared toward people who speak a specific language or who are involved with a particular religion. To be sure before you go, research the type of meeting before you attend.
Do You Have to Believe in God to Attend?
This is a tricky topic.
Some people in AA might say yes; others will say no.
The 12 Steps outline a path that involves an alcoholic putting their faith in a "Higher Power." But it is intentionally vague as to what that power is.
For many people in the program, that concept really means God. And the language in most of the literature used in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings does suggest that idea was widely held among the initial members.
However, Bill W. and Dr. Bob intentionally avoided making that a requirement, because they didn't want it to drive people away who might seek help.
Atheists and agnostics sometimes form their own AA groups. Often, they form a concept of a higher power that is not necessarily what most people think of when they think of a religion-based God.
For instance, someone might decide that their higher power is a concept or principle, like “love,” “life” or “truth.” They then try to put their faith in these principles as a way of living a new way, without drinking.
Finding a Meeting
• If you know someone who is already involved in AA this is a great place to start. Your friend can introduce you to a meeting that's right for you, and make the process seem less intimidating.
• If you're just diving in, you can use the internet or the phone. If you want to call, you can look up the AA central office in your town and dial a number that's manned around the clock.
• Another way is to go online, and look up Alcoholics Anonymous meetings using a web browser. Directories will often list a meeting's time, location and other pertinent details, such as, if the meeting is open or closed, all men, all women or in a specific language. An excellent resource is available here.
How Do I Prepare for My First Meeting?
If you've decided to check out a meeting and have found one that interests you, make sure you have taken care of a couple of things before showing up.
• If it's at all possible, show up sober. If you come to a meeting while you still have alcohol in your system, people will usually want to help you, but it's better not to do that if you can avoid it.
• If you have a dollar or two to pitch in, that's great, but don't feel obligated at all. Financial considerations should never prevent anyone from attending.
• Make sure to show up on time. Meetings usually begin fairly promptly, and the members want to feel safe in the environment. A lot of people coming and leaving early will sometimes disrupt this feeling, so punctuality is appreciated!
• Be prepared to answer a few questions. AA members are a welcoming bunch, and it can feel a little overwhelming at first. They also want to help new people, because they know how difficult it is just starting out. They may be curious about what prompted you to come to the meeting, and will want to know what they can do to help.
What Do People Mean by the “Big Book”?
Back in the 1930s, when the success of the first Alcoholics Anonymous meetings began to attractwider interest, Bill W. and Dr. Bob began to think of how they could do more. They wanted to find ways they could make their findings more accessible to a wider audience.
The result was the publication of the first Alcoholics Anonymous book in 1939. Members usually refer to this as the “Big Book” in order to differentiate it from other smaller books and pamphlets.
This book outlines the stories of the first AA groups, and also gives the methods that were first used by people in the program. It outlines the 12 Steps and also contains testimonials from people who turned their lives around as a result of practicing the steps.
Over the years, there have been many books published from a 12-Step perspective on recovery, covering topics like relationships in sobriety, work, faith, and health. But the Big Book is the main constant that members refer to in meetings.
And Now, a Word from Our Sponsor…
Sometimes in a meeting, the trusted servant will ask “those members willing to sponsor others” to raise their hands. The people who raise their hands are those willing to help others get sober, and are usually members who have been sober for some time.
Sponsorship is one of the major tools AA uses to help show new members the ropes. A sponsor-sponsee relationship is like a mentorship. The sponsor is a resource for the new member to ask questions and to guide them along the 12 Steps.
One thing to keep in mind is that sponsors are not medically trained professionals (not necessarily, anyway). They are those who have gotten a certain amount of sobriety through the program and are willing to help others. So, two sponsors may have wildly different methods on how to do that.
If you're looking for a sponsor, it's helpful to have someone you already know or trust if that's possible. If that isn't in the cards, then find someone you respect, and someone whose world-view isn't different from your own.
For instance, if you are religious, you may want a sponsor who has that in common with you. If you are not comfortable with the religious aspects, then you will probably want to find a sponsor who is more focused on the scientific or psychological aspects of sobriety.
Regardless of how you find them, a sponsor is a valuable helper and guide in traveling along the sober path.
Changing a significant habit — especially something as addictive as drinking and that is found widespread in the world — is certainly not easy.
But there are a few things that can help. Check out this cheat sheet … it'll come in handy on those days that are more difficult than others.
So here we'll just list a very few major tips for avoiding temptation when the urge to drink strikes.
Quick Tips for Staying Sober
Different Ways to Get Sober
In addition to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, other methods have sprung up over the years. Some people love AA and stick with it their entire lives, while others find it doesn't work for them, and they seek alternatives.
Progress, Not Perfection
People who regularly attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings have a saying: “progress, not perfection.”
The truth is, none of us ever gets it right all the time. We all mess up. We've all made mistakes.
The advantage of seeking help in a group environment is that you discover that other people have made many of those exact mistakes. And some of them have learned how to fix them.
If you are struggling with alcohol addiction, maybe AA is right for you. Maybe another method is.
No matter what you choose, the point is to keep at it. Even if it's small steps, one day at a time.