Medical Opinions

Alcoholism and drug addiction are often referred to as "substance abuse" or "chemical dependency."

Alcoholics and non-alcoholic’s are, therefore, sometimes introduced to A.A. and encouraged to attend A.A. meetings.

Anyone may attend open A.A. meetings. But only those with a drinking problem may attend closed meetings or become A.A. members. People with problems other than alcoholism are eligible for A.A. membership only if they have a drinking problem.

Dr Vincent Dole, a pioneer in methadone treatment in the US for heroin addicts and for several years a trustee on the US General Service Board of AA, made the following statement: “The source of strength in A.A. is its single-mindedness. The mission of A.A. is to help alcoholics. A.A. limits what it is demanding of itself and its associates and its success lies in its limited target. To believe that the process that is successful in one line guarantees success for another would be a very serious mistake.” Consequently, we welcome the opportunity to share A.A. experience with those who would like to develop Twelve Step/Twelve Tradition programs for the nonalcoholic addict by using A.A. methods.

AA Members speak to medical students to inform them of what AA has to offer those with drinking problems. Feedback from these sessions provides an insight into what AA can offer, e.g. “No one was told what they should do or what they shouldn’t, it was simply talking about one’s own experience and feelings, and leaving it open for others to ponder over it. On speaking to a few members after the meeting they spoke about how they were a little family, where they were all brothers and sisters who shared honestly, had grown to love, feel together, suffer together and perhaps develop something they never even had at home. The fact that they trusted me to sit in with them and hear their most personal stories was very humbling and for once I felt that AA provides its members with the kind of healing emotional and mental support that no health professional team could match up to.”

Rather than us try to explain, here are some excerpts from New Zealand medical student reflections on their understanding of AA.

“I was overwhelmed by the honesty with which the members talked about their struggles with alcohol, when they had their first drink, how they slowly got trapped in this vicious cycle where one drink always had to be followed by another and another and so on. A common theme between all members was the sense of loneliness that drove many into alcoholism, the feeling of invincibility that came with being under the influence of alcohol and relying on alcohol as a means to get away from the turmoil of reality.”

“The feeling of unity that held the members of AA together was infective and by the end of the meeting, I too felt like I was part of a family there. These people relied on each other for support, they knew that even if no one else outside understood what they were going through, they could always come here and talk to someone who would know exactly what they were talking about.”

“Being able to reflect back on one’s past actions and specifically reflect on each detail and our reactions to events around us is something that can be very hard to achieve for anyone, let alone someone struggling from the long term effects of alcohol abuse. However, if I learnt anything from the AA members that evening, it would be the need to self-reflect on one’s behaviour and actions in the past and see their impact on others, whether or not it was under the influence of a mind-altering substance. It takes courage to be able to reflect back and admit one’s mistakes that had dire consequences, to admit that one was wrong. It takes even more courage to forgive oneself; but once that first step is over it removes all self-doubt, and also earns you respect and support from your loved ones, making it easier to overcome any obstacle.”

“What works for a person who has been alcohol-free for 2 years may not necessarily be the guiding principle for someone who has not had a drink in 30 years. One of the members who had not had another sip of alcohol in 33 years took it as a lifestyle change, and it was his overrunning goal not to have another drink. On the other hand, another member who had been alcohol-free for a year took it a day at a time, and not drinking for a day at a time in itself was a meritorious achievement. For her setting a lifelong goal like never drinking alcohol again was “too big to fathom”.

“Throughout the meeting, I cleared up many of the preconceptions I had about alcoholics and AA meetings. One preconception I had was that I previously thought God played a strong role in AA meetings, however throughout the night, I learned that the A.A. is not allied with any group, cause or religious denomination. Most members believe in a power that is greater than them, but this power is not necessarily god. I also now have further insight into why it is that members continue to attend AA meetings to which they are affiliated even after they have been sober for a number of years. This is because alcoholism is seen as an illness that cannot be cured and people regularly return to meetings to receive support to maintain their sobriety. Also, many members find that helping others reach sobriety is an effective way at strengthening their own sobriety.”

“Many of these individuals were in such difficult situations, where they had lost their relationships, jobs, possessions and self-esteem. I thought about how difficult I would find this if I was in their situation and was able to appreciate how strong many of the members were and how helpful the A.A group is with providing a supportive environment for recovering alcoholics. Members said that AA is a place where others understood your problem and would sit there without judgement. With this new knowledge, I can now fully appreciate the importance of making sure my future patients are aware of any support groups that might be available to help them cope with whatever illness they may have. ”

“My attitude had changed dramatically towards alcoholics. I previously thought it couldn’t be that hard to return to ‘normal’ social drinking after they had re-established the control with alcohol. I know now that ‘once an alcoholic always an alcoholic’ and alcoholism is seen as an illness that cannot be ‘cured’ so an alcoholic must abstain from even the smallest quantity of alcohol in any form. Many members mentioned the words ‘the first drink’, saying it is the first drink that starts off the damage.”

“The stories shared involved aspects of what style of drinking the member had eg one woman drank only once a month, but when she did, she always drank far too much and did things she regretted. Before this, I thought that alcoholics were people that drank every day, so it was surprising to hear that some members did not fit this stereotype. The sharers then talked about the kind of people they were when they were drinking. Every member said two things: they didn’t like the person they were when they were drinking, and that when they were drinking, they were depressed and anxious. It was not surprising to me that addiction was linked to mental illness; however, the extent to which it was linked was unexpected. Some of the stories that members told were a little eye-opening – people who seemingly had very good lives and no real reason to become an alcoholic had their lives turn upside down from their drinking. And while some of the members started out drinking extremely young, other members-only really began drinking at a similar age to me. This made me think about some of my friends’ drinking, and wondering how they could possibly end up.”

“I was expecting a few odd looks and silence on us entering the room but it was the complete opposite – everyone was bustling around making tea and chatting to everyone else – to me, it looked like more of a social reunion than a meeting to talk about the tough times and struggle of alcoholism. It was a fascinating experience. Each person would start by saying “Hello my name is … and I’m an alcoholic” and everyone would respond by saying “Hi …” and the speaker would carry on and tell their story. Throughout the meeting, I realised that telling their own story is as much a part of other people’s recovery as it is of their own. Sharing with others is one of the 12 steps of recovery and much can be learned and gained from passing information on as well as listening to others. It was interesting to me that everyone introduced themselves as an alcoholic, even if they had been sober for 5, 10 or even more years. They view alcoholism as an incurable disease. Once you are an alcoholic you are always an alcoholic and it is about making sure that you don’t have a drink each and every day. Every time you wake up in the morning you tell yourself that you are not going to have a drink just for today, and you tell yourself this every day for the rest of your life.”