I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on a snowy December night in Boulder, Colorado in 1979—thirty eight years ago. My life was transformed.
In his best seller, The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist Scott Peck called the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 “perhaps the greatest event of the twentieth century.” Today, well over one hundred thousand AA groups operate around the world, with an estimated 2 million members.
In Little Rock, AR, where I live, there are over four hundred meetings a week in our area when last I looked.
Under its twelve “traditions,” AA doesn’t promote itself, and public understanding of how it works is often limited, especially among young people who desperately need AA.
The AA web site is not particularly welcoming, and when looking at the list of meetings in Arkansas, there were only a few listed, well short of the 400 a week in the greater Little Rock area alone.
My purpose here is not to condemn AA for some of its policies, although I do think the organization should rethink the anonymity thing but to emphasize its value to those who want to get well.
So let me first take you on a short trip to Akron, Ohio, the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous.
A few summers ago, I was driving north from Little Rock to our family cottage in the Thousand Islands on the U.S./Canada border when I saw a sign on Interstate 76 for Akron, the birthplace of AA.
I had never been there, and on an impulse, I called the Chamber of Commerce from my car to see if I might take a tour of “Dr. Bob’s” House (Dr. Robert Smith, co-founder of AA) at 55 Ardmore Ave. in Akron.
The person I spoke with gave me directions, and within twenty minutes I pulled up in front of the house on a tree-shaded, cobblestone street where Dr. Bob and Bill W., two drunks, had launched Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.
I had, by this time, managed to accumulate a number of years of sobriety, and to be in this city at this place moved me deeply. I entered the home with reverence.
There was the original coffee pot in the kitchen, the cot on the second floor where Bill W. spent many nights as he and Dr. Bob pursued their dream of sobering up drunks—themselves included. And there was the laundry chute where Dr. Bob pitched his empties when his wife, Anne, approached.
Prior to Dr. Bob and Bill getting together, Bob and his wife had joined the Oxford Group, a nondenominational evangelical movement. Dr. Bob confessed at a group meeting that he was a silent drinker and couldn’t stop. He asked for their prayers. This group provided many of the spiritual underpinnings for AA’s creation and growth.
Akron’s automobile tire heiress, Henrietta Seiberling, was in that group and was among those who committed to pray for Dr. Bob. One day, a friend of Seiberling’s, Bill Wilson, came into town in pursuit of a business venture.
Upset when the venture fell through and feeling the need for a drink coming on, Bill asked Henrietta if she knew another drunk he could talk to who might help reduce his cravings.
The beginning of AA
Bill’s theory was that only another drunk could understand what he was going through and help him maintain his sobriety. Seiberling got Dr. Bob and Bill together, and the two men met for six hours talking about the problems they were going through as alcoholics. That meeting in 1935 was the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Author and columnist David Brooks has written extensively about Alcoholics Anonymous, and observes that the program has stood the test of time.
“There are millions of people who fervently believe that [the] 12-step process saved their lives,” Brooks says. “Yet the majority, even a vast majority of the people who enroll in the program, do not succeed in it.
“AA has been the subject of thousands of studies. Yet no one has yet satisfactorily explained why some succeed in AA while others don’t, or even what percentage of alcoholics who try the steps will eventually become sober as a result.
“Each member of an AA group is distinct. Each group is distinct. Each moment is distinct. There is simply no way for social scientists to reduce this kind of complexity into equations and formulae that can be replicated one place after another.
“Nonetheless, we don’t have to be fatalistic about things. It is possible to design programs that will help some people some of the time. AA embodies some shrewd insights into human psychology.
“In a culture that generally celebrates empowerment and self-esteem, AA begins with disempowerment. The goal is to get people to gain control over their lives, but it all begins with an act of surrender and an admission of weakness.
“In a culture that thinks of itself as individualistic, AA relies on fellowship. The general idea is that people aren’t really captains of their own ship. Successful members become deeply intertwined with one another—learning, sharing, suffering, and mentoring one another.
“Individual repair is a social effort. In a world in which gurus try to carefully design and impose their ideas, Wilson surrendered control. He wrote down the famous steps and foundations, but AA allows each local group to form, adapt, and innovate. “There is less quality control. Some groups and leaders are great and some are terrible. But it also means that AA is decentralized, innovative, and dynamic. Alcoholics have a specific problem: They drink too much.
“But instead of addressing that problem with the psychic equivalent of a precision guidance missile, Wilson set out to change people’s whole identities. He studied William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. He sought to arouse people’s spiritual aspirations rather than just appealing to rational cost-benefit analysis.
“His group would help people achieve broad spiritual awakenings, and abstinence from alcohol would be a byproduct of that larger salvation. In the business of saving lives, the straight path is rarely the best one.
“AA illustrates that even in an age of scientific advance, it is still ancient insights into human nature that work best. Wilson built a remarkable organization on a nighttime spiritual epiphany.”
Unlike Prohibition, which focused on clamping down on the supply of alcohol and failed, AA focused on drying up the demand for alcohol through visions of a far better life. The modern-day “War on Drugs,” a largely government-run program, is a flop, just like Prohibition was in the twenties. And for the same reason. In both cases, the emphasis is on reducing supply rather than demand.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy verified the failure in a widely published release which said, “The global war on drugs has failed with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”
Those of us who have had experience with drugs, including alcohol, know that recovery is based mostly on attraction, the promise of a better life.