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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 May, 2005, 10:20 GMT 11:20 UK
A lot of bottle
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

It's 70 years since two "hopeless drunks" set up a group dedicated to helping others beat the bottle. Alcoholics Anonymous has become a global institution, although its message is not to everyone's taste.

Even Alcoholics Anonymous describes its two founders as "hopeless" drunks.

New York stockbroker Bill Wilson and Ohio surgeon Bob Smith were both battling the bottle when they met through a church group in 1935.

After fighting his own addiction, Wilson helped Smith kick his, and together they devised the now famous 12-step programme that is the foundation of AA's approach. With a strong spiritual message, it asks people to acknowledge their powerlessness over alcohol, turn to a higher power - whatever they believe that to be - and take specific steps to change.

AA is not without it critics, some of whom have likened it to a cult, but few argue that it hasn't helped millions of alcoholics worldwide. So is it the answer to the battle with the bottle?


"I've been an alcoholic for 18 years, for 10 of those I've been going to AA and have been sober. It has saved my marriage and my life," says Bill, 48.

"Where I come from there is a strong drinking culture and going to the pub every day is not considered unusual. But when you start spending all your money on drink and put it before your family, you know you have a problem."

He finally decided to stop drinking when his wife walked out and took their children. Knowing he wanted to change but not knowing how to live his life without drink, he went to AA. "It taught me how to tackle each day without drink.

"Just as people's moods change daily, so does my attitude to alcohol. I can go for months without wanting a drink and then have a bad day. If I don't do the 12-steps programme, I'm unlikely to stay sober. AA is a lifelong commitment for me."

He says the network of AA meetings and sponsor system - whereby individuals help each other - means he can always get support, even on holiday in Spain last year. "I couldn't have given up the booze without that support. Alcoholics come in all shapes and sizes but we are fighting the same disease and only another alcoholic knows how hard that is," he says.


"I don't drink every day but gradually I've realised that I have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol," says Jason, 27. "For years I knew I wasn't really happy but now I realise that was due to alcohol. I tried to give up but couldn't, which is why I came to AA a few months ago."

He says he thought it would be full of broken-down old drunks, not young professionals like himself, but was wrong. "At my first meeting I realised there were a lot of people like me and I could identify with what they were saying. It became a lot easier for me to see there was another way of living that didn't involve pubs, clubs and drinking."

Jason tried counselling several times over the years but it didn't help. "I found it very isolating and vague," he says. "I need more direction and interaction and AA gives you both. It has given me a lot of insight and self awareness. Through the 12-step programme I have gone back and looked at my life and relationships."

It has made him more honest with himself and family and friends, he says.

"I am not your stereotypical alcoholic but at AA it doesn't matter how much you drink, what you drink or where - just as long as you want to give up."


The reason AA works is it provides a worldwide fellowship and sound co-counselling in the sponsor system, says Phillip Hodson of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).

"This is an unalloyed good thing and I praise them for it. You can go to any city anywhere and walk into a meeting regardless of race, class or creed," he says.

But this makes it more of a spiritual or semi-religious movement, less a therapeutic response.

"In the 12-step programme of AA, there is always an emphasis on a 'higher power' and the sufferer's 'personal incapability'. This is really in conflict with the underlying values of psychotherapy where the client is assumed to have sufficient resources of internal self-recovery without inventing an external metaphysical universe."

Hodson also believes the lack of help elsewhere has contributed to its success.

"There is little competition - who else can you turn to?" he says.


The trouble with AA, say critics, is that it merely substitutes one addiction for another and one becomes dependent on the group instead of alcohol.

Psychologist and lawyer Stanton Peele - author of Resisting 12-Step Coercion - takes issue with the message that addiction is an incurable disease and that while alcoholics can become sober, they remain alcoholics and should stay in AA.

What about an 18-year-old drinking too much on weekends, he asks. Would the best approach be to convince him he has a lifelong disease?

Mr Hodson says the 12 steps are not the only way of dealing with addictive behaviour.

"It does rather assume that alcoholism is a disease," he says, "instead of a set of accountable familial tendencies resulting in poor behavioural choices."

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