The Basics of AA
- The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step recovery program is a free treatment program for people suffering from alcohol abuse and addiction.
- AA program participants follow a set of recovery steps to achieve and maintain abstinence from alcohol. Many people use a sponsor to help them through the process.
- The program uses a spiritual approach that includes a belief in a higher power. Members define that higher power in their own way—it does not have to be God.
- Meetings are often held in public spaces such as churches or schools. Some meetings are open to anyone who wants to attend, while others are only for alcoholics or prospective AA members.
- Becoming a member is free. The only requirement is a desire to stop drinking.
- You must be an alcoholic to join AA. But anyone can attend open meetings.
What Is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)?
“I had been in and out of AA meetings for 10 years or so and decided it was time to read my books and actually do what it said to.” – Karen R.
Learn More About Karen
Read Karen’s full story and hear from others in recovery from alcohol abuse.
Alcoholics Anonymous is an international organization of individuals who have struggled with drinking at some point in their lives.
AA is supported and organized by its members, and it operates independently of any outside funding. It is not affiliated with any religious or political group.
The organization’s goal is to promote sobriety by “carrying its message” to suffering alcoholics.
All AA members remain anonymous. The anonymity removes the stigma of identification and recognition and allows participants a more comfortable experience in recovery.
Alcoholics Anonymous is open to all persons regardless of age, gender or ethnicity.
The only requirement to become a member is the desire to stop drinking.
What Are the 12 Steps of AA?
AA originally focused on religion as a means to sobriety. But the program has since adopted a more spiritual focus rather than a God-centric one.
In the “Big Book”—the central text of AA that outlines the program—the twelve steps are defined as a “set of principles, spiritual in nature, when practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”
The AA Twelve Steps
The 12 steps of AA are as follows:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
Many alcoholics have a hard time admitting that they can’t control their alcohol use. Once they acknowledge that they are unable to stop on their own, the recovery process can begin.
2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
AA believes that people with an alcohol addiction need to look to something greater than themselves to recover. Those working the steps are free to choose whatever higher power works for them.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
For this step, the alcoholic consciously decides to turn themselves over to whatever or whomever they believe their higher power to be. With this release often comes recovery.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
This step requires self-examination that can be uncomfortable, but honesty is essential in this process. The key is to identify any areas of past regret, embarrassment, guilt or anger.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
This step involves admitting to past poor behavior. Often, alcoholics will share what they wrote down during the previous step with their sponsor.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
The alcoholic admits that they are ready to have their higher power remove the wrongs they listed in Step 4.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Every person has character defects, whether they come in the form of impatience, anger, apathy, criticism or negativity. The recovering alcoholic is not strong enough to eliminate these defects on their own, so they ask their higher power to do so.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Alcoholics write down all of the people they have wronged through their alcoholism. The wrongs could range from large to small – from stealing from them to buy more alcohol to talking negatively behind their backs.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Many alcoholics work with their sponsor to figure out the best way to complete this step. Making amends could include writing a letter to a person or sitting down face to face with them.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
This step involves a commitment to monitor yourself for any behaviors that may be detrimental to yourself or others and to admit when you are wrong.
11. 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.
Step 10 requires you to commit to some kind of spiritual practice. That practice could be anything from prayer, to meditation, to reading scripture.
12. 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.
This step encourages members to help others in their recovery. Many members become sponsors once they have completed the 12 steps.
The AA 12 Traditions
AA also has twelve traditions that it follows. These traditions serve as guidelines for living and working together both within AA and outside the program.
Do You Have to Be Religious to Join?
AA welcomes non-religious people even though the program takes a spiritual approach to treatment. The spiritual aspect comes into play with the twelve steps and their reference to God or a “higher power.”
The 12 steps of AA acknowledge that people may conceptualize a higher power in different ways and clarify this with the addition of “as we understood Him” with almost every reference to God. The “higher power” concept is about recognizing that some forces are beyond our control.
AA accepts people of all faiths, even atheists and agnostics. However, nonreligious people may find themselves more comfortable in a secular 12-Step alcoholics support group or a non-12-Step addiction recovery program.
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935, two years after the end of Prohibition in the United States and during the Great Depression. The co-founders, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith—both alcoholics—had a chance meeting that year. With each other’s help, they both achieved lasting sobriety.
The identity of AA took shape in the following years, and it was solidified in 1939 when Bill Wilson completed the book “Alcoholics Anonymous,” which lays out the 12 step program.
What Happens at an AA Meeting?
AA meetings can take place anywhere. But often they are held in public, accessible buildings with lots of parking, such as churches, schools, coffee shops and restaurants.
Occasionally, members hold meetings in correctional and treatment facilities. However, public spaces are the more common setting for AA meetings.
Types of Meetings
The basic meeting format and rules depend on the type of meeting.
- Speaker meetings. AA members share their experiences with alcohol abuse, how they found the program, and about their recovery through the program. This type of meeting focuses more on sharing and listening than interaction.
- Discussion meetings. One member speaks briefly about their own struggles with alcohol, then leads a discussion about recovery with AA and any drinking-related issue that another person brings up. This type of meeting is much more interactive than a speaker meeting.
- Step meetings. Everyone discusses one of the AA 12 steps.
Watch this video on what happens at a typical AA meeting.
Open vs. Closed Meetings
AA meetings can be open or closed.
- Open meetings mean that anyone is welcome: both alcoholics and non-alcoholics. This is the best way to learn more about AA—what it is, what it does, and whether or not this recovery program is for you. Speaker meetings are often open, and discussion meetings are sometimes open.
- Closed meetings are only for alcoholics or prospective AA members. Discussion meetings are sometimes closed, and 12-Step meetings are usually closed. This ensures a tight-knit support community specifically for alcohol abuse recovery.
Nobody is ever required to participate, give their name or identify themselves as “alcoholics” (though many do). AA programs want members to feel comfortable with sharing and growing together. But they also recognize that everyone does this at his or her own pace.
The program focuses on abstinence. This means resisting the urge to drink and take other psychoactive or illicit substances. However, prescribed drugs such as antidepressants and other medications are permitted while in the AA program.
What Are Sponsors?
A sponsor is a fellow AA member who has made some progress in the recovery process. The sponsor shares his or her experience in the recovery program on a person-to-person basis with another alcoholic who is working on sobriety through AA.
The sponsorship aspect of the program can provide continuous, individual support for both the sponsor and the person being sponsored. This person is your personal connection to the program. They can offer phone support outside of meetings for any questions or concerns about relapse.
Though not mandatory, sponsors can make a huge difference in your recovery. Working the 12 steps of AA with a sponsor has been associated with longer-lasting abstinence,1 so consider connecting with a sponsor early in your AA recovery.
How Do You Join AA?
Becoming a member of AA is as simple acknowledging that you have a drinking problem and deciding that you want to be a member. If you have checked out the meetings and found the program to be helpful, you can simply consider yourself a member.
However, AA is an organization specifically for alcoholics, though open 12 step meetings welcome people struggling with any kind of substance abuse problem.
The program is free and you have no monetary or social obligation. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, no matter how small. Meetings do take collections, though, and they encourage attendees to make donations so that AA can remain independently supported.
Can You Join if You Have Other Drug Addictions?
You must be an alcoholic to join AA. However, anyone can attend open meetings. Non-alcoholics can attend open meetings as observers, but only people with a problem with alcohol may attend closed AA meetings.
Can Friends and Family of Alcoholics Join AA?
Friends and family members of alcoholics may attend open AA meetings. But they may not become AA members unless they are also suffering from alcohol abuse and have a desire to stop drinking.
Organizations such as Al-Anon and Alateen offer support if friends and family are seeking their own recovery from a person’s drinking problem. These organizations provide comfort and community support for those coping with a loved one’s alcoholism. They also offer advice to help a loved one with recovery.
What Should I Know Before Attending a Meeting?
- Try and find out more about your local AA groups. Look for meetings where you’re likely to have some things in common with the people there. Age, gender and socioeconomic background are all factors that can provide comfortable common ground for new members.
- Keep an open mind. Try not to go into your first meeting with the mindset of, “I don’t have anything in common with these people.” The truth is, everyone is there for the same reason: to stop drinking. You may find that this shared struggle unites the group in a unique and powerful way.
- Don’t give up. If you go to a meeting and have a negative experience, try another meeting! Each gathering is different, and just because one meeting didn’t work out for you doesn’t mean AA won’t help you.
Does Alcoholics Anonymous Help People Get Sober?
Evidence on the effectiveness of AA is mixed. Some studies show positive effects of the program while others show neutral effects.2
Studies on AA Effectiveness
- One study found that 67% of the people who attended at least 27 weeks of AA meetings during their first year of treatment remained abstinent at the 16-year follow up. Only 34% of those who did not participate in the AA program remained abstinent.3
- Another study suggests that AA can have a positive impact on a person’s transition into sobriety. It found that participation in AA predicted abstinence from alcohol.4
- One hypothesis is that AA may help people accept and stay in treatment. But this theory requires more evidence before it can be widely accepted.5
- AA has been found to be the most effective for alcoholics without other psychiatric problems. And it seems to do a better job than other forms of therapy of inspiring total abstinence rather than simply decreased drinking.6
A Sobriety Support Network
Alcoholics Anonymous provides a strong sobriety support network and a sense of community. Many people find this helpful. Being in a nondrinking community of peers is much better than trying to remain abstinent around people who drink.
These situations can trigger relapse. AA also makes alcoholics confront their drinking problem head-on. People in AA make amends with people their drinking has harmed—a constant reminder of the importance of sobriety.
Alternatives to the 12 Steps
For people who are not comfortable with the spiritual aspect of AA or the 12 steps of recovery, there are alternative 12-step programs that are also free to attend.
Many non-12-step programs are not religious. They use a self-help group approach, but incorporate scientific research and focus on self-reliance. Some people who attend non-12-step groups also may go to AA or Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
- SMART Recovery: (Self Management for Addiction Recovery): SMART Recovery is a 4-point program based on cognitive behavioral therapy and seeks to empower the individual through education and practical techniques. It is present-focused and does not use the term “disease” when referring to addiction. Attendees may use medications, which are not encouraged in AA.
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety: SOS is made up of independent self-help groups that emphasize rational decision-making and use a list of Suggested Guidelines for Sobriety that make sobriety a priority.
- LifeRing Secular Recovery: Members attempt to tap into their Sober Self (the part of them that seeks to become sober), stay positive, and focus on the present. They share experiences and support each other. The individual is expected to create their own path to recovery.
Other options include inpatient and outpatient rehab centers, which offer professional addiction treatment and medical care. These programs can also offer a medically supervised detox, which is important in the early stages of alcohol withdrawal. People who have been drinking heavily for long periods of time and stop are at risk of symptoms such as insomnia, nausea, vomiting, tremors, fever, seizures, hallucinations, and severe confusion. Some of these symptoms can be dangerous or even fatal. A medical detox can reduce these symptoms and prevent complications.7
Find a Meeting
To find a local AA meeting, contact your local AA office. The list of local meetings can also be found on the AA website.
Recovery.org is not affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous or any of its subsidiaries. This information is provided as a resource for those seeking third-party information.
. Tonigan, J. S. & Rice, S. L. (2010). Is it beneficial to have an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24 (3). 397-403.
. Kaskutas, L.A. (2009). Alcoholics Anonymous effectiveness: Faith meets science. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 28 (2). 145-157.
. Moos R.H. & Moos B.S. (2006). Participation in treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous: a 16-year follow-up of initially untreated individuals. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62 (6). 735-750.
. Connors G.J., Tonigan J.S. & Miller W.R. (2001). A longitudinal model of intake symptomatology, AA participation, and outcome: retrospective study of the Project MATCH outpatient and aftercare samples. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 62. 817-825.
. Ferri, M., Amato, L., & Davoli, M. (2006). Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes for alcohol dependence. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 3.
. Project MATCH Research Group. (1998). Matching alcoholism treatments to client heterogeneity: Project MATCH three-year drinking outcomes. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 22 (6): 1300-1311.
. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018). Alcohol withdrawal.