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Fifty Years, a Day at a Time
the thousands of people whose lives the organization has
saved, the 50th anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous, which
will take place on June 10, commemorates one of the banner
days of history. Said a member in Washington last week:
"The press covered the anniversary of V-E day very
heavily. Well, to a lot of people, the founding of Alcoholics
Anonymous is an equivalent milestone." Small wonder.
The loosely knit grow, which now comprises more than 1 million
people, one third of whom are women, has firmly established
itself as the most effective way for alcoholics to stay
sober - and alive. One study estimates that 34% of those
who join beat the bottle.
A.A. was conceived in Akron, when Bill Wilson, a stockbroker
suffering from an uncontrollable drinking problem, got in
touch with Surgeon Robert Holbrook Smith, a total stranger
and also an alcoholic. Wilson's desperate idea: apply the
buddy system to the problem of quitting. Since then A.A.
has grown steadily. Participation in the organization, which
defines itself simply as "a fellowship of men and women
who share their experience, strength and hope with each
other that they may solve their common problem and help
others to recover from alcoholism," has doubled over
the past ten years. Explains Cathleen Willis, director of
Alcoholics Anonymous of Chicago: "Alcoholism is increasingly
recognized as a disease. People are more aware of what's
wrong. A lot of employees are not tolerating alcoholism
in the workplace, and a lot more famous people are coming
out of the closet - people you wouldn't normally identify
as having a drinking problem."
with a desire to stop drinking can join A.A. (There is no
absolute definition of an "alcoholic.") People
in the organization make themselves available to counsel
and sponsor members. Alcoholics Anonymous is open to all
ages, faiths (including atheists) and races. Says one member
of the New York City branch: "People think A.A. is
some monolithic kind of thing. But there is an awful lot
of shading. Some groups are very spiritual. Some are very
social. For example, over on the East side of Manhattan,
meetings are packed with yuppies who talk like they have
just swallowed their Apple computers, the jargon and the
technical talk is so thick. But our theatre group has its
own particular problems related to the stage industry. Regardless
of the group, along with the differences there are the bonding
similarities of the central problem: alcohol. "Some
assemblies are dominated by a single profession. In Washington,
for example, one, made up almost entirely of IRS employees,
calls itself the "1040s," Another "911"
consists of policemen. "Birds of a Feather" is
a gathering for airline pilots.
meetings last for one hour. A volunteer usually acts as
a moderator, speaking for half the time on "experience,
strength and hope." Usually the talk explains what
life was like for the person while he was drinking and how
it has changed for the better. Later the moderator opens
the floor. He or she might ask: "Did anyone want to
drink today?" Members respond, frequently dealing with
personal issues. The groups have no regimen per se, only
the so-called twelve steps that include such basic tenets
as admitting one's powerlessness over alcohol and acknowledging
the existence of a higher power than oneself.
Attendees are, of course, anonymous. They introduce themselves
by first names only when they address the assembly and often
follow their name with the almost liturgical, "I am
an alcoholic." Anonymity protects them from the social
stigma of the disease, but it also serves a subtler function.
A.A. succeeds in part because it insists upon self-sacrifice.
Members find themselves paying attention to other sufferers.
Meetings stress togetherness and constantly reinforce the
principle that self-pity and guilt over alcoholism are destructive.
"It's a feeling that you’ve finally arrived and
have found a home," says one A.A. member. "Mutual
support is the whole thing."
Time, May 20, 1985)