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DIGEST, Vol. 25 (12) 108-112, October, 1961
FOR THE A.A. PROGRAM
by Collie Small
Anonymous is 25 years old this year. Yet it still
cannot altogether explain its remarkable success in rehabilitating
hopeless drunks. Some years ago A.A. asked some prominent
to explain its program to a group at the New York Academy
Medicine. To a man, the doctors hastily declined, although
them was an enthusiastic supporter of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Suprised, A.A. wanted to know the reason for the brusque
do recognize most of the forces at work in A.A.," the
doctors said in substance, "but we cannot explain the
speed of the
results. A.A. accomplishes things in weeks or months which
ordinarily should take years. On top of that, tremendous
follow in the personality of the alcoholic. There is something
work here that we don't understand. We call it the X factor.
call it God. Well, you can't explain God and neither can
least not at the New York Academy of Medicine."
means many things to many men and women, but it works -
if an alcoholic genuinely wants it to work. And that, of
is all A.A. needs to know. Thus has A.A. come of age, both
statistically, in its more than 8,500 groups in approximately
countries, and in its working philosophy. It has salvaged
300,000 wrecked and sodden lives.
inevitably made mistakes in its early days, and lives
were doubtless lost because of them. It was hard for the
members of A.A. to recognize what it was that was keeping
sober. Suddenly they realized that they were men and women
only had discovered their inability to control alcohol,
admitted to themselves that they were unable to control
it. It was
a vital realization.
Bill W., a New York stockbroker, along with an
alcoholic physician, Doctor Bob, of Akron, Ohio, founded
one invented it. It just grew. And the process was one of
trial and painful error.
in its history, A.A. discovered that one of the fastest
ways to get a sober alcoholic drunk again is to generate
rebellion in him by demanding virtually unattainable standards
behavior. Today, no one demands anything of anyone in A.A.
are no rules whatever. There is nothing in the entire program
stronger than 12 suggested steps to sobriety.
futility of trying to force an alcoholic into sobriety
was learned in another way from a New York physician, Dr.
D. Silkworth, known affectionately as "the little doctor
drunks." It was estimated that Dr. Silkworth had salvaged
30,000 alcoholics. After Bill W. had vainly spent six discouraging
months in trying to sober up his first drunk, it was Dr.
who spotted the trouble.
preaching," he said. "That won't work. Instead,
them the brutal medical facts about their obsession with
and their physical incapability of handling it. The medical
alone are enough to frighten anyone. Then maybe you can
them up enough to make them want to do anything to get well.
is when A.A. is most likely to succeed."
Silkworth was right. Every alcoholic is emotionally
unstable. Defiance and resentment against society are among
is still a medical mystery why one person should be abie
to tolerate alcohol and another should not. Although the
A.A.'s had much to learn from both medicine and religion,
were also realizing that it takes an alcoholic to help another
alcoholic. "Fellowship" became an extremely important
A.A., along with "humility" and "sacrifice,"
all of them qualities
that a troubled world does not seem to be able to assume
as some 300,000 drunks have been able to do.
power alone, it quickly appeared, was not enough to keep
an alcoholic sober. Whatever it was called, there had to
stronger force, a higher power to be accepted by, but not
upon, the alcoholic. Strength from God was vital, but the
God had to be strictly an individual matter.
readily accepted the fact that alcoholism is an illness
which cannot be cured but can only be arrested. Its byword
became: "Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic."
It emphasized that it is
the first drink that does the total damage, not the 10th
Switching drinks was certainly no answer, a grievous error
a group of A.A.'s in Richmond, Va., who experimented briefly
beer instead of hard liquor, with disastrous results.
quickly learned that long term pledges of sobriety were
meaningless in the case of an alcoholic. With too difficult
goal, it was inevitable that he would fall off the wagon
point. So the "24-hour plan" was developed to
alcoholic's goal within his reach. Here was a simple but
bit of psychology which suggested that the alcoholic relax
merely concentrate on staying sober for 24 hours. "If
I feel the
urge to take a drink," he could tell himself, "I
yield to the temptation nor resist it. I will just put off
the drink until tomorrow." By this happy quirk of time,
never comes. It is always today, a day of sobriety.
with the personal problems of the alcoholic grappled
with within A.A., there were critical group problems to
resolved. Was there, for example, a real need for anonymity?
was a sticky problem indeed. Certainly there was a
crying need for publicity to call attention to A.A. and
public confidence in it. But when a A.A. group in Cleveland
sobered up a famous major-league baseball player and revealed
identity, the newspaper stories were sensational. Bill W.
that personal anonymity was absolutely essential.
alcoholics desperately wanted the assurance of anonymity
because of the social stigma which was then much greater
is now. Other members, however, became so enthusiastic over
success with A.A. that they were trumpeting its praises
rooftops. They could do a great deal of harm should they
however briefly, and get drunk again in public, as more
than a few
the core of every group's survival lay the need for
absolute humility and equality on the part of the members.
firm policy of principle before personality was adopted.
decided early not to accept outside contributions but
instead to pay its own way through profits from its several
publications and by passing the hat at meetings. In the
concluded that it had no need for large sums of money. It
has had to guard constantly against becoming a
commercial enterprise in which material values might challenge
spiritual values on which A.A. was founded. In the face
countless tempting offers of outside financial help, A.A.
vow of poverty, restricting even its own members to $100
contributions in any one year.
saw at the outset the wisdom of never engaging in public
controversy. Such a decision might have saved the Washingtonian
society, a movement among alcoholics in Baltimore 100 years
At first, the Washingtonians saw themselves simply as alcoholics
trying to help one another, and at one point their total
membership exceeded 100,000. Then their egos took command,
they made a series of disastrous mistakes by associating
themselves with various reform groups, by taking violent
the explosive question of abolition, and to cap it all,
it upon themselves to reform America's drinking habits.
was the end of the Washingtonians. Their unity was lost
for good. A.A. learned the lesson well. From the beginning
tried to be neither a debating society nor a temperance
It is concerned with no problem other than its own.
early A.A. groups made a whopper of a mistake on the
simple question of membership. For all their high principles,
were amazingly intolerant in their initial determination
restrict membership only to "pure" or "qualified"
Convicts, alcoholic inmates in mental institutions, drug
who were also alcoholics: all these had to be shunned.
back, one can see why they tried to errect barriers.
The early A.A.'s were afraid. They were grimly trying to
their lives and their homes intact in the face of tremendous
personal pressures, and wide open membership frightened
Gradually, however, as their confidence increased, they
realize that, of all groups, A.A. had no right to take away
alcoholic's last chance. Instead, it was A.A. which had
him his last chance. One by one, the various groups abandoned
membership restrictions until the one requirement for membership
was a simple desire to stop drinking.
decision took A.A. into places it might otherwise never
have penetrated. Beginning with San Quentin, in California,
groups have established themselves in more than 400 prisons,
there are now A.A. groups in almost 350 mental hospitals.
results have been genuinely spectacular. Whereas only 20%
of the alcoholics paroled from prisons and hospitals used
the grade on the outside, more than 80% now find permanent
as members of A.A.
importance of A.A. in industry is also being increasingly
appreciated. Not long ago, absenteeism among known alcoholics
American industry was estimated by the Yale University Center
Alcohol Studies at 22 days a year: almost a full work month.
total loss to industry was more than $1 billion annually.
company officials are now being urged to watch for the telltale
sign of the Monday morning absence, followed by the Tuesday
hangover, and to do something about it.
DuPont, the alcoholic employee is urged to visit the
company doctor, who in turn recommends A.A. (one A.A. member
Du Ponts home medical staff in Wilmington, Del., and helps
A.A. groups in other Du Pont communities). Eastman Kodak
spearheaded a community program in Rochester, N.Y., which
the closest kind of cooperation between doctors, law-enforcement
officials, social agencies, and Alcoholics Anonymous. North
American Aviation Inc., Allis-Chalmers, and scores of other
companies have initiated comparable programs.
will always be alcoholics who won't admit it and are
therefore tragically unreachable. And there will always
members who do admit it and then slip back to the bottle
As Co-founder Bill W. once said in comparing those alcoholics
catch themselves in time and who don't, "There is a
there are 'high-bottom' drunks and 'low-bottom' drunks.
are lying in the gutter, but the high-bottom drunk has
his head on the curb. We A.A.'s are all drunks. If you think
are one we invite you to join us."