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The History of Alcoholics Anonymous

Basic Concepts of Alcoholics Anonymous
by Wiliam Griffth Wilson 1944

Alcoholics Anonymous is an informal fellowship of about 12,000 formerly alcoholic men and women who are to be found banded together as groups in about three hundred and twenty-five American and Canadian communities, these groups ranging in size from half a dozen to many hundreds of individuals. Our oldest members have been sober for from eight to nearly ten years. Of those sincerely willing to stop drinking about 50 per cent have done so at once, 25 per cent after a few relapses, and most of the remainder have improved. It is probable that half of our members, had they not been drinkers, would have appeared in ordinary life to be normal people. The other half would have appeared as more or less pronounced neurotic. Alcoholics Anonymous, or "AA," popularly so-called, has but one purpose - one objective only -"To help other alcoholics to recover from their illness."

Nothing is asked of the alcoholic approaching us save a desire on his part to get well. He subscribes to no membership requirements, no fees or dues, nor is belief in any particular view, medical or religious, demanded of him. As a group we take no position on any controversial question. Emphatically, we are not evangelists or reformers. Being alcoholics who have recovered, we aim to help only those who want to get well. We do this because we have found that working with other alcoholics plays such a vital part in keeping us all sober.

You may inquire, "Just how does AA work?" I cannot fully answer that question. Many AA techniques have been adopted after a ten-year process of trial and error, which has led to some interesting results. But, as laymen, we doubt our own ability to explain them. We can only tell you what we do, and what seems, from our point of view, to happen to us.

At the very outset we should like it made ever so clear that AA is a synthetic concept - a synthetic gadget, as it were, drawing upon the resources of medicine, psychiatry, religion, and our own experience of drinking and recovery. You will search in vain for a single new fundamental. We have merely streamlined old and proved principles of psychiatry and religion into such forms that the alcoholic will accept them. And then we have created a society of his own kind where he can enthusiastically put these very principles to work on himself and other sufferers.

Then too, we have tried hard to capitalize on our one great natural advantage. That advantage is, of course, our personal experience as drinkers who have recovered. How often the doctors and clergymen throw up their hands when, after exhaustive treatment or exhortation, the alcoholic still insists, "But you don’t understand me. You never did any serious drinking yourself, so how can you? Neither can you show me many who have recovered."

Now, when one alcoholic who has got well talks to another who hasn't, such objections seldom arise, for the new man sees in a few minutes that he is talking to a kindred spirit, one who understands. Neither can the recovered AA member be deceived, for he knows every trick, every rationalization of the drinking game. So the usual barriers go down with a crash. Mutual confidence, that indispensable of all therapy, follows as surely as day does night. And if this absolutely necessary rapport is not forthcoming at once it is almost certain to develop when the new man has met other AA’s. Someone will, as we say, "click with him."

As soon as that happens we have a good chance of selling our prospect those very essentials, which you doctors have so long advocated, and the problem drinker finds our society a congenial place to work them out for himself and his fellow alcoholic. For the first time in years he thinks himself understood and he feels uniquely useful, indeed, as he takes his own turn promoting the recovery of others. No matter what the outer world thinks of him, he now knows he can get well, for he stands in the midst of scores of cases worse than his own who have attained the goal. And there are other cases precisely like his own - a pressure of testimony which usually overwhelms him. If he doesn't succumb at once, he will almost surely do so later when Barleycorn builds a still hotter fire under him, thus blocking off all his other carefully planned exits from dilemma. The speaker recalls seventy-five failures during the first three years of AA - people we utterly gave up. During the past seven years sixty-two of these people have returned to us, most of them now making good. They tell us they returned because they knew they would die or go mad if they didn't. Having tried everything else within their means and having exhausted their pet rationalizations, they came back and took their medicine. That is why we never need to evangelize alcoholics. If still in their right minds they come back, once they have been well exposed to AA.

Now to recapitulate. Alcoholics Anonymous has made two major contributions to the program of psychiatry and religion. These are, it seems to us, the long—missing links in the chain of recovery:

1. Our ability, as ex-drinkers, to secure the confidence of the new man - to "build a transmission line into him."
2. The provision of an understanding society of ex-drinkers in which the newcomer can successfully apply the principles of medicine and religion to himself and others.
So far as we AA’s are concerned, these principles, now used by us every day, seem to be in surprising agreement. Let's compare briefly what in a general way medicine and religion tell the alcoholic:

Medicine Says

  1. The alcoholic needs a personality change.
  2. The patient ought to be analyzed and should make a full and honest mental catharsis
  3. Serious personality defects must be cured through accurate self-knowledge and realistic adjustment to life.
  4. The alcoholic neurotic retreats from life, is a picture of anxiety and abnormal self-concern; he withdraws from the "herd."
  5. The alcoholic must find, "a new compelling interest in life," must "get back into the herd." He should find an interesting occupation, should join clubs, social activities, political parties, or discover hobbies to take the place of alcohol.

Religion Says

  1. The alcoholic needs a change of heart, a spiritual awakening.
  2. The alcoholic should make an examination of the "conscience" — or a moral inventory and a frank discussion.
  3. Character defects (sins) can be eliminated by acquiring more honesty, humility, unselfishness, tolerance, generosity, love, etc.
  4. The alcoholic's basic trouble is self-centeredness. Filled with fear and self-seeking he has forgotten the brotherhood of man.
  5. The alcoholic should learn the "expulsive power of a new affection," love of serving man, of serving God. He must "lose his life to find it;" he should join the church and there find self-forgetfulness in service. For "faith without works is dead."

Thus far religion and medicine are seen in hearty accord. But in one respect they do differ. When the doctor has shown the alcoholic his underlying difficulties and has prescribed a program of readjustment, he says to him, "Now that you understand what is required for recovery, you should no longer depend on me. You must depend on yourself. You go do it."
Clearly, then, the object of the doctor is to make the patient self-sufficient and largely, if not wholly, dependent upon himself.

Religion does not attempt this. It says that faith in self is not enough, even for a nonalcoholic. The clergyman says that we shall have to find and depend upon a higher power - God. He advTises prayer and frankly recommends an attitude of unwavering reliance upon Him who presides over all. By this means we discover strength much beyond our own resources.

So, the main difference seems to add up to this: Medicine says, know yourself, be strong and you will be able to face life. Religion says, know thyself, ask God for power, and you become truly free.

In Alcoholics Anonymous the new man may try either method. He sometimes eliminates "the spiritual angle" from the Twelve Steps to Recovery and wholly relies upon honesty, tolerance and working with others. But it is interesting to note that faith always comes to those who try this simple approach with an open mind - and in the meantime they stay sober.

If, however, the spiritual content of the Twelve Steps is actively denied, they can seldom remain dry. That is our AA experience everywhere. We stress the spiritual simply because thousands of us have found we can't do without it.

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


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