Does AA Help the Alcoholic?

Pros and cons of the 12 Step program

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is far and away the most effective program in the world for helping alcoholics stay sober. 

Helping alcoholics to stay sober is the primary purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous. Most recovering alcoholics, however, have the same reservations about AA that nonalcoholics have, envisioning AA members as a group of losers and scruffy fanatics speaking mumbo-jumbo of love, spiritual renewal, and brotherhood. With this image in mind, most alcoholics shun the thought of AA meetings – because the fellowship frightens or repulses them or because they believe they do not need it and can stay sober on their own. Left to their own devices, most alcoholics will not become involved in AA.

The treatment program should, therefore, routinely do everything possible to increase the alcoholic’s familiarity with AA, requiring the individual to attend meetings while in treatment and encouraging them to discuss their reactions to AA. It greatly helps if the family members start getting involved in Al-anon and Alateen to gain greater insight into the philosophy of the 12 Steps.

Most alcoholics attend twenty or thirty meetings before they feel at home in the fellowship and fully appreciate the program’s benefits.

The strengths of AA

AA’s strengths are, of course, formidable. Most alcoholics need protection against the permanent threat of their addiction. AA offers shared experience, strength, and hope. Most alcoholics flinch from looking at their past – AA helps them to face their lives as alcoholics, accept their disease, and keep in touch with it so as not to lapse into a wishful thing that they can drink again. Most alcoholics have difficulties getting started on a sober life: AA offers guidance, support, and discipline.

Is AA perfect?

Yet, for all its strengths, AA is not perfect, and the recovering alcoholic should be warned of AA’s shortcomings. First, AA is not a treatment program, and alcoholics who walk in off the street struggle to stay sober. The alcoholic just starting a new life of sobriety should realise this fact and not be disheartened by those AA members who stop attending meetings and start drinking again. 

The recovering alcoholic should also beware of the AA belief that character flaws or personality defects cause alcoholics to get into trouble with alcohol. This view has no basis. The alcoholic should be assured through treatment that his personality did not cause his disease and that he is in no way responsible for it. This assurance will rid him of years of accumulated guilt and shame and him to understand that abstinence is essential for the simple but genuine reason that he is physically incapable of processing alcohol normally. If he believes that his personality caused his disease, he may think that once his personality problems are fixed, he can return to normal drinking. Moreover, a guilty and ashamed alcoholic may rebel against a program that aggravates these feelings and forfeit his sobriety.

Finally, the alcoholic should understand the grievous error in the AA belief that it is acceptable and even beneficial to drink coffee or tea and to eat foods high in sugar such as candies or ice cream when depressed, anxious, irritable, or feeling the need for a drink. This is dangerous first aid. For a while, caffeine and sweets immediately elevate the alcoholic’s low blood sugar. Their use is followed soon after by a sharp drop in blood sugar, thus intensifying the hypoglycaemic symptoms. Worst of all for the alcoholic, an unstable blood sugar level often leads to an impulse to drink, if not an outright conscious craving for alcohol. It seems clear that hypoglycaemia is a primary cause of mood fluctuations and “white knuckle” sobriety so often seen around AA and also a significant cause of relapse.

While participation in AA is hugely beneficial to maintaining sobriety, professional support from a therapist adds to the quality of sober life.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol-related issues, call Freephone 0800 140 4044

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