alcoholics anonymous

What are alcoholic anonymous meetings?

What Is Alcoholics Anonymous?

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a popular support group and treatment option for those suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUD is a prevalent and serious issue, with recent statistics showing that over 3.3 million deaths worldwide are attributed to alcohol use each year.1

Effective treatment usually requires a multi-step process, and Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most easily accessible and affordable treatment options. It is widely available, with several million members spread throughout 181 countries.

Overview and Insight to Alcoholics Anonymous

Foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous

The program's foundation is peer-to-peer support from other individuals who have been through similar struggles. AA’s goal is to help its members achieve abstinence from alcohol, maintain sobriety, and improve their quality of life.

Who Can Join Alcoholics Anonymous?

Alcoholics Anonymous is open to everyone, and the only requirement in the rules is that the individual has a desire to stop drinking. Individuals of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds have found healing through the 12-Steps of AA.

How Does AA Work?

The AA program consists of regular meetings lasting between one and two hours. During the early stages of participation, members may attend meetings several times a week or even daily. Local chapters may meet in a church, community center, college campus, library, or other rented community space. 

There are different styles of meetings that a group will utilize throughout the year. Nonetheless, meetings are made up of members sharing their personal narratives with one another and working through the principles of AA, referred to as the 12-Step program. AA is usually free and available in many communities. As a result, the program is easily accessible and easy to maintain for long periods of time, increasing the probability of achieving sustained sobriety.  

Understanding AA

Alcoholics Anonymous is not based on a certain timeline or length of treatment. Everyone’s journey will look different, and the primary purpose is to find support for healing. The best outcomes are associated with regular attendance of meetings.

alcoholic anonymous


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What Are Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings?

Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are the foundation of the program. Peer support and regular connection with others suffering from the same disorder are often the catalysts to begin and maintain recovery. Anyone may attend open AA meetings.

An open meeting is open to the public, while a closed meeting is for members only. Most meetings are focused on discussion of the 12-Steps of AA, whether it is community discussion or one member sharing their experience. Once a person becomes a member, they will usually be paired with a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who is further along in the 12-Step program and provides direct support.

Open Meetings

Open AA meetings, which anyone can attend, are usually "speaker meetings"—meetings where a member of AA will tell their story, such as what it was like, what happened, and what it's like now.

These meetings seek to reach people suffering from alcohol use disorder through a third party and are often attended by a group of professionals frequently in contact with those struggling with a substance use disorder. Doctors, social workers, teachers, and others can function as third parties and recommend AA meetings to those needing help.

Closed Meetings

Closed meetings are strictly for those who have a drinking problem or think they may have a drinking problem. These meetings are focused on members sharing their experience with alcohol use disorder, how they came to AA, and how AA has helped them stay sober. There are also meetings centered around the AA literature, implications, and discussions.

What Does Alcoholics Anonymous Do?

step 12 of alcoholics anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous strives to bring people to sobriety through the 12-Step model of recovery. This program extends beyond abstinence by implementing lasting change to maintain long-lasting recovery.

What Is a Sponsor?

Members are encouraged to find an experienced fellow alcoholic, called a sponsor, to help them understand and follow the AA program. The sponsor should preferably have experience of all twelve steps, be the same sex as the sponsored person, and refrain from imposing personal views on the sponsored person.

What Are the Key Aspects of AA?

The main model is based on attending regular meetings. These meetings are informal, last between sixty and ninety minutes, and often feature discussions on participants’ personal journeys and the application of the 12-Steps. Additionally, some meetings are dedicated to general discussion.

A key element of this treatment is the element of spirituality or belief in a higher power that assists with recovery. Nevertheless, people do not need or have to be religious to join, as AA is also effective at helping agnostics and atheists become sober. 

What Does Alcoholics Anonymous Not Do?

It is also important to note what Alcoholics Anonymous is not designed to do to provide a better understanding of the program. They do not:

  • They do not solicit members. Interested parties are free to join if they feel it would be beneficial, but no direct advertising or marketing is involved.
  • They do not follow up with members to see how they are progressing. This is a self-guided journey to sobriety, so each member is responsible for themself.
  • They do not engage in education about alcohol. The focus is on the meeting structure and the sponsor’s relationship with the sponsored person.
  • They do not provide detox or other medical services. Detox and medical services are left to medical professionals.
  • They do not engage in or sponsor scientific research. AA cannot and will not force someone to stop drinking.
  • They do not offer religious services. There is prayer involved in most meetings, but they avoid any organized religious gatherings.

Do You Have to be Religious to Join Alcoholics Anonymous?

While religion tends to be connected to an organized set of beliefs, practices, and doctrines, 12-Step programs clearly state that they are to remain not organized or associated with any sect, politics, or institution. Therefore, members do not have to be religious per se to participate.

Nevertheless, 12-Step rehab groups are unapologetically spiritual in nature. Members are encouraged to discover their own definition of a higher power. Even those who identify as agnostic or atheist can explore and figure out what spirituality and a higher power mean when placed in their own worldview. 

Spirituality and AA

Spirituality is a vital part of the human experience, as it aids in the connection to self, others, social groups, and traditions. It is concerned with human values, truth, and experiences that provide meaning and purpose in life. Most cultures and people have some version of spirituality, which is a powerful tool to utilize when seeking recovery.

Rules of AA Programs

The rules of AA programs are often referred to as the 12 Traditions, principles that keep 12-Step groups rooted and healthy.

  1. Unity – Unity between the members gives support and allows them to make more progress.
  2. Leadership – Leadership belongs primarily to God.
  3. Eligibility – The only requirement for participation in 12-step meetings is a desire to stop the harmful behavior.
  4. Autonomy – 12-Step groups should vary their meeting style to best fit their own members.
  5. Carrying the Message – the primary purpose is to carry the message to those who still suffer.
  6. Outside Enterprises – A 12-Step group will not get involved with other organizations.
  7. Self-Supporting – Every group should be self-supporting.
  8. Giving it Away – The program will remain non-professional, and is usually free of charge.
  9. Organization – Support groups emphasize true fellowship and their primary purpose.
  10. Outside Opinions – No opinion on external issues, focused on the task at hand.
  11. Public Relations – No promotional actions; maintain personal anonymity to protect others.
  12. Anonymity – The spiritual foundation of the traditions reminds us to place principles above personalities.
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Different Types of Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings

There are several different meetings in addition to open and closed meetings. Some standard meeting formats are speaker meetings, step meetings, Big Book Study meetings, and gender-specific meetings. Most groups will rotate through a combination of these meetings throughout their regular programming.  

Speaker Meetings

Speaker meetings can be open or closed but more commonly occur in open meetings. They include an AA member sharing their story of recovery. They share what it was like while they were in active substance use disorder, how they came to AA, and what it is like living in sobriety.  

Step Meetings

Step meetings are closed meetings where participants break into small groups based on their current step of recovery.

Big Book Study Meetings

Big Book Study meetings are centered around discussing AA literature. Usually, a passage will be read, and then a discussion will follow so participants can discuss practical application.

Gender-Specific Meetings

Other common formats are meetings for only men or only women.

Effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous has existed for almost one hundred years, since the early 1930s. Over that time, it has proven to be an accessible, effective treatment that can lead to lasting sobriety. The 12-Step model is key to the method's success and has even been adapted for other substance use disorders besides alcohol use disorder, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

The 12 Steps are widely known, established, and organized, and it should be easy to find a meeting where the 12 Steps are practiced. Having access to a supportive network of peers can be life-changing for those struggling with substance abuse. In addition, there is little to no cost, which removes many barriers to starting treatment.

Research Supports the Effectiveness of AA

The 12 Steps of AA

The 12 Steps of recovery are clear, focusing on reconciliation with oneself and others and maintaining a healthier life. 

  1. Admit powerlessness – Be honest and admit you cannot control this issue.
  2. Find hope – Before change can happen, you must believe it is possible.
  3. Surrender – Surrender to the fact that you need help to change, as it cannot be on your own.
  4. Take inventory – Search your soul and identify how this behavior affected yourself and others.
  5. Share inventory – Admit your wrongs to others.
  6. Become ready – Accept your character defects and be ready to let them go.
  7. Ask God – Ask God to help you accomplish something that needs more than mere determination.
  8. List amends – Make a list of those you harmed before coming into recovery.
  9. Make amends – Make amends with those you have hurt to start healing your relationships.
  10. Continue inventory – Maintain the course you have started.
  11. Pray and meditate – Quiet yourself to discover the plan your higher power has for your life.
  12. Help others – Go and serve others with the message and apply the principles to every area of life.

What Should I Know Before Attending an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting?

What can you expect at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting? It can be nerve-wracking to put yourself in an unfamiliar environment, especially regarding such a vulnerable subject. It is essential to not rely on examples from tv and film but instead base your expectations on reality.

Gather Relevant Information

The first step is to find out more about your local AA groups. Many chapters have websites and people you can contact for more information before you even arrive. They should be able to answer specific questions and help you feel more comfortable with the AA experience.

The actual experience of a meeting is very relaxed; you are not required to introduce yourself and can take things at your own pace. There will usually be a discussion of the steps and time for people to share their stories.

Gather a Support Network and Keep an Open Mind

After the meeting, there will be a chance to socialize and build relationships with others who have been where you are. It is important to keep an open mind. It takes time to work through these issues and achieve lasting change. You may surprise yourself with what helps. Most importantly, don’t give up. This process has worked for thousands of people before you and is worth your time.

Does Alcoholics Anonymous Help People Get Sober?

Although AA has been around for many years, one of the common criticisms is the lack of medical research supporting its efficacy. However, recent studies have changed all of that. A study published in 2020 by the Cochrane Database found that the peer-led program not only helps people get sober but is just as effective or possibly even more effective than traditional therapeutic methods alone. This most recent review included twenty-seven studies of more than 10,500 people.2

The studies rated AA’s effectiveness by measuring the length of time participants abstained from alcohol, the amount of drinking that was reduced, the consequences of continued drinking, and their health care costs.

Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness Statistics

The results of these studies were very encouraging for supporters of the AA method. These results were consistent even when looked at based on age, race, and gender. One study found the program 60% more effective than alternatives.3

AA’s peer-to-peer relationships seem to be the magic that sets it apart from traditional therapeutic methods. These studies found the highest rates of long-term sobriety when medical treatment was paired with participation in an AA group. Members can give one another an emotional support system and practical tips to achieve their goals.

anonymous alcoholic meetings

Alternatives to the 12 Steps of AA

While 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous offer hope and recovery to many who are willing to embrace the higher power of their understanding, faith-based systems of recovery are often a turn-off for agnostics or atheists seeking sobriety. For any recovery program to work, the person seeking sobriety must not feel alienated or uncomfortable with the beliefs or practices it puts forth.

For example, prayer or overt religious messages may be enough to dissuade an atheist from returning to a treatment program—and because seeking sobriety is hard enough, that experience may be the tipping point to make them give up. Here are some alternatives for those seeking other options:

Medical and Therapeutic Treatment

It is possible for people to quit drinking and abusing drugs by using medical, evidence-based, and therapeutic treatment methods alone, such as detoxification treatment or pharmacological interventions.

Recovery Support Groups

There are plenty of recovery support groups not affiliated with AA that may take a more palatable approach. Research has shown that people trying to quit have better results if they participate in a mutual support or self-help group.4 

Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART)

SMART recovery is a fresh approach to addiction recovery. It is a transformative method of moving from addictive substances and negative behaviors to a life of positive self-regard and willingness to change.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)

SOS has helped thousands of people with substance use disorder reclaim their lives. Secular Organizations for Sobriety welcomes anyone sincerely seeking sobriety from alcohol addiction, drug addiction, and compulsive eating.

Overview of SOS

Alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous

alcoholics anonymous therapy

As AA has a spiritual aspect to it, it may not be the best option for some individuals. However, there is a variety of other support groups outside of Alcoholics Anonymous that may better suit an individual.

SMART Recovery

SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) Recovery is a non-profit organization that focuses on self-empowerment and evidence-based recovery methods. The goal of SMART Recovery group meetings is to help members achieve a healthy and productive life.5

SMART Recovery is also based on four main points: 

  • Building and maintaining motivation for long-term recove3ry
  • Coping with urges to use
  • Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
  • Living a balanced and fulfilled life

LifeRing Secular Recovery

LifeRing Secular Recovery is a support group that believes everyone’s path to recovery is different and should be unique to that person. LifeRing Recovery operates on the philosophy that you are the best person to create your recovery program.6  It also focuses on the “3-S Philosophy” which includes

  • Sobriety: The only requirement for membership at LifeRing Secular Recovery is that you are abstinent. 
  • Secularity: LifeRing is inclusive for people of all faiths, but it focuses on recovery of the individual rather than on the impact of religion or spirituality.
  • Self-help: The purpose of this support group is to reinforce members’ motivation and help them maintain sobriety. LifeRing supports the belief that the key to sobriety is found through a person’s motivation and effort. 

Women for Sobriety

Another popular support group is Women for Sobriety. Women for Sobriety is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1975 to help women discover long-term recovery.

Women for Sobriety provides a number of resources for recovery, including online support group meetings and in-person meetings, phone volunteers for one-on-one support, online community forums and chat rooms, and an Annual Weekend Conference.7

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