AA: Common Goals and Means

Common Goal Distinct Means

Recovery from alcoholism was a true miracle in 1939 when Alcoholics
Anonymous entered the scene. Quite unlike today’s world in which the
recovery process, which has come to be identified with A.A., finds broad
acceptance and is seen as common-place. Alcoholics Anonymous is most
often described as a “self-help” program, even among the members of the
Fellowship itself. This description, along with the “group therapy”
nomenclature, has led to much confusion among professionals of all kinds,
members of the media, writers in general, and the public at large. So
much so that it has begun to displace the original concept in the minds
of AA members, many who received their first description of AA through
these “third party care-givers.” In order to retain its own concept of
its purpose and function, the time is upon the members of Alcoholics
Anonymous to clarify their place in the alcoholism recovery

“Self help,” while an easily used description of AA is in actuality a
misrepresentation of the recovery experience as provided by the Twelve
Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. A far more accurate description would be
to present AA’s program as a “spiritual help” or “self responsibility”
program. While those using the self-help term do so with the very best of
intentions, the common usage of that term implies a return to the age old
idea of “will power.”

It is at this early juncture that a difficulty begins for the
potential recovering alcoholic who is headed, or being guided, in the
direction of membership in Alcoholics Anonymous. Whole societies have
sprung up due to this simple miscue. The alcoholic, who has sought a
lifetime to exercise his or her own power, comes to Alcoholics Anonymous
with the misconception that they must exercise this power.
Self-empowerment appears to the newcomer to be the proper approach to the
problem at hand.

In the professional setting this may well be the correct approach.
There exists a contained environment, a vehicle to exert peer pressure,
and professionals trained in determining whether the power exerted by the
individual is focused in a reasonable direction. Behavior modification
requires effort on the part of the patient and the medical/treatment
approach places a great store on treating the symptoms first in order to
stabilize the patient. This to good effect and purpose.

This approach, however, does not transfer well into the AA
environment. Here the accurate description would be self responsibility.
The responsibility falls to the individual to seek out the methods and
actions which might be used to remain sober. While this takes every bit
as much personal exertion as previously noted in the professional
environment, its focus is quite different.

In the professional setting a standard is set and the person must
exert their will in order to reach this agreed upon goal. The intended
end-point predicts the direction and the effort. Working within the
framework of the Twelve Steps the goal is unattainable in its complete
form -“_to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and our
fellows.” Therefore the small actions which constitute the attempt to
reach maximum usefulness are what are paramount. Working with a focus
which is less definitive in its end-point, self determination becomes
virtually impossible. Only by placing oneself in a environment whereby
ones progress can be viewed through the eyes and experience of others is
it possible to make progress in any substantial way. The full
responsibility falls upon the individual to seek rather than decide, to
make the effort toward the goal rather than accomplishing it.

One of the unfortunate side-effects of this misunderstanding has been
an erosion of the level of responsibility with the AA fellowship. With
large numbers of AA members focused on “helping themselves” the natural
sense of purpose and responsibility for survival of the whole has faded
almost out of view. The impact has been to create more self-centeredness
rather than other-centeredness.

To underscore this misconception, the term “group therapy” has
provided additional impetus. The “group” in a professional setting
fulfills a considerably different role than it does within Alcoholics
Anonymous. In the professional world the group shoulders the burden of
setting standards, judging performance, and communication of the demand
that performance meet the standards set. In the near past this was often
where the practice confrontation took place. Today one will find more of
a negotiation approach being used. None-the-less, this differs greatly
from the AA approach.

As is noted in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, “defiance is the
outstanding character of the alcoholic. The Twelve Steps and Twelve
Traditions take this central fact into account in presenting a program of
recovery to the potential member. They place the responsibility squarely
on the individual for becoming aware of and modifying their behavior.
Life, in general, and active alcoholism, in particular, become the
disciplinarians. For most it takes little time to come to the realization
that their battle is with, and within, themselves. With great wisdom,
born out of tragic experiences, Alcoholics Anonymous refuses to offer the
alcoholic an opportunity to create the illusion that the problem lies
anywhere other than with themselves.

Confrontation and “group therapy,” on the other hand, provide
excellent distractions unless carefully managed in a professional manner.
Since AA has made it a policy to remain free of professional services,
these two endeavors lies beyond its scope.

Another difficulty felt by Alcoholics Anonymous, also tied to the
“self-help/group therapy” misconception is the perception that “a drug is
a drug.” The inference is that the common denominator need only be an
illness from which the person wishes to recover. In its severest cases
this extrapolates to emotional restlessness as the core factor. Many a
battle has raged before, during, and after group meetings over this
attempt at global inclusiveness.

Here again we see practices used within the treatment community which
are significantly different from those within AA. In the treatment
setting there is a significant need to educate and, as noted earlier,
treat the immediate symptoms. There occurs a sharing of definitions,
discussions concerning life styles, a comparison of experiences looking
for the common pattern, and a fueling of the resolve to change. The
exchange is primarily intellectual and educational.

The process within Alcoholics Anonymous is significantly different.
Here the exchange must occur across a bridge built of shared experiences.
The luxury of appealing to the intellect is, at best, a dubious one for
the AA who wishes to assist someone in getting or staying sober. When on
the firing line of daily living the newcomer is faced with the temptation
to drink, or take an action which would result in drinking, time is of
the essence. There is simply not enough time to achieve common
definitions or provide attractive scenarios as alternatives. There must
be a link established over which virtually absolute trust flows easily.
Often it is only that link which means the difference between sobriety
and drunkenness. Time and time again it has been across this connection
that the “hand of AA” has meant the most.

It will be the most devastating of errors for the person who suffers
from an affliction other than alcoholism to think that they, too, can
rely upon this safeguard. What a terrible shock it must be to reach that
moment of despair only to slip slowly back to the horror of the past. To
do so as the result of incorrect information given by those one has
trusted must be an entirely disheartening experience. What works well in
a closed environment fares poorly in the open world.

It comes as no real surprise, when the concept of “self help” is used,
that the next step would be to bolster a persons sense of themselves.
Self-esteem is vital to self-help. Again, what works under one set of
conditions suffers badly under another. In a carefully monitored setting
it is possible to affect a new self-concept in a person. This can occur
after much examination and reassurance by others. Essentially the
experience is “if they can believe this of me, then I can too.” Thus the
professional friends of Alcoholics Anonymous attempt to prepare their
charges for AA. Theirs is the hope of convincing the person of their
inherent value or goodness. In the professional setting there is time to
turn illusion into reality, but as noted earlier, this is a luxury not
attainable in the open world.

The program of Alcoholics Anonymous provides this element of spiritual
growth through another means. AA recognizes the fact that the alcoholic
is always aware, within themselves, when they are facing the truth and
when an illusion is being created. A positive sense of self is therefore
reached by “clearing away the wreckage of the past.” In this way the new
sense of self is not a cosmetic one, but an actual rebuilding of the
psyche. There is no attempt to convince the person of their value-they
are set upon a path by which that is a discovery along the way. Being a
discovery, it becomes fact far more easily that through any other means.
The alcoholic, being essentially of an all or nothing mind, must living
entirely with fact or they begin to opt for the ultimate illusion. Since
there are no external controls in the AA environment there is little time
to move from illusion to reality. It must be reality, or its closest
possible facsimile, that is the order of the day for the alcoholic in

Finally, there is one liability AA’s professional friends suffer from
that Alcoholics Anonymous easily avoids. In the medical/treatment world
much of the information upon which decisions are based is arrived at by
the self-reporting of the patient/client. Even with the most diligent
attempts at ferreting out the truth, the professional is always at a
disadvantage. For them it is a matter of carrying out a responsibility to
the individual and the professionals own calling. For the alcoholic the
battle over truth or illusion is a matter of life and death. Any
realistic appraisal of a patient/clients records must allow for a factor
of falsehood. Bearing this in mind, the care provider will always be
basing their treatment plan on fictional information. There will always
be matters unresolved or unattended.

The Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous cannot suffer from this quirk
of the alcoholic. Since it does not offer advice to the individual, it
need not rely on the reporting done by the person. Again, the
responsibility falls directly on the alcoholic trying to get sober. This
frees AA from attempting to provide anything other than a place whereby
examples can be seen of the program of recovery in action. There is
nobody to fight, nobody to please, and nobody to make decisions for the
person wanting sobriety. The example and the opportunity are clearly
present. As is noted in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, “_the kit of
spiritual tools is laid at the feet” (of the newcomer).

And so it is that the ultimate goal of sobriety is met by considerably
different means by Alcoholics Anonymous and those treating the illness
professionally. Clearly each method has its place. There are those who
require only one of the two methods, and legions of others who will take
advantage of both. Each also has a responsibility to the other in this
common endeavor. Both the professional and the AA member must work
diligently to retain the integrity of their respective approaches while
ensuring the autonomy of the other. For only through each being able to
offer their particular approach can we be sure, with any degree of
comfort, that all has been made available to those who suffer. It is not
ours to determine where the doorways to sobriety ought to be, for we know
not from which direction our fellows suffers will come. Ours is but to
ensure that the doorway entrusted to our care is in its place, open to
the next alcoholic wanting to gain entrance to our world of the

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