Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a 12-step recovery program that supports people struggling with alcohol addiction. AA members follow a set of recovery steps to achieve and maintain abstinence from alcohol and set a foundation for lasting recovery.
What Is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)?
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 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. Anonymity helps remove the stigma of identification and recognition and allows participants a more comfortable experience in recovery.
The 12 steps of AA are a set of guiding principles that help to form the spiritual foundation for a life of sobriety.
AA is open to all people 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?
In the “Big Book”—the central text of AA that outlines the program—the 12 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.”
Step 1 of AA
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Admitting one’s struggle with alcohol use can be challenging, but once they do acknowledge their struggle, the recovery process can begin.
Step 2 of AA
“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
Alcoholics Anonymous believes that people struggling with alcohol use can benefit from believing in a power greater than themselves to recover. Those working the 12 steps of AA are free to choose whatever higher power works for them.
Step 3 of AA
“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”
In the 3rd step of AA, a person consciously decides to turn their will over to a higher power of their understanding.
Step 4 of AA
“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
This step requires self-examination that can be uncomfortable. Honesty about how a person’s struggle has affected themselves and others is necessary for helping maintain recovery.
Step 5 of AA
“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
This step involves admitting to past poor behavior, which may involves sharing with their sponsor and/or a group.
Step 6 of AA
“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.
Step 7 of AA
“Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.”
Step 7 of the 12 steps of AA is about humility. When a person is humble, they have the opportunity to gain new perspectives that support their recovery journey.
Step 8 of AA
“Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”
In this step, a person writes down all of the people they have wronged through their drinking. This is not a step to make amends, but to help a person understand what they are ready to make amends for in step 9.
Step 9 of AA
“Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure themselves 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. For some people, making amends is simple writing it down and sharing with a sponsor if it is not possible or safe to share with a person directly.
Step 10 of AA
“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
This step helps teach a person to remain committed to their program regardless of what they encounter through life. Using the 12 steps of AA and the practice of taking personal inventory helps keep people present in their recovery process.
Step 11 of AA
“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.”
Step 11 involves creating some kind of spiritual practice or routine that helps a person stay connected to their higher power to support their recovery.
Step 12 of AA
“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. Some members may choose to sponsor others as a way to help them work their own program and share their message as they continue to work the 12 steps of AA.
Do You Have to Be Religious to Join AA?
Alcoholics Anonymous welcomes people of all faiths, even atheists and agnostics, even though the program takes a spiritual approach to treatment. The spiritual aspect relates to accepting the existence and support of 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 God [higher power]” with almost every reference to God.
People who do not identify with a higher power may find more comfort in a secular 12-Step support group or a non-12-Step addiction recovery program.
What Happens at an AA Meeting?
AA meetings are often held in public, accessible buildings with lots of parking, such as churches, schools, coffee shops, and restaurants.
Types of AA 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 studies. A small, committed group goes through the AA 12 steps in detail.
Open vs. Closed Meetings at Alcoholics Anonymous
AA meetings can be open or closed.
- Open meetings mean that anyone is welcome: members of AA and non-members. 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 members of AA or prospective AA members. Discussion meetings are sometimes closed, and 12-step studies are closed. Closed meetings can help foster a sense of safety during recovery.
Rules of AA
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 12-step program focuses on working the steps to live a full life without drinking alcohol. Some people, however, may still take prescribed drugs such as antidepressants and other medications to support their overall physical and mental wellbeing.
What Are Sponsors?
A sponsor is a fellow AA member who has significant recovery time. The sponsor typically works the 12 steps of AA along with their sponsee and provides support when a person needs it.
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.
How to Join AA
Becoming a member of AA is as simple as 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 people struggling with alcohol use. There are a number of other 12-step programs for people struggling with other types of substance abuse problems and compulsive behaviors.
The program is free and you have no monetary or social obligation
What Should I Know Before Attending a Meeting?
- Try to find out more about your local AA groups. Age, gender, and socioeconomic background are all factors that can provide comfortable common ground for new members.
- Keep an open mind. 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 can’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
What is the success rate of AA?
- 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
Alternatives to the 12 Steps of AA
For people who are not comfortable with the spiritual aspect of the program or the AA 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 (NA) meetings.
Are you or a loved one seeking professional addiction treatment? American Addiction Centers can help.
Recovery.org is a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers (AAC) a leading provider of drug and alcohol addiction treatment nationwide. Begin the journey to recovery by verifying your benefits or calling us by phone to discuss treatment options at 1-888-319-2606
How Do I Find a 12-Step AA Meeting Near me?
To find a local AA meeting, contact your local AA group. 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.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): Frequently Asked Questions
- Find the Best Alcohol Recovery Center
- Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book
- Drug and Alcohol Detoxification Process
- Forum Discussion: 12-Step Alcoholism Support Groups
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- Tonigan, J. S., Rice, S. L. (2010). Is it beneficial to have an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor? Psychol Addict Behav, 24(3), 397-403.
- Kaskutas, L.A. (2009). Alcoholics Anonymous effectiveness: Faith meets science. J Addict Dis, 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. J Clin Psychol, 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. J Stud Alcohol, 62(6), 817-825.
- Ferri, M., Amato, L., & Davoli, M. (2006). Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes for alcohol dependence. Cochrance Database Syst Rev, 19(3).
- Project MATCH Research Group. (1998). Matching alcoholism treatments to client heterogeneity: Project MATCH three-year drinking outcomes. Alcoholism Clin Exp Res, 22(6), 1300-1311.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019). MedlinePlus: Alcohol withdrawal.