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Everything You Need to Know About Alcoholic’s Anonymous

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

August 25, 2022 (Originally Published)

August 25, 2022 (Last Updated)

Table of Contents

Addiction is a difficult disease to overcome.

It is a physical, spiritual, and emotional disease that convinces a person that they are not addicted. Once a person has successfully detoxed from alcohol, the hard work starts then, this can include an Orange County alcohol rehab.

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Staying abstinent from alcohol is difficult for people struggling with an alcohol use disorder due to environmental triggers. Stress and depression, for instance, can make a person want to drink to mask the difficult emotions. 

The support of peers who understand the situation is vital for a person who wishes to stay free of alcohol.

Alcoholics Anonymous is invaluable for many people who have chosen the path of sobriety. People who struggle with an alcohol use disorder get great support from other people with the same problem. The support helps each other to stay abstinent.

What Is AA?

AA stands for Alcoholics Anonymous, which is an international friendship support group for people who are or have been addicted to alcohol.

AA meetings are available around the world. It is a non-profit organization, non-political, and open to people of any age or background. It does however have spiritual undertones, but it’s not affiliated.

In AA meetings, people can share their worries, thoughts, and celebrate their successes in a supportive environment. As everyone who attends AA meetings is in the same boat, people gain a lot of strength and inspiration. This is particularly important for people who are struggling with cravings to drink.

If a person feels like they want to drink, they can attend a meeting to help them stay resolute in their recovery.

The meetings are centered around the content of a book called “The Big Book.” This book contains the “Twelve Steps” which are lessons that a person goes through to help to maintain sobriety.

AA Meetings

AA don’t have to follow a particular format, but it typically starts with the AA preamble, the “Serenity Prayer,” the twelve-step study session, and then a sharing session where people can share their worries, problems, and successes.

AA Preamble

To begin, the chairperson reads aloud the AA preamble, which is a preparatory introduction that outlines the purpose of AA.

This statement explains that AA is a “fellowship” where people can share their experiences with each other and help each other to stay sober.

The preamble also explains that the fellowship is self-funded, relying on donations from the fellowship, and has no political affiliation. The fellowship is entirely focused on staying alcohol-free.

The Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer is used in the context in all twelve-step programs, not just Alcoholics Anonymous. It is read at the beginning of all twelve-step meetings. Here it is:

“God, grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.”

The Serenity Prayer, also called the AA acceptance prayer, was written by Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, a professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York. It is believed that Niebuhr wrote the poem in 1933. This would suggest that Alcoholics Anonymous has Christian roots.

Interestingly, the Serenity Prayer was incorporated into AA meetings after it was printed in the New York Herald Tribune in 1941. The AA secretary at the time requested it is printed out on cards to be handed out to members of the fellowship.

Who Started AA?

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by a drinker and stockbroker called Bill Wilson. Bill started drinking alcohol when he went to war during World War I to mask uncomfortable emotions from the war such as PTSD.

Men who went to war had to abandon their families, face military combat, and often ended up with Post Traumatic stress disorder. When they finished the army, they’d be sent back into the community, where alcoholism was on the rise.

Between 1933 and 1934, Bill W went to a treatment center called Charles B Towns Hospital in Central Park, New York to get treatment for alcohol use disorder. At the center, he received ‘belladonna treatment’ which was a herbal extract made from deadly nightshade, prickly ash,  and henbane. This strange concoction was purported to cure all addictions.

One of the side effects of this medicine was hallucinations.

Bill received treatment at Towns Hospital four times, having relapsed three times. In those days, a five-day stay cost $350 (which amounts to roughly $5610 today).

After his fourth treatment, Bill managed to maintain sobriety by seeking the support of others who had stopped drinking. It was around this time that Bill would meet with an old drinking friend called Ebby Thacher who had also stopped.

The Oxford Group

Ebby would later become Bill’s sponsor. Ebby had joined the Oxford Group, a Christian group that taught spiritual principles that would later become the twelve steps. Rowland Hazard was also a member of the Oxford Group, and he had received treatment from Carl Jung for his alcoholism.

The famous psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Carl Jung believed that it is possible to overcome an addiction by having a ‘conversion experience.’ A conversion experience is where a person experiences a huge transformation within their consciousness, like a spiritual epiphany. Jung suggested that Rowland Hazard should join the Oxford Group and ‘surrender to God.’

Ebby had described his spiritual epiphany to Bill W after studying with the Oxford Group. It was after this conversation that Bill W had his apparent religious epiphany after the belladonna treatment at Towns Hospital. It’s unclear whether the medicine made him hallucinate about the conversation. But, like Rowland and Ebby, it seemed to work.

The Oxford Group principles are said to be the key to maintaining sobriety. In summary, the principles are:

  • To be brutally honest with oneself
  • To believe in a higher power
  • To accept life as it is

The success in Alcoholics Anonymous is that it’s like having a group of friends with a higher purpose to accept life in its current state. Once a person accepts their circumstances without resisting or denying, it’s much easier to live with its consequences.

The Big Book

After the two men helped more men abstain from alcohol, Bill said to Dr. Bob that they should record what they were doing on paper so that they could spread the word.

So in 1939, Bill wrote a book about Dr. Bob’s experiences and the experiences of other alcoholics who were involved with the group. Charles B Towns (from Towns Hospital) lent Bill $2500 to write the book.

Originally, Bill W. was going to call the book “A Way Out.”  But, there were already books being sold with the same name. The name “Alcoholics Anonymous” became most fitting, as members of the groups wanted to remain anonymous.

Bill split these experiences into a twelve-step program.

The official title of the book is “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story Of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism,” although it’s referred to as the “Big Book” due to its size.

There have been four versions of the “Big Book.” The first was written in 1939, the second in 1955, the third in 1976, and the fourth in 2001.

The Big Book is one of the best-selling books of all time, having sold over 30 million copies. Time magazine voted the book as one of the best or most influential books since 1923.

The Twelve Steps

Each step in the twelve steps is an exercise in spiritual and personal discipline. Following these steps, and incorporating their wisdom into daily life is a means of remaining abstinent and mitigating the damage already caused by alcoholism.

The steps are a kind of moral code for happiness and high self-esteem, which helps a person to maintain sobriety. People who embrace the twelve steps in their lives find that they provide a structured format to create a happier and more productive life. The twelve steps aren’t just used by alcoholics and addicted people, they’re also used by the families and loved ones of alcoholics.

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all of these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong admitted it promptly.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

After the steps in Chapter 5, Bill W. continues, “Many of us exclaimed, ‘What an order! I can’t go through with it.’ Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles.”

The point is we are willing to grow along spiritual lines…we claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

So what do these steps mean?

The early steps start by getting the person to acknowledge that they have a problem with alcohol. As a person proceeds through the steps, the themes emphasize the concept of a higher power that they can surrender to.

Having faith in this higher power is the spiritual epiphany that Bill W had during his treatment at Towns Hospital after taking Belladonna. The higher power also refers to the spiritual awakening one experiences after taking psychedelics.

The idea of spirituality is for a person to accept life as it is, not as they desire. Acceptance is a key concept in spiritual awakening. It means that no matter what situation a person is in, whether they are dying, in pain, or suffering, acceptance of the moment is a healing experience. This is what it means to surrender to a higher power.

Surrendering to suffering and letting go of control of things is a form of acceptance. Just like when an alcoholic craves a drink, they must accept that they want a drink but can’t have one. They may feel depressed, anxious, and irritable. Surrendering to a higher power in this instance would be a person contacting their sponsor or attending an AA meeting.

Many people who are atheists consider other people in the fellowship as their higher power. Alcoholics Anonymous is still a powerful tool for sobriety, even when a person doesn’t believe in God or spirituality.

Perhaps it is most important to remember that the steps are used to develop integrity, moral fiber, and strength of character. Developing these aspects of one’s character means one should be better able to handle withdrawal symptoms and withstand cravings until they pass.

People who find themselves in a fellowship, find people who are interested in each other, and in learning how to have healthy relationships with each other. It’s like a friendship group with a common ground and more of a purpose than just being friends.

What To Do Next

If you’re struggling with alcohol use disorder and you don’t know which way to turn, we can help you here at Renaissance Recovery. Call our friendly team today at 866.330.9449 and we’ll walk you through your options for long-term recovery.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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