It might be obvious from the name, but anonymity is the most important rule of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. You do NOT reveal the names or identities of anyone else you see at a meeting, and everything said in an AA meeting is held in the strictest secrecy. People take this very seriously.

Alcoholics anonymous was co-founded by William Griffith Wilson (Bill W.) and Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith (Dr. Bob) in 1935, both of whom had been diagnosed as "hopeless alcoholics*." The founding of AA is usually traced to a business trip Bill W. took in 1935 to Akron, Ohio. When his business meetings ended in disaster, Wilson found himself desperate to find some way to keep himself from drowning his troubles in alcohol. He decided the best way to keep himself from drinking would be to find another alcoholic who was fighting the same fight. By asking around, he finally encountered Dr. Bob, a surgeon who had been fighting his own alcoholism for years. The men first formed a support group of just two, then started helping others, one man at a time, in the top room of Dr. Bob's home. In the next four years, they helped about 100 men. But after the publication of their trademark book Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939, membership skyrocketed. By 1951, nationwide membership stood at more than 100,000 people.

The ideas espoused in the twelve steps can be traced back to an evangelical religious group called The Oxford Group which emphesized total surrender to God's will. The earliest incarnation of the now-famous twelve steps was at a speech Bill W. gave early in the AA movement, describing how he and Dr. Bob had beaten their alcoholism:

  • We admitted we were licked.
  • We got honest with ourselves.
  • We talked it over with another person.
  • We made amends to those we had harmed.
  • We tried to carry this message to others with no thought of reward.
  • We prayed to whatever God we thought there was.

To those who call AA a cult, I'd like to point out that they exhibit none of the dangerous qualities of a cult. They don't want your money (After you've become a regular atendee of a group they ask for small donations to cover operating expenses. But they do NOT, for example, ask you to live in a compound, sign over your earthly goods or to go around selling vegetarian cookbooks on streetcorners). They don't ask you to quit your family or friends (except in cases where your friends are causing you to drink). Cults break families apart. AA brings families together.

I will admit that the slogan-chanting can seem a little hokey to the non-initiated. "It works if you work it, so work it, 'cause you're worth it!" was the one that always made me cringe. But slogans like "one day at a time" and "progress, not perfection" can become a useful mantra for someone fighting addiction.

Take what you like and leave the rest.

* Remember: Alcoholism at this time was considered a mental illness, one that could land you in an insane asylum.

jre told the following joke, which is actually relevant:
"What is the difference between a drunk and an alcoholic?"
"A drunk doesn't have to go to those stupid meetings".

This is how one of those stupid meetings works.

You're late

Partly you're late because this is the last place you ever want to be, you have no faith, the little Methodist chapel looks deserted, you feel like you're wasting your own time. And of course, even being here is like giving up and admitting something you're not certain of even now.

There's a set of double glass doors along from the main chapel entrance, the kind you'd find in a social security office. Or a pub. They're locked. You look at your cigarette, look at the doors, the dim stairwell behind them.

"Fuck this", you think. You'll go to a bookshop, get something to read, something to eat in Burger King or somewhere, drink Fanta and imagine it's an orange Bacardi Breezer. But you won't go to the pub. You can do this without them. Fuck 'em and their locked doors.

You're just about to walk away when a short man in jeans and a sweater opens the doors. "Hi," he says, tells you his name. You tell him yours and you shake his hand. "Come on up," he says.

You hesitate and then pitch the cigarette and follow him. Up the stairs there's a landing, posters and flyers on the walls. Two steps further up you can hear voices, then you enter a kind of a common room, wooden chairs, benches, a table covered with books and leaflets and pamphlets. It smells of tea, coffee and turtle wax. It has that institutional blue corderoy carpet but apart from that, it feels friendly. In a quiet sort of way.

The room is full, all kinds of people, all ages, a beautiful young woman in the Riot Grrl style, a man in his forties with a raddled face and eyes like a saint, an elderly lady, very upright and proper, the man you brought you in, matter of fact and straightforward. There's a someone at the back, that's the only way you can think of them - androgynous in a bizarre way you've never seen before. This is no too-pretty goth boy in a leather mini-skirt, this is a someone in shorts and a t-shirt with a man's hairy legs and knobbly knees, long black hair, a small pair of breasts, small hands, designer stubble. And a despairing face that could have been drawn by some new-age hippy artist it's so ambiguous. Many others. Maybe twenty, maybe thirty. You start to get a little scared.

You take a seat. The raddled man shakes your hand, some other people nod, or smile. Or just look. There's a perky-looking girl at a desk right next to the raddled man.

She starts to speak, stilling the inevitable low murmering. It seems she's in charge of this meeting. The raddled man is the "Chair", he's due to talk to you all, as soon as a bald bloke with a beard finishes reading an extract from the Big Book in a low and frankly depressing voice.

Then the raddled man talks. He's bright, interesting, he talks of horrible situations with humour, he draws you in, lets you know that he's the same as you, that they all are, that they know. And as you listen, you identify more and more with what he's what he's saying. And you stop thinking "I shouldn't be here, i'm not an alcoholic. I'm just a drunk, just a pisshead, i don't need alcohol..." and you start to answer yourself with "maybe not, but i do need help. I do have a problem. And from what he's saying, it's the same as his problem."

He stops talking after a while. Others around the room speak, some of alcohol addiction others of your problem, your uncontrollable binge drinking. You start to realise that maybe there's a place for you here after all. And maybe you'd better take it. Before it gets too late.

Eventually, you speak. You take last place but one. You weren't certain you'd be able to speak at all, but now that the meeting's almost over, you're afraid not to. You speak. You tell them about the last couple of weeks. Half-way through your voice cracks, and you can't go on. But it was enough. And then you listen to the serenity prayer and you put your coat on, and you go home.

You sleep well that night, for the first time in months, alcoholic stupor not really counting as sleep. You don't have a drink the next day.

I didn't have a drink yesterday, i haven't had one today. I'm happy with that.

If you have ever traveled on a cruise ship you may have seen the following notice posted on the "Events" bulletin board.

Friends of Bill W. will meet in the Boatdeck Lounge tonight

"Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism."

This is the first sentence of the AA Preamble, a statement of purpose which is read at the beginning of AA meetings throughout the world. It outlines membership requirements, dues or fees, and political or religious affiliations. These three items are largely passive; AA cites only "a desire to stop drinking" as a membership requirement, has no dues or fees, and is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution. It further states that AA "does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes." The Preamble ends with, "Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety".

Following the Preamble, some or all of the following will be read: How It Works or the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, the Promises, the "blue card" {a short paragraph on the format of that particular meeting), and a statement of anonymity. After "the readings", the main item on the meeting agenda begins. Meetings can be Study Meetings, Discussion Meetings, or Speaker Meetings.

Study Meetings

Study Meetings are devoted to the reading of the Big Book, the book, "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions", or other official AA literature. An AA member will read several paragraphs aloud and those who wish to comment will do so. Then another member will read the next few paragraphs, and further discussion will take place. It is not uncommon for an AA group to read one paragraph and discuss it for the balance of an hour-long meeting.

Discussion Meetings

A Discussion Meeting differs from a Study Meeting in that no literature is read aloud and the topic can be anything that relates to alcoholism and how it affects the individual AA member. The chairperson of the meeting will announce the topic, or will ask for a topic from those attending. Topics can be as widely diverse as "How to get through the holidays without drinking", "Acceptance", "Pride and related character defects", "sponsorship", or "gratitude". Everyone is encouraged to speak, but all are asked to limit their "share" so everyone has an opportunity to speak. "Cross-talking" is discouraged or strictly forbidden.

Speaker Meetings

At a Speaker Meeting, only the Chairperson and one or several members speak. The tradition of anonymity is observed, even in a closed meeting. Speakers are very frank about details of their personal lives, but it is done anonymously; family names, addresses, and career details are absent or sketchy at best. While anonymity is stressed to encourage newcomers to participate, it is not practiced as a means of cloaking a shameful past. Anonymity, setting principles before personalities, has been called the spiritual foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous. The honor of long term sobriety is not accredited to the individual but to the principles of AA. Here is an excerpt from a Speaker Meeting.

Good evening. My name is Carl and I am an alcoholic. My sobriety date is October 2, 1989 and my home group is New Dawn in Daytona Beach, Florida. Thank you for asking me to share my story tonight. There is nothing I like better on one of these cruises than to spend an evening in a private room of the main bar, drinking soda and coffee with a bunch of other alcoholics in recovery. I bet the management just loves us.
Seriously, today the management often does love us. I attended the International Convention in San Diego in 1995. There were 45,000 of us there, or maybe 60,000, or any figure in between, depending on the newspaper you read. And the newspaper coverage was fantastic. They loved us. We were clean and polite and friendly. We did a lot of shopping, bought a lot of stuff. True, the hotels had to deodorize their hospitality suites after we left. This was back in the days when the first service job of a newcomer was to empty ashtrays, just like in the early days with Bill and Dr. Bob.
But it was a little paragraph at the end of one of these newspaper columns full of warm fuzzies that impressed me. It said that, for the first time in the history of conventions in the city of San Diego, it had not been necessary for the police department to use extra officers to "handle the drunks". Imagine that -- 60,000 alcoholics at a convention and they didn't need extra cops! Imagine what it would have been like if we were still active alcholics.
Anyway, you didn't come here to hear about San Diego. I've told you who I am, what I am, and where I belong. Now it is time for the "experience, strength and hope", the only thing that any of us can offer each other. I can tell you what happened to me, how I got here, and what it is like today. In other words, my story. OK? All right, here we go.
I'm from the Midwest, a middle class family. Most of my relatives on both sides were alcoholic. My father drank until I was two or three, then my mother made him stop. She had grown up in a disfunctional alcoholic home and was terrified of drinking. So I have the genetic background but missed most of the environmental conditioning during my early years.
Was my dad an alcoholic, or even a potential alcoholic? I don't know. Looking back on it, I would say that for most of his lifetime he exhibited all the signs of a dry drunk, but who am I to say? You know our credo -- only an alcoholic can decide if he or she is an alcoholic. I know that I am an alcoholic, and that's as far as I go.
I started drinking when I was sixteen and the first time I got drunk I had a blackout. Some of us have blackouts, others don't. I had at least partial blackouts most of the time. I thought everybody did. I don't know which is worse, worrying about what I might have done the night before, or remembering what did happened. You know what it is like, that feeling of dread when you come to in the morning and think, "Oh, s***. Where am I and what did I do?"
I'm not going to run this into a drunkalog. Let's just say that I drank as much as I could for as long as I could, and that if I had figured out a way to keep on drinking and not kill myself, I'd still be out there.

This is the first part, the "what it was like" portion of the speech. The speaker then goes on to describe how he "hit bottom" and subsequently joined AA. The third and final portion covers what the speaker has learned since joining, how he has changed, and what his life is like today as a sober alcoholic.

Speaker meetings, while a learning and sharing experience for AAs, are also considered entertainment. State conventions and other large gatherings will generally feature AA circuit speakers from distant states. The production and sale of speaker tapes is a thriving business in the AA world. This is not considered mercenary. (The speakers themselves do not own the rights to the tapes.) As one respected member of AA said, "All we can offer each other is our stories".

AA members find great comfort in meetings. Meetings are the backbone of the Fellowship. When away from home, in an airplane or on a cruise ship, it is not unusual for an individual AA member to ask a flight attendant to announce that someone is looking for "Friends of Bill W" or to post a notice announcing a "Friends of Bill W Meeting".

Organizational Structure

The organizational structure of Alcoholics Anonymous is an inverted pyramid. Control flows upward from the individual groups to the Districts, which are joined together into Areas (geographical in nature). Quarterly Area Assemblies send Delegates to annual General Service Conferences at the headquarters of Alcoholics Anonymous in New York City. A similar organizational structure is utilized globally wherever Alcoholics Anonymous exists.

At the Group and District level, Central Offices and Intergroups are often established to coordinate the meetings and activities of the various groups.

  • "Alcoholics Anonymous", 4th Edition, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. ISBN 1-893007-17-0
  • "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions", Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. ISBN 0-916856-29-1
  • "AA Comes of Age, a brief history of A.A.",Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. ISBN 0-916856-02-X

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