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 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.
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Read Karen’s full story and hear from others in recovery from alcohol abuse.
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. The anonymity removes the stigma of identification and recognition and allows participants a more comfortable experience in recovery.
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.”
The AA 12 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 AA 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 of AA.
Do You Have to Be Religious to Join?
AA welcomes people of all faiths, even atheists and agnostics, even though the program takes a spiritual approach to treatment. The spiritual aspect comes into play with the 12 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.
Nonreligious people may find themselves more comfortable in a secular 12-Step alcoholics 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 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.
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.
How to 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
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 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
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 meetings.
Find an AA 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? 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.
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