The Effectiveness Alcoholics Anonymous

In the forward to the second edition of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous it says “of the alcoholics who came to AA in really tried 50% got sober at once and remained that way; 25% sobered up after some relapses, and among the remainder, those who stayed on with AA showed improvement.”

Those numbers are in sharp contrast to the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous today. Most studies report that approximately 20% of those who come to Alcoholics Anonymous remain sober. The other 80% disappear or die.

There are a number of men who are still around from the 40s and 50s, when Alcoholics Anonymous was really new. When you talk to them they say that the forward to the second edition is accurate. I remember one guy saying “look! First of all there weren’t a ton of people at the meetings. It wasn’t hard to calculate who got sober, who didn’t, who died.”

So if the numbers of the early recovery are accurate what happened?

There are these AA two guys, Joe and Charlie – who are as old as dirt. They actually had a friendship with Bill Wilson and some of the other original 100. So Joe and Charlie have a program that they do around the country. I guess you could call it the “Joe and Charlie Show”.

Over the course of a long weekend they take men and women who are in AA through the 12 steps as they understand them. Joe and Charlie are so popular that there are a series of CDs that capture the entire weekend.

I have listened to these CDs several times. These guys are hilarious. The recordings are lots of fun to listen to. There is my plug for the Joe and Charlie recordings.

At one point, in the early recordings, one of them, either Joe or Charlie (I forget) addresses the whole effectiveness discussion regarding Alcoholics Anonymous then, an Alcoholics Anonymous now. I want to summarize what I heard:

Back Then
• When you came into AA someone from the group was assigned/or assigned themselves to the newcomer.
• Everyone read books back then. Even in the late 50s books were the primary vehicle of communication of ideas. Great emphasis was placed on language and definition of words. People knew what words meant when they said them. New members read the Big Book. It was required reading.
• That person that was assigned to you – from the very beginning, this guide (today they call them sponsors) walked you through the steps. He told you about the history of AA, Bill story, the Oxford group, the first 100 members, etc.
• They took the 2nd, and 3rd step really seriously. In other words there was no debate about God. The direct relationship of your sobriety to your higher power, the God of your understanding, was very clearly defined. It was often spoken about from the podium and in the living rooms and kitchens of those early members.
• In the 50s and 60s, if you didn’t have a car someone would always pick you up. Old-timers speak from the podium and share the guy who always showed up even when he didn’t want to go a meeting – His sponsor would be outside his house, beeping his horn, ready to pick him up and bring him to a meeting. There was no argument. If you wanted to stay sober you just fell into line.
• The 4th step happened right away. Maybe a month or two later – but it was considered a key step to sobriety. The 4th step began immediately after you took the 3rd step.
• Joe and Charlie make it very clear that the Big Book is not a novel. It contains “precise directions” in how to stay sober. They point out the Big Book says “we immediately began this step (ie; the 4th step)after we sincerely took our third step – turning our lives and will over to the care of God as we understood Him.
AA Now
• When you come into AA today, if you don’t tell anyone that you are new, most of the time you will be overlooked.
• It is extremely rare that someone in the halls will immediately make themselves your sponsor. In fact, it is expected that you will approach someone and ask them to be a sponsor. That is definitely NOT how it was in the 40s, 50s and 60s.
• For many people the Big Book serves as a “coffee coaster/drink coaster”.
• The Big Book is not the focus of recovery.
• The formula for sobriety is expressed quite often as“go to meetings, ask God for help in the morning, thank Him if you stayed sober, call your sponsor -and don’t drink!” (Joe and Charlie laugh and say how stupid this sounds to them. They say back in the 50s and 60s the message was “surrender they were powerless, turn your life over to God, clean house, develop your relationship with God, and help others.”)
• Joe and Charlie stress the speed at which society runs today. The idea of volunteering or “service work” is a novelty. So serving others in AA is a novelty.
• If you need to get picked up for AA meetings you had better get a phone list.
• Sometimes the steps 1 through 3 are as far as many newcomers go for months, and sometimes years – or their whole lives.
• Most newcomers have no idea what step 3 really means.
• For many people step 4 never happens.
• For many people a relationship with God is never established. Sometimes at a meeting the word God or Higher Power is rarely mentioned.

Joe and Charlie also stress that in the mid-70s psychological therapy became very popular. People would go to group counseling. They would go to CODA groups. These same people would come into the halls of AA and bring in these external therapeutic/foreign concepts and language. The simplicity of the 12 step program became diluted in one sense, and made very complicated in another.

John Charlie don’t talk about “how it should be, or it is a shame that this is happened”. They simply stress over and over how they got sober and why the program works. They leave it to the listener to decide how to attempt to construct, or reconstruct his or her program.

I guess that they shared this story in an effort to defend AA. When you look on the Internet there are endless number of entries that describe the “failure of AA”. Maybe the failure of these numbers of people getting sober has less to do with the actual AA program in the“precise directions” and more to do with who we have become as a society.
I can tell you one thing for certain – as a society, and as individuals we love to place the blame for failure outside ourselves. If there is one thing that I got from doing my 4th step –
I am accountable for everything that happens to me in some way or form.