Some people stop drinking because they’re forced to do so. They’re arrested, they are forced to submit to breath tests, or they move to a place in which they can’t get alcohol. People like this may be sober, but they didn’t get there due to an overwhelming desire for a healthy life. Sobriety was thrust upon them.
There’s a second group of people, however, who really want to stop drinking but who aren’t sure how to make that happen. These people need help, and sometimes they need help that goes above and beyond what a therapist can deliver.
For people like this, Alcoholics Anonymous might be a lifesaver.
A Different Resource
Addictions to alcohol are often treated with behavioral therapies, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and group therapy. This sort of intervention can help people to develop a complex understanding of why they became addicted to alcohol, along with the situations that might pose the most danger, in terms of relapse. For some people, this help is all that’s required in order to conquer an urge to drink. But many people feel as though Alcoholics Anonymous provides another layer of help that could be transformative for people with addictions.
AA is not a therapy or a treatment for alcoholism, as there are no therapists involved and no interventions performed. Instead, it’s a self-help group in which many people who have the same condition come together to support one another and learn together.
A significant amount of research suggests that this sort of group can be helpful for people who have chronic conditions. For example, a Stanford University study (quoted by Wired) suggests that group meetings like this allow people to form bonds with others who have the same condition, and they become influenced by the feelings of acceptance they get from the group and the feedback they hear. Just spending time with similar people can be quite helpful, experts say.
In AA, that kind of connection can take hold in many ways. People can:
- Attend meetings in which they share their stories
- Attend meetings in which they learn more about alcoholism
- Attend meetings in which they read AA literature as a group
- Meet one-on-one with other members
- Mentor someone new to AA, or find a mentor to assist with the journey
- Volunteer with AA groups or do community service together
There’s no need to pay dues, sign up or otherwise complete some kind of admissions test, AA organizers say. The only thing people need in order to participate is a sincere desire to get sober and stay sober. Anyone who does that can be considered a member, and can do any or all of these connection points as needed.
In general, AA seems to work best when it’s viewed as a communal project in which people help people. In other words, some people who struggle with alcohol can find help in the literature that the organization publishes. They might find that it’s helpful to read the books, study online reports of members, and otherwise immerse themselves in the lessons in episodes of private contemplation. But it’s the social part of AA that’s associated with the greatest levels of recovery. In order for the program to really work, people simply must get involved with other people.
Lessons of AA
A study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment suggests that high levels of involvement in AA tend to predict a higher level of healing. Those who make AA part of daily life and who really try to incorporate AA tenets into everything that they do, tend to get better at a level that’s superior to the level seen in people who do not become active. It’s not the sort of thing that should be done halfway, researchers say.
Those who do take a deep involvement in AA learn that they simply cannot allow alcohol into their lives in any way. There’s no tiny sip of alcohol that could be considered safe, and no time in which a person with alcoholism could indulge and keep the issue under control. Alcoholism is considered a disease in AA, and people who participate are encouraged to remain ever vigilant and on alert for signs that the problem is coming back to life.
In addition, people who participate are encouraged to lean on a so-called “higher power” to help them overcome their urge to drink. Some interpret this as God, but others find that their families, the Earth or even their inner child is the higher power that should be summoned when times are tough.
An interesting study highlighted in TIME suggests that men and women often have different takeaway lessons from AA. For men, recovering from alcoholism means building a network of sober friends and staying dry even when participating in social outings. AA can obviously help with both of these points. But for women, sobriety is associated with dealing with emotion. For them, mentor work might be more important than meetings, and AA can provide that as well.
Does It Work?
It’s a little hard to truly measure how well AA works, according to an analysis in Scientific American, as people who participate in these programs remain anonymous. They don’t share their names, their ages or their genders, so it’s hard to track them over time. In addition, some people who use AA do so sporadically. They might go to a certain meeting in one place at one time for months, and then move to a different meeting place and time. Some might only go to meetings during the holidays or other high-stress times and then not go for months. These people might be labeled relapsers or dropouts, but they might still be active members.
But there has been a bit of research done on AA, and those results suggest that the program has the ability to help many people overcome their urge to drink and remain sober for good. For example, a 2007 survey of AA members conducted by the organization suggests that 33 percent of all active members of the group have remained sober for longer than 10 years. An additional 12 percent had been sober for five to 10 years. Stats like this suggest that AA has the power to help at least some people achieve a meaningful sobriety that they can sustain for a long period of time.
In a separate study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, researchers found that the likelihood of remaining sober two years after treatment ended was closely related to affiliation with AA at the one-year mark. This seems to suggest that people who use AA in order to stay on course when their formal treatment programs end are more likely to stay sober, while those that don’t affiliate are not.
So what’s the average alcoholic person to do with this data? It could be wise to:
- Read up on the tenets of AA, including The Big Book
- Find someone who is in AA, and ask about the program
- Attend one meeting as a guest
- Share in a meeting
We can also help you to make this transition to an AA life. Many of the facilities in the Foundations Recovery Network follow the principles of AA, and people who enroll in these programs are encouraged to go to meetings, connect with mentors, and otherwise make an effort to live a life compatible with many of the principles of AA. We can help you to find a program like this, and that might put you on the path to healing from alcoholism. Please call us, and we can tell you more.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton