Support groups provide individuals with the opportunity to learn from the coping skills of others and receive support from others who know what they are experiencing. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a type of mutual support group. 12-step recovery programs, such as AA, are one of the most widely used and available approaches to recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous is not a treatment but offers structure, guidelines, and social support that helps people recover. Many people attend AA meetings while receiving outpatient treatment or they attend AA as a form of aftercare. In addition, there are no costs associated with attending Alcohol Anonymous meetings, and it is easily accessible with the possibility of online meetings and availability for many hours a day.¹
What is Alcoholics Anonymous?
Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship community in which people come together to solve their drinking problems. AA takes a 12-step approach, which is a structured view of the recovery process. The 12 Steps offer you the opportunity to discuss and process current step work. In AA, you can discuss your complex feelings about recovery, 12-step work, motivators for continued abstinence from alcohol, and the impact your drinking has on your personal and professional relationships. The only thing you need to join Alcoholics Anonymous is the want to stop drinking.
The History and Organization of AA
Alcoholics Anonymous was started in 1935 by two men in Akron, Ohio, named Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, who had problems with heavy alcohol use. They started attending a religious program called the Oxford Group, where they took many foundational elements to start AA. While the program came from Christian roots, AA has grown into more of spiritual practice, using terms like “higher power.” An extensive study done in 2020 by Stanford School of Medicine researchers found that AA is almost always more effective than therapy alone in achieving abstinence.² To date, AA has been helping people achieve and maintain sobriety for 87 years.
Is AA the Same as Al-Anon?
People often get AA mixed up with the complementary subgroup formed from AA, called Al-Anon. The main difference is that Alcoholics Anonymous is a mutual aid support group and fellowship for those with alcohol use disorder (AUDs), and Al-Anon is for family, friends, or acquaintances whose lives have been affected by someone with an AUD. AA uses the 12 Steps to help individuals achieve and maintain sobriety, while Al-Anon has a different but similar 12 Steps to help individuals affected by alcohol use disorder.
Is AA Truly Anonymous?
Two tenants behind Alcoholics Anonymous meetings include anonymity and are taken seriously in the AA community. They do this in two ways, through both personal and public anonymity. Personally, AA only allows people participating in a meeting to use their first name. This anonymity helps people feel like they can share more freely and keep others from knowing they have alcohol use disorder. Publicly, AA does not allow individuals to publicize their membership in the media. This prevents individuals from using AA for their personal gains. Each AA member is given the respect to choose if and how they disclose their recovery.³
Who Benefits from Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings?
Anyone concerned about their drinking can attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. If your drinking is not responding to behavioral treatments alone or significantly impacting your everyday functioning, AA may be a good option to try. Some signs and symptoms of alcohol use disorder include:⁴
- Unsuccessful attempts to reduce or control alcohol use
- Cravings for alcohol
- Drinking more or more often than intended
- Giving up or reducing important life activities due to alcohol use
- Interpersonal problems caused by alcohol use
- Developing a high tolerance to alcohol
- Withdrawal symptoms when abstaining from alcohol use
- Consuming alcohol despite physical or psychological problems caused by use
What Happens in Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings?
There are two types of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The first is an “open” meeting. This means anyone can attend the meeting interested in learning more about alcoholism and recovery. People who do not have alcohol use disorders are also allowed to participate in these meetings. The second is “closed” meetings. These meetings are only for individuals with alcohol use problems who want to stop drinking. Meetings will vary depending on the location and the individuals in attendance at that meeting.
There are several types of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: discussion meetings (a person assigned for that particular meeting, often called a “chair”, is responsible for leading the meeting on a particular topic), speaker meetings (where members selected before the meeting share their experiences about their recovery journey), beginners meetings (which are led by someone in the AA community with some sobriety, and the group consists of new members and are typically structured by step work), and step, tradition or Big Book meetings (these are foundational meetings surrounding the 12 Steps, the 12 Traditions or readings from the Big Book).
The structure of the meeting includes an opening statement. The chair then asks if there are new people interested in introducing themselves. It is not required for you to introduce yourself or speak at all in a meeting. Then depending on the type of meeting, that will dictate the substance of that particular meeting. Then in closing, there may be a prayer or reading from the AA text.
What Are the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA?
The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA form the basis of the AA Fellowship. The 12 Steps are a spiritual approach to helping people stop drinking and maintain sobriety in everyday life. The 12 Traditions of AA outline how the AA program views the world through the lens of sobriety.
The 12 Steps of AA
The 12 Steps are the foundation for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and many other mutual aid programs. Each step builds upon the previous step.⁵
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. Step 1 in AA is the acknowledgment that you cannot do it alone, and that alcohol has impacted your life and you are unable to control it.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step 2 recognizes that there is a higher power outside you that is greater than yourself, who can help you in your recovery.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. In Step 3, you have decided that you don’t have control over alcohol, you believe in a higher power to help, and now you are trusting your higher power to help with your recovery.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. In AA, Step 4 requires you to take a moral inventory of yourself and your past behaviors. This step requires you to look at experiences that you may not want to remember or revisit.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Step 5 is not only about acknowledging the wrongdoings of the past and trying to understand the nature of these wrongdoings but also now saying these wrongdoings out loud to important people in your life.
- We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Step 6 is to accept your negative characteristics and a willingness to act to allow your higher power to help rid you of these defects.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. In Step 7, now that you are willing to accept and let go of your character defects, you learn to replace them with other characteristics, such as humility.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. In this 8th Step, you revisit the inventory of people you harmed in Step 4 and reflect on an action plan to make amends.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Step 9 is where you go to those people and make amends with those hurt by your alcohol use. This step also looks at the forgiveness of not only others but also of yourself.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. In Step 10, you work on implementing daily practices and take note of our “emotional disturbances”, particularly those that can lead you back to drinking.
- 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 11 recommends self-reflection, whether through prayer or meditation, to teach you to begin pausing and asking for help.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs. The 12th Step is to try to help others, especially those struggling with alcohol use.
The 12 Traditions of AA
The 12 Traditions of AA are spiritual and practical guidelines for the members and the organization. These Traditions inform how AA should run and operate. The 12 Traditions are as follows: ⁵
- Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity. Oftentimes isolation is a big part of being an alcoholic. This Tradition speaks to the strength in numbers and how important fellowship is in recovery.
- 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. Tradition 12 shows there is no hierarchy within AA, only the higher power and everyone else involved in AA is working together for the whole group.
- The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. This is an inclusive Tradition that allows anyone, no matter their history, to come to meetings.
- Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole. Other than following these 12 Traditions, each AA group will be different depending on the members it is composed of.
- Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers. This Tradition is to let others know that there are solutions for recovery from addiction, and AA is there to help.
- An AA group ought never to 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. Tradition 6 is a reminder to not let outside distractions get in the way of the organization’s purpose.
- Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions. AA is run only on the donations of its members and does not accept outside donations.
- Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers. Generally speaking, AA is an unpaid organization. However, this Tradition allows the organization to sometimes hire outside help for certain tasks.
- AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve. This Tradition is a reminder that AA is different from other organizations or traditional institutions. While boards and committees may be necessary to help run the organization, the organization is a democracy.
- Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy. AA is not a political group and will never form an opinion on issues outside of AA, and its focus remains on its primary purpose of fellowship and recovery.
- 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. AA does not do any direct advertisements and relies on the word of others and the want of individuals seeking help.
- Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities. This Tradition seeks to focus on the purpose of individuals being there, which is to achieve abstinence from alcohol. Keeping people anonymous takes the focus away from people’s personalities and keeps it on the principles that keep you sober.
How Effective is Alcoholics Anonymous?
A 2020 meta-analysis study that reviewed over 35 different studies found that Alcoholics Anonymous works better or just as well as scientifically proven treatments for alcoholism. AA has been shown to reduce the intensity of drinking, alcohol-related consequences, and severity of alcohol addiction. Additionally, AA has been proven to work with various people, populations, and settings both nationally and internationally.²
Is Alcoholics Anonymous Right for Me?
It can be helpful to assess where you are in your drinking and the impact your drinking has had on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. As well as assessing how your drinking has impacted those around you. Reviewing the signs and symptoms of alcohol use disorder may give you an idea of the severity of your use or misuse. Only you can decide if Alcoholics Anonymous is right for you. It may be helpful to attend several types of AA meetings at various locations and see which feels like the best fit for you. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings may also be a good supplement to any other alcohol use treatment you are receiving.
How to Find Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings Near Me
Finding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is easier and more accessible than ever. AA has even come out with a “Meeting Guide” app for both iPhone and Android phones. This app allows the user to locate dates and times of over 100,000 meetings both online and in person. For online groups, the Online Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous was formed to provide all online groups in one location. Lastly, you can go here to the AA website and type in your location, and find an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting near you.
Call to speak to a treatment specialist at 866-470-3561 (Who Answers?) to discuss AA options or to help find a meeting.
- Mendola, A., & Gibson, R. L. (2016). Addiction, 12-step programs, and evidentiary standards for ethically and clinically sound treatment recommendations: What should clinicians do? AMA Journal of Ethics, 18(6), 646-655.
- Kelly JF, Humphreys K, Ferri M. (2020, March). Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs for alcohol use disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2020, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD012880.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2019). Understanding Anonymity. New York, NY.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC: Author.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2020). Twelve steps and twelve traditions.