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The History of Alcoholics Anonymous

With their popular slogan “one day at a time”, Alcoholics Anonymous aims to provide recovering alcoholics the support, guidance, and fellowship they need in order to overcome their dependence. Having been around for close to a century, AA has helped millions of people across the world to successfully kick the drink for good. Starting off from the effort of just two alcoholics wanting to make a change, AA has grown into a global movement and an essential factor for long-term recovery from alcoholism. Today, the program’s 12 Steps of Recovery are the cornerstones of alcohol recovery, letting sufferers leave the habit behind and address the deep seated issues that cause it in the first place.

From Humble Beginnings

The year was 1935, and Bill Wilson watched on as his alcohol problem ate away at what would have been a successful career as a stockbroker on Wall Street. He had tried everything that was available in the time, but to no avail. Friends and family expressed their desired to help him overcome his dependence, but it seemed that his was a lost cause. It wasn’t until he rekindled an old friendship with Ebby Thatcher that he discovered a potential solution to his problem. Thatcher introduced Wilson to the Oxford Group – a non-alcoholic fellowship movement that aimed to instill Christian values for daily life. Meanwhile, Dr. Bob Smith was experiencing the same struggle with alcohol, only that his run with the Oxford Group wasn’t giving him the results he was looking for. It was when he met Wilson – who had successfully overcome alcoholism through the Oxford Group – that his hope was rekindled. Smith and Wilson soon established a close relationship, with Smith emphasizing the idea that alcoholism was a disease and not a mere addiction problem. This was backed by Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, a physician from Towns Hospital in New York City. And this trio would lay the foundations for the Alcoholics Anonymous. Soon, Smith himself would successfully achieve sobriety, and the three would then set off to share their new developed theories and program with the rest of the United States.

One Alcoholic at a Time

In 1939, Alcoholics Anonymous started to work on their objective by visiting Akron’s City Hospital. There, they met with just a single alcoholic who quickly reached sobriety through their assistance. This initial success fueled the trio, pushing them to establish groups in New York and Cleveland as well. In just four years, the movement was able to produce 100 sober participants. During that same year, Wilson released the program’s book entitled Alcoholics Anonymous. It was here that he detailed what would become recognized as the program’s iconic Twelve Steps to Sobriety. Because of the success of the book – and the support of several publications – the group was soon bombarded by requests from alcoholics and their families. The Cleveland group which started out with no more than 20 members was soon up to its brim with 500 participants. The verdict was clear – sobriety could be mass produced.

Their First Office

While Wilson was making headway in Cleveland, Dr. Smith was busy working on the administrative tail of the program. They organized a trusteeship and sought out board members for their group. And the Alcoholic Foundation was born. However Dr. John D. Rockefeller – a board member of the foundation – felt that great sums of money would ultimately spoil the efforts of the program. So with what little funds the group hand, they developed their first office in New York. This would be the program’s headquarters, where they would open their doors to concerns, suggestions, and inquiries, and where they would hand out copies of their A.A. book.

Their office was swiftly put to use, and many magazine publications helped to spread the word about the program. Dr. Rockefeller himself held a number of dinner parties for prominent personalities to send the word out about the A.A. program. This was accompanied by the brisk distribution of A.A. books. By the end of the year 1940, the group’s membership stood at 2,000. By the next year, the Saturday Evening Post featured an article about the A.A. group and tripled the standing membership from 2,000 to 6,000. It was also during this time that the program spread though other areas of the country and the globe, branching out to countries like Canada.

Mass Producing Sobriety

By the 1950’s, there were roughly 100,000 successfully sober A.A. graduates worldwide, and many of these individuals were given opportunities to work and serve within the same A.A. community to help others who were struggling with and recovering from alcoholism. Dr. Smith on the other hand, focused his time and effort into applying A.A.’s principles within a hospital setting. Having become a physician at the Akron Hospital, Dr. Smith worked alongside other members of the hospital staff to bring A.A. to alcoholics seeking medical attention. There, he was able to assist close to 5,000 individuals towards a sober life. In the same year, A.A. held its first International Convention at Cleveland. This is where Dr. Smith gave his most iconic (and his last) speech about the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics, which were inducted and cemented for permanent use throughout the A.A. programs around the world. Not long after his speech, Dr. Bob Smith died of cancer after 15 years of uninterrupted sobriety.

Passing the Torch

The Second International Convention for Alcoholics Anonymous was held in St. Louis in 1955, and the group celebrated their 20th year as a successful movement. During this time, the General Conference of the A.A. – established in 1951 – became one of the most important pillars of the groups’ functioning across the world. This conference had the single goal to ensure that A.A. would become a solid, lasting aspect of alcohol recovery. Seeking out the support of delegates from the country and the nations where A.A. was a functioning program, this conference was established to make local trusteeships accountable to the A.A. General Service Conference, thus protecting the interest of the group for the decades to come. And it was during this Convention that founder Bill Wilson passed the torch to the Conference. Relieving himself of the responsibilities of running the show, Wilson – along with many of his comrades who had earlier established the A.A. with him – passed over responsibilities of managing the program to the earlier established Conference. At the 35th Anniversary International Convention, Bill would give his final speech. There, he gave his famous words, “God bless you and Alcoholics Anonymous forever.” Seven months later, the A.A. pioneer would die of emphysema after 34 years of uninterrupted sobriety.

The Alcoholics Anonymous Today

Today, the Alcoholics Anonymous movement has been around for 85 years, and counts a membership of a whopping two million people. Worldwide, A.A. has roughly 115,000 groups under its belt, serving 180 nations. Numerous studies have found that participation in an A.A. program proves to be highly beneficial for long term sobriety, with up to 76% of those who complete the program to fully overcome their alcoholism for decades, and often, for good. And while the Alcoholics Anonymous was initially established as a Christian movement, the program today is far more accommodating of various belief systems, cultures, and races. The group today has revised some of the Christian-based theories in the program to welcome people of all backgrounds. But among the many aspects that makes A.A. a success, the call for members to remain active and involved even after their own recovery proves to be the most instrumental for long-term sobriety. Individuals who complete the process are given the opportunity to sponsor a new member. By working together with others who are seeking help in overcoming their own substance use disorder, the program encourages graduates to maintain their new lifestyle in order to become a fitting example to those in their care. And by encouraging an air of togetherness and fellowship, A.A. creates a safe space for people who might feel shame as a result of their abuse.

A Call to Get Involved

Bill Wilson, Bob Smith, and the other founding fathers of the A.A. movement were fulled by a single call, and that was to share their knowledge of alcoholism recovery to those who were looking for it. Together, this group discovered that human compassion and a willingness to get involved in the recovery of others would prove to be one of the most powerful catalysts for change – and for their own lifelong sobriety.

Having helped millions of people to date, Alcoholics Anonymous has come a long way from the humble beginnings that Wilson and Smith ignited. Today, A.A. is a powerful tool for addressing some of the most advanced cases of alcoholism, and is used alongside other therapies and treatments to further strengthen the results of management and ensure each individual is given the chance to live a life free from the clutches of alcohol.

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