The Big Book: Where Did the 12-Step Program Start?

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What is The Big Book? How does the AA book set up the Alcoholics Anonymous program?

The Big Book is the primary text for the Alcoholics Anonymous program. This text, also known as the AA book, originated the well-known 12-Step Program.

Read more about The Big Book, it major principles, and the 12 Steps.

What Is The Big Book?

The Big Book is Alcoholics Anonymous’s primary text. It originated the Twelve-Step program now used widely among addictions outside alcohol. It was one of the first to suggest that alcoholism was an illness, not a character defect.

In this 1-page summary of The Big Book, we’ll discuss the major ideas underlying Alcoholics Anonymous and give an overview of the Twelve Steps.

Major Principles of Alcoholics Anonymous

The AA book outlines three main principles that set the context for the program. These principles address cravings for alcohol, the need for absolute abstinence, and the faith-based aspect of AA.

Alcoholics Feel An Uncontrollable Craving Others Don’t Understand

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.

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.

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.

Abstinence Must Be Absolute

To recover, an alcoholic must be sober for the rest of his life. A single drink can kick off a vicious cycle of 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.

According to The Big Book, the only way to escape the clutches of alcohol is to never drink again.

Alcoholics Anonymous Is Not Religious

AA is not a religious organization. It demands belief in a higher power, but you can choose your own conception of what that means, whether that’s a religious god or not. You need only believe in some power that is greater than yourself, because, as a mere individual, you have no effective mental defense against drinking.

The Twelve Steps

The Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve-Step program as described in The Big Book 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 to another person. A weight will feel lifted from your shoulders.
  • Make amends with people you’ve hurt in the past. Be sincere about righting your past wrongs. This will reduce the guilt and resentment you feel, which often drive people to drink.
  • Continue improving for the rest of your lifetime. If you make a mistake, promptly admit it and make amends. Reflect each day on what you’ve done and whether you could have done better. 

Be helpful to others. Help other alcoholics recover. This is not just helpful to others; it’s critical to help you stay sober as well.

The Big Book: Where Did the 12-Step Program Start?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of AAWS's "Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book" at Shortform.

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

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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