SOJOURNERS, Vol. 14(7): 6, July 6, 1985
An Instrument of Healing Grace
by Harry C. Kiely
In August 1934 Bill W., a formerly successful Wall Street business man, lay once again in a New York City hospital recovering from his most recent drinking binge. He had been hospitalized so many times his doctor felt compelled to speak a sad truth to Bill’s wife: Bill was hopelessly addicted. He would “have to be locked up or go mad or die.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Akron, Ohio, Dr. Bob, a distinguished surgeon, had lost most of his practice and was experiencing the disintegration of the remainder of his life as he rapidly drank himself toward oblivion.
Then in May 1935, Bill W., who was on business in Akron and was still struggling to master his alcoholism, made a phone call to Dr. Bob, having obtained the surgeon’s name from a mutual acquaintance. That call led to a dramatic turnabout in the desperate lives of these two men and, subsequently in the lives of millions of other alcoholics.
Bill W. and Dr. Bob, as they shared their struggles and tried to support each other, discovered a means to achieve and maintain sobriety. So it was that 50 years ago Bill W. and Dr. Bob became the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), a movement that was destined to bring light into centuries of alcoholic darkness.
Misplaced moralism and ignorance had contributed to the darkness. The general public had regarded chronic drinking as a sign of a character defect, while many in the medical profession diagnosed it as a neurosis and, in some cases, as a psychosis.
The founders of A.A., however, discovered a truly effective means of treatment based on neither of these assumptions but on the premise that alcoholism is a medical disorder: a disease known as addiction. While it cannot be cured, it is amenable to treatment. This was later confirmed by the American Medical Association, and all contemporary alcoholism treatment programs have evolved from this basic wisdom pioneered by the A.A. founders.
Since the dawn of the new era for the alcoholic, the A.A. movement has spread abroad with a religious fervor. Rapidly leaping across national borders, A.A. has become a worldwide movement, conservatively estimated at more than 62,000 groups, with more than 1,500,000 members in 114 countries. The program has proven equally effective among all classes, cultures, and nationalities and has been found adaptable to many religious orientations.
The principles of A.A. have proven so basic that they have been successfully applied to the treatment of obesity, narcotics addiction, mental illness, and other problems. Al-Anon and Al-Ateen are two spin-off groups – not related to A.A. organizationally – that have evolved to provide much-needed support for families of alcoholics.
The secret of A.A.’s effectiveness lies in the adherence to certain principles known as “The Twelve Steps of Recovery.” The essence of these principles is that the way of wholeness for alcoholics lies in their first confessing their powerlessness over alcohol. At the same time, they entrust themselves into the hands of God – as they understand God – a liberating phrase that helps the alcoholic move beyond theological arguments on to the more critical issue of personal faith. Finally, recovering alcoholics are enlisted in a ministry to other alcoholics.
This act of confessing and professing is not a solitary act but is made within a community of other sufferers. This community is not there to judge or condemn but to affirm and support. In fact, after years of criticism from others and intense self-loathing, the new member experiences in an A.A. meeting the total absence of judgement coupled with understanding and acceptance – as a bewildering kind of grace.
A.A. is a single-issue movement: helping alcoholics stay sober. By design, the program avoids dealing with other personal problems and will not become involved in political or social controversy, even on so germane an issue as liquor control laws. The simplicity and single-minded purposefulness of A.A. has been maintained in its recovery program and is exemplified in the famous A.A. slogan “One Day at a Time” and in its organization.
Truly a self-help, ministry-of-the-laity program, A.A. has no bureaucracy, no hierarchy, and no professional counselors. The few committee chairs and clerical staff are regarded always as servants and not as authorities. A.A. declines all large donations – accepting only small contributions from members so as to cover operating expenses. It owns no real estate and has refused to expand into such activities as hospital care and alcohol education. Recognizing early on the potential for parlaying their success into a vast and powerful enterprise, the founders remembered their true mission, realized they had been given all they needed to accomplish it, and opted to remain faithful to a vision that had already, in essence, been fulfilled. History has vindicated the prudence of that decision.
The internal strength of A.A. is its spiritual foundation. The odyssey of the alcoholic within A.A. is a journey in faith, traversed in the company of others who are struggling, moving toward God’s promise of a new life as the replacement of the surrendered old life. Alcoholism is such an insidious, treacherous, and deadly disease that recovery from it is, for many, akin to a resurrection. It is something that cannot possibly happen, yet it does.
Not everyone who comes to A.A. experiences recovery, and those cases are the tragedies that remain shrouded in mystery. This makes any recovery an even greater mystery, a mystery of a healing grace. And A.A. has been a significant instrument of this healing.
So in 1985, A.A.’s 50th year, we salute this remarkable movement and praise God for such an amazing and healing grace.