Does AA Work?


Alcoholics Anonymous defines itself this way: ”AA is 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

If you read that closely, you’ll see it isn’t a treatment program but a support network. In this sense, the question is easy. AA certainly can and does provide real world, face-to-face support for those who wish to recover from alcoholism. But that’s not really what we want to know, is it? What we want to know is how effective it is as a method to stop drinking.

The Controversy

If you want to start an argument in a room full of addiction specialists, bring up AA as an alternative to professional treatment. If there is any consensus at all, they’ll agree AA offers some benefit. The argument that has been ongoing for many decades, is just exactly how beneficial AA really is.

It’s difficult to determine, but many have tried. One difficulty is the definition of sobriety and a useful outcome. If I stop binge drinking and stay out of jail – in other words, avoid the serious consequences of drinking – am I “cured,” or should only complete sobriety count? What about reducing the amount of drinking?

One study, featured in Scientific American showed AA was on par with other, more costly treatments – at least for a year out.

“…participants were abstinent on roughly 20 percent of days, on average, before treatment began, and the fraction of alcohol-free days rose to about 80 percent a year after treatment ended. What is more, 19 percent of these subjects were teetotalers during the entire 12-month follow-up.”

Another often cited statistic come from the group itself. A study in 2007 among members showed 33 percent of the 8,000 North American members it surveyed had remained sober for over 10 years. Twelve percent were sober for 5 to 10 years; 24 percent were sober 1 to 5 years; and 31 percent were sober for less than a year (source).

The Real Question

What I really want to know though, isn’t how well AA works, but: Will it work for me?

To be honest, you can’t know the answer to this until you try it out, and by “try it out,” I mean commit to it. The rule of thumb it at least three months or ninety meetings. That’s a lot and it represents a real commitment. But here’s the secret that explains the varying results of studies on different treatments. The difference isn’t in the treatment but in the patient.

What I mean is simple. Someone who is ready to stop drinking, someone fed up with their life and really ready to stop – that person is more likely to be successful, no matter what treatment they pursue.

The opposite is also true, unfortunately. I’ve seen it at a hundred meetings. You can pick out a few new faces and see they aren’t ready. Their gaze wanders and they have little interest in participating. They might as well have stayed at home. AA is something you do, not something that is done for you or to you.

Bear that in mind. It answers the question of whether it is likely to work for you, the only person you should be concerned about.

A Quick Test

Here’s what I recommend to people who ask me about AA. Don’t start by going to a meeting. (Yeah, I know that is controversial, but bear with me.) Start by reading from the Big Book. You can find it online at the AA site. Read whatever appeals to you. Find out if it speaks to you. The personal stories are good, but almost anything will do. Take your time and see if the book seems worthwhile, if the authors know what they are talking about.

You don’t have to read the whole thing, although I admit I did. Then try a meeting. If you are ready to remake yourself, you’ll be drawn to it. Meetings won’t be a chore but a blessing, as much as a good meal to a starving man.


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