Bill Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. Bill was a garden variety alcoholic just like the rest of us. However, Bill did something very special he created the spiritual program of the 12 steps which has saved millions of lives since 1935. The shame and stigma attached to alcoholism made Bill realize that in order for people to seek help the program had to have a very strong component of anonymity hence, Alcoholics Anonymous. This was back in the day when only 100 people had recovered. When Bill called the program alcoholics anonymous what exactly did he mean? First the primary purpose of AA is to “stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety”. Anonymity is a major part of our traditions, but have we taken it too far?
Today much more is known about addiction than in 1935 and it is now widely known despite prejudice which still exists that alcoholism is a disease which we neither caused or have control over. This was not the case in 1935, there were no treatment centers and most people hit their bottom hard. Before AA the most they could hope for was treatment in an asylum or death. Bill knew that many people would stay well away from the program if their condition was made public knowledge by joining. He also knew that unless we protected the program is would become engulfed in the media as a cult and would frizzle out and die off. We have come a long way since 1935 and today there is little shame in admitting to being an alcoholic or addict other than for the addict themselves. Much more is known about the program and many people are living happy, joyful lives as members of AA. Is it time to look at how we position recovery in the wider community and Alcoholics and addicts in long term recovery? I feel that the anonymity is and should be used to protect the individuals however I also feel that we are not doing enough to bring more people to recovery. The program is one of attraction rather than promotion but what are we doing to attract more members to recovery? I know people in AA with a number of years under their belts who have never sponsored anybody, never been on a 12 step call or reached out to another alcoholic outside of the rooms of AA. There is a common misconception that people will walk through the doors and that is where our work starts. If Bill Wilson and the founders of AA had sat in rooms waiting for people to walk through I might not be alive today. They did spread the message, they went to hospitals, bars and prisons and they carried the message. What favors are we doing to our fellow alcoholics who still suffer by never discussing our recovery outside of the rooms? I believe that the anonymity has been misinterpreted and used as an excuse not to do the work needed to keep AA achieve its primary purpose “to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety” The success rate today for alcoholics entering AA and staying is abysmal compared to our early days. It’s true more people are coming in with high bottoms, and being sent to AA by judges and treatment centers which would automatically reduce the percentage but from success rates in the 70 percent in the early days to under 3 percent we are doing something very wrong and we are not attracting people who want what we have. Do we need to promote our program more openly is the big question.
A movement called Many Faces One Voice are starting to ask why we are not promoting recovery which would break the anonymity code for some purist AA’s but it is time to be more open about the benefits of long term recovery. The statistics are alarming, our jails are full of alcoholics and addicts, untreated addiction is costing $550 billion dollars a year and yet we sit in the rooms and wait for our people to walk through the door. It’s a tough decision for those of us who love AA and owe our lives to it to break with any tradition but I believe that its time to at least consider are we truly carrying the message and question our own commitment to helping others by simply sitting in the rooms and waiting for our fellows to walk through.
This compelling video from Many Faces One Voice is a trailer for the documentary which has been made about being more open about recovery. I am going to see the documentary with an open mind when it comes to my local theater.
I worry about whether we are doing enough work for our primary purpose and feel that we have taken anonymity too far past Bill’s original intention by not reaching out more and attracting people who want what we have.
You can find out if the film is showing near you here http://manyfaces1voice.org/#film-screenings
Is it time to accept that the stigma is no longer there and we need to do more outside of the program to promote long term recovery? What do you think?