The history of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) dates nearly as far back as the Prohibition era in America. In 1935 (2 years after the Prohibition ended), 2 men struggling with alcoholism—Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith—helped each other stop drinking. After working together, the men got sober and maintained their sobriety by working with other alcoholics. In 1939, Bill Wilson published a book called Alcoholics Anonymous that described each of the steps in the 12-step program and AA’s philosophy.1
From these beginnings, the 12-step model of AA has evolved into one that is applied to a variety of addictions and behavioral health issues, including:
- Crystal meth.
- Eating disorders.
- Dual diagnoses.
AA has certain unique aspects that set it apart from other support groups, including:
- Tokens: After 24 hours of sobriety, you receive your first token. Following the first token, you can receive tokens for the following sobriety benchmarks: 1 month, 2 months, 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, and 1 year of sobriety.
- The AA Big Book: AA’s main text is called the Big Book and it outlines the 12 steps, the 12 promises, and the 12 traditions for members.
The 12 Steps, 12 Promises, and 12 Traditions
The 12 steps of AA are:4
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take a personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- 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.
The 12 promises of AA are:5
- If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.
- We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
- We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
- We will comprehend the word serenity, and we will know peace.
- No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
- That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
- We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
- Self-seeking will slip away.
- Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
- Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.
- We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
- We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
The 12 traditions of AA are:6
- Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.
- For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
- The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
- Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
- Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
- An AA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
- Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
- Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
- AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
- Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
- Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.
- Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
AA also has common slogans that members can use in meetings. Some people in recovery choose to write these daily reflections on pieces of paper and read them in the morning. Over time, these says become a part of participants’ inner dialogue:
- First things first.
- Don’t use no matter what.
- This too shall pass.
- Live and let live.
- Let go and let God.
- Time takes time.
- One day at a time.
- Principles before personalities.
- Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
- Misery is optional.
- God doesn’t make junk.
- Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.
- Live life on life’s terms.
- You can’t think your way into a new way of living…you have to live your way into a new way of thinking.
- The key to freedom is in the Steps.
How It Helps During Treatment
In addiction treatment, your counselors help you open up about any issues you are facing in recovery and may encourage you to attend 12-step groups, participate, and work with a sponsor.
AA is a great space to explore what activities are available outside of drinking alcohol. For example, you can get involved in volunteering at an AA home group or an AA clubhouse, or you can volunteer at AA events such as retreats, conventions, holiday events, sobriety anniversaries, or sober parties.7
Going to a 12-step group may also help you address your underlying psychology and how your beliefs and behaviors can lead to addiction. While you work the steps, you deepen your understanding of spirituality, values, connectedness to others, and your willingness to ask for help when you need it.
Many inpatient and outpatient programs incorporate a 12-step approach into their treatment models—at least 74% of rehab facilities incorporate the 12-step model.8 In addition, 12-step groups are frequently recommended as part of a comprehensive aftercare plan, but AA is not in itself a complete treatment program. It is important to note that going to a formal detox program is very important, particularly if you need medically assisted treatments to help your body safely rid itself of drugs or alcohol. Making amends with people who may have been hurt by your drug use, or who may have led to your drug use, may help you reach a point of forgiveness and acceptance.
A key component of the 12 steps is taking personal responsibility for your actions, but also recognizing that excessive self-reliance can create roadblocks to your progress and recovery. According to the 12 steps, self-talk like, “I can help myself out of this situation,” or “I know what to do about this,” are not productive ways to think about recovery. Instead, you learn to realize that you don’t have all the answers and that it’s okay to ask for help from another person. This is the model of peer support.
Building upon the peer support model, AA groups provide a space where you listen to and accept guidance from others working through recovery or mentors who have been working the steps longer than you. The AA model accepts that addiction is a disease and not a sign of “moral weakness.” While you work the steps, there is a time for you to stop and take a moral inventory of your life. Making amends with people who may have been hurt by your drug use, or who may have led to your drug use, may help you reach a point of forgiveness and acceptance.
Because of the manner in which AA groups are set up—voluntarily and anonymously—it can be a difficult population to study. While there are many personal accounts about the efficacy of the program, research studies are less common. However, research on AA’s effectiveness continues to expand. Some studies have demonstrated that AA can be helpful to people in recovery in that members help create a supportive social network that is free of alcohol and results in increased self-efficacy and increased spirituality or religiosity.9
Although ongoing studies are needed, the research shows that AA can be an important component of recovery (though, as previously stated, is not considered a comprehensive rehab program on its own). When you have a network of sober, recovering individuals, it can help you feel supported by role models who are living a life free of alcohol. AA can also improve your confidence in staying sober, help motivate you to make lifesaving behavior changes, and empower you to continue meeting your sobriety goals.
AA is an incredibly cost-effective resource and if you feel ready, you can take advantage of any 12-step groups in your area.
How to Find a Meeting
When you are ready to join an AA meeting, you may notice that meetings are advertised as open or closed. Here is the difference between the two:
- Closed meetings are intended for people who are struggling with alcohol or drug abuse. The closed atmosphere provides a safe space for you to freely talk about your issues with people who will understand what you are going through. When you share your story with other addicted individuals, it can help you identify with a new group of people who have found hope and a sense of direction after struggling with alcoholism.
- Open meetings may be attended by anyone in the public. In some cases, family members, friends, addiction professionals, probation officers, or judges are interested in learning how AA groups function. In open meetings, only AA members are allowed to speak, which permits people from the outside to observe how AA functions. If you are celebrating a recovery anniversary, your group may make the meeting an open one so that your friends and family outside of AA can join you.
If you are looking for an AA meeting, you can visit the AA website to find a local group in your area.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. (2017). Home.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. (2017). Estimates of A.A. Groups and Members.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. (n.d.). What Is A.A.?
- Alcoholics Anonymous. (2016). The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
- 12Step.org. (n.d.). The 12 Step Promises.
- 12Step.org. (n.d.). The 12 Traditions.
- American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2015). The Relevance of Twelve-Step Recovery in 21st Century Addiction Medicine.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2013). National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services (N-SSATS): 2013. Data on Substance Abuse Treatment Facilities.
- Kelly, J. F., Hoeppner, B., Stout, R. L., & Pagano, M. (2012). Determining the relative importance of the mechanisms of behavior change within Alcoholics Anonymous: A multiple mediator analysis. Addiction, 107(2), 289–299.