For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous tells the story of how the organization was founded. It also explains the core principles behind the recovery system, and shares success stories from those who have recovered.
Like many of you I assume, had only vague impressions of Alcoholics Anonymous (mostly from TV shows and movies). I knew people everyone stood up and introduced themselves as “I’m so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic.” and I knew there were sobriety coins for people who achieved certain milestones.
But I learned quite a bit about AA by reading the Big Book, and so I’m sharing what I learned with you in case it’s helpful.
Their definition of an alcoholic is a person with a very, very extreme drinking problem. Partly this may be down to when AA was founded, and the prevalence of heavy drinking as part of normal life at the time. I’d imagine today some people they describe as ‘not true alcoholics’ would meet the criteria for an alcohol abuse disorder. The people they describe as alcoholics in the book are putting away bottles (plural) of gin in a day. On their own. They think of an alcoholic as someone whose brain is perhaps so damaged by alcohol that they will have a hard time recovering in any way other than a spiritual experience.
They believe you can stop yourself without the religious experience earlier on in the process of becoming an alcoholic. The interesting part about this extreme definition of an alcoholic - someone who is beyond all hope - is that it leaves a lot of room for people who aren’t at that stage yet to recover. Obviously, you have to actually want to stop, but they acknowledge it is possible.
They acknowledge that people have to decide they will do anything to get free of alcohol in order to actually do so. It requires wholehearted commitment, where many drinkers still argue with themselves internally about whether they want to stop or not. This reminded me heavily of This Naked Mind’s argument that stopping drinking requires changing the unconscious mind’s desire for alcohol.
The core of the program is a religious experience of submitting your life over to God and his decisions. There is flexibility in the interpretation of God, and people of many faiths may join AA. But if you fundamentally don’t believe in any kind of higher power, you will have real trouble completing an AA-based program.
One of the reasons their program may work so well is that it gives people a sense of purpose. Often, when drinking has taken over your life, you’ve given up hobbies and become less interested in work. Living according to God’s will, and helping other alcoholics, gives people a feeling of an indisputably good purpose that helps them avoid slipping into depression. Life has meaning again.
Another reason their program may work so well is that reliance on God enables people to “match calamity with serenity.” In other words, they are better shielded from things going wrong in life. Often, spirals into anxiety or depression can send people off to drink. After all, “liquor [is often] but a symptom” of an underlying emotional issue. If you feel calm, because God has control of your life, you’re less likely to be blown around by bad days or even real crises. You accept what’s not in your control.
They believe that helping others is critical to recovery. This makes so much sense! Part of the twelve steps is about teaching other alcoholics how to do the program. The act of helping helps the helper as well as the helped.
A lot of people like AA because they can get empathy from others in the same place that they’re in. A core belief is that peers can help an alcoholic in a way others can’t. Again, this makes some real sense. The shame that can come along with abusing alcohol may make it hard to reach out to people who’ve never struggled with it. But a peer can offer empathy as well as advice.
They know that offering hope is critical. By meeting sponsors and those who’ve been in the program a while, they can learn that it is in fact possible to quit drinking. This is desperately needed inspiration and motivation.
They acknowledge that the goal is to be able to be around alcohol without trouble. Early on, people simply avoid triggers. That can work for a while. But ultimately, if you can’t handle being at a bar, or at a party, with booze present, then some part of you still wants it.
If you’re thinking about quitting or cutting back on drinking, whether you’re in AA or not, we’d love to help! Try out the app today at the link below.