A Non-Alcoholic Trustee’s View
The following was prepared by the author and presented to the International Council on Alcohol and Addiction (ICAA) Conference in Edinburgh in September 2006. The author wishes to acknowledge her debt to ‘some excellent AA literature’ – Editor
I am a Non-Alcoholic Member of the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous in Great Britain (or a NAT, as we are colloquially known) and, as such, I am speaking as a committed and enthusiastic supporter of, and believer in, AA. I know it can work. NATS are appointed to act as a balance on the Board, to present an outside perspective. We can carry the message of AA where The Traditions prevent alcoholic members from doing so – at the level of press, radio, television and gatherings such as this conference.
My own involvement came via a PhD thesis in the History of Medicine on the creation of addiction as a medical condition in nineteenth-century Britain. Whilst I was writing the thesis I imagined, in the back of my mind, that I might discover, through the research, the key to understanding addiction. I didn’t. I found confusion, frustration, theories, heroes, drug treatments, diets, deaths, altruism, dishonesty – familiar fare for many today – but no answers.
I now live with a sober alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink since 1978 and who goes to AA meetings several times a week. People sometimes ask why he still goes to meetings after all this time, and he simply replies, ‘Because I can’. For him, AA is a barometer of self-possession. It is an external representation of an internal problem. He feels that as long as nothing is pushing him out (conflict within AA, for instance) or pulling him out (obsessive pre-occupation with career, relationship, or family commitments) then he is very unlikely to relapse. As long as he feels free to walk in there unhindered, he knows he is ok.
This, I can see, is an answer. And the realization that a perfect answer may very well not exist is liberating and leaves the individual to discover and share whatever works for her or him. At the risk of being provocative, it makes me think of Tennyson’s line in Locksley Hall: ‘The fairy tales of science and the long result of time’.
As one of five NATs, I sit, as other Board members, for a limited period, on the General Service Board which serves the AA Fellowship: it does not govern. I can speak publicly, for myself, without the need for the anonymity which is the spiritual foundation of all AA traditions and a potent reminder that principles come before personalities. In all public relationships, AA’s sole objective is to help still-suffering alcoholics and this can be done by making known to them, and to anyone interested in their problem, the experiences of the individual members and of the Fellowship in learning to live without alcohol.
AA believes that these experiences should be made available freely to all who are sincerely interested, and that efforts in this field should always reflect gratitude for sobriety and awareness that many outside of AA are equally concerned with the serious problem of alcohol. Our speaking on alcoholism is limited in subject matter to AA and its recovery programme. Personally, I feel my speaking at this conference is quite a responsibility and one that I take very seriously.
I’m sure some of you are very familiar with AA and also that some are not, so I am going to talk as if none of you are and trust that everyone will bear with me. I’ll give a brief history first: AA was started in 1935 by a New York stockbroker and an Ohio surgeon, who had both been ‘hopeless’ drunks. At first, most AA members also had been seriously ill: their drinking had sent them to hospitals, sanatoriums or jails. More and more people began to hear about AA and many alcoholics found they did not have to let their illness do that much damage. They could recover in AA before their health had been totally wrecked and while they still had their jobs and families.
‘Coverage, Accessibility and Affordability’ is the title of this session. I have no intention of blinding anyone with science or too-clever cultural concepts: the primary purpose of the members of AA is to stay sober; and the primary purpose of AA is to help others recover from alcoholism. There is no official interpretation, no ‘party line’, dogma or doctrine. None of this is based on scientific or professional expertise; it is a question of empirical knowledge, all down to sharing, directly, first-hand experiences of the suffering of an alcoholic and of recovery.
The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking, and any two or three alcoholics who gather together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation. The idea is that if there is a meeting then go to it, if there isn’t then start one (this may sound, and be, unnecessary today, but it is worth noting that this is precisely how AA grew in the first place). AA is free to all; there are no dues or fees for membership: the Fellowship is self-supporting through its own voluntary contributions. It is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organisation or institution. It doesn’t wish to engage in any controversy and it doesn’t endorse or oppose any causes.
AA is a worldwide fellowship of men and women who help each other to stay sober by sharing their experience, strength and hope so that they might solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. They offer the same help to anyone who has a drinking problem and wants to do something about it. Since members are all alcoholics themselves they have a special understanding of each other, they know what the illness feels like, and have learned how to recover from it in AA.
This personal experience is their unique qualification. As well as sharing their experiences, members can also co-operate with others dealing with alcoholism as long as they are guided by the Twelve Traditions. These are suggested principles to ensure the survival and growth of groups and AA as a whole, and cover the importance of being self-supporting, non-professional, avoiding controversy, and non-affiliation. They suggest that AA members not criticize, obstruct, or hinder others’ efforts to help alcoholics, by not passing judgments, but simply by sharing personal experience.
Like other illnesses, alcoholism affects all sorts of people. So the men and women in AA are of all races and nationalities, all religions and no religion at all, they work at all occupations, are of any age. No prospective AA member is discriminated against, even if she or he comes to meetings under pressure from a court, an employer, or any other agency – AA is not concerned with whoever is making the referral: it is the problem drinker who counts. Although strength is derived from the voluntary nature of being an AA member, it sometimes happens that people first attend meetings because they are forced to, either by someone else or by their own inner discomfort. For many this will translate into a desire for a happier, more together, sober life and a willingness to go regularly to meetings with that end firmly in mind.
By keeping alcohol out of their systems, newcomers take care of one part of their illness – their bodies have a chance to get well. They can also begin to unravel confused thinking and difficult emotions by looking at AA’s suggestedTwelve Steps to recovery which embody ideas and actions that can guide alcoholics toward happier lives. The Steps are principles based on actual recovery experiences of early members. They are not just a means of staying sober, but a suggested programme for living which, by accident or design, are presented in a way that leaves an alcoholic free to approach them as they will, from ignoring them completely to embracing them wholeheartedly.
They are not commandments and no member is ever told that she or he must perform the Steps or return to life of drinking. A person who says they are a member of AA is a member, no matter how they approach the Steps. AA doesn’t furnish the initial motivation for an alcoholic to get sober. It doesn’t solicit members. It doesn’t make medical or psychological diagnoses or prognoses, nor follow up or try to control its members. It doesn’t provide drug treatments, nursing services, housing, food, jobs, money, or any other welfare or social services.
There are now over one hundred thousand local AA groups, in one hundred and eighty countries and surveys indicate that total AA membership is estimated at over two million two hundred thousand individuals worldwide. In Great Britain and Continental European Region there are currently about three thousand five hundred groups and each group meets regularly. Some of these meetings are ‘Closed meetings’, meaning they are for alcoholics only. They take the form of group discussions in which any member who wants to speak up, ask questions or share their thoughts with fellow members can do so.
It is this sharing of experience, strength and hope which is so important, that and the fact that these are all alcoholics who are speaking to each other, not ‘experts’ or appointed authority figures. At ‘Open meetings’ members can bring relatives or friends and, usually, anyone who is interested in AA is also welcome to attend. Usually a leader will open and close these meetings and introduce speakers (almost always AAs, like the leader) who tell about their lives before and after joining AA, and may give personal views on its programme.
AA has no real government. Each autonomous group is free to work out its own customs and ways of holding meetings, as long as it does not harm other groups or AA as a whole. The members elect a chairperson, a secretary and other group officers, usually once or twice a year. These officers do not give orders to, or impose rules on, anybody; their responsibility is to see that the meetings run smoothly. The individual group is an integral part of AA; just as AA members help each other, so do the groups.
Groups in the same area set up an ‘intergroup’ organization which in turn belongs to geographically determined regional organisations. Groups everywhere share their experiences by keeping in touch with the AA General Service Office in York. And groups in Great Britain, including the Continental European Region, choose representatives to go to the annual AA General Service Conference held in York. At the Conference they collate the experiences of many different AA groups, but, again, they do not make rules or issue commands to any groups or members (I attended my first Conference in April this year and it was an intense, passionate, rigorous and pretty exhausting experience).
So, AA has an inverted system of management, if you like, with the power lying at the broadest level and filtering down to the Board which implements, or tries to, the wishes of the Fellowship. I initially found it an odd, hard to grasp system, but it has the responsibility of the individual at its core. It reflects the AA Pledge which states: ‘I am responsible… when anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help. I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.’
AA is accessible to everyone who wants to stop drinking. It includes men and women [about one third of members are women], people of many different races, nationalities, occupations, religious faiths, agnostics and atheists. In recent years more young alcoholics have come into AA and new literature and policies are being worked on to encompass this development. Members come from all sections of society and all are equal – just plain AA members. The Fellowship is truly egalitarian.
AA meetings take place within prisons, hospitals, and other institutions on the request of the appropriate authorities, and can also provide contact for those being released from prison, hospital or remand home, etc. AA works in co-operation, without affiliation, with the professional and other sections of the community in playing its part in the circle of help needed around the alcoholic.
AA speakers attend groups of professionals including those in the fields of health, prisons and probation. Although it is not connectedto or with any other organization, it does co-operate with any that fight alcoholism andworks towards greater communication, understanding, and respect, so that more and more alcoholics may recover.
There is an AA National Helpline telephone number which will put those with a drink problem in direct contact with a local member. And most towns and cities have an AA listing in the telephone book for more information and details of local meetings. The AA website carries general information for newcomers, for professional agencies, for the media and for members engaged in service, and there is a search facility for meetings nationwide.
Membership of AA costs nothing; the unique non-professional help given is given freely and for free. Some members say that they keep their sobriety only by giving it away. AA accepts no outside funding, either from private or government sources. On my first visit to the General Service Office in York my eye was caught by a copy of the 1986 Act of Parliament which gives a special dispensation to AA and means that the General Service Board, as a charity, can decline outside contributions and donations.
There are other photographs and documents hanging there too, part of the increasingly organised archive, including the small-ad placed in the Times in 1947 for the first London meeting – the Times being the only newspaper which would carry it. AA is fully self-supporting through the voluntary contributions of members. These monies go towards the support of groups, and national and international AA services.
I don’t like to end on a cliché – that AA should not be taken for granted, but perhaps it should, as many of its principles seem to underpin so many subsequent regimes and therapies. It has the potential to be undervalued precisely because it is everywhere, straightforward and free, and so much of our culture now is only valued by how much it costs and how exclusive it is. AA is not a quantifiable entity but it is undoubtedly immensely valuable to many, and will continue to be, to many more in the future.
Dr Louise J. Foxcroft