How Do AA Meetings Work?Anna Ciulla
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a non-profit organization that provides support services to those suffering from alcohol abuse. AA meetings and sponsored events are strictly volunteer-oriented and known for their non-judgmental atmosphere and encouragement of rigorous honesty. AA meetings are offered in a variety of public and private settings all around the world, with the core of the program revolving around the 12 Steps— a practical guide for overcoming the compulsion to drink through a combination of self-honesty, moral earnestness and spiritual commitment. AA meetings are free for all participants, with no monthly or annual dues or religious, philosophical, or political requirements.
The organization was originally founded in 1935 by Dr. Bob Smith, a surgeon, and Bill Wilson, a New York stock broker, both of whom described themselves as “hopeless alcoholics.” The mutually beneficial and now legendary association between the two men sparked an entire movement that emerged from the grassroots level and eventually achieved global significance. In the early years of its existence, the organization attracted die-hard supporters and boasted a remarkable success rate. For example, in 1945, just 10 years after its inception, AA boasted a 100 percent success rate among five-year members. Although subsequent decades would see that number gradually decline with the introduction of attendees participating only as a result of family pressure or court orders, AA has still helped millions of people achieve sobriety.
Long-respected as an informal society with no centralized governing authority, AA groups operate according to a similar guiding philosophy while retaining individual autonomy. The character and flavor of each group is determined by its local members and varies as widely as the socioeconomic landscape. AA currently features over 115,000 groups around the world and more than two million members.
MEETING FORMATS AND STEPS
AA meetings are divided into two primary formats: open meetings (O) and closed meetings (C). At open meetings, both those suffering from alcohol addiction and guests such as family members or friends are invited to participate. In closed meetings, attendance is strictly limited to alcoholic members only. In AA pamphlets and literature, various codes are used to help identify meeting specifics and help members and guests understand expectations prior to arrival. Like many traditions, AA features its own nomenclature that is an integral part of the organization’s culture. For example:
- BB – this abbreviation indicates that a meeting will involve reading and discussion of material from the “Big Book”— the seminal AA authority co-authored by the founders.
- D – members can expect a “Discussion” led by a chairperson as the groups’ primary focus.
- BS – short for “Big Book Step Study,” this indicates that the primary focus of the group will be on material from the Big Book— usually in the form of a lesson and discussion.
- S – refers simply to “Step;” whenever this appears a specific step from the “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” book will be the primary focus of the meeting.
Typically, the system of codes used for these meetings appear in combinations. These combinations help establish exact expectations and simplify the process. For example:
- OBS – would indicate an open meeting format in which the “Big Book Step Study” would be the groups’ primary focus.
- CD – would indicate a closed meeting format in which a “Discussion” would be the group’s primary focus.
True to its non-dogmatic nature, AA members are not required to complete every step, or even follow them entirely— the only qualifying condition is the desire to stop drinking. Membership in AA is as simple as attending a meeting, during which time newcomers are informally welcomed into the organization. Veteran members frequently encourage newcomers to seek knowledge and advice from fellow members and to strengthen their early recovery by attending 90 meetings in 90 days. During this same introductory period, members are also encouraged to work with an AA sponsor who can serve in the capacity of mentor and guide on the journey to sobriety.
AA meetings usually begin with a chairperson reading directly from the AA Preamble, followed by the Serenity Prayer— a time in which the majority of members join together in a recital of faith-based words designed to inspire courage, humility and wisdom. Afterwards, new members are asked to introduce themselves, although this remains optional. The majority of AA meetings feature a poster or plaque displaying the 12 Steps, which serves as the organization’s core philosophy and time-tested creed. To paraphrase AA literature:
- Step 1 – admission that one is powerless over alcohol to the extent that it has made one’s life unmanageable.
- Step 2 – belief in a Higher Power that is capable of helping one overcome addiction.
- Step 3 – the decision to turn one’s life and willpower over to their higher power.
- Step 4 – the making of what is known as a “searching and fearless moral inventory,” in other words, a totally honest self-assessment.
- Step 5 – the admission of all the wrongs committed during active addiction. This admission must include oneself, another person and one’s Higher Power.
- Step 6 – the readiness and willingness to have one’s higher power remove character defects.
- Step 7 – asking the Higher Power to remove said defects.
- Step 8– creating a list of people one harmed as a result of their addiction and demonstrating a willingness to make amends.
- Step 9 – actually making amends to the affected individuals at the appropriate time.
- Step 10 – a continuation of the “searching and fearless moral inventory” and admission of wrongs.
- Step 11 – actively improving one’s relationship with their Higher Power through regular spiritual activity— namely prayer and meditation.
- Step 12 – spreading the lessons learned in the program to others suffering from addiction—a process known in AA as “carrying a message.” Step 12 also includes practice of the principles learned throughout the previous steps.
THE HELPING HAND OF AA – SPONSORS
One longstanding AA tradition involves new members receiving a meeting schedule in addition to the names and numbers of people they can call whenever they feel the urge to drink. This aspect of the program is voluntary, and those individuals whose names and numbers appear are driven by a genuine desire to help. AA strongly believes in its founders’ philosophy of brotherhood (or sisterhood), solidarity, and support, and no member is ever left without a helping hand in their time of need. In fact, community solidarity among AA members is so strong that any member tempted to drink at public facilities such as airports can identify themselves as a “friend of Bill W.” and receive anonymous help from someone in the program.
The challenges that accompany alcohol addiction can be exasperating for those caught in its grips, hijacking their lives and making prisoners of friends and family members who are forced to sit on the sidelines and witness the self-destruction. Without the structure provided by a solid program and highly supportive organization, many alcoholics relapse after a brief period of self-motivated treatment. Even those fully committed to AA and actively working the steps can attest to the difficulty of maintaining long-term sobriety in a world filled with temptation. Among the numerous benefits associated with AA are:
- Camaraderie – there is no comfort like that of spending time in the presence of those who truly understand what you are going through. AA is steeped in a proud tradition of community based on like-minded individuals who can truly understand the depths of suffering inflicted by alcoholism. Many members find this sense of camaraderie inspirational and therapeutic and return year after year to continue learning from respected role models, with many eventually becoming sponsors themselves.
- Commitment – the 12 Steps encourage a highly personal, spiritual commitment to sobriety that serves as a clear reminder of how bad life can get and how easily one can slip back into the same destructive patterns that led to their addiction. Naturally, it is easy to feel motivated early in recovery as the wounds of the past are still fresh in the heart and mind, but time and further experience tend to dull this memory. This is exactly why it is important to be a part of an ongoing commitment that doesn’t enable forgetfulness or denial.
- A Place to Go – for many recovering addicts—especially those in early recovery— boredom is a common trigger for relapse and must be prevented at all costs by not allowing large blocks of unproductive time. For people all across America and the world, particularly those living in major cities, there is an abundance of daily meetings to choose from and never a legitimate reason for boredom.
- Spirituality – millions of people around the world feel deeply indebted to AA for providing them with a sense of spirituality and God-connection that was previously missing from their lives. Without the vital role of a higher power as a moral compass in someone’s life, the underlying sense of hopeless and despair that frequently fuel addiction are increased, as is the likelihood of relapse or less-than-favorable long-term outcomes. It has been said that the opposite of addiction is connection— all the more reason why AA is an excellent choice for those needing a spiritual and social anchor.
As with any program, organization, or institution, AA has its own unique challenges. Critics like to cite a high drop-out rate and routinely question the program’s appropriateness for everyone suffering from alcohol addiction. Additionally, certain AA members may be perceived as dogmatic, inflexible, and almost cult-minded in the strength of their convictions. Secular critics like to attack the program’s God-focus and deeply spiritual aspect, in addition to what they perceive to be its monopolistic nature. After all, it is the single largest, most renowned recovery program in the world.
None of these criticisms, however, can change the fact that AA has helped literally millions of people transform their lives in the decades since its inception. More importantly, it remains the philosophical cornerstone of most drug addiction treatment centers and is valued for its rich historical tradition and contemporary appeal.
For more about AA and recovery, check out these related articles:
- “How to Adjust to Sober Living”
- “The 12-Steps Crash Course”
- “Key Elements of Relapse Prevention”
- “The Role of Spirituality in Recovery”
- Journal of Addictive Diseases. Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science. September, 2009.
- Alcohol Treatment Quarterly. How Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) Work: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives. Dec, 2010.
- Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Drug treatment and 12-step program participation. Jan, 2000.
- Journal of Groups in Addiction and Recovery. What Promotes Wisdom in 12-Step Recovery? Feb, 2014.