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The History of Alcoholics Anonymous

An Explanation of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
by William Griffith Wilson 1944

These steps mean, simply (1) admission of alcoholism; (2) personality analysis and catharsis; (3) adjustment of personal relations; (4) dependence upon some higher power; and (5) working with other alcoholics.

Most strongly we point out that adherence to these principles is not a condition of AA membership. Any alcoholic who admits he has a problem is an A.A. member regardless of how much he disagrees with the program. Based upon our experience, the whole program is a suggestion only. The alcoholic, objecting at first to the spiritual factor, is urged to keep an open mind, meanwhile treating his own AA group as a "power greater than himself." Under these conditions the newcomer commences to undergo a personality change at such a rate and of such dimensions that he cannot fully account for it on the basis of self-realization and self-discipline. Not only does his alcoholic obsession disappear, but also he finds himself progressively free of fear, resentment, and inferiority. These changes seem to have come about automatically. Hence he concludes that "A power greater than himself" must have indeed have been at work. Having come to this point, he begins to form his own concept of God. He then develops confidence in that concept, which grows, as he gets proof in everyday life that his new faith actually works, really produces results.

This is what AA’s are trying to say when they talk about a spiritual experience. They mean a certain quality of personality change which, in their belief, could not have occurred without the help and presence of the creative spirit of the universe.

With the average AA, many months, may lapse before he is aware of faith in the spiritual sense. Yet I know scarcely an AA member of more than a year's standing who still thinks his transformation wholly a psychological phenomenon based entirely upon his own normal resources. Almost everyone of our members will tell you that, while he may not go along with a clergyman's concept of God, he has developed one of his own on which he can positively depend, one which works for him.

We AA’s are quite indifferent to what people may call this spiritual experience of ours. But to us it looks very much like conversion, the very thing most alcoholics have sworn they never would have. In fact I am beginning to believe that we shall have to call it just that, for I know our good friend, Dr. Harry Tiebout, is sitting in this room. As you may know, he is the psychiatrist who recently told his own professional Society, The American Psychiatric Association, that what we AA’s get is conversion - sure enough and no fooling! And if the spirit of that great psychologist, William James, could be consulted, he'd doubtless refer us to his famous book, Varieties of Religious Experience, in which personality change through the educational variety of spiritual experience, or conversion is so ably explored. Whatever this mysterious process is, it certainly seems to work, and with us who are on the way to the asylum or the undertaker anything that works looks very, very good indeed.

And I'm very happy to say that many other distinguished members of your profession have pronounced our Twelve Steps good medicine. Clergymen of all denominations say they are good religion, and of course we AA’s like them because they do work. Most ardently we hope that every physician here today will find himself able to share this happy agreement. In the early years of AA, it seemed to us alcoholics that we wandered in a sort of no-man's-land, which appeared to divide science and religion. But all that has changed since AA has now become a common meeting ground for both concepts.

Yes, Alcoholics Anonymous is a cooperative venture. All cases requiring physical treatment are referred to you physicians. We frequently work with the psychiatrist and often find that he can do and say things to a patient, which we cannot. He, in turn, avails himself of the fact that as ex-alcoholics we can sometimes walk in where he fears to tread. Throughout the country we are in daily touch with hospitals and sanitariums, both public and private. The enthusiastic support given us by so many of your noted institutions is something for which we are deeply grateful. The opportunity to work with alcoholics means everything; to most of us it means life itself. Without the chance to forget our own troubles by helping others out of theirs, we would certainly perish. That is the heart of AA - it is our lifeblood.

We have torn still other pages from the Book of Medicine, putting them to practical use. It is from you gentlemen we learn that alcoholism is a complex malady; that abnormal drinking is but a symptom of personal maladjustment to life; that, as a class, we, alcoholics are apt to be sensitive, emotionally immature, grandiose in our demands upon ourselves and others; that we have usually "gone broke" on some dream ideal of perfection; that, failing to realize the dream, we sensitive folk escape cold reality by taking to the bottle; that this habit of escape finally turns into an obsession, or, as you gentlemen put it, a compulsion to drink so subtly powerful that no disaster, however great, even near death or insanity, can, in most cases, seem to break it; that we are the victims of the age-old alcoholic dilemma; our obsession guarantees that we shall go on drinking, but our increasing physical sensitivity guarantees that we shall go insane or die if we do.

When these facts, coming from the mouths of you gentlemen of science, are poured by an AA member into the person of another alcoholic they strike deep - the effect is shattering. That inflated ego, those elaborate rationalizations by which our neurotic friend has been trying to erect self—sufficiency on a foundation of inferiority, begin to ooze out of him. Sometimes his deflation is like the collapse of a toy balloon at the approach of a hot poker. But deflation is just what we AA’s are looking for. It is our universal experience that unless we can start deflation, as so self-realization, we get nowhere at all. The more utterly we can smash the delusion that the alcoholic can get over alcoholism "on his own," or that someday he may be able to drink like a gentleman, the more successful we are bound to be.

In fact, we aim to produce a crisis, to cause him to "hit bottom," as AA’s say. Of course you will understand that this is all done by indirection. We never pronounce sentences, nor do we tell any alcoholic what he must do. We don’t even tell him he is an alcoholic. Relating the seriousness of our own cases, we leave him to draw his own conclusions. But once he has accepted the fact that he is an alcoholic and the further fact that he is powerless to recover unaided, the battle is half won. As the AA’s have it, "he is hooked." He is caught as if in a psychological vise.

If the jaws of it do not grip him tightly enough at first, more drinking will almost invariably turn up the screw to the point where he will cry "Enough!" Then, as we say, he is softened up. This reduces him to a state of complete dependence on whatever or whoever can stop his drinking. He is in exactly the same mental fix as the cancer patient who becomes dependent, abjectly dependent, if you will, on what you men of science can do for cancer. Better still, he becomes "sweetly reasonable," truly open-minded, as only the dying can.

Under these conditions, accepting the spiritual implications of the AA program presents no difficulty even to the sophisticate. About half of the AA members were once agnostics or atheists. This dispels the notion that we are only effective with the religiously susceptible. You remember now the famous remark; "There are no atheists in the foxholes." So it is with most alcoholics. Bring them within range of the AA and "blockbusters" will soon land near enough to start radical changes in outlook, attitude, and personality.

These are some of the basic factors, which perhaps partly account for such success as we have had. I wish time permitted me to give you an intimate glimpse of our life together, of our meetings, of our social side, of those fast friendships unlike any we had known before, of our participation by thousands in the war effort and the armed services, where so many AA’s are discovering that they can face up to reality - no longer institutionalized, even within an AA Group. We have all found that God can be relied upon both in Alaska and India, that strength can come out of weakness, that perhaps only those who have tasted the fruits of reliance upon a higher power can fully understand the true meaning of personal liberty, freedom of the human spirit.

Surely, you who are here this morning must realize how much we A.A.’s are beholden to you, how much we have borrowed from you, how much we still depend on you. For you have supplied us with ammunition, which we have used, as your lay assistants - gun pointers for your artillery. I have put out for inspection our version of the factors, which bring about personality change, our method of analysis, catharsis, and adjustment. I have tried to show you a little of our great new compelling interest in life - this society where men and women understand each other, where the clamors of self are lost in our great common objective, where we can learn enough of patience, tolerance, honesty, humility, and service to subdue our former masters - insecurity, resentment, and unsatisfied dreams of power.

But I must not close without paying tribute to our partner, Religion. Like Medicine, it is indispensable. At this temple of science I hope none will take it amiss if I give Religion the last word:
"God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference."

William G. Wilson
N.Y. STATE JOURNAL OF MEDICINE© Vol. 44, Aug.,1944.

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