The consumption of alcohol has been commonplace in society for centuries and while millions of people indulge without any problems, there is a large swath of the population that may become dependent on the substance. Alcoholism can be a crippling disease that not only has serious health complications but can also damage personal relationships.
Despite the challenges alcoholism presents, for more than 70 years Alcoholics Anonymous has providing those dealing with substance abuse a means to help them overcome the addiction. Today, more than 2 million people count themselves as members of the organization.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are a number of tell-tale signs of alcoholism. Among the most common is not being able to limit the amount of alcohol one drinks. Additionally, symptoms such as feeling a strong urge to drink, developing an unreasonably high tolerance to alcohol, regularly blacking out and hiding one's drinking from friends and family are all indications that a person might need help.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was formed in 1935 as a way to give those looking for a way to stop drinking the opportunity to do so. The fellowship of men and women accepts all its members and does not require that they pay dues, fees or any other obligation.
At the center of AA is the belief that alcoholics should not focus on quitting drinking forever or concerning themselves with whether or not they'll have a drink several weeks in the future. Instead, the program teaches its followers to simply take things on a moment-by-moment basis and approach abstaining one step at a time.
The most important part of AA is its meetings. It's here where members can share their support with each other and discuss the certain challenges they've faced. Usually, meetings are held about once or twice a week encompassing two different types of gatherings.
The first kind, known as open meetings, welcome newcomers and their family members and speakers usually talk about how they became a problem drinker, discovered AA and how it has helped them. The other type of gathering, closed meetings, are meant for members only. This is where alcoholics seek help and everyone is welcome to share their thoughts on the challenges they are facing. The idea is to give other members the opportunity to discuss how they may have dealt with similar problems.
At the heart of the recovery process is AA's 12-Step Program, a set of guiding principles to help provide those in the organization with a road map for recovery. The first step, "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable," helps set the stage for the rest of the process.
The second step asks patients to say they "came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity," the third is making "a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him."
The fourth step, which asks AA members to look inwards by making a "fearless and moral inventory" of themselves is the logical precursor to the fifth step, which warrants that each member admit "to God, to ourselves and to another human being," exactly what they have done wrong. The sixth step has followers at admit that they are "entirely ready to to have God remove these defects of character."
The second half of the 12 steps deals largely with repairing any relationships that may have been harmed as a result of the follower's alcoholism. The seventh involves asking "Him to humbly remove our shortcomings." The eighth entails making a list of "all persons we had harmed" and becoming "willing to make amends with them all," and the ninth involves following through with the commitment.
The final three steps all deal with taking things to the next level. The 10th, for instance, involves taking "personal inventory" and promptly admitting when one was wrong. The 11th and penultimate step deals with improving contact with "God as we understand Him," and the 12th encourages members to carry the message to other alcoholics and live their life in accordance with the previous 11 steps.
The AA website offers a list of meeting resources by state and province, and most numbers for local chapters of the group are listed in telephone directories. Currently, there are more than 56,600 groups in the United States alone, with another 4,887 in Canada. Though individual figures are hard to track, AA estimates that there are about 1.2 million members in the United States alone.
Although AA has proven to be a useful tool for people looking to overcome the challenges of alcoholism, the organization is up front about what it does not do. Among the restrictions, AA does not check up on its members periodically to see if they are following the steps and actively pursuing sobriety. One of their main tenets is that members have to want to quit drinking, so doing so is their responsibility.
Though its literature talks about God, AA is non-denominational and allows members to practice spirituality in whatever way they see fit. Additionally, members should be aware that AA does not provide any medical or psychiatric treatment. But perhaps most importantly, AA takes the 'anonymous' portion of its name very seriously and expects members not to reveal each others' identities.
Deciding to quit can be a tough road, but joining AA is a good first step, and can even be life saving. According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, abusing alcohol can result in a litany of health complications ranging from brain cell damage to heart disease to cirrhosis of the liver as well as mental ramifications including depression and insomnia.