“My name is Pedro and I am an alcoholic.”
It is a phrase that sounds familiar even to those who have never attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Pedro thus introduces himself to the other 40 attendees at the meeting, which takes place on a Sunday morning in a small room near the main shopping street of Newcastle, in the north of England.
The answer is a unison welcome, warm and enthusiastic: “Hello, Pedro”.
Those who are here have something in common: his dependence on alcohol. Although they come from different sectors of society and have different occupations and life histories.
The format of the meeting is simple: a presentation, a reading, a member’s testimony, then an open discussion in which anyone present can share their concerns, accomplishments, or thoughts.
Pedro started drinking when he was 11 years old.
“By the time I was of legal drinking age, I was already a regular visitor to alcohol treatment centers, going to the doctor again and again, being taken to the police station again and again” .
Pedro hasn’t tried alcohol in more than three decades and attributes his continued sobriety to his involvement in AA.
the 12 steps
All members mention the “process of going through the 12 steps” as one of the pillars of the AA program.
The first of those steps, published four years after the entity’s founding, reads: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
The 12 steps are, in a nutshell, a recovery plan to overcome addiction.
That plan includes submission to a higher spiritual power, recognition of alcoholism as a problem that has no end, repairing the damage caused to those affected by addiction, and spiritual awakening through prayer or meditation. (See the detailed description of each of the steps at the end of this article).
Founded by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio, USA, AA spun off from an American Christian organization called The Oxford Group.
June 10, 1935 was the day Wilson helped Smith out of alcoholism. On that date Smith took the last drink from him.
That social element of AA, the importance of sponsor or godfather of the addict, is as well known as his 12 steps.
Today, Alcoholics Anonymous can be found in approximately 180 countries and has more than two million members. There are more than 123,000 groups around the world and AA literature has been translated into more than 100 languages, its website describes.
According to a 1998 study, 90% of private addiction treatment centers are based on the American 12-step model.
To each addiction, its group
The principles have laid the foundation for other groups who have no direct ties to AA.
Among them, Narcotics Anonymous, the more specific Marijuana Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, even groups for work or sex addicts.
In addition to those best known for treating food addiction, there are others for those who suffer from hoarding disorder or those who have a pathological inability “to cover their own material needs.” And for relatives concerned about those who suffer from addictions of all kinds, under the banner Families Anonymous.
In some small towns where there are no groups dedicated to a specific disorder, patients are encouraged to attend another meeting of addicts, albeit a different kind: that gambling addicts look for support in an alcoholic session, for example.
“If you look at the 12-step program, the only difference really is in the first part of the first step. The rest of the program is a project for life,” Pedro says.
“The 12 steps (of AA) are very applicable to any other addiction,” confirms Amy Krentzman of the University of Minnesota School of Social Work, who has done research on AA and other step-based programs.
“They modify the language, but the logic is the same… And they have the support of other people that you have already gone through those 12 steps and have achieved success, which is encouraging“.
Most groups offer Skype sessions, where the availability is 24 hours. “There are colleagues there who are always willing to listen and one says the usual, ‘My name is such and such and I am addicted to such and such,'” says the coordinator.
The Helper Theory
Part of the success of these institutions is also based on the so-called helper theory, coined in the 1960s.
According to Krentzman, having a person destined to assist the addict in a direct way it is usually beneficial for both: it gives the sponsor a sense of well-being that helps in their own process since many of them are also recovering addicts.
Many movies and TV series, from “The Sopranos” to “Mad Men”, “House of Cards” or “The West Wing”, portray the relationship between the addict and his sponsor. Many times, the former receive emotional and spiritual support, in addition to practical guidance, from their sponsors.
The other principle is that AA views treatment as a continuous process that never ends and what is addressed one day at a time: the goal is to go past the temptations of 24 hours, set the goal the next day.
This differentiates it from other approaches to addiction that offer short programs and then leave the addict to deal with their daily life without further assistance.
Marijuana Anonymous it has “exactly the same format,” says Thomas, a member of the group. “It has the 12 steps and several stories that demonstrate the practical application of those steps, from people who have gone through the experience and stayed sober ever since.”
not for everyone
But these groups that follow the AA proposal do not have the support of the core Organization, which is managed through Alcoholics Anonymous World Services (AAWS), copyright owner.
AAWS does grant permission for the use of the 12 steps.
And principles have their detractors, of course. Many criticize the quasi-religious element; others, the emphasis on absolute abstinence rather than the option of moderate and controlled consumption.
A film, entitled “The 13th Step”, denounced alleged cases of sexual abuse committed by AA members whose victims were addicts attending the meetings.
But perhaps the biggest criticism comes from those who want concrete evidence that this widely accepted program achieves real results.
“The evidence shows that it works very well for some people,” says Krentzman.
A review of all the scientific studies that have been done on the success rate of AA, published in 2006, found that “no experimental study unambiguously demonstrated the AA efficacy“.
Lance Dodes, a specialist in substance abuse, wrote in a book on the 12 steps: “Alcoholics Anonymous was proclaimed the correct treatment for alcoholism 75 years ago, despite the lack of scientific evidence on the efficacy of his method and we have continued to uphold it as valid ever since.
At the Sunday meeting in Newcastle, the 40 attendees sit, listen and tell addiction stories. There are friendly handshakes and conversations, compassion, smiles and jokes shared.
One by one they leave when the date ends: in the street they mix with the many passers-by and their shopping bags and see themselves as one more in the crowd. But in their minds they carry an extra weight: that of commitment in 12 steps, which will accompany them until it is time to renew it next week. One week at a time.
The 12 steps of AA
- We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.
- We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- We resolved to entrust our will and our lives to the care of God, according to our own understanding of him.
- Without fear, we made a sincere and thorough examination of conscience.
- We admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our faults.
- We were entirely willing for God to remove all these character defects.
- We humbly ask God to free us from our sins.
- We made a list of all the people we had harmed, and we were willing to make amends for the harm we caused them.
- We directly repair the harm caused to those people when possible, except in cases where doing so would have inflicted more damage or harmed a third party.
- We continue with our examination of conscience, spontaneously admitting our faults when we recognize them.
- Through prayer and meditation, we try to improve our conscious contact with God and ask only for the ability to recognize his will and the strength to carry it out.
- Having achieved a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we try to carry this message to other people and practice these principles in all our actions.
Source: AA/ Al-Anon.
In this note, the last name of those who gave their testimony to the BBC is reserved to protect their privacy.
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