Recently a conversation after an AA meeting raised the question of who should be served by Alcoholics Anonymous. If you have never considered the question before, you may consider the answer so obvious that asking it is frivolous. Surely the name says plainly that alcoholics anonymous serves alcoholics. But a medical doctor recently challenged me to abandon my own view that Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of alcoholics, by alcoholics, and for alcoholics. He and I participated in an open discussion meeting during which he expressed dismay at the behavior of the moderator-chairman of a different meetings he had previously attended. He said he had watched with some horror as the chairman of an other meeting asked someone to leave for identifying himself as an “addict” and requested someone to discontinue talking about the problem of using illegal drugs. Earlier and prior to the doctor’s statements I had made declarations that AA had guided me to become totally abstinent from drinking alcohol by insisting on the primacy of not drinking, that I had remained sober for the previous 30 years as a result, and that I had been, and continued to be, a person who could neither drink in moderation nor refrain from drinking without the help of AA. After the meeting I introduced myself to the doctor, who had been somewhat identified to me by a friend as a new patient in a local long-term drug and alcohol treatment program. I made the assumption that the doctor was about as new to AA as he was to his new residence and that he was himself an alcoholic. Hoping to be helpful I told the doctor that my experience was that probably he had earlier attended a “closed” discussion meet. He said that was true, that the meeting in which the chairman had appalled him had been one in which the chairperson said at the outset that it was “closed”. I allowed that so-called “0pen” meetings may be attended by anyone, although the subject of the meeting is always supposed to be about recovery from alcoholism, but “open” meetings are also limited to alcoholics. In other words I tried to help the new man see that AA meetings are sometimes not places where talking about other problems is acceptable, and sometimes even being a nonalcoholic person disqualifies from participating in the meeting. I noted that these practices were at least as old as anyone I knew could remember. I said that AA had found that alcoholics have a need to talk only about the solution to their common problem–their alcoholism. That is the single mission of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it is compromised when people insist on talking about other problems. No sooner had I finished my initial effort to remind the new man of AA’s famous singleness of purpose ( and the limitations that implies for anyone who comes wishes to participate in an AA meeting) than my newfound acquaintance informed me that the problem of alcoholism does not really exist! I confess I was flabbergasted. Did he really say that the problem of alcoholism does not exist? He said that he did say that. He explained that “we know now that what we used to call alcoholism is just addiction to alcohol”. I exclaimed that if that were true, then AA would appear to be useless. Oh no, said he, AA is still a good support group for treating addiction to drugs, including alcohol. I acknowledged he was entitled to his opinion, and added that AA was also entitled to its opinion. Then, not wanting to get involved in an argument, I moved away with a wave and a smile.
This little episode has me thinking about whether AA should redefine its mission along with a new statement that agrees with the doctor’s assertion that addiction to drugs is the problem and drug addicts should be the people AA strives to serve. Soon a post at this blog will sketch the argument for redefining AA’s mission and target population (WHY AA SHOULD REDEFINE ITS MISSION AND CLIENTELE). A second blog will cover the scope and depth of AA’s resistance to any such redefinition (AA’s PRIMARY PURPOSE: SINGLE MINDED DEVOTION TO HELPING ALCOHOLICS). A final post on this subject will summarize the others and add some final thoughts on the need for AA to go its separate way without unnecessary antagonism for those who would have it change (WHY ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS STILL MATTERS). My encounter with the newly clean and/or sober doctor has done me the invaluable favors of helping me to draw on my experience and to re-examine my thinking, two of the primary tools of AA’s way of life. When I came into AA over thirty years ago (1982) there appeared to be very little hope of recovery for anyone who was a chronic alcoholic. I was forty years old and I had been keenly interested in this subject from the time I realized in childhood that my beloved father could not stop drinking. I had stayed interested through decades of observing the long term recovery programs at the Milledgeville Central State Mental Hospital. Very few of those patients ever stayed sober long after their release from the hospital. Seven years of education at Emory university provided me with another environment in which alcoholism and its possible solution were frequent subjects for reflection with very able people who were associated with the nation’s foremost college for aspiring medical doctors. By the time I began my own recovery in AA groups in Baltimore I had known at least a hundred chronic alcoholics well. I had known of only one sure recovery and dozens of failed efforts. Wonderful friends had died without ever even being able to fully recognize the desperate situation their drinking created for them and those they loved. Others, including me, had tried many professional and religious organizations and institutions who offered to help chronic alcoholics. None were successful. Virtually all of the hundreds of recovered alcoholics I have known in the last thirty years have been very active members of Alcoholics Anonymous. And virtually all of those have believed and behaved as though AA was made especially and exclusively by and for alcoholics. Not one of them has ever said to me that there was no such thing as alcoholism or that alcoholism was “just addiction to the drug alcohol.” You are hereby warned that I am going to be inclined by my own experience to strongly favor AA’s singleness of purpose.