This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book" by AAWS. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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What are the benefits of AA? How does the program approach help people who enter it?
The benefits of AA come from its approach to sobriety. AA focuses on understand alcoholism as a disease and uses community and abstinence to stay sober.
Read on to understand the benefits of AA through its unique approach.
The Benefits of AA and Its Approach
In sum, the benefits of Alcoholics Anonymous intervention consists of these major actions:
- Recognize that total abstinence is the only way to get over alcoholism. When alcoholics start drinking, they develop an insatiable craving for more alcohol. The only way is to stop completely; moderation doesn’t work.
- Believe in a higher power than yourself. This doesn’t necessarily mean a religious god. You simply need to recognize that you’re too weak to solve the problem yourself, and that something larger than yourself will give you additional strength.
- Conduct a moral inventory of yourself. Recognize your flaws and emotions that cause you to fail around alcohol. This will help you find what makes you drink; removing these flaws will free yourself from drinking. Confess these personality defects.
- Make amends with people you’ve hurt in the past. Be sincere about righting your past wrongs.
- Be helpful to others. Help other alcoholics recover.
We’ll cover these actions in more detail throughout this summary. First, we’ll discuss the context in which Alcoholics Anonymous treatment occurs.
(Shortform note: throughout this summary, we’ll refer to “you” as a recovering alcoholic. Quotes referring to “we” or “us” come from the Big Book and refer to alcoholics as a whole.)
Alcoholics Feel An Uncontrollable Craving Others Don’t Understand
One of the benefits of AA comes from the way they characterize alcoholism. Think of alcoholism as an uncontrollable craving for alcohol. This craving is beyond the mental control of alcoholics. As a result, alcoholics can never safely use alcohol in any form at all. They cannot start drinking without developing the phenomenon of craving, and it becomes virtually impossible to stop.
The craving is felt by alcoholics and never occurs in the typical temperate drinker. If you have a drink, then try to stop abruptly but can’t stop, you’re an alcoholic. If you can stop, you’re not an alcoholic.
This craving can be baffling to alcoholics. They are utterly unable to leave alcohol alone, no matter how strongly they consciously want to quit.
- This craving is not a matter of willpower. Most alcoholics have lost the power of choice in drink. Willpower is basically nonexistent as it relates to alcohol.
- Alcoholics can be otherwise sensible and well-balanced in life. They may have willpower in most other areas of life. They may have special abilities, a promising career, and a lot to lose from drinking. But they cannot help destroying all this for a drink.
This craving is hard to understand for people who don’t feel it. Moderate drinkers often think of alcoholics, “these people are weak. I can take or leave alcohol—why can’t he?” Moderate drinkers don’t have this problem of an uncontrollable craving.
Similarly, alcoholics don’t want to think of themselves as constitutionally different from other people. Therefore, they try to prove they can drink like other people. They obsess over the idea that one day, he’ll be able to control his drinking and enjoy it from time to time. They try desperately to moderate their drinking: they drink beer only, drink only with meals, try never drinking alone, try drinking only at parties. None of these will work.
The first step in recovery is therefore to recognize that you aren’t like other people who can control their drinking. The delusion that you can drink safely has to be destroyed. Adhering to this can help reap the benefits of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Abstinence Must Be Absolute to Get the Full Benefits of AA
To recover, an alcoholic must be sober for the rest of his life. A single drink can kick off a vicious cycle of drinking:
- Having just a little alcohol will kick off the uncontrollable craving we last discussed.
- The alcoholic will then go on a drinking spree, despite whatever resolve he previously had to stay sober.
- After coming to, the alcoholic will feel remorse and promise to quit again. This guilt might trigger even more drinking.
It’s tempting for an alcoholic who has been sober for some period of time to believe that he can drink in moderation. This is a delusion. The book cites an alcoholic who had stayed sober for 25 years, and that he might give alcohol another try. Within two months, he was in a hospital, puzzled and humiliated. Within 4 years, he was dead.
The only way to escape the clutches of alcohol is to never drink again.
Furthermore, the only way to succeed is to follow the 12 Steps absolutely. Otherwise, you won’t see the benefits of AA. No steps can be skipped; they are all essential for recovery.
Alcoholics Need to be Treated by Alcoholics
It’s necessary for an alcoholic to be ‘treated’ by another recovering alcoholic. This is one of the benefits of AA for both alcoholics.
Many non-alcoholic people attempt to help—doctors, spouses, parents, and friends. But they often fail in their approach, having never experienced alcoholism themselves.
In contrast, a recovering alcoholic can approach another alcoholic and gain their confidence within a few hours.
- The former alcoholic has had the same difficulty and knows what he’s talking about.
- He doesn’t sit on a moral high horse and knows not to judge or lecture the alcoholic.
- He asks for nothing in return and sincerely wants to be helpful.
This doesn’t mean the recovering alcoholic is the only person involved in recovery, which is another of the benefits of Alcoholics Anonymous. As we’ll discuss, people affected by the alcoholic’s behavior—such as the spouse, family, and employer—should also be included in the recovery. Furthermore, the AA member’s non-alcoholic acquaintances can also help—an AA member’s spouse can talk to a new member’s spouse, communicating her story, her mistakes, and reasonable expectations for what will happen.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book summary:
- How alcoholism is a nearly insurmountable disease that non-alcoholics can't understand
- The key 12 steps of the program, and why they work
- Why Alcoholics Anonymous isn't a cult and why it works