Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) turned 75 this year, and in many respects it appears as vibrant and relevant as ever.
Certainly its latest International Convention, an event held every five years, hardly sounded like a gathering of a stagnant fellowship. More than 75 countries were represented at the July 1-4 event in San Antonio, with proceedings held in languages ranging from French to Korean to Farsi. Al-Anon Family Groups and Alateen also sponsored activities, and for AA members with more than 40 years of sober living an Old-Timers Meeting took place.
Certainly, the spirit of that very first meeting of two men in 1935 is never far removed from the thinking of the organization, even now that it claims an estimated two million-plus members worldwide.
As someone who has covered developments in the addiction treatment field for more than 15 years, I am consistently struck by the commitment of AA's true believers to the widespread impact that the message of the 12 Steps continues to have. The late Father Joseph Martin summarized this in a way only he could, when he told me in an interview for our November 2008 cover story that “unlike everything else, the 12 Steps are so complete. These 12 principles cover every phase of the disease and what it does to us.”
And many of those who speak most enthusiastically about AA and its associated organizations today, including several CEOs of the nation's most influential treatment centers, embrace the 12 Steps not to exclude other approaches, but to maintain a solid foundation in their organizations as they broaden their vision to incorporate co-occurring disorders, holistic health approaches and, yes, even medication treatments.
Perhaps AA and the 12 Steps still seem fresh because many of their proponents “get” that they are-and should be-subject to the same scrutiny as other approaches in this new world of evidence-based treatment. AA's milestone this year reminds me of the article we published just over a year ago (May/June 2009) by Valerie Slaymaker, PhD, executive director of Hazelden's Butler Center for Research, which is helping to build that evidence base.
In the article Slaymaker cited the launch of a comprehensive study to enhance Hazelden's understanding of the mechanisms of spiritual change on which its treatment programs are based. She stated in reference to the subject matter the study will examine, “Only by understanding changes in self-centeredness, selfishness, resentment and the development of a desire or longing for closeness with a higher power, and their direct relationship with recovery, will we understand how best to facilitate this process among those who struggle.”
Hazelden hopes to be able to pinpoint the stages at which change occurs and for whom, knowledge that would allow it to identify the characteristics of patients who are likely to struggle and thus to be able to tailor treatment earlier on.
Of course, for many there always will be aspects to AA that defy documentation in a research paper. Just ask Mel Schulstad, the co-founder and past president of NAADAC, who says he is celebrating 45 years in AA “by the grace of a loving God.” The fellowship has not lost its magic for Schulstad, who recently told me, “AA was first formed in 1935, the year I graduated from high school. So they knew I was coming.”
Gary A. Enos, Editor Addiction Professional 2010 July-August;8(4):6