How Alcoholics Anonymous lost its way (2023)

Even people who have never had a drinking problem know that Alcoholics Anonymous has 12 steps. You admit you’re powerless over alcohol (Step One), for instance, and apologise to people who’ve been harmed by your drinking (Step Nine). But fewer people know about AA’s 12 Traditions, the glue that holds a motley crew of recovering drunks together. The 12 steps keep your life in order; the 12 traditions keep the group in order — or so it is said in AA.

Arguably the most important tradition is Tradition 10: “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.” The Washingtonians, a group of recovering alcoholics that preceded AA by about a century, disbanded due to infighting over its involvement in social reforms like prohibition, religion and slavery abolition. AA’s founders, William Wilson and Dr Robert Smith (Bill and Dr Bob), didn’t want AA to suffer the same fate. Best their organisation remain neutral, they thought, so as to be welcoming for alcoholics from every walk of life. For nearly 88 years, AA has never weighed in on foreign or domestic policies, nor has it endorsed political candidates or legislative proposals. And so desperate drunks of every race, colour and creed have kept on coming and — together — got sober.

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It is up to every individual AA meeting to uphold the programme principles. (Tradition 4: “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole”). But where many struggle, I’ve found, over the 20 years I’ve been going to meetings, is with Tradition 10. In AA, alcoholics are free to share about anything they like, so long as it pertains to alcoholism; politics and the culture wars, they can leave at the door. And yet, a lot of recovering alcoholics can’t resist hot takes when they’ve been handed a mic. I noticed this particularly after Donald Trump was elected, and especially in New York City. Members started sharing about a fight they’d had that day with their idiotic, MAGA-hat-wearing uncle on Facebook — apparently unaware of newcomers, desperate to get sober, who might now feel unwelcome because they had voted for the wrong guy.

In 2020, violations of Tradition 10 reached a fever pitch. After George Floyd’s murder, institutions across the nation absorbed progressive ideals into their mission statements. I was finishing my last year of study at Columbia University. Having entered the university in 2017 as a self-described radical progressive planning a career in LGBT activism, I was graduating an exile. I had become disillusioned with, and spoken out against, my fellow progressives’ tactics: suppressing free speech, purity policing and reducing every individual to his or her skin colour, gender and sexual orientation. During my last semester, which was moved online due to the pandemic, I’d sign on to virtual AA meetings after class, and immediately be struck by how similar the two spaces had become. Pronouns lit up the screen. Whereas opening readings once consisted of the AA preamble, the 12 Steps and 12 traditions, and details about the meeting, now some groups chose to add a thinly veiled threat: “We will not tolerate racist, homophobic, sexist or transphobic rhetoric in this space.”

From my experience of post-Trump academia, I knew these proclamations wouldn’t so much prevent inappropriate speech as put everyone on high alert, encouraging an atmosphere of self-censorship. Recovering alcoholics carry a lot of guilt about the harm their drinking has caused others; they are often irrationally fearful of causing any more. If they feel like they’re traversing a mine field of potential triggers that could set off listeners in the room, they may be reluctant to admit shameful details about the past, which they want and need to get off their chests. Recovering alcoholics’ lives depend on their ability to share honestly, and to feel like they will be accepted by AA no matter their histories or their personal views. Increasingly, certain opinions — although you could never be totally sure which ones — were no longer worthy of respect in a democratic society. Meetings were not unlike my university classes, where the silence during discussions would extend for what felt like an eternity, as so many students stayed quiet rather than risk transgressing.

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But even silence could get alcoholics in trouble. In June 2020, Toby N. had been in the programme in New York for six years. He was raised in the Mormon church, but left it when he was 24 and came out as gay a couple of years later. On #BlackoutTuesday, when white people committed to posting nothing but a black square on Instagram for a full 24 hours, Toby decided not to partake. “I didn’t feel like it was going to do anything,” he said. Then he got a direct message from a friend — another gay man in AA — who asked: why hadn’t Toby posted anything about racial justice on social media? He accused Toby of inadequate allyship. (Toby had donated to Black Lives Matter.) In meetings, he would hear people whispering about other members’ “white privilege”.

Toby was generally in alignment with them about social justice issues, but he found the manner in which they spoke about them exceedingly “toxic”. But a line had been drawn in the sand, he told me: “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” Exclusively attending meetings for gay alcoholics, Toby had previously found acceptance in AA, but now he felt like a stranger in the programme that had for years been like a second home. He decided to leave. The 12 steps worked for him, but the dogma and the groupthink, he felt he could do without. “It feels like I’m a man without a country,” he said. “I don’t have the gay community that I thought I did.”

For many years, I also attended affinity AA groups for gay and lesbian alcoholics. In these meetings, we felt no need to use coded language when sharing: we could say “my boyfriend” or “girlfriend”, rather than “my other half” or “significant other”. We could be honest about our difficulties with various spiritual aspects of the programme (Step Three: A decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him): the only God many of us had ever understood was one who despised us. It may seem like affinity groups violate Tradition 10, since some of the topics discussed in these meetings are technically “outside issues”. However, they are always spoken about as they pertain to alcoholism. And because these meetings are clearly labelled in the directory, straight members who attend are aware that some of the issues discussed might not pertain to them.

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Sometime over the past decade, gay and lesbian meetings became “LGBTQ” meetings. After “intersectionality” leapt from university campuses into the mainstream, these meetings became the most ideological of them all. Suddenly, a whole range of difficulties had to be acknowledged. “If you suffer from chronic fatigue and don’t feel like you can make it until the end of the meeting to share, please alert me and I will call on your early,” the host of one LGBTQ meeting in New York I attended read aloud. Then: “If you want to share but you have difficulty speaking, please write what you would like to share in the chat and I will read it aloud for you.” I still can’t fathom how any member in attendance could have interpreted these announcements as anything other than disturbingly infantilising: one of the key ingredients for sobriety is personal responsibility.

Perhaps most disconcertingly, the language of one of AA’s best-known readings changed. The preamble has always read: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other.” On the last day of the 71st General Service Conference for the US and Canada, held virtually in April 2021, a vote was held on whether to change the wording of the Preamble from “a fellowship of men and women” to “a fellowship of people”. The motion passed. Many members were shocked. Alcoholics Anonymous is famous for its stubborn resistance to change: the first 164 pages of the Big Book have barely been amended since they were written nearly a century ago. The literature has saved thousands, maybe millions, of lives. “Don’t fix what isn’t broken” is one of AA’s unofficial mottos. Why risk changing something that works?

Another member, Justin D., says that another reason changes should rarely occur is that they are hard to reverse. At an LGBTQ meeting he attends in Baltimore, which began as a meeting for gays and lesbians, a young woman joined the group and began demanding changes to the opening literature because people were being misgendered. She called for a directive stating that only gender-neutral language should be used when calling on members to share. Group members reluctantly acquiesced to the woman’s demands. Not long afterwards, she stopped attending. Now, if members wanted to return the readings to their original form, they would have to propose it to the group and initiate a vote —which could result in accusations that they are trying to reintroduce trans-exclusionary language.

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Elizabeth S. said that at a “queer-identified” meeting she attended, all of the opening readings were amended to include only gender-neutral language. However, she told me, one gender-specific pronoun had apparently managed to slip through the editing process. When the woman who read that particular announcement aloud arrived at the pronoun, Elizabeth said, she began to trip over her words and look nervously about the room, as if she was uncertain how to proceed.

Another member I spoke to, Bernadette R., remarked that for decades women have bristled at the male pronouns used in AA’s literature to describe God, or a Higher Power. “The female demographic is much bigger than the non-binary demographic. So why are they getting a space faster than women are?” She also mentioned her frustration with the new gender-neutral restrooms at the meeting she attends every week, which make many women feel uncomfortable. “Women deserve to feel safe,” she said.

And yet it has long been a principle in AA that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe, or what wrongs you’ve committed — AA says “You belong here.” The only requirement for membership is “a desire to stop drinking” (Tradition Three). Critical social justice ideology, which scoffs at the idea of redemption for those who may have transgressed, is inimical to AA’s core mission. If the programme doesn’t recommit to upholding Tradition 10, it could go the same way as the Washingtonians. In the meantime, many alcoholics with the “wrong politics” might choose not to join a group that could shun them for their problematic views. And, as it is said in AA, for a real alcoholic, “to drink is to die”.

Names have been changed to respect AA members’ anonymity. All agreed to participate in this article.

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Is AA membership declining? ›

Americans and AA members have maintained the same pace over the last 31 years (AAs being 32% older that the average American in both 1983 and 2014).

What are the four paradoxes of Alcoholics Anonymous? ›

They are called the Four Paradoxes of AA: (1) we surrender to win, (2) we give away to keep, (3) we suffer to get well and (4) we die to live.

What is the real success rate of AA? ›

Addiction specialists cite success rates slightly higher, between 8% and 12%. A New York Times article stated that AA claims that up to 75% of its members stay abstinent. Alcoholics Anonymous' Big Book touts about a 50% success rate, stating that another 25% remain sober after some relapses.

What is the average length of sobriety in AA? ›

Alcoholics Anonymous surveys its members every few years. Their survey of 6,500 members in the U.S. and Canada showed that 35 percent of its members stayed sober for more than five years, 34 percent stayed sober for one to five years, and 31 percent were sober for less than one year.

Why people stop going to AA? ›

Many people will stop attending AA meetings because they believe they are too busy or do not have enough time for the program. However, if you are an addict, attending weekly meetings and getting yourself on track will be the best use of your time.

What is the average age in AA? ›

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are typically believed to be middle-aged. This is in keeping with survey data collected by AA itself, which gives the average age of members as 48 years.

What are the only two sins in AA Big Book? ›

there are only two sins; the first is to interfere with the growth of another human being, and the second is to interfere with one's own growth. Happiness is such an elusive state.

What is obsession in AA? ›

In one excerpt from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, the mental obsession is described as being when alcoholic “at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink,” meaning that will-power, consequences, emotional appeals of loved ones and any other hundreds of reasons that make sense not to ...

What is Tradition 5 of Alcoholics Anonymous? ›

5. Each Alcoholics Anonymous group ought to be a spiritual entity having but one primary purpose–that of carrying its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

Do people outgrow AA? ›

Several recovery paths exist. These may include holistic pathways, clinical interventions, or support groups alternative to AA. Some individuals have no formal recovery support at all and still successfully resolve an alcohol or drug problem.

What works better than AA? ›

Alternative Programs to AA
  • Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) Recovery.
  • Women for Sobriety.
  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.).
  • LifeRing Secular Recovery.
  • Moderation Management.
  • Evidence-based and science-based treatments.
  • Holistic therapies.
  • Experiential therapies.
Mar 13, 2023

Do people grow out of AA? ›

You cannot outgrow the Alcoholics Anonymous program because it is designed with constant maintenance in mind. The AA program is designed to help people get sober but it is also designed to help people maintain sobriety and recovery in the long term.

What is the hardest stage of sobriety? ›

The first week of sobriety is often the most difficult. You may experience withdrawal symptoms that last for a few days or weeks. These symptoms are uncomfortable, and the risk of relapse can be high.

What percentage of people relapse in AA? ›

According to a survey of members of AA, 75 percent experience a relapse during their first year of recovery. For those who are sober five years, the rate drops to 7 percent.

Can you be sober and still drink? ›

It's an exception, and very rare, for someone to be able to have even one drink and it does not lead to relapse.” “For the majority of people, drinking alcohol while in recovery will lead them back to their original addiction/substance use disorder, or an addiction to alcohol,” he adds.

What percentage of AA is female? ›

Women are statistically underrepresented, making up only 38 percent of the AA population. 32 percent of all modern AA members are introduced to the program by a friend.

Who has the longest sobriety in AA? ›

James H. is truly a unique individual. He is ninety-five years old, sixty-six years sober, and one of the greatest "life-changers" of the past one hundred years.

Is AA for life? ›

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can play a major role in your life both in early and long-term recovery. For more than 80 years, the 12 steps of AA have fostered a structure and community based on recovery from alcohol addiction. If you choose to commit to AA, this community can be a support throughout your life.

What does a camel mean in AA? ›

The camel is a symbol for sobriety because a camel can go 24 hours without a drink. Perhaps you remember the small stick pins with the number 24 on them which were quite popular in A.A. for a number of years.

What is the greatest asset in AA Big Book? ›

We are told that our past is our greatest asset and that can be hard sometimes as I still suffer great guilt from my drunken past. An AA friend once suggested that every time that wave of guilt came over me, I could see it as an opportunity to do something good and worthwhile for someone else that day.

What is the Big Book only requirement for AA? ›

He read aloud, "The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking." 5. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.

What is the greatest obsession of every alcoholic person? ›

The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.

Is AA selfish? ›

Alcoholics Anonymous is not a selfish program. At it's core, it is quite the opposite. Selfishness is the root of our troubles, and we must be rid of it and practice selflessness at every opportunity if we are to remain happy, joyous, and free in sobriety.

What is the root of obsession? ›

The Latin root is obsessus, or "besieged," and when you're obsessed, your mind has been besieged by uncontrollable thoughts of something.

What does tradition 11 mean in AA? ›

Tradition 11 of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) says, "Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films." Al-Anon includes the addition, "We need guard with special care the anonymity of all AA members."

What does Tradition 12 mean in AA? ›

The overarching message of AA's Tradition 12 is that we are all equal. Anonymity offers us the ability to walk into any meeting the same common purpose of our fellows – to stop drinking and using and recover. Anonymity allows us to embrace humility. All social and financial status is left at the door.

What is singleness of purpose in AA? ›

A.A. Singleness of Purpose

An A.A. group, as such, cannot take on all the personal problems of its members, let alone the problems of the whole world. Sobriety – freedom from alcohol – through the teaching and practice of the Twelve Steps is the sole purpose of an A.A. group.

How long does it take to recover from AA? ›

Different for Each Individual

Some of the steps involve making amends to those you may have hurt as a result of your alcoholism. For some people, that may take a day or two. For others, it may be a longer process that requires months or even years.

What percentage of AA is men? ›

Background. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) began as a male organization, but about one third is now female. Studies have found that women participate at least as much as men and benefit equally from AA, but it is unclear whether women benefit from AA in the same or different ways as men.

Can you join AA without being an alcoholic? ›

Only those with a drinking problem may attend closed meetings or become AA members. People with problems other than alcoholism are eligible for AA membership only if they have a drinking problem, too. 3 According to AA traditions, the only qualification for membership is a desire to stop drinking.

Is there a sufficient substitute AA? ›

Yes, there is a substitute and it is vastly more than that. It is a fellowship in Alcoholics Anonymous. There you will find release from care, boredom and worry.

Is AA good for depression? ›

Going to these meetings may help people “feel better” emotionally, as well as psychologically. These feelings may replace their need to drink. Depression and regulation of mood are common issues with people who have problems with alcohol and drinking could exacerbate the problem.

Is the 12 step program the only way? ›

Other Choices for Beating Drug Addiction and Alcoholism

Although 12-step programs have a history of much success in helping drug addicts and alcoholics recover from substance use disorder, they aren't the only options for beating addiction.

Is AA a bridge to normal living? ›

The A.A. program is designed, not as an escape route, but as a bridge to normal living. During their drinking days, many alcoholics made their problems worse by mixing liquor with sedatives, tranquilizers, marijuana or other drugs. They may cling to the pill or drug habit even after they stop drinking.

What is right sized AA? ›

AA refers to this as viewing yourself as "right-sized." Rather than viewing yourself with a sense of grandiosity or entitlement, you learn to accept who you are as you are. You no longer see yourself as greater than you are, and then you may make less unreasonable demands on yourself and others.

Why do people go back to drinking? ›

Examples of reasons for relapse can include: Tempting situations, like returning to a setting or environment where you used to drink. Stress, like insecure housing or social pressure lead to substance use as a coping mechanism. Untreated mental or emotional health disorders.

How many members does AA have today? ›

Today, an A.A. presence can be found in approximately 180 nations worldwide, with membership estimated at over two million. There are more than 123,000 A.A. groups around the world and A.A.'s literature has been translated into over 100 languages.

What is the popularity of AA? ›

Following its Twelve Traditions, AA is non-professional and non-denominational as well as apolitical and unaffiliated. In 2020 AA estimated its worldwide membership to be over two million, with 75% of those in the U.S. and Canada.

What are the disadvantages of AA? ›

While it is true that AA does have a number of weaknesses most notably of which is the induction of feelings of guilt and to some extent helplessness in its members, even its critics acknowledge that AA does not manipulate its members for the personal advantage of any one person or group of people.

What percentage of AA members are female? ›

Women are statistically underrepresented, making up only 38 percent of the AA population. 32 percent of all modern AA members are introduced to the program by a friend.

What religion is in AA? ›

Many members believe in some sort of god, and we have members who come from and practice all sorts of religions, but many are also atheist or ag- nostic. It's important to remember that A.A. is not a religious organization; we have a simple idea that there is a power greater than us as individuals.

Who is the longest member of the AA? ›

Therefore, Duke P. of Jacksonville Florida is the oldest member of A.A. with a sobriety date of 8/15/40, even though Duke's sobriety date is almost six years after James=. This is also the reason James uses his last name when speaking at A.A. events.

What is the highest status for AA? ›

AAdvantage Executive Platinum Status Benefits

Executive Platinum is AAdvantage's highest status.

Can a man sponsor a woman in AA? ›

According to The Alcoholism Guide, “You can choose your own AA sponsor if they agree to sponsor you, but AA prefers them to be of the same sex, believing that mixed sex sponsor pairs cause unwanted complications… It is not forbidden to have a sponsor of the opposite sex, but it is not advised.”

Who was the first woman in AA? ›

Mrs. Marty Mann was a pioneer in the understanding and treatment of alcoholism from the time that she was well into recovery in her 30s until her death in 1980 at age 76. She was one of the first women to embrace Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and achieve long-term sobriety through it.


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