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Does AA Work?

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Since Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) back in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, the organization, whose primary resolve is to help alcoholics stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety has evolved to include other self-help organizations. Like AA, these organizations use 12-step principles. Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is a fellowship of men and women whose major problem is drugs, and Cocaine Anonymous (CA) is a fellowship for those who are newly clean cocaine addicts. And besides CA and NA, there is Marijuana Anonymous (MA), Al-Anon (for family members of alcoholics and/or addicts), OA (overeaters anonymous) and a plethora of other 12-step organizations.

Since its inception, AA has been the subject of controversy. In 2011 an article, published in The Atlantic, and written by anti-AA author Gabrielle Glaser (Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink-And How They Can Regain control), systematically ripped apart the organization. Glaser wrote how AA’s faith based approach, of which five of the 12 steps mention God, was a turn off to a newly clean and sober attorney, J.G. Not only was J.G. an atheist but also he was discouraged because of AA’s belief in total abstinence. J.G. felt that other AA members would consider him a failure if he went on a “bender.” Why would J.G. care so much about what others thought of him? The fact that he considered going on a bender was an issue that had to be addressed.

When Glaser discusses how The Big Book’s chapter, For The Wives is derogatory to women, I chuckled.  When I initially got sober in August 2011 after over a decade of heavy drinking, I went to a Big Book study. Guess what chapter the group was discussing? For the Wives. I reacted the way Glaser did. Not only did I get into a heated debate with the rest of the group, calling the chapter misogynistic, and archaic, but after I left the meeting, I carried around that anger for weeks. Then, I relapsed. I think the resentment was not about the chapter, but something deeper, specifically my own hurt over a past relationship.

Thankfully, I finally got sober in November, 2011.

But to give J.G. the benefit of the doubt, I used to get annoyed by the mention of God. While I was born and baptized Greek Orthodox, I considered myself an agnostic. Even today, I question the concept of God, and yet I have felt a Higher Power work in my life. Perhaps I can’t quite put a face to this Higher Power, but I feel its positive force and energy. My mom died in 2002 as a result of cancer, and while I have not “seen” her, I have felt her presence. It’s the same feeling I get with this Higher Power, and its easier to get in touch with God, by having clarity of mind.

While the 12 steps mention God, lets give Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson some credit, ok? They were pioneers of a movement! During the early part of the 20th century, alcoholics were sent to hospitals and sanitariums, and often treated like criminals.

Bill W. and Dr. Bob not only worked at changing the stigma that surrounded alcoholics, but also gave them the promise of a new life, one that allowed them to have hope and dignity.

Out of all the AA members who contributed to the writing of the Big Book, Bill Wilson had the longest period of sobriety, and that was four years. (I have a little over five years, as of this writing!) After a lifetime of drinking, he did his best. Some concepts that inspired him while he wrote the Big Book were borrowed from the Gospel of Matthew, and the General Letter of James.  As I perused through the Book of Matthew, this verse popped out at me. (“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  Other ideas used by Bill W. and Dr. Bob to write the Big Book were inspired by the Oxford Group, a Christian-based organization that believed that the root of all problems was fear and selfishness, and that the key to serenity was turning one’s life over to God’s design.

I am not sure if Matthew 22:37 inspired Wilson, but the concept of surrendering to a Higher Power is hinted in the Biblical verse, as well as in the ideology of the Oxford Group.

And who wrote that infamous For the Wives? Bill W. authored that chapter. Ironically, his wife Lois said, “Bill wrote it, and I was mad.” She added, “I wasn’t so much mad as hurt. I still don’t know why Bill wrote it. I’ve never really gotten into it.” She told Bill that perhaps she should have written that chapter, but he insisted on doing so, because he wanted it to match the style of the Book.

So it was a stylistic choice.

While AA stresses abstinence, Glaser believes that alcoholics (unless they are severe drinkers) can drink in moderation, even by using the drug naltrexone to ward off cravings.

How does one distinguish between a moderate and severe drinker? Alcoholics are not always rational, and many are in denial. And moderation can lead to relapse. After some period of sobriety, relapse causes horrible withdrawal symptoms.  While cravings might remain the same, the alcoholic’s tolerance level has decreased. Drinking can be a death sentence.

According to a Scientific American article, Alcoholics Anonymous works best in conjunction with other therapies.

The Scientific American article reports that other forms of therapy that work with AA include evidence-based treatment, as well as treatment that has a 12-step facilitation approach. Basically, clients work with professionals who help them work through the first four or five of the 12 steps, and introduce them to 12-step meetings.

At Cycles of Change Recovery Services, we offer that same protocol.

Should you or a loved one suffer from alcoholism, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.

We are here for you.


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