Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an international mutual aid fellowship founded on June 10, 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith (Bill W. and Dr. Bob) in Akron, Ohio. Bill Wilson was an Ivy Educated chronic alcoholic who struggled with problematic drinking for years. He failed to graduate from law school because he was too drunk to pick up his diploma. His drinking damaged his marriage, and he was hospitalized for alcoholism at Towns Hospital four times in 1933-1934 under the care of Dr. William Silkworth. On Wilson’s first stay at Towns Hospital, Dr. Silkworth explained to him his theory that alcoholism is an illness rather than a moral failure or failure of willpower. Silkworth believed that alcoholics were suffering from a mental obsession, combined with an allergy that made compulsive drinking inevitable, and to break the cycle one had to completely abstain from alcohol use. Wilson was elated to find that he suffered from an illness, and he managed to stay off alcohol for a month before he resumed drinking. While at Towns Hospital again under Silkworth’s care, Wilson was administered a drug cure concocted by Charles B. Towns. Known as the Belladonna Cure, it contained the deliriants Belladonna and Hyoscyamus niger, which cause hallucinations. It was while undergoing this treatment that Wilson experienced his “Hot Flash” spiritual conversion. While lying in bed depressed and despairing, Wilson cried out: “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!” He then had the sensation of a bright light, a feeling of ecstasy, and a new serenity. Wilson described his experience to Dr. Silkworth, who told him not to discount it.
Dr. Silkworth encouraged Bill to work with other alcoholics to help them to get sober. Though he tried, he had little success. Wilson’s first success came during a business trip to Akron, Ohio, where he was introduced to Dr. Robert Smith, a surgeon who was unable to stay sober. After thirty days of working with Wilson, Smith drank his last drink on June 10, 1935, the date marked by AA for its anniversaries.
By 1937, Wilson and Smith could count 40 alcoholic men they had helped to get sober, and two years later they counted 100 members, including one woman. To promote the fellowship, Wilson and other members wrote the initially-titled book, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism from which AA drew its name. Informally known as “The Big Book” (with its first 164 pages virtually unchanged since the 1939 edition), it suggests a twelve-step program in which members admit that they are powerless over alcohol and need help from a “higher power”; seek guidance and strength through prayer and meditation from God or Higher Power of their own understanding; take a moral inventory with care to include resentments; list and become ready to remove character defects; list and make amends to those harmed, and then try to help other alcoholics recover.
In 1941, interviews on American radio and favorable articles in US magazines, including a piece by Jack Alexander in The Saturday Evening Post, led to increased book sales and membership. By 1946, as the growing fellowship quarreled over structure, purpose, and authority, as well as finances and publicity, Wilson began to form and promote what became known as AA’s Twelve Traditions, guidelines for an altruistic, unaffiliated, non-coercive, and non-hierarchical structure that limited AA’s purpose to only helping alcoholics on a non-professional level while shunning publicity.
At the 1955 St. Louis convention in Missouri, Wilson relinquished stewardship of AA to the General Service Conference, as AA grew to millions of members internationally.
In 2006, AA counted 1,867,212 members and 106,202 AA groups worldwide. The Twelve Traditions informally guide how individual AA groups function, and the Twelve Concepts for World Service guide how the organization is structured globally.
AA’s New York General Service Office regularly surveys AA members in North America. Its 2011 survey of over 8,000 members in Canada and the United States concluded that, in North America, AA members who responded to the survey were 65% male and 35% female. Average member sobriety is slightly under 10 years with 36% sober more than ten years, 12% sober from five to ten years, 24% sober from one to five years, and 27% sober less than one year. Before coming to AA, 63% of members received some type of treatment or counseling, such as medical, psychological, or spiritual. After coming to AA, 62% received outside treatment or counseling. Of those members, 82% said that outside help played an important part in their recovery. The same survey showed that AA received 12% of its membership from court ordered attendance.
Two landmark surveys that sampled the general population produced independent results on AA continuance rates. The 1990 National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey (NLAES) found that Alcoholics Anonymous has a 31% continuance rate. The 2001-2002 National Epidemiological Survey on Alcoholism and Related Conditions (NESARC) indicates a slightly higher rate, at 35.2%.
AA states that its “primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety“. With other early members Wilson and Smith developed AA’s Twelve Step program of spiritual and character development. AA’s Twelve Traditions were introduced in 1946 to help AA stabilize and grow. The Traditions recommend that members and groups remain anonymous in public media, altruistically help other alcoholics, including all who wish to stop drinking, and do not affiliate AA with any other organization. The Traditions also recommend that AA members acting on behalf of the fellowship steer clear of dogma, governing hierarchies and involvement in public issues. Subsequent fellowships such as Narcotics Anonymous have adopted and adapted the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions to their respective primary purposes.
For me there is something magical about AA. I can’t think of another place on this planet where a Catholic can sit next to a Born Again Christian, who can sit next to an Orthodox Jew who can sit next to a Muslim sitting next to an atheist, sitting next to a Mormon, sitting next to an agnostic and they’re all in the same room and more than just not killing each other they can actually find their own personal relationship with something outside of themselves and stop drinking all at the same time. And all that for a dollar a day! Now that to me is a miracle.
So we raise our non-alcoholic glasses and toast AA at 78.
May you live and prosper and continue to offer hope to those who still suffer, forever.