Sober reflections on Alcoholics Anonymous’ power to heal
HOW lucky am I that I was born at a time when Alcoholics Anonymous was well and truly functioning in Australia.
AA began in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, when alcoholic New York stockbroker Bill Wilson, fearful that he would resume drinking, sought out another alcoholic with whom to talk, namely a doctor, Bob Smith, who previous to their meeting could not stop drinking.
Soon the loosely knit fellowship of AA spread to Cleveland (where in the late 1960s I was hospitalised many times for alcoholism) and then throughout the US.
Australia was the first country outside the US to establish AA. This occurred in April 1945, through the joint efforts of two high-profile alcoholics: Sylvester Minogue, then medical superintendent of the Rydalmere Mental Hospital in Sydney, and a Catholic priest from Sutherland in Sydney, Tom Dunlea
Minogue and Dunlea were aided by a non-alcoholic psychiatric nurse, Archie McKinnon, who, while working at the Darlinghurst Reception Centre in Sydney, became aware of a desperate need to properly treat the hundreds of alcoholics who kept returning to uncontrolled drinking. Having heard of AA’s success in the US, McKinnon had sent for a copy of AA’s Big Book in 1944, unaware that Minogue had received his copy the year before. The book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was first published in 1939 to show other alcoholics how the first few hundred members had managed to get, and remain, sober.
Without the help of McKinnon and the support of another non-alcoholic, 2GB broadcaster and Anglican priest Frank Sturge Harty, the fellowship in Australia might not have got off the ground so successfully.
Since 1945, tens of thousands of Australians have moved from lives of degradation and shame to lives of usefulness and fulfilment through AA. Yet, even today, many people, even healthcare workers, doctors and psychologists, do not understand that an alcoholic is a sick person who can recover, not a bad person who needs to get good, or a weak person who needs to be strong.
Indeed, one of the functions of my memoir (see below) is to reinforce this simple message, and to point out that the most effective way for an alcoholic to get and remain sober is not to pick up one drink, one day at a time.
Given that most alcoholics are extremely defiant and seem to loathe being told what to do even more than most human beings, it seems significant that AA is the closest thing there is to anarchism in practice.
A key characteristic of the AA movement is that there are no bosses, privileged classes or hierarchies. In AA no one is above or below anyone else. There are no permanent office-holders, no formal officers with any governing power or authority, and no one is empowered to speak for the movement. AA is therefore not an organisation in the usual sense of the word. Instead, it is a fellowship of people with a common problem, where everyone calls everyone by their first name. The closest thing to an officeholder is the secretary of a group, whose main job is to open the doors, set up the chairs and table, and select someone to chair each meeting.
If they want to, other members take turns doing the services needed for group meetings (opening the mail, paying the rent, making tea or coffee), but for these duties no particular professional skill or education is needed.
There are no rules, dues or fees in AA, and all outside financial contributions are refused. AA is entirely self-supporting by passing around the basket after meetings. Anyone who says they are a member is a member. This is why one of the most important sayings in AA is: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking”. This includes anyone whose desire may be scanty or paper-thin.
No one can be banned, expelled or excluded from AA. If someone comes in drunk and disrupts the meeting, the custom is to kick them out of that meeting and say, “Keep coming back.”
Importantly, in AA, members do not tell other people what to do but instead talk about themselves and about what they had (and have) to do to remain sober. The only requirement for someone speaking at AA is that that person should not have drunk alcohol that day.
Throughout Australia, there are more than 1000 AA meetings, held every day and night of the week. Attendance at each ranges from a half-dozen to more than 100 members.
AA is by far the most successful agency in helping alcoholic men and women to lead productive lives free of alcohol and other drugs. So, as I often explain to still-drinking alcoholics and to newcomers to AA, “Why not avail yourself of the best?”
The Weekend Australian, December 15,2012. Sober for 42 years, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey, now also available as an e-book.