How Alcoholics Anonymous is changing

My own experience

By an AA member

I first came into contact with Alcoholics Anonymous 20 years ago. I had just been discharged from mental hospital after a suicide attempt and after losing two jobs within a few weeks. AA was the main thing which kept me going over the following months, although I also got help from family, friends, my doctor and my therapist. I have not had an alcoholic drink since my first AA meeting. I have had many problems getting my life together since then, not least with depression.

With the benefit of hindsight depression was probably one of the reasons why I drank, but the drinking was more a cause than an effect of my problems.

I still attend AA meetings regularly. I do not want to drink again and I still value the support I get in maintaining sobriety, among other things by listening to people who have had a harder time than I have, have only just stopped drinking or are still trying to stop. AA is also part of my social life.

Carrying the AA message

The 12th step of the AA programme encourages its members to carry the AA message to other alcoholics. The proposition that helping others helps you to stay sober has support in peer-reviewed scientific literature as well as in the practical experience of AA groups. In London, where I live, current initiatives include AA members speaking to school children about their experiences, giving presentations at magistrates courts, working with the probation service and supporting AA meetings at prisons. A seminar about the work of AA was held at the Houses of Parliament in March 2005 and a repeat of this is due in May 2006.

AA has been particularly successful in working with some leading hospitals which provide treatment for alcohol dependence. AA meetings are held in the hospitals and AA members give separate talks to the patients to help them to think about becoming members too.

In other hospitals AA meetings may be held in the premises without such a close working relationship. There may be a clash of cultures. There are sometimes strong contrasts in general approach and language between AA members and those who work professionally in the field of addiction, although both sides are usually trying to achieve what is essentially the same thing.

Working with AA

A doctor in charge of an alcohol treatment unit once told me that I was the first AA member he had met. Others may strongly encourage their clients to try AA without having any direct contact with the fellowship themselves.

Professionals who want to make optimal use of AA as a resource may sometimes need to make a greater effort to understand its programme, meet with members involved in outreach activities and attend a few “open” meetings (which should usually be done far enough away from where you work to ensure that you do not meet your own clients). This is surely not a disproportionate time commitment. It can enable the professional, for instance, to tell his or her patients or clients at first hand what they should expect. You do not have to become an alcoholic yourself (or apply the ‘Minnesota Model’, which involves integrating the AA programme within treatment) to get to this point.

Why should you make the effort? Partly because there is now a sound body of scientific evidence suggesting that AA does work for a significant number of people with drink problems. It operates at no cost to the taxpayer and is paid for entirely by voluntary contributions from those members who can afford to make them. It is also most active outside normal working hours and thus complements the help that can be provided at a professional level.

The need for AA to adjust

AA members actively involved in its public relations activities may need to make an equivalent effort to understand other people’s points of view and find common ground. Involvement in AA outreach activities helps to achieve this up to a point as does, for instance, reading some scientific literature, contact with professionals, attending conferences focusing on alcohol problems and involvement in working groups at a local level.

One of the co-founders of AA, William Wilson, acknowledged that some AA members ‘decry every attempt at therapy except our own’ but the majority ‘don’t care too much whether new and valuable knowledge issues from a test tube, a psychiatrist’s couch or revealing social studies’.

AA has changed considerably over the 20 years I have been a member. There are, for instance, more people under 30 and more women. There are meetings focused on the needs of young people, women, gays and lesbians and some provision in Central London (although still not nearly enough) for child care. It was rare in the 1980s to see anyone from racial minorities at meetings. Now it is rare not to see them. The fellowship is making every effort to provide help to people whose first language is not English or who may have other communication problems or disabilities.

The Internet and email has also helped to spread the AA message. For instance the basic ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ textbook is now available online in full text in English, French and Spanish as well as being available in hard copy in many other languages.

The anonymity tradition

There is sometimes a tendency to over-interpret the AA anonymity tradition. It only requires members to maintain anonymity at the level of press, radio, film etc. The second cofounder of AA, Dr Robert Smith, argued that maintaining anonymity at any other level and in particular “being so anonymous you can’t be reached by other drunks” was itself a breach of the anonymity tradition. He also considered that AA members should let themselves be known as such in the community.

This may be feasible in North America, but in Europe it is perhaps more an ideal to be strived for. I am a professional myself, although I do not practise in the field of addictions. I do not tell my colleagues at work (whom I have only known for about 18 months) about my past drinking problems and my membership of AA. When I get to know them better, and if it were to serve a useful purpose, I might perhaps do so.

References

1 www.alcoholicsanonymous.org.uk/geninfo/05steps.shtml 2 See Zemore SE, Kaskutas, LE and Ammon LN (2004) ‘In 12-step groups, helping helps the helper’, Addiction 99, 1015. 3 See www.hazelden.org/servlet/hazelden /go/INFO_MNMODEL 4 See, for instance: Vaillant, GE (2003) ‘A 60-year follow-up of alcoholic men’ Addiction, 98, 1043- 1051. Gossop M, Harris, R, Best D, Man L-H et al, ‘Is attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings after inpatient treatment related to improved outcomes? A 6 month follow-up study’ Alcohol and Alcoholism, Vol 38 No 5 421-426. Project MATCH Research Group (1997) ‘Matching alcoholism treatments to client heterogeneity: Project MATCH post treatment outcomes’. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 58, 7-29. 5 ‘Let’s be friendly with our friends’,AA Grapevine March 1958. 6 www.aa.org/bigbookonline/. 7 ‘Doctor Bob and the Good Oldtimers’, page 264, 1980 AA World Services inc

Alcohol Alert (2006) is published by The Institute of Alcohol Studies an initiative of the Alliance House Foundation, www.ias.org.uk


A History of Alcoholics Anonymous

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